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American Lutherans on the Home Front During World War I


[1] It is perhaps surprising that given the wide ethnic and religious pluralism that have long been characteristic of the United States, that there have not been more incidents of tension and conflict between different groups of Americans.  Certainly there have been such incidents, often in times of war or national upheaval, and some of these occurrences have been very significant -- one should neither ignore or underestimate them.  On the other hand, to this point a degree of good sense and civic responsibility has helped cooler heads prevail over the superheated emotions of others, and it is on this dynamic that our national equilibrium depends.  It is good to study the incidents of religious and ethnic tension, if only to learn from them; one occurrence of such tension was between nativist Americans and American Lutherans (especially German-Americans) on the home front during World War I.  Patriotism and suspicion of outsiders, along with Lutheran peculiarities, caused several years of unrest and tension, especially in the Midwest during the "War to end all Wars."

[2] By the second decade of the twentieth century, a second wave of Lutheran immigration was firmly entrenched in America.  The first wave of Lutherans arrived before the American Revolution and was thoroughly assimilated into American culture by the early twentieth century.  A larger, second wave of Lutheran immigrants came between 1840 and 1910, and by this time had established a hyphenated, dual-lingual, immigrant culture in the United States.  These Lutheran immigrants divided into ethnic denominations of Scandinavians and Germans, which came to be an important part of communal life in the American Middle West, from Ohio to Missouri to the Dakotas.  Their energies were still generally directed to internal developments and controversies, focused on building Lutheran institutions and identities.  Although there were the beginnings of merger activity, and although many Lutheran groups had cooperated in festivities marking the 400th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 1917, they were still an often fractious bunch.

[3] German-American Lutherans were divided into a number of different denominations.  Some nineteenth-century German immigrants found a home among the colonial Lutheran denominations, the General Council and the General Synod.  More often they developed their own organizations, including the Missouri Synod, the Ohio Synod, the Buffalo Synod, the Iowa Synod, and the Wisconsin Synod, which, despite their "state" names were really national church organizations.  These groups related historically with each other, though they were often divided by bitter theological and ecclesiastical feuding.  The Missouri Synod, especially, was a large national church with congregations all across the United States.
[4] Traditionally, Lutheran theology and practice have led to a degree of separation between church and state, with the idea that both "realms" were endowed by God with distinctive and unique missions.  The typical picture of Lutheran social thought suggests that the two spheres of life were complimentary, but that interference between the two ought to be minimized (although in reality it has never been that clear.)  In the crucible of American religious and political life, Lutherans had to learn how to balance Church and State in new-found ways, but they often found the religious freedom and plurality of American life to be both exhilarating and threatening.  Many of these Nineteenth-century immigrant Lutherans had a wary engagement with American civil life, and many of the German-American Lutheran denominations had extensive parochial school systems in order to ensure the maintenance of this degree of separation.

[5] However, these immigrant Lutherans were hardly disconnected from what was going on in American society, culture, politics, and religion.  They had a vital interest in their new country, and were not shy about expressing their opinions on issues that they found important.  With the advent of the First World War in 1914, many Lutherans ("American," German and Scandinavian alike) were willing to state their opinions about the war publicly, which they did in an extensive immigrant and religious press. Generally they were as supportive of Germany (as the land of Luther) as they were suspicious of England.  One historian comments:

Most German Lutherans . . . hoped for a German victory of which they were quite confident in the early days of the war.  Occasionally,  a synod even prayed publicly for Germany, as did the Wartburg Synod (of the General Synod) in 1914.  After the prayer it sang "Deutschland über Alles" and "Die Wacht am Rhein.[1]

England was seen by many as being economically and militarily aggressive toward Germany, and as the cause of the war itself.

[6] Above all they were great advocates of American neutrality and in the period from 1914 to 1917 they were often critical (as were the German-Americans in general) of what they saw as the pseudo-neutrality of the American government, which seemed to them to be heavily biased toward the British cause.  Many American Lutherans, not just German-Americans, were strong advocates for American neutrality and strict isolation from the European war.   In this they were not alone, but when America did enter the war in 1917, their strenuous criticism of the government, and sympathies for their German co-religionists were remembered against them.
[7] Americans in general tended to have a mixed view of these German-American Lutheran immigrants.  On the one hand, they were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and in this period of racial theories and fears of non-Protestant immigration, this counted for much.  On the other hand, to outsiders these German-American denominations looked clannish, ill-adapted to the American environment, and with their foreign-language schools and worship services, unwilling to assimilate.  The conservative Midwestern German Lutherans denominations especially were isolated because they refused any form of religious fellowship without complete doctrinal agreement, something they rarely achieved with each other, let alone with English-speaking outsiders. Americans also distrusted German religiosity because of the association of Germany with liberal and radical theological ideas. One historian has noted: 

