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American Lutheran Church
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
A recent addition to the family of Lutheran denominations, the American Lutheran Church was born in 1960 as a result of the merger of three separate churches: the American Lutheran, whose name was perpetuated in the new church, Evangelical Lutheran, and United Evangelical Lutheran, each with a history of previous mergers.
As the largest member of the new body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was a haven for 90 per cent of the Norwegian-descended Lutherans in America. It had been organized in 1917 under the name Norwegian Lutheran Church as an organic union of three independent groups: the United Norwegian Church and the Norwegian and the Hauge synods. In 1946 the adjective Norwegian was changed to Evangelical. Outside of the Synodical conference (comprising the Missouri and Wisconsin synods), it was one of the most conservative Lutheran bodies in the States.
Remarkably close-knit, the Evangelical Lutheran Church maintained a chain of small colleges stretching from Minnesota to Texas, foreign missionaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and - because most of its membership was rural - promoted the largest home-mission program of any comparable denomination in the country. A multimillion-dollar project fund would finance every new congregational unit.
German and Danish Synods. Almost equal in membership was the American Lutheran Church, which came into existence in 1930 through the merger of the German synods of Ohio, Iowa, and Buffalo. Though very conservative in doctrine, to the extent of working out a creedal agreement with the strict standards of the Lutheran Missouri Synod, the original American Lutherans have been more ecumenical-minded than other Lutheran bodies. Their merger efforts, however, have been based on the principle that unity in doctrine and worship is the only condition for church fellowship, following the rule of Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran pastors only, and Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants only.
The smallest partner in the new denomination, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, also resulted from a previous merger (1896), this between two Danish synods with strong devotional and revivalist traditions. In 1946 the word Danish was dropped from the official title, but doctrine and worship are still patterned, often word for word, on the parent church in Denmark. The largest membership is in Nebraska.
The formation of the new American Lutheran Church sets a landmark in a little-known phase of the ecumenical movement. It unites three nationally distinct bodies: German, Norwegian, and Danish; two of the partners were among the largest churches in the country, each with more than a million adherents; the basis of union was not merely social or dictated by external interests, but doctrinal and motivated by a common concern for theological issues.
Dogmatic Firmness. All three parties to the merger, especially the Evangelical Lutheran Church, have been uncompromising in their confessional orthodoxy and unsympathetic with the ecumenical movement as it is commonly understood. Evangelical Lutherans would even refuse to pray with Lutherans belonging to other church bodies when meeting in conferences held for the purpose of developing better understanding among them. They believe it is a Christian duty to separate oneself from those who teach contrary to the clear word of God. Unity among the churches, they maintain, becomes apostasy if based on anything less than the Bible. Symbolic of the same dogmatic firmness was the election of the former head of the Evangelical Lutherans as first president of the new denomination.
Smaller conservative bodies are being attracted by the churchs professed fidelity, to Reformation principles. Not more than a year after the American Lutheran Church was organized, the Lutheran Free Church (of Danish-Norwegian stock) asked to be affiliated and was received.
Headquarters of the American Lutheran Church are in Minneapolis, Minn.
For further information read LUTHERAN CHURCH.
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