Lutherans in America

Lutherans In America.

I. Early History. — The celebrated German divine, Dr. Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (q.v.), is generally and justly recognized as the founder of the Lutheran Church in America. He arrived in this country in 1742. Long previous to his coming, however, the Lutherans had gained a footing here. Adherents of the Church of the great German reformer first came to these shores of the West from Holland in 1621. In consequence of the severe measures adopted by the Synod of Dort (1618-19), the stay of non- Calvinists had been made uncomfortable in the mother country, and with the first Dutch settlers in the province of New Amsterdam (now New York) came several Lutheran immigrants, seeking here a home, and a place to worship God agreeably to the dictates of their conscience. They had come, however, without a shepherd, and for years were dependent upon lay supervision and instruction. The first Lutheran communicants who brought thither one to minister unto them came from Sweden in 1638, and settled on the banks of Delaware Bay, where now stands the thriving city of Wilmington. For many years the Swedish Lutherans only were favored with ministerial care. The first to perform this duty was Reorus Torkillus (died in 1643), whose successor, John Campanius, "a man of enlightened zeal deeply interested in his work, and burning with a strong desire to promote the spiritual interests of the aborigines," was the first to publish in this country Luther's Smaller Catechism, and first to furnish it to the Red Man in his own vernacular — "perhaps the first work ever rendered into the Indian language, and the Swedes most probably were the first missionaries among the Indians in this country." Strangely enough, the Swedes were also the first to fall away from their mother Church and enter into communion with those of the Protestant Episcopal Church — a result due, no doubt, in a great measure, to the want of complete organization, as we shall see below.

Dr. Muhlenberg, as we have toted above, was of the German Church, and, though his labors were mainly confined to those of his own nationality, the influence of this man of God extended over all Lutherans in the states, and caused them to be "of one heart and one mind," and to keep "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." The first German Lutherans preceded the doctor very nearly one hundred years. He himself, as we have seen, came hither in 1742; the first of his countrymen in the faith reached these shores in 1644. They came in company with the Dutch, and, like the latter, for a long time depended on lay instruction. By 1653 they had increased in strength sufficiently to seek the services of a preacher, but in vain they directed a petition to the Dutch Directory to secure permission for such a step. In 1664, finally, the much-coveted privilege came to them from the English authorities, who, immediately upon their acquisition of this territory, granted the Lutherans religious liberty. The first to preach to the German Lutherans in their own vernacular was Jacob Fabricius, who reached this country in 1669. The first house of worship, however, they enjoyed two years later (1671); but they were deprived of it by the Dutch in 1673. It was rebuilt in 1703 (on the south-west corner of Broadway and Rector Street). The Lutherans enjoyed a decided accession in 1710, when four thousand Germans, the victims of civil oppression and religious persecution, who had fled for refuge to England under the patronage of queen Anne, came to the provinces of New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Quickly others followed, until in 1717 their large numbers began to excite the serious apprehension of the civil authorities. In Pennsylvania the government actually felt it its duty to direct the attention of the "Provincial Council" to the fact "that large numbers of foreigners from Germany, strangers to our language and constitution, had lately been imported into the province." All these people had come without their ministers, and so it happened that, by settling in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, they were deprived of the regular ministrations of the sanctuary, and dependent for religious instruction upon those of their own number best informed "in heavenly things." A colony of German Lutherans, refugees from civil oppression and Romish intolerance at Salsburg, was founded under better auspices in Georgia in 1734. Their pastors were John Martin Bolzius and Israel Christian Gronau. In the following year they received large accessions from the mother, another country, and by the time of Dr. Mühlenberg's arrival the Lutherans of Georgia formed quite a considerable Christian band (over 1200 of them). Indeed, it is said that these Lutherans exerted a very salutary influence on the piety of John and Charles Wesley.

