Lutherans in America

Title of Work:

Lutherans in America: A New History

Author of Work:

Mark Granquist


Pastor Benjamin Tomczak

Page Number:


Format Availability:

Paperback, Kindle




Lutherans in America Resize CoverThe subtitle is fascinating: A New History. In our day and age, we have gotten used to getting the “true” story about this, that, or the other historical event or person. Myths (pious or otherwise) get busted on a daily basis as scholars tell the real or newly-discovered truth. This book is not a new, revisionist history. It’s new in that it closes a gap that has opened in the subject of church history.

The standard works only go so far. Two great authors of Lutheran Church History in America are Abdel Ross Wentz and E. Clifford Nelson. Wentz only gets us to the mergers that created the ALC and LCA in the 1960s. Nelson’s “standard” works only get us into the late 1970s. Granquist notes that when he was a student Nelson’s works were already fifteen years old. After them we must rely on single-theme or single-synod works to cover the rest of the ground.


Granquist doesn’t merely wish to fill in the gap of years. He also sees a significant shift in the Lutheran ethos over the last forty years. We can only agree. Since Wentz and Nelson put down their pens we’ve had the earthquake in Missouri called Seminex, the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and its subsequent schism – one of the largest mainline schisms in North America), Missouri’s “return” to a more confessional Lutheranism under Jack Preus (and now Matthew Harrison), the vast ecumenical swings that the ELCA has taken (fellowship with Episcopalians, the Reformed, and others, along with their leadership on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification). Also, when Wentz and Nelson were writing, the Lutheran Church was gripped by merger mania. Synods and conferences were joining together left and right; every day seemed to herald some new alliance. It seemed good and great, if not at least inevitable. Forty years later it’s arguable how good these mergers were for American Lutheranism.

A lot has happened. It must be recorded so we can learn. This is one of the conclusions Granquist draws. He sees it as a problem holding Lutherans back from a “creative retrieval” that will help meet the needs of our future (356). We have been infected by an American problem: “the general American tendency to believe that history has little value or worth – it is just the record of a past to be overcome” (356). American Lutherans reflect this in being woefully ignorant of their own history (357), both at the clerical and lay level. Granquist says, “It is not possible to critique society without a clear position from which to do this” (357). In other words, we have to know what we’re talking about. Granquist helps us in this task.

He gives us one chapter on the “European” background, that is, the Reformation and German and Scandinavian Lutheranism. Then he turns to Lutherans in America for eleven chapters. Between the chapters are excursuses. Most of these are reprints of previously-written articles, which focus on some interesting person or event from the era he has just described.

Here are some takeaways for you to ponder and inwardly digest:

  1. “What do you mean this has happened before?”

As you read the opening chapters you can begin to catalog the issues that American Lutherans wrestled with, struggled over, and debated. They include

    • the church and her ministry (bishops vs. synods; what pastors are),
    • issues with worship (We could say worship wars began in the 1740s-1750s as Muhlenberg tried to get a universal Lutheran liturgy – “One book to bind them all.”),
    • hymnal struggles and debates,
    • sanctification,
    • church and state, and
    • lay involvement.

Do these sound familiar? Go to your favorite Lutheran blog or Facebook group. I bet there are posts about these things. American Lutherans have wrestled with these issues off and on (mostly on) from the moment we got to these shores, especially in the context of being confessional versus being American. One anecdote from Norwegian Lutheran history might illustrate this: the battle between Elling Eielson (lay preacher “strongly opposed to formal liturgy and structure of the Church of Norway” [184]) and J.W.C. Dietrichson (advocate of formal liturgy and Church of Norway structure). “The two were instant competitors and ardent enemies; when the two finally met in 1845, Dietrichson challenged Eielsen’s legitimacy, and Eielsen is reported to have grabbed Dietrichson by the beard and exclaimed, ‘Listen to me, you pope, I intend to plague you as long as I live’” (185).


2. “How will I survive 100+ pages on the Lutheran church before “my” Lutherans got here (that is, in the mid-nineteenth century)?”