The fact that biblical criticism was imported from Germany and became a kind of status symbol among some scholars was later to hurt the cause when anti-Germanism developed before and during World War I.  In any case, long before that Germany had held a reputation for destructive radicalism.[2]

[8] Because of the nature of the German state church system, with the Emperor as titular head, German-American Lutherans were thought in some quarters to be loyal to the Kaiser, and agents of his state.  The irony of all this is that many of these conservative Midwestern German-American Lutherans had left Germany precisely because of their opposition to the state church and growing theological liberalism in that country.
[9] Once the US entered the war in 1917, on the side of Britain and France, a wave of nationalism and patriotism swept across the country, and many German-Americans were instantly suspect.  There were, of course, some German-Americans who had openly supported Germany before 1917, some of them quite strongly, and their words came back to haunt them.  But many German-American Lutherans had not openly expressed their feelings one way or the other, and were also caught up by this wave of national sentiment.  In such a wave of feeling, anything foreign, especially anything German, was instantly suspect.  German culture and art were denounced, the German language was suspect, and many German-Americans were viewed as traitors, and some of them were verbally and even physically attacked.   Editors, politicians, and ordinary citizens all participated in the campaign on the home front against anything German.

[10] Though there were some instances of mob violence, the most problematic attacks came in print and in legislation.  Many American editors and commentators were outspoken in their suspicion of German-Americans and their loyalty.  There was a popular crusade in the press against the "enemy at home," which soon captured the popular imagination.  One historian noted:

Determination to rid America of everything German led to the burning of German books by libraries, changing of German names on streets and menus, banning of German papers from newsstands, refusal of musical groups to perform works of German composers, and the boycotting of German artists. [3]

Some of these actions were downright silly, such as the renaming of sauerkraut as "Liberty Cabbage," but the general atmosphere, especially in the Midwestern states, was much more ominous.
[11] The actions that were of greatest concern to immigrant German Lutherans were those official actions that were aimed at the regulation or suppression of the German language, and the attempts to control church officials.  In fifteen states laws were proposed that in some form prohibited the teaching of the German language, or the use of German in public, including instruction and worship; in several states, most notably Iowa, these provisions became law.  Nebraska passed an act in 1918 that preachers and teachers be examined and licensed by the state, an action directly aimed at German Lutheran institutions.  Although the Supreme Court eventually found these laws to be an unconstitutional violation of the separation between church and state, at the time they only contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation.

[12] There were incidents of violence and coercion.  Hundreds of parochial schools and some church buildings were attacked and closed, and some were desecrated or burned.  Individual German Lutheran leaders were challenged and attacked by local editors, politicians, and citizen, for their past support of Germany, or for their perceived failures to fully support the war effort.  A few leaders were physically attacked or threatened, but many more were intimidated by the example of what happened to these others.  In a number of areas and states so-called "Councils of Defense" were formed to "defend" the home front from perceived enemies from within.  These Councils were the focus of much of this anti-foreign, anti-immigrant attitude.

[13] German-American Lutherans did not take these attacks without response.  Many of them firmly proclaimed their loyalty to the United State and its cause, and protested the attacks upon them.  One Lutheran editor wrote in 1918, 

. . . only by plainly asserting that we are with our Government and against Germany shall we overcome such doubts concerning our 'loyalty' in the war-time sense . . . [4]

These attempts to deflect criticism and to shore up their patriotic credentials were hampered by the habits of isolation and separatism that prevailed in many of these denominations; language differences and a fear of "unionism" (ecumenical cooperation without doctrinal agreement) kept many of these Lutherans separate from each other, let alone from their "English" neighbors.  The major way that these immigrants could show their loyalty was through charitable and financial contributions to the war effort, and the record shows that they did this enthusiastically.  A historian of the Missouri Synod proudly relates:

The loyalty of the members of the Missouri Synod to its government was manifested externally by the purchase of more than $94,000,000 of Liberty Bonds and Stamps and by liberal contributions to the Red Cross. [5]

This might blunt the criticisms of German-American Lutherans, but not completely eliminate the hostility and suspicions from other quarters in America.