As early as 1733, the German Lutherans of Philadelphia and other places had sent urgent petitions for ministerial help and pecuniary aid to the Lutherans of England and of the mother country. At Halle, where now flourished the pious Aug. Hermann Francke, their prayers were heard, and by the untiring exertions of the founder of the "Halle Orphan Asylum," the future founder and leader of American Lutheranism was induced to leave his native land, and "to relieve," among his brethren of the faith and fellow- countrymen who had sought a home in the wilds of America, "the spiritual destitution that prevailed, to gather together the lost sheep, and to preach to them the truths of the Gospel." With the year 1742, therefore, opens a new epoch in the history of the Lutheran Church in America — the epoch in which it assumed organic form. No man could have been more eminently fitted than was H.M. Mühlenberg for the mission to be accomplished. "He possessed piety, learning, experience, skill, industry, and perseverance." He was, moreover, "deeply interested in the work to which he had devoted himself, as is apparent from the manner in which he discharged his duties, and the condition in which he left the Church at the time of his decease." When he came there was an absence of all organization. It is true the Swedish brethren gave assistance to their German brethren freely and cheerfully, but this was by no means sufficient to advance the interests of Lutheranism. Mühlenberg saw this clearly, and he at once applied himself to the task of effecting an organic union of German Lutherans at least. The greatest obstacle he found in the want of preachers and of houses of worship; but he was not in the least discomfited by this jejuneness of his beloved Church. His influence at home was that of a pious and devoted servant of the Lord, and he soon drew a number of his former associates and friends to this side of the Atlantic, so that by 1748, only six years after his landing on these shores, he was enabled to call around him the strongest and ablest representatives of the Lutheran ministry in America, to counsel together and form a synod. The Swedes had contented themselves with the election of one of their own number as provost (q.v.), to preside over them and act as their representative before the country. Mühlenberg, however, desired stricter conformity to the rules and regulations of the mother Church, and, as the fate of the Swedish Lutheran Church afterwards showed, his course proved to be the only safe way towards a perpetuation of the Lutheran Church in America. The men who joined Mühlenberg in the convention at Philadelphia, August 14, 1748, for the purpose of organizing the first Lutheran synod in America, were Brunnholtz, Handschuh, and Hartwig, of the German, and Sandin and Naesman, of the Swedish Lutheran Church. It was by this body that the first German Lutheran was regularly set apart in this country to the work of the ministry. His name was John Nicholas Kurtz. He was not, however, the first Lutheran minister ordained here. As early as 1701, Falkner, a student of divinity, was ordained by the Swedish ministers Rudman, Bjork, and Auren, to labor in the Swedish Lutheran Church; quite an eventful act, also, because it set aside forever the supposition that the Swedish Lutherans received the doctrine of the episcopacy in the sense in which it is taught in the Anglican Church. After 1748 the synod met regularly each year, and these meetings "were attended with the most beneficial results. They not only advanced the prosperity of the Church, but the hands of the brethren were strengthened, and their hearts encouraged. They promoted kind feeling, and formed a bond of union among the churches." In 1765 a private theological seminary was started, under the care of Drs. Helmuth and Schmidt, and in 1787 the Legislature of Pennsylvania established Franklin College, "for the special benefit of the Germans of the commonwealth, as an acknowledgment of services by them rendered to the state, and in consideration of their industry, economy, and public virtues." There were, in the year of Muhlenberg's arrival in this country, in Pennsylvania alone 110,000 Germans, and of these about two thirds were of the Lutheran Church. One of the sons of Dr. H.M. Mühlenberg — Henry Ernest — at this time pastor of the Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was honored with the distinction of first president of this now widely celebrated institution of learning. In 1791 the Lutheran Church received further recognition for its services to education by the Pennsylvania Legislature in the gift of 5000 acres of land "to the free- schools of the Lutheran Church in Philadelphia," the center of Dr. Henry Melchior Mühlenberg's labors.

During the Revolutionary days the Lutherans acted the part of patriots and Christians; many of their number came forward in defense of the country of their adoption. Dr. Muhlenberg, among others, had two sons in the army; one of them exchanged the gown for the colonel's uniform. In consequence of this identification of the Lutherans with the cause of American liberty, the English came to dislike them greatly, and many were the sufferings and deprivations to which they were subjected; several of their churches were burned or desecrated, and all manner of oppression was visited upon them. The close of the War of Independence. however, left them, if anything, gainers in the struggle. Aside from the liberal donations which they received in Pennsylvania, as we have seen above, they received large accessions from the very ranks of their enemies. Many of the German soldiers who, by the ignominious treaty of the English with the Hessians, had been brought to this country to exterminate the love of freedom, at the close of hostilities concluded to remain this side the Atlantic, and became valuable members of the Lutheran Church in America. Out of 5723 soldiers that had come here from Brunswick, 1200, with seven officers and their chaplain, at one time entered the fold of American Lutheranism. Of the Hessians, also, some 7000 remained to swell the number of adherents to the Church of the great German reformer.

