Book Review: Lutherans in America

Lutherans in America: A New History. By Mark Granquist. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

 At long last there is a successor to The Lutherans in North America, edited by E. Clifford Nelson and first published when Gerald Ford was our president. Comparison between the Nelson volume and Mark Granquist’s new history of the Lutheran churches in America is difficult because the former had a stable of authors, each contributing on his period of expertise. There was an unevenness going from Theodore Tappert to some of the lesser lights. Now Granquist tells the story himself, so the strengths and weaknesses are at least equal throughout. The comparison is not between apples and oranges but between different kinds of apples. They have much in common but finally are not meant to taste exactly the same.


Granquist frames the story of American Lutheranism as a history of who came to America and when, who came into fellowship with whom and when, and how the faithful dealt with the innumerable changes America constantly brings. Granquist offers with the greatest possible precision tables and charts tracking Lutheran population, membership figures, and the various church foundations, mergers, and splits throughout all the years since Rasmus Jensen, the Danish pastor, was the first Lutheran minister to serve and to die in the New World. Anyone interested in telling this story will have to touch on common themes and figures. The derelict pastor Jacob Fabricius appears in colonial New York and then on the Delaware. Muhlenberg arrives in 1742 from Halle by way of London to set things in order and establish the first American Lutheran synod in 1748. In him the worlds of German Lutheran Pietism and British America meet: he is sent by the Halle Fathers with the urging and benediction of Michael Ziegenhagen, Lutheran chaplain to the Hanoverian English court. The Missouri Synod is established and grows extremely rapidly in the nineteenth century, even as Eastern Lutherans differ widely about what it means to be Lutheran. In the twentieth century Lutheran union eventually becomes almost everyone’s spoken or unspoken goal, and in a certain skepticism about the ultimate value of merger Granquist makes a very valuable contribution to Lutheran historiography.

This pessimism about merger is the child of the disappointing story of the ELCA. Readers learn that the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), established in 1982 to bring the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church together, bequeathed all of its own tensions to the ELCA, when the new church came into existence in 1988. Strife over the doctrine of the ministry, the nature of ecumenism, the role of quotas in church governance, and the nature of human sexuality were all present on the CNLC, and so have been with the ELCA from its founding. Since 1988 it has in some measure declined in membership each year, and as early as the mid-1990s a task force on human sexuality drew up a report commending the ordination of actively homosexual candidates for the ministry. This report was hastily withdrawn when prematurely leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

To go deeper into the past, Granquist even observes that the bureaucratic difficulties of streamlining various groups into one and financially sustaining the one new church were present even in the ALC and LCA, although they had formed more than twenty-five years before the ELCA’s birth. He sees the difficulties experienced by the ELCA, the fruit of the hopes of so many Lutherans throughout American history, as endemic to any church body seeking to be nationwide and multiethnic in America. The General Synod, established in 1820, experienced theological dissension almost immediately, despite the relatively much greater homogeneity of the church body and the nation in the Era of Good Feelings. It even was the cause of a church split before its founding, when the Tennessee Synod formed as an exodus from the North Carolina Synod in opposition to a potentially nationwide church body. How much more, then, will there be dissension and variation in church bodies today that span across the United States and throughout the numerous social classes and ethnic groups America contains?

With a much appreciated lack of noticeable rancor toward the Missouri Synod and other Synodical Conference church bodies, Granquist points out the growing theological heterogeneity of the LCMS in the 1950s and 1960s, in part explaining it by the great demographic changes coming to the Synod with an influx of non-Lutheran, non-Germanic adult converts as the LCMS spread out into the growing suburbs of postwar America. At the very same time lifelong Missourians pursued theological degrees outside of the Synod in large numbers, so that in both church and academe Missouri was less separate than ever. Missouri then began to face the same challenges of integration and Americanization that the General Synod had debated back when the Ministerium of Pennsylvania withdrew to preserve its German heritage. All American Lutherans struggle with almost all the same social, political, and economic challenges, but their different histories lie in how they respond in their preaching and teaching.

It’s in that crisis of confession and theological discernment that one wishes Granquist presented a more theological view of theology. Words drawn from diplomacy crowd out theological words, so that a controversy over confessional subscription or the election of grace is often described in terms of “balance,” “moderates,” “the extreme,” as if everything is finally political. If the church’s history has anything to do with the calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying of the whole Christian church by the Holy Spirit, then a church historian has to make theological judgments. At any given time someone made a true confession and someone did not; if that is not the case, then church historians awash in relativism are of all theologians most to be pitied.

