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Lutheran Genealogy

Lutheran History
 and CultureEvangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in the Slovak Republic

Lutheran churches trace their 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 Scandinavians, Dutch and German Lutherans. The first permanent colony of them 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.

In North America, Lutherans from the Netherlands were among the settlers on Manhattan island in 1625. A congregation was formed there in 1648, but it was antedated by one established (1638) by Swedish settlers at Fort Christina (Wilmington) on the Delaware River. On nearby Tinicum Island the first Lutheran church building in the country was dedicated in 1646. Early in the 18th cent. exiles from the Palatinate established German Lutheran churches in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. The Salzburger migration to Georgia (1734) introduced Lutheranism in the South.

In the 18th cent., organization of the churches was begun by Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who brought about the formation (1748) in Pennsylvania of the first synod in the country. The Synod of New York and adjoining states followed (1786); that of North Carolina was created in 1803. With the settlement of the Midwest, the West, and the Northwest, many small synods were formed by Norwegians, Danes, Finns, and other national groups.

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.

In 1847 the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church was founded by German immigrants to combat what they saw as the liberalization of Lutheranism in America.

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 "fundamentalist" movement here. Consequently, there developed a wide variety of expressions of Lutheranism 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.

Once there were about 150 distinct Lutheran bodies, but the first significant mergers happened in 1917 when three Norwegian synods joined to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (NLCA) and in 1918 when three German synods joined to form the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA). 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 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.

The next round of mergers occurred in the early '60s. 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), later including the Lutheran Free Church (Norwegian). 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).

In 1977 the LCMS decision to place fellowship with ALC "in protest" nudged the three church bodies, ALC, LCA and AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, a breakaway group from the LCMS), 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.  On September 8, 1982, with telephone hookups so each could hear the others' votes, all three church bodies voted to proceed on the path toward a new Lutheran church. By August 1986 the work had been completed and the three church bodies met in simultaneous conventions, voting overwhelmingly to accept the constitution and bylaws of the new church as well as the proposed agreement and plan of merger, thus creating the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the fourth largest Protestant body in the United States.

The world's 59 million Lutherans belong to 250 different autonomous Lutheran churches around the world. Not surprisingly, the largest numbers of Lutherans are to be found in Germany, the place where the Lutheran tradition made its beginning during the early part of the 16th century. There are 14.7 million Lutherans in Germany in 15 church bodies, 8.7 million in North America, 7.6 in Sweden, 4.6 in Finland, 4.5 in Denmark, 3.9 in Norway, and 2.4 million in Indonesia. There are 6.2 million Lutherans in Africa, the place where the Lutheran Church is growing most rapidly today, and 4.6 million Lutherans in Asia.

The 8.7 million Lutherans in North America belong to 21 different Lutheran bodies. The largest of these at 5.2 million is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which came into being in 1988 as the result of a three way merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. This brings us to The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, which with 2,615,567 baptized members ranks as the second largest Lutheran church body in North America and the 11th largest denomination in the USA. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) has 421,189 members and is the third largest Lutheran Church in the USA. These three groups comprise about 95% of North American Lutherans.

In 1817, Frederick William III of Prussia sought to merge forcibly the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Prussia into a single organization called the Prussian Union. Some conservative Lutherans opposed this move and withdrew from the union to found the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Prussia as a free church. After World War I, the churches were no longer governed by state laws but still received state support.

In the unification of German culture under the Nazi regime, the church did not escape. In 1933 a national organization, the German Evangelical Church, was formed. Under the direction of the Nazi party it tried to develop a national racial church, with pure Aryan blood as a prerequisite for membership. A revolt against this movement, led by Martin Niemoeller, resulted in the founding of the Confessing Church and the formation of the Confessional Synod, which issued (1934) its declaration rejecting the Reich's interference with the church.

The end of the war saw the formation of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which is made up of members of both Lutheran and Reformed churches, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD), which functions as an expressly Lutheran constituency within the EKD. German churches have also cooperated wholeheartedly in the formation of the Lutheran World Federation (1947) and the World Council of Churches. The Lutheran Church is the established state church of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Finland; Sweden disestablished its Lutheran state church in 2000.

Some Key Dates in Lutheran History

  • October 31, 1517 - Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of Castle church at Wittenberg, Germany. The theses call for an intellectual debate about the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church.