Not so auspicious was the outlook at the close of the eighteenth century. On October 7, 1787, the patriarch and founder of the Lutheran Church in America departed this life, and the Church was bereft of its great stronghold. There had been slowly growing, ever since the establishment of American independence, a decided preference for the introduction of the English language into the exercises of public worship. The older and more conservative portion of the Church contended for the use of the language which the great reformer had so much embellished and invigorated, and of which he was really the second father. Some of the Germans even believed that their language might actually be made the language of the country, and thus the proposition of the younger and Americanized portion for the use of the English proved an occasion of discord and alienation, "resulted in serious injury to the Church, and almost caused its total ruin.... Thousands abandoned their parental communion, and sought a home among other denominations, because their children did not understand the German, while many who remained, because of their limited acquaintance with the language, lost all interest in the services, and became careless in their attendance on the ministrations of the sanctuary." Dr. Mühlenberg had counseled due consideration of the wants of this young and growing element, and frequently himself preached in English; but his tongue once silent, the conservative element impolitically gloried in its wisdom (comp. here Dr. S.S. Schmucker's Am. Luth. Ch. [5th edit. Philad. 1852, 12mo], pages 27-29). The first Lutheran Church in which the English was exclusively used was not built until 1809, and it remained for many years the only one to represent the English-speaking element in the Lutheran Church. Efforts for more complete and effectual organization were made in New York State in 1785 by the establishment of the New York Synod; hitherto the Pennsylvania Synod was the only ministerium (q.v.) in existence. In 1803 a synod was organized in North Carolina; in 1819, in Ohio; in 1820, both in Maryland and Virginia. In 1816 the educational advantages of the Church also received new strength by the founding of a theological seminary at Hartwick, N.Y. — the first public training-school of the American Lutherans for young men prospecting the holy office of the ministry. An asylum for orphans the Lutheran Church had founded as early as 1749, in the midst of the thriving colonists at Ebenezer, in Georgia. It was widely known as the "Salzburger Waisenhaus," and is said to have received no little encouragement from Whitefield.

II. Organization of the General Synod of American Lutherans. — The need of a central bond of union for the different synods extending over a territory so vast as that of the United States gave rise in 1820 to the formation of a "general synod" — "a starting-place and a central radiating point of improvement in the Church." There were at this time 170 ministers connected with the Lutherans, and 35,000 communicants in the Lutheran connection. Of these, 135 preachers and 33,000 communicants were represented at the meeting which, October 22, 1820, formed the General Synod. The constantly increasing influx of European Lutherans frequently gave rise to the manifestation of the most diverse opinions on ecclesiastical matters, and, in consequence, to many controversies, first of a milder, and gradually of a more decided character, until a schism became inevitable. Even previous to the outbreak of our civil war there had been frequent secessions of several of the synods from the general body, but the strife of 1861-65 gave a more decided influence in favor of the establishment of rival bodies by the side of the "General Synod." The first to establish themselves independently were the Southern Lutherans, who instituted a "Southern General Synod," later known as the "General Synod of North America," and now (1872) embracing 5 synods, 92 ministers, 175 churches, and 13,457 communicants.

A more serious division was, however, preparing, on doctrinal grounds, in the Northern synods. The constitution of the General Synod did not make membership dependent upon an adhesion to the letter of the "Augsburg Confession" of 1530, the great standard of faith of the early Lutheran Church. While heartily indorsing the Augsburg Confession as the most important historical document as regards the doctrines of the Church, the constitution aimed to secure to all Lutherans the liberty of rejecting some utterances of that confession which had early been discarded by a considerable number of the followers of Luther as unevangelical and semi- papal. This feature was obnoxious to the strict Lutheran party, which wished Lutheranism to remain for all time to come as defined by the Augsburg Confession of 1530, and which desired to bring back the whole Lutheran Church of the United States to this point.

