Lutheran Roots in America
The historical origins of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Behind every organization there’s a fascinating back story—and the ELCA is no exception. In many ways, one could think of the ELCA’s story as beginning over 500 years ago, during the time of the reformation in Europe or even 2000 years ago with the first followers of Jesus
Read our complete story, or jump straight to a topic below:
Portrait of Martin Luther from the ELCA archives
The ELCA, along with other Lutheran churches, can trace its roots directly to the Protestant Reformation that took place in Europe in the 16th century. Martin Luther, a German monk, became aware of differences between the Bible and church practices of the day. His writings, lectures and sermons inspired others to protest church practices and call for reform.
By the late 1500s the Reformation had spread throughout Europe. Followers of Martin Luther’s teachings were labeled “Lutherans” by their enemies and adopted the name themselves. Lutheran beliefs became widespread, especially in Germany and the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland), later spreading throughout the world as early explorers took their faith with them on their voyages. Lutheranism came to the Americas that way; some of the earliest settlers in the Americas were Scandinavian, Dutch and German Lutherans. Their first permanent colony was in the West Indies, and by the 1620s there were settlements of Lutherans along the Hudson River in what are now the states of New York and New Jersey.
As people migrated to the New World they continued to speak and worship in their native languages and use resources from their countries of origin. Europeans from a particular region would migrate to a particular region in America and start their own churches. As the number of these congregations grew, scattered groups would form a “synod” or church body, and as the nation expanded so did the number of Lutheran church bodies.
By the late 1800s the 20 or so Lutheran church bodies that would eventually merge to become The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had been established. Massive immigration from traditionally Lutheran countries had started, and between 1840 and 1875 alone 58 Lutheran synods were formed in the U.S.
There were revivalist and confessional movements within Lutheran churches in Europe and in America, and as Lutherans migrated to this country they were influenced by the evangelicalism of various Protestant sects. Consequently, a wide variety of expressions of Lutheranism developed in North America. Nineteenth-century Lutherans still looked to their homelands to supply pastors and worship materials, but as second and third generation Americans spoke English more than German, Norwegian or Danish, a need arose to provide formal theological training, hymnals, catechisms and other materials.
Back to Top
Cooperative Work Begins
Cooperative work began with the National Lutheran Commission for Soldiers' and Sailors' Welfare in WWI. Two chaplains in a car.
Immigration of Lutherans continued to be heavy through the first two decades of the 20th century, and the first significant merger of church bodies happened in 1917 when three ethnic Norwegian synods joined to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (NLCA) and in 1918 when three ethnic German synods joined to form the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA). With World War I taking place, the next logical step in denominational consolidation was to form a joint agency of these two large synods and other smaller ones in order to provide relief. The National Lutheran Commission had been formed in 1917 because the churches were concerned about the spiritual well-being of U.S. service personnel being sent into combat. In a short time 60,000 laymen were involved in the relief effort, which proved a vast and complex enterprise. The laymen stayed active in the relief and ministry of the commission, but formed their own organization, the Lutheran Brotherhood, which supported the work of the commission by building facilities and supplying equipment. After the war the Lutheran Brotherhood continued to develop lay leadership and to foster intersynodical relationships.
The various Lutheran churches continued to work together closely, but were limited to soldiers’ and sailors’ welfare efforts. There was a growing need to provide missionaries to America’s expanding industrial centers and to render aid to Lutherans in Europe, and by September 1918 the National Lutheran Council (NLC) was formed to meet those needs. Representation on the council was proportionate, based on membership figures of participating church bodies.
Back to Top
The Early 20th Century
Relief work after WWII. European LWR food drive in Nebraska.
For the first 12 yearof its existence, the NLC concentrated on overseas relief programs, then from about 1930 through the entry of the United States into World War II it developed its domestic programs. In 1945 it reorganized and expanded the work it did on behalf of the participating churches. In addition to the refugee and chaplaincy work, the council provided coordination of new congregations, town and country ministries, student services, public relations and uniform statistical reporting, among other services. In 1930 three churches with German origins had merged to form the American Lutheran Church, which had become one of the eight member churches in the NLC, along with the ULCA. As cooperative work proved beneficial to all the participants, other areas of commonality naturally surfaced. In the late '40s and '50s there were proposals by the ULCA to merge all the member churches of the NLC, and although they failed, in 1952 the American Lutheran Conference Joint Union Committee presented the document “The United Testimony” to its member churches, agreeing they were in "essential agreement" with the positions of the ULCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The next round of mergers occurred in the early '60s.
Back to Top
The ’60s and ’70s
Procession for The ALC Constituting Convention in 1960 from Central Lutheran to the Minneapolis Municipal Auditorium.