[14] Other Lutherans in America had mixed feelings about this situation.  Many Lutherans, not just the German-Americans, had shared initial support for Germany, suspicion of England, and anger at the sham neutrality of the American government.  Scandinavian-American Lutherans, who still employed their immigrant languages and were often equally isolated from "English" society, were often lumped together with the German-Americans in the popular imagination. This led to internal Lutheran tensions; as one historian related: 

The Scandinavian-American Lutherans, heavily concentrated in the Upper Midwest, often alongside German-speaking Lutherans, shared the general antipathy toward the latter.  This was most noticeable among lay people who resented being considered just another brand of Germans, and thus guilty by ethnic association.[6]  

Scandinavian-American Lutherans, perhaps in a defensive mode, also supported the American war and relief efforts with great enthusiasm.   Some Lutheran voices were raised in support of their denominational colleagues.  Swedish-American Lutheran writer George Stephenson protested a confusion in popular imagination when he wrote in 1916, 

Now it is one thing to be a German sympathizer, and another thing to be a Lutheran, and I believe those who have identified the two have done the Lutherans a great injustice. . .   [7]

Whether in support of fellow Lutherans, or a desire not to be too closely related to Germany, American Lutherans sought to distance themselves from their German co-religionists.

[15] Beyond these defensive reactions, however, the domestic controversies during World War I pushed Lutherans in some new directions, and sped up changes already occurring within these immigrant denominations.  First and foremost, these controversies accelerated the language transition within these groups, as they moved away from the use of immigrant languages in their worship, instruction, and denominational business.  This is something that the younger generations had been urging since the turn of the century, but the war (and the cessation of immigration during the 1920s) made this transition an inevitable, if painful, reality.  American Lutherans wanted to show that they, too, belonged, and the use of English was an important symbol of their transition.

[16] The challenges of wartime also pushed these often clannish Lutherans together in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways.  If their boys were going off to the military to fight, they needed to cooperate to provide for a Lutheran presence to minister to the soldiers and sailors.  As one historian observed, 

Anti-Lutheran propaganda in many states caused Lutherans to draw closer together in order to ward off charges of disloyalty.  The war itself, by confronting the churches with immense challenges for spiritual and physical ministries beyond the abilities of any one synod, gave further impetus to the centripetal movement. [8] 

This initially was manifested in the formation in 1918 of the National Lutheran Council, a pan-Lutheran organization to coordinate the social welfare and civic activities of American Lutherans.  As Fred Meuser pointed out, 

Some of the first joint meetings of Lutherans across the broad synodical spectrum came from areas where councils of defense plagued Lutheran freedoms.  For example, a protest meeting against the Nebraska Council of Defense produced a statement signed by representatives of the General Synod, General Council, Missouri, Augustana, and Ohio Synods, the Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the two Danish Lutheran bodies.[9]

In some cases, these forms of cooperation led to closer relations within denominations, and may have even been a contributing factor to the merger that formed The American Lutheran Church (1930-60), which brought together the Ohio, Buffalo, and Iowa synods (though not the Missouri and Wisconsin synods).
[17] The events of 1917 and 1918 demonstrate both the vulnerability and the resiliency of these immigrant Lutherans in the United States.  Because of their isolation and some of their cultural and political stances, they became an easy target for some patriotic and nationalistic sentiments that arose because of the entry of America into World War I.  Some immigrant Lutherans, especially conservative German-American Lutherans in the Midwest, suffered as a result of these sentiments, and were unfairly treated.  Yet these incidents did not permanently scar these denominations, and in turn they may have accelerated a degree of assimilation and made this process a bit easier.  No doubt the wartime attitudes of some Americans were hurtful to these immigrants, but there was a political and judicial process that did, in the end, vindicate the immigrant groups.  In some cases, the tensions even pushed forward a greater degree of civic engagement and synodical co-operation than had been previously the case, and nudged many American Lutherans into a greater degree of engagement with the social, cultural, and religious world around them in America.

[1]  Fred W. Meuser, "Facing the Twentieth Century," in E. Clifford Nelson, ed., The Lutherans in North America Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, p. 396.

[2]  Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion: Volume 1, The Irony of It All, 1893-1919 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 38.

[3]  E. Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America, 1914-1970 Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972, p. 5.

[4]  E. Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America, 1914-1970 Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972, p. 5.

[5]  E. Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America, 1914-1970 Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972, p. 5.

[6]  E. Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America, 1914-1970 Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972, p. 5.

[7]  Fred Meuser, The Formation of the American Lutheran Church Columbus OH: Wartburg Press, 1958, p. 137.

[8]  Fred Meuser, The Formation of the American Lutheran Church Columbus OH: Wartburg Press, 1958, p. 137.

[9]  "Facing the Twentieth Century," p. 399.



© February 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 2