Granquist rightly notes that S.S. Schmucker was more Lutheran than his immediate predecessors in early America, but he is fuzzier on the exact differences between the General Synod and the General Council. It makes it hard for the student to see what all the fuss was about. The Missouri Synod is described in relation to seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy, rather than particularly stringent adherence to the Lutheran confessions. This makes it hard to see why the LCMS objected to the General Council’s Akron-Galesburg Rule, since everyone claimed to be Lutheran. This lack of theological precision makes the old ULCA’s offer of fellowship to any church claiming to be Lutheran seem reasonable and even logical, whereas Missouri and much of Midwestern Lutheranism saw it as the acceptance of error.

Granquist points out succinctly and brilliantly that where nineteenth-century Lutherans presumed the Bible’s authority and clashed over the Confessions’ authority, twentieth-century Lutherans simply clashed over the Bible’s authority. Full-blown Protestant liberalism came late to American Lutheranism, and his suggestion that what he and Maria Erling have called the Lutheran Left, devoted to social and political progressivism as well as theological liberalism, rose to prominence only with the formation of the ELCA is fascinating but undeveloped. Even in the 1920s Charles M. Jacobs’ promotion of Erlangen theology at the Philadelphia seminary provided a way for American Lutherans to differentiate between the Word of God and Scripture. Much work remains to be done on both the Lutheran Left and the rise of biblical criticism in American Lutheranism, without which we have a lot of trouble explaining the events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in both the LCMS and the ELCA and her predecessor bodies.

There is a disappointingly large number of typos in the book. Tulpehocken, the site of an early congregation in frontier Pennsylvania, is sometimes spelled correctly but most often spelled “Tuplehocken.” If that seems obtuse, words like “programming” and the last name of The Lutheran Hour’s founder, Walter A. Maier, are both misspelled, along with a host of other names. At one point the Formula of Concord appears to have been written in 1580, but three years are the difference between that single confessional document and the entire Book of Concord. More effort on its own history would be appreciated from Fortress. The very brief “excurses” between chapters, taken from columns appearing in the Metro Lutheran, repeat things said better elsewhere, except the pieces on Thea Ronning, a Norwegian-American missionary to China, and on Hispanic Lutheranism, the book’s final excursus touching on the Lutheran churches in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Granquist admirably seeks to cover the entirety of his subject’s breadth, although this will leave the author and the reader at times breathless. Based on his knowledge of the Augustana Synod, the reader will learn more about it than, say, the Wauwatosa gospel or the doctrinal differences on the ministry between the LCMS and the WELS. But space and time are limited, and Granquist covers all the main events and characters with as much thoroughness as 300-odd pages allow. His coverage of American history at the opening of each chapter sets the church’s history within the world’s history, where it belongs, since we are “in the world.”

If the world is impossible to escape, then every Lutheran church will face the challenges and opportunities it offers. Nothing will ever stay exactly the same, for better or worse. We all became or are even now still becoming Americans. The question at the end of reading this very valuable book is how an American can be a confessional Lutheran. All sorts of answers have been offered to that question, but one should pay particular attention to the Synodical Conference, which alone of any large church body did not pursue an organic union of its various constituent parts. While requiring a stringent confessional standard and actual teaching and practice in accord with that standard, the Synodical Conference contained the Midwestern and partly Eastern Germans of the LCMS (eventually with its annexed English District and the Finns of the old Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), the Midwestern Germans of what became the Wisconsin Synod, the Norwegians of the old Norwegian Synod and then the ELS, the Slovaks of the SELC, and in the LCMS what was by far American Lutheranism’s largest contingent of African-Americans. This is greater geographic and ethnic diversity than almost any other nationwide Lutheran confessional group, with perhaps greater doctrinal and practical unity than anything preceding or succeeding it. It could be that the organic merger and bureaucratic efficiency so long sought missed the point; that one hymnal, one seminary, or one church body cannot contain the linguistic, ethnic, and regional variety of American Lutherans. Yet unity might be found again as it has been found in the past: in a clear and unanimous confession.

Rev. Adam Koontz
Lititz, Pennsylvania