  • January 1521 - Luther refuses to cease his teachings and is excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. In May, Charles V signs the Edict of Worms, declaring Luther an outlaw.

  • 1520s - Students from across Europe travel to Wittenberg to be taught by Luther.

  • 1529 - Luther pens A Mighty Fortress is Our God

  • 1534 - Luther publishes his translation of the bible. It is the first complete Bible translated from the original Hebrew and Greek into German.

  • February 18, 1546 - Martin Luther dies in Eisleben, Germany. His body is laid to rest in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

  • September 25, 1555 - Lutheranism is officially recognized by the Holy Roman Empire when the Peace of Augsburg is signed, giving some citizens freedom to move throughout the empire with no fear of persecution.

  • 1580 - The church was plagued with division after Luther's death. It wasn't until 1580 that a sense of unity came with adoption of the Book of Concord, a series of confessions that "provided a road map for Lutherans in the years to come."

  • 1600s - Lutheranism moves rapidly from Germany, reaching the Baltica, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Scandinavia. but the spread stagnates toward the mid-to late-century.

  • 1625 - Lutheran immigrants from Holland settle in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York)

  • 1700s - Lutheran missionaries from Denmark reach out to India in the early part of the century. Immigration to America increases.

  • 1718 - The first Lutheran church in South India is dedicated.

  • 1748 - Henry Melchior Muhlenberg forms the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first Lutheran church body in the American colonies.

  • 1797 - Hartwick Seminary, the first Lutheran seminary in America, is founded in New York as a training institute for missionaries.

  • 1800s - Lutherans begin to mobilize in America as thousands of immigrants pour into the country from Germany and Scandinavia, many settling in the Midwest.

  • 1820 - The General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States is formed.

  • 1838 - A large group of German Lutheran immigrants establishes Klemzig, the first Lutheran settlement in Southern Australia.

  • 1840-75 - Approximately 58 distinct Lutheran church bodies are formed in America.

  • 1900s - Lutheran missionaries travel to South America, Australia, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

  • 1918 - Germany declares an official separation between church and state.

  • 1947 - The Lutheran World Federation is created as a fellowship and aid organization for Lutherans around the world.

  • 1947 - The Evangelical Lutheran church of Missouri, Ohio and Other States, takes its current name, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod.

  • 1988 - The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America merge to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

  • 1999 - there are a reported 6.5 million Lutherans in Asia, an increase from 4.8 million the previous year.

  • The beginnings and early history of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod - LCMS & Concordia Seminary.
  • Cassell, C. W., William J. Finck, and Elon O. Henkel. History of the Lutheran Church in Virginia and East Tennessee. Strasburg, Va: Shenandoah Pub. House, 1930.
  • Forster, Walter O. Zion on the Mississippi : The Settlement of the Saxon Lutherans in Missouri, 1839-1841. 1953.

  • Gilbert, W. Kent. Commitment to Unity: A History of the Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
  • History Timeline of Lutheran beginnings in Perry Co.
  • Holcomb, Brent. Marriage and Death Notices from the Lutheran Observer, 1831-1861 and the Southern Lutheran, 1861-1865, Columbia, S.C. 1979.
  • Johnson, Jeff G., 1924- Black Christians--the Untold Lutheran Story. 1991
  • Loeber, Gotthold Heinrich, 1797-1849. History of the Saxon Lutheran Immigration to East Perry County, Missouri in 1839 Missouri. 1984.
  • Lutheran Historical Conference - The Lutheran Historical Conference is an organization of Lutheran historians, archivists, librarians and other interested individuals and institutions that seeks to promote the history and heritage of Lutheranism in North America. The LHC web site provides information on its activities, membership and publications.
  • Lutheran History and Teachings
  • On This Day in Lutheran History
  • Origins, History of LCMS Missouri Synod
  • Roots of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
  • Suelflow, August Robert. Compiling a Congregational History. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Historical Institute, 1984.
  • Suelflow, August Robert, 1922- The Heart of Missouri: a History of the Western District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, 1854-1954. 1954.

  • Threinen, Norman J. Like a Mustard Seed: A Centennial History of the Ontario District, Lutheran Church--Canada. Kitchener, Ontario: Ontario District, 1989.
  • Wentz, Abdel, Ross, 1883- A Basic History of Lutheranism in America. 1964.