I needed this. Just as we’re tempted to think not much happened to the church between Jesus and Luther, we also run the risk of having Lutheran tunnel vision. That’s what we have if we only know Wisconsin Synod history, or maybe some Synodical Conference history, as if history skips from 1580 to 1850 for us. When you finish reading Granquist’s work, you’ll realize how all the seeds of our history and context in America were planted (except for the uber-confessional struggles that really only began when the German Lutherans began came in earnest and the debate over Schmucker’s “American Lutheran” platform began).

You also need to see how deeply-felt were the various movements and –isms of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century: the great awakenings, revivalism, deism, rationalism, the great immigration debates, and the language debates. These things didn’t all crop up suddenly in 1917 with “the war to end all wars” or when someone brought a drum set into a Lutheran sanctuary in the 1970s. While we don’t like where all these things have led, we can at least bow with some humility before history and realize a few things.

First, these things have been going on for a while, and they won’t just disappear tomorrow. Inertia cannot be underestimated.

Second, these things have deeply-rooted causes and in some cases are part of “American” DNA. It will take much time and deep immersion in our Lutheran Confessions to expunge some of the assumed truths Americans have about church and worship. We need this immersion in our Confessions at every level – from pastor to parent to child, and from seminary to parish to family altar. This is our DNA, too. Some of our assumptions may need challenging and recalibrating by the Spirit in his Word and by a renewal of our confessional understanding.

Third, instead of always grumbling and accusing each other of being less than Lutheran, we can also rejoice in the progress we’ve made over the last century-and-a-half from a pietistic, Reformed-leaning, fellowshipping-with-anyone, pinching-our-noses-at-all-things-liturgical church body (“We’re the Wisconsin Synod, we don’t make a show!”) to the steps we’ve taken today. In the area of liturgics, we can rejoice in moving from quarterly to nearly universal twice-per-month Communion. That’s something to be thankful for, even if we’re not sure we’re done getting to where we need to go.


3. “You’re not just born a Lutheran!?!?”

Perhaps we’ve been living in it so long that we have no idea how to measure the impact of the Lutheran Church coming from the state churches of Europe to a country of free and voluntary churches. People choose where they want to go. Granquist returns to this in his conclusion as he talks about the decline of denominational loyalty and the inability of churches to rely on a brand label, because seekers “will instead seek to probe much more deeply into the organization to see its value and worth” (350). Here and in his “second” conclusion, Granquist points to the “distinct power of the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel” (350), our “strong and timeless” message (357).

This point helps us understand a little bit of our polity, that is, why Lutherans gather in synods. Much of our identity as congregational synods comes not from Germany as much as from the Dutch free churches. These churches influenced the first Lutheran pastors in America, because the pastors received more aid and assistance from Holland and Scandinavia than from Germany in the seventeenth century. “Lutheran pastors and lay leaders had to create new means by which to govern themselves and settle their disputes” (79).


4.“Wait, there are other Lutherans than the Wisconsin Synod?”

A volume like this reminds us of our place in the Lutheran scene. We are a minority both in number and confession. For a brief moment, the Synodical Conference was the grand high poohbah and chief high mucky muck of American Lutheranism. But, sadly, that day has passed. Missouri itself even had its day near the top, but now represents just one-third of American Lutherans.

Again, we bow in humility. We remember that where the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly taught we find the Holy Christian Church. We also realize that we have a battle before us, because when most people hear “Lutheran” they won’t necessarily think of us. In the words of Ricky, “We’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.” Or, more Luther-y, “What does this mean?” is a question we must continually answer on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions.


5. “WELS? ELCA? NALC? CLC? ELS? Help me, please!”

If you think we have an alphabet soup now, consider that at least twenty-nine new synods formed between 1840 and 1855. This is what Lutherans do and always have done. (So do other church bodies, for that matter.) In fact, by 1875 there were 60+ synods. Some grouped confessionally, and some grouped geographically.


The author is a professor at an ELCA seminary. He occasionally tipped his hand to a moderate bias, but it did not happen often, and it did not happen in any way that overwhelms the fine work he has done. This is a book I will need to reread, along with Wentz and Nelson from time to time, to get my bearings on the bigger picture of Lutheranism in America. You should too.

Mark Granquist is associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, he taught at St. Olaf College (1992-2000) and Gustavus Adolphus College (2000-2007). Among other books, he is the co-author (with Maria Erling) of The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008).