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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Lutherans in the United States

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The first Lutherans to make a permanent settlement in America came from Holland in 1623 to the Dutch New Netherlands (Manhattan Island), now part of New York City. The first Lutheran congregation in the Colonies was formed about l5 years later at Ft. Christina, now Wilmington, on the Delaware River. Other congregations followed in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere, and several of these were formed into the Synod of Pennsylvania in 1748 by Henry Mühlenberg, known as the patriarch of American Lutheranism. The synod, which has played an important part in the history of Lutheranism in the United States, is a kind of council whose members’ congregations accept the synod’s guidance in teaching and practice although retaining a legally independent status. Mühlenberg himself was a firm believer, but his successors were influenced by rationalism and consequently skeptical about the basic nature of religion. The result was that indifferentism and schism crept into the churches.

Transition from German to English and different views as to what relations should be with Calvinist German-speaking churches, caused further divisions (see Calvin, John). The growing immigration from Europe swelled the numbers and the westward movement increased the difficulty of coordination. To strengthen the bonds and check disruptive tendencies, the General Synod of almost all the Lutherans in America was formed at Hagerstown, Md. in 1820.

Early Expansion. At the time of the Civil War and shortly afterward, the slavery issue and doctrinal differences occasioned a three-way split that was heeled only with the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America, in 1918. Meantime, conservative and liberal viewpoints developed; the former insisting on holding the purity of the faith, the latter urging adjustment to meet changed conditions. The conservatives organized many synods united by three bonds: a common doctrinal fidelity to the Lutheran symbols or statements of belief (notably the Augsburg Confession and the two Catechisms of Luther), territorial limitation, and, usually, a common European background. The organization and functions of the synod vary, but it plays an important part in determining and preserving a continuity in matters of belief. In 1847 a group of immigrants from Saxony formed the Missouri Synod. They had moved to America for religious reasons, seeking to escape the Prussian government's imposition of union with the Calvinistic Reformed Churches. A like group of German immigrants founded the Wisconsin Synod in 1850, and 20 years later (1872) they “joined fellowship” with the Missourians and others in the conservative Lutheran Synodical Conference.

Other German groups organized their own synods, often named after the locality where membership was concentrated. They eventually formed the American Lutheran Church. Swedish Lutherans formed the independent Scandinavian Augustana Synod in 1860, in protest against those who, in their judgment, were too lax in theology. Gradually the Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and German bodies came together in 1962 as the American Lutheran Church, the largest single Lutheran group in the country. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of Lutheran-church bodies in the United States has shrunk by merger from more than 60 to only 12. And the merger process is likely to continue.

Faithful to Tradition. An objective analysis of American Lutheranism shows a family of churches that has remained more faithful than any other Protestant denomination to Reformation traditions, although facing obstacles that no other comparable group of Protestants had to overcome. Although mainly of immigrant stock, speaking a foreign language, and following European customs that called for constant adaptation, the Lutherans nevertheless made a unique contribution to Protestant culture in America. In theology, in parochial school education, in ecclesiastical structure, and in social welfare, they were pioneers and leaders who other denominations have learned both to respect and imitate.

Lutherans have in many instances departed from the theological positions of their founder, but their general tendency has been to remain conservative in doctrine, rejecting the liberal and often naturalistic spirit common in other Protestant denominations. It is no coincidence that fewer than half the Lutherans in America belong to the National Council of Churches, whereas practically all the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, other and Congregationalists are active members. Many Lutheran churchmen consider the National Council of Churches a compromise agency whose ambiguous theology might weaken the faith of the people.

Lutherans have been remarkably faithful not only to the spirit but often the letter of the Reformation. Where other churches scarcely raise the issue, they look upon the sixteenth-century confessions of faith as rules on which to determine membership in the church and even to define authentic Christianity. Their publication of the 55 volumes of Luther's complete writings in English translation and a research institute in Reformation theology illustrate the same emphasis.

Parochial Schools. In tile field of religious education, they have developed the largest system of Protestant church-affiliated schools in the country. Their reason is similar to that which underlies the Catholic school system, namely, that is not right to divide education into religious and nonreligious categories, to separate the one from the other, and to split a child’s education so that he is taught by two institutions which differ in their nature and philosophy. Among the advantages they recognize in parochial schools are daily social contact of teachers and pupils of the same Christian faith; the absence of any formal influence that is foreign or inimical to the Lutheran education process, laying the groundwork for a trained and conservative public ministry; and preparing the students for the responsibilities of Christian citizenship.

Along with concern for doctrine and its safeguard through education, American Lutherans have made outstanding contributions to the cause of Christian unity. Even when lukewarm about agencies like the National Council of Churches, they have helped greatly to advance ecumenism through studies and writings on the deeper questions that divide Protestants among themselves and from the Catholic Church. One of their leading spokesmen, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale, has expressed their position as follows: “We are theologically specific and theologically concerned. The interesting thing is that while historical differences remain, Lutherans have begun to recognize that they are closer to Roman Catholics in many ways than they are to other Protestants.” Ecumenical thought of this kind is rare outside Lutheran ranks.

Yet serious tensions are present. While the majority of members believe that the content of the faith must be preserved, an aggressive minority would change Lutheranism from a confessional system (shaped by the historic confession faith) to a leaven that permeates the whole body of Protestantism. Instead of defining their beliefs in dogmatic formulas or creeds, they attempt to decide what position Luther would have taken if he had lived in modern times and seen things as they see them. This attitude distinguishes them not only from the majority of their coreligionists in America but also from Lutherans in Europe. For them the important thing is to enter the main river of Protestant life without worry about “dangers to the faith.” They are convinced that with new light and more adequate interpretation of the biblical writings, changes in doctrine will be not only indicated but necessary.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 6, pp. 516-518

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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