My preferred cognitive style is free association—that’s how I remember so many jokes. One joke leads to another. I don’t really want to know whether this is due to some faulty electrical wiring in my brain. But this is the first time this has happened in writing for my blog: the last post dealt with ethnicity and Eastern Christian Orthodoxy in America; then I thought of American Lutheranism, which has had a very different history with ethnicity (mainly German and Scandinavian). I think the differences are interesting. [I am Lutheran myself, of a rather heterodox sort. But I don’t see why this should preclude my writing about this curious denomination in America.]
The first Lutheran church in America was founded in 1646 in Christina, a Swedish colony which we now know as Wilmington, Delaware. It was captured by the Dutch in 1655, as they pushed out from New Amsterdam (aka New York). The Dutch soon faded out of the Lutheran picture on the East Coast. Lutherans came in large numbers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The biggest group of Lutheran immigrants was German, with Scandinavians next in numbers. They came into a Protestant country where they did not have to face the deep religious prejudices which Catholics had to face, and they felt comfortable in America from early on. An early patriarch of American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787), a highly educated man in the best tradition of German Lutheranism. (The American writer Paul Goodman has described the Lutheran Reformation as a conspiracy of junior faculty at a provincial university—the famous “castle door” on which Luther affixed his incendiary 95 Theses just happened to be the bulletin board of the recently founded University at Wittenberg,) Muhlenberg, who studied at the venerable University of Goettingen, was influenced by the Pietists, a movement similar to what was called “Evangelical” in the English-speaking world. He came to America in 1742 to minister to the growing number of German colonists in Pennsylvania; he was instrumental in founding the synod called the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. He dropped the Germanic Umlaut from his name. In the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, which is still functioning, there is a big portrait of Muhlenberg, depicting him in a scene that may or may not have really happened: While still on the pulpit on a Sunday morning, Muhlenberg is supposed to have taken off his robe to reveal what was underneath—the uniform of an officer in Washington’s Continental Army that he was about to join.
World War I was a turning point in American Lutheranism. More than just an Umlaut was dropped: In deference to the strong anti-German feelings after the U.S. came into the war, German-language services became occasional or dropped entirely. By the middle of the twentieth century there was a collection of Lutheran synods, all of them de-ethnicized: The United Lutheran Church (a merger of several originally ethnic churches), the Lutheran Church in America (originally German), the Augustana Synod (originally Swedish), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (originally Norwegian), and a number of smaller synods (including Finnish and Slovak ones).
Today there are two large Lutheran churches in the U.S., divided by their theology, not by their original ethnic roots. Whether this change is for the better cannot be discussed here (it can only be decided on theological grounds, and that is not my mandate here). The larger body is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA (known by insiders as “Aunt Elka”, not always affectionately). Also founded by a merger of several synods, in 1988, it is by far the most liberal theologically. It has some more conservative members, especially in the Upper Midwest, where the Scandinavian heritage is still more felt (the only part of the country where the mention of Norwegians provokes humor—see Garrison Keeler). But most of the ELCA has become very much like mainline Protestantism. The ELCA must be the only religious group anywhere whose headquarters is in an airport, in this case just off Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Number 2, the smaller body, is the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, LCMS. It is much more conservative in theology and piety. It too has its roots in Germany, but that in no way defines it today. In 1838 a group of Lutherans from Saxony left for America, fearing that the so-called Prussian Church Union would spill over the border and becomes dominant in their provincial church (Landeskirche) as well. This issue has deep historical roots. The Hohenzollern, the Prussian royal dynasty, came from Switzerland and was originally Reformed (as Calvinists were called in continental Europe). The Hohenzollern were not known for their piety (Frederick the Great of Prussia once said with some contempt, “Let everyone be redeemed according to his own taste”).
But they were strong believers in the formula of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the devastating Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in central Europe—“the ruler decides the religion of his state”. The ruler in Berlin, the Prussian capital, decided that their state should be Protestant, but of one flavor only. The dynasty was Reformed, but most of the population was Lutheran. So the government forcefully merged the two into the so-called Prussian Church Union (an uniert state church). Some of the Lutherans didn’t like this.
The aforementioned immigrants assembled in Chicago in 1847 and founded the Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States. The theological mentor of this new body was C.F.W. Walther (1811-1887). The LCMS (usually called “Missouri” for short) has its headquarters in St. Louis, as well as its most important theological school, Concordia Theological Seminary. A few years ago a fiercely conservative faction took over the denomination. There were some heresy trial and a large part of the seminary faculty left in protest. Missouri is self-consciously echt (genuinely) Lutheran (sort of like glatt kosher); needless to say, other Lutherans don’t agree. There can be no doubt that Missouri is strongly committed to its conservative theology.
Incidentally, there is a much smaller Lutheran body, the Wisconsin Synod, with its headquarters in Milwaukee. They think that even Missouri is not echt Lutheran. They also believe that the Pope is the anti-Christ. Their seminary is in Kenosha. A while back there arose the so-called Kenosha theology. I know nothing about this school of thought, but I resonate with the thought that for a few hundred thousand contemporary Americans the exciting intellectual action is not at Harvard or Princeton but in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (One must not underestimate the innovative capacity of provincial environments. Think of Nazareth, Tarsus, and indeed Wittenberg.)
There are various differences between the Orthodox and Lutheran cases. An important difference is that there are no central Lutheran authorities, comparable to Moscow and Constantinople, to interfere in American religious developments. Nor are there European governments eager to interfere. I think the most important difference is that, unlike in the Orthodox case, ethnicity is no longer a real factor in American Lutheranism. An Episcopalian WASP wanting to join a Lutheran church will not have to become a quasi-German or a quasi-Swede to be accepted, not in either of the two large Lutheran bodies. He or she will have to decide whether ELCA or LCMS has the more acceptable view on same-sex marriage and modern Biblical scholarship (Aunt Elka is more flexible on the former, Missouri more skeptical of the latter).