In 1960 the American Lutheran Church (German), United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian) merged to form The American Lutheran Church (ALC). The Lutheran Free Church (Norwegian), which had dropped out of merger negotiations, came into the ALC in 1963.
In 1962 the ULCA (German, Slovak and Icelandic) joined with the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (Swedish), Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and American Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish) to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA).
Meanwhile, the Lutheran World Federation’s (LWF) 1957 resolve to study contemporary Roman Catholicism with the possibility of entering “interconfessional conversations,” and the reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council, led to a series of theological dialogues. Lutherans also accepted the invitation of Reformed churches (Presbyterian) in America to begin discussions of possible pulpit and altar fellowship. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), not a member church of the NLC or the LWF, participated in these ecumenical dialogues at the national level, and joined the NLC churches in 1967 to form the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. (LCUSA).
Back to Top
A New Player Takes the Field
David W. Preus, James R. Crumley, Jr., and William H. Kohn in Germany.
The LCMS, firmly rooted in confessional conservatism and relatively unchanged since its organization in 1846-47 as “The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States,” held to a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.
“Historical criticism,” an understanding that the Bible must be understood in the cultural context of the times in which it was written, was gaining ground in both Europe and America. Trouble was brewing in the LCMS as some seminary professors began to adopt historical critical methods in their classrooms. A new seminary president with experience in inter-Lutheran and ecumenical affairs was challenged by the new conservative synodical president. A three-year investigation ensued and the 1973 convention voted to censure the faculty. In 1974 the seminary president was suspended and many seminarians and faculty left the seminary to continue their work in another setting, forming “Seminex,” a seminary-in-exile. Meanwhile, a moderate movement in LCMS called Evangelical Lutherans in Mission (ELIM) was formed.
The issue of whether or not to ordain graduates of Seminex led to the removal of four district presidents at the 1975 convention, and by 1976 the moderates had gathered forces to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). Approximately 300 congregations and 110,000 people moved into the AELC from LCMS with a stated goal from the beginning of promoting unity with the ALC and LCA.
In 1977 the LCMS decision to place fellowship with ALC “in protest” along with the AELC’s “Call to Lutheran Union” nudged the three church bodies, ALC, LCA and AELC, toward merger. The 1978 ALC and LCA conventions adopted resolutions aimed at the creation of a single church body. The AELC joined them, and the ALC-LCA Committee on Church Cooperation became the Committee on Lutheran Unity (CLU) in January of 1979.
Presiding Bishop David Preus (ALC), Bishop James Crumley (LCA) and President and later Bishop William Kohn (AELC) met with the CLU over the next 16 months, and the 1980 conventions of all three church bodies adopted a two-year study process.
Documents were in the hands of congregational leaders by November of that year, and by 1982 all the pieces were in place for the three churches to have simultaneous conventions so that, on September 8, 1982, with telephone hook-ups so each could hear the others’ votes, all three church bodies voted to proceed on the path toward a new Lutheran church.
Back to Top
The ELCA Takes Shape
ELCA's first presiding bishop, the Rev. Herbert Chilstrom.
The CLU proposals included the structure and operating procedures for a new group, the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), and a timetable for the churches:
The 1984 conventions to discuss, review, and respond to a statement of theological understandings and ecclesial principles, and a narrative description of the new church;
The 1986 conventions to discuss, review, and respond to the articles of incorporation of the new church, the constitution and bylaws of the new church, and be able to take action to cease functioning by December 31, 1987.
The 70-member CNLC, its members deliberately chosen to be widely representative of the membership of all the merging bodies, met 10 times over the next five years, making full reports which were widely disseminated to church members.
By August 1986 the CNLC had completed its work and again the three church bodies met in simultaneous conventions, again with telephone hook-ups, and voted overwhelmingly to accept the constitution and bylaws of the new church as well as the proposed agreement and plan of merger, thus creating the fourth largest Protestant body in the United States.
William Kohn had retired, and the new AELC bishop, Will Herzfeld, steered that church body through its final vote and the months of transition to follow. The 10-member Transition Team met 15 times in the process, hiring a coordinator and settling issues such as specific location, staffing and budget for the new church.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was finally born at its constituting convention in Columbus, Ohio, April 30-May 3, 1987. The three churches had “closing conventions” the day before, taking care of constitutional matters and saying good-bye. In the four days of the first convention of the new church voting members finalized legal details and elected the ELCA’s first bishop, Herbert Chilstrom, other officers, and 228 other people to various boards, councils and committees.
At 12:01 a.m., Central Standard Time, January 1, 1988, the ELCA became the legal successor to its predecessors, a mosaic reflecting not only the ethnic heritages of traditional Lutherans through its original churches, but also the full spectrum of American and Caribbean cultures, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
Back to Top