III. Organization of the "General Council." — The party differences, after creating frequent disturbances at the meetings of the General Synod, led to an open rupture in 1864, when the Franckean Synod, a New York State body, which was regarded by the Confessional Lutherans as positively unchurchly and heretical, was admitted to the General Synod. In consequence of this act the oldest synod, that of Pennsylvania, withdrew from the Convention. At the next meeting of the General Synod, in 1866, the Pennsylvania Synod was consequently declared by the president and a majority of the delegates out of practical connection with the General Synod. In reply to this decision, the Pennsylvanians called on all Lutherans adhering to the letter of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 to organize upon this basis a new and genuine Lutheran Church. The call was responded to by a number of synods hitherto connected with the General Synod, and also by some independent synods, and a preliminary convention was held in December, 1866, at Reading, Pennsylvania. This meeting drew up a constitution, and provided for the convention of the first "General Council" of the new organization as soon as the constitution should be adopted by ten synods. The preliminaries having been complied with, the "General Council" met at Fort Wayne November 20, 1867. Twelve synods, representing 140,006 communicants, a larger number than the combined membership of the two other organizations — the "General Synod" and the Southern "General Synod of North America" — together, were in attendance. A resolution was passed inviting those only "who are in the unity of the faith with us, as set forth in the fundamental articles of this General Council," as "visiting brethren," making this body distinctively Confessional in the character of its Lutheranism. The last Convention of the "General Council," held at Rochester, New York, in November 1871, was presided over by Dr. Chas. P. Krauth, of Philadelphia. At this meeting there were only nine synods, representing 511 ministers, 971 congregations, and 141,875 communicants. Two other synods — the Danish-Norwegian Augustana Synod and the Indiana Synod — had, however, announced their intention to join the "Council". A meeting is now (November 1872) in progress at Akron, Ohio. Its proceedings will have to be given in the Appendix volume IV. Movement towards the Formation of a General Conference. — The tendency of a majority of the American churches towards ecclesiastical union has of late made an impression also on the Lutheran communicants, and there is now in progress a movement for the organization of a new body, to be called the "General Conference," with the avowed object of making it "the organization of a general Lutheran body, on the basis of the unqualified reception of all the symbolical books as a bond of union between all Lutheran synods in America." This movement was started several years ago, mainly by the independent synods (see for list, V. Statistics). At the meeting held at Fort Wayne, Indiana, November 14, 1871, about 60 members were present, representing most of the independent synods. The reports of the meeting for final organization, which was to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the second Wednesday of July 1872, have not yet come to our notice. If all the six independent synods have adopted the Constitution and joined the "General Conference," this body is now the strongest in the Lutheran connection, its membership exceeding that of either the General Synod or of the General Council. (Comp. Schäffer, Early Hist. of the Lutheran Church in America; Schmucker, Amer. Luth. Church [5th edition, Phila. 1852]; and the excellent article in Schem, Deutsch-Amerikan Conv. Lexikon, 6:690-704; Annual to New Amer. Cyclop. 1871.)

V. Statistics. — We are enabled to present our readers with the latest statistics of the Lutheran Church in the United States of America. The almanacs for 1890 furnish a list of-theological seminaries, 26; colleges, 25; female seminaries, 11; academies 37; charitable institutions (orphan homes, infirmaries, hospitals, etc.), 56; Church boards and societies, 27. The General Synod embraces — synods, 23; ministers, 979; churches, 1437; communicants, 151, 404. The General Council embraces — synods, 8; ministers, 910; churches, 1552; communicants, 259,801. The Southern General Synod embraces — synods, 9; ministers, 201; churches, 385; communicants, 37,528. The grand total is — synods, 58; ministers, 4692; churches, 7948; communicants, 1,099,868. The periodicals are — English, 48; German, 51; Norwegian, 16; Swedish, 26.


On the history of the Lutheran Church, compare Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and its Theology (Phila. 1871, 8vo), especially chapter 4; Gobel, Die religiosen Eigenthümlichkeiten d Luth. u. ref. Kirchen (1837); Augusti, Beitrage z. Geschichte u. Statistik der Evangel. Kirche (1838); Wiggers, Stattistik (1842, 2 volumes); Harnack, Die Luth. Kirche im Lichte d. Gesch. (1855); Kahnis, Germanz Protestantism (1856); Seiss, Ecclesia Lutherana, a brief Survey of the Evang. Luth. Church (1868); Dosmer, Gesch. der Protest. Theologie (1867); Müller (J.T.), Die symnbolischen Bucher der evangel. Luth. Kirche (Stuttg. 1860, 8vo); Plitt, Lutheranische Missionen (Erlangen, 1871, 8vo).

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