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Lutheran Church Bodies In the USA

There were three major Lutheran churches in the USA as of 1974 and nine minor bodies.

(1) The Lutheran Church in America was organized in 1962, a merger of the Augustana Synod (founded in 1860), the American Evangelical Lutheran Church or the “Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church” (founded in 1878), the Suomi Synod or the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (founded in 1890), and the United Lutheran Church in America (organized in 1918).

The United Lutheran Church was the largest and most influential of the church bodies that merged in 1962. Its roots go back to colonial America and the Pennsylvania Ministerium, formed in 1748 by H.M. Muhlenberg.* Lutherans settled early in New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia (the Salzburgers). By 1820 some of these were organized into state synods; they federated in the General Synod in 1820. In 1867 the General Council was organized, made up in part of synods previously belonging to the General Synod. The General Synod South was composed of synods that had been formed in the South and had separated from the General Synod because of the slavery issue. These three groups (the General Synod, the General Synod South, and the General Council) united in 1918 to form the United Lutheran Church in America.

The Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was organized in 1860 among Scandinavian immigrants in America's Midwest. In 1870 the Norwegian constituents withdrew to form their own synod. The Augustana Synod expanded rapidly between 1871 and 1910. The period of Americanization followed between 1910 and 1930. The Augustana Synod was a charter member of the Lutheran World Federation and also of the American Lutheran Conference formed in 1930. The other two synods that formed the Lutheran Church in America were relatively small church bodies. In 1962 the United Lutheran Church numbered about 2,495,000 members; the Augustana Synod, 618,000; the Suomi Synod, 35,500; and the AELC, or Danish Synod, 24,000.

The Lutheran Church in America has a highly centralized administration. It has thirty-one constituent synods. In 1971 the LCA numbered about 3,229,000. Foreign missions, theological education, social ministry, and publications are the responsibility of the LCA as a whole, and not of its synods. Its theology has been within the framework of Lutheranism's tenets, but it has generally been regarded as more receptive to advanced theological thinking than the other two large church bodies within American Lutheranism.

(2) The American Lutheran Church is also the result of a merger of previously formed synods. Organized in 1960 it merged (the) American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Free Church, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Free Church was a small group of Norwegian Lutherans, the followers of Georg Sverdrup* and Sven Oftedal, organized in 1890. The United Evangelical Lutheran Church was a Danish group, organized in 1896. American Lutheran Church (as distinguished from The American Lutheran Church) was organized in 1930, the merger of the Buffalo synod (1818), the Iowa Synod (1854), and the Ohio Synod (1818). These were made up of German immigrants and Germans who had moved westward into the Ohio region in the “great crossing” of the early nineteenth century.

The Buffalo Synod, under the leadership of J.A.A. Grabau, held a “high church” view of the ministry. It early came into conflict with the Missouri Synod, a conflict which resulted in the breakaway of some of its members as a result of the Missouri- Buffalo Colloquy (1866). The Iowa Synod was organized under the leadership of Georg Grossmann and Johannes Deindoerfer as a result of the differences between the Missouri Synod leaders and Wilhelm Loehe.* It emphasized “open questions” in doctrinal formulations. Michael Reu was its outstanding leader in the twentieth century.

The Ohio Synod was organized partly because of the geographical barriers with the Lutherans in Pennsylvania under the leadership of Paul Henkel. In 1868 it reached an accord with the Missouri Synod and became a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference when organized in 1872. It severed its connections with that group in 1881 as a result of the Predestinarian Controversy. Its attempts to draw closer to the Iowa Synod culminated in 1930 with the formation of (The) American Lutheran Church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church reaches back into the history of Norwegian immigrations and the formation of various Norwegian church associations in the nineteenth century. The Norwegian Synod (1853) was the largest of these. The 1890 merger of four Norwegian bodies resulted in the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. In 1917 the Norwegian Synod, the United Church, and the Hauge's Synod joined to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, which changed its name to Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1946. Among the various Norwegian church bodies over the years the Norwegian Synod alone joined the Synodical Conference, of which it was a member from 1872 to 1883. In 1930 (the) American Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church joined with the Augustana Synod to form the American Lutheran Conference, which was dissolved in 1954. In 1971 the ALC numbered about 2,540,000 members.

(3) The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, organized in 1847, has assimilated other Lutheran synods, but has not merged with any large Lutheran bodies. Its founding fathers were made up of emmissaries sent over by Wilhelm Loehe as missionaries to the German Lutherans in America and followers of Martin Stephan who settled in Perry County and St. Louis, Missouri. C.F.W. Walther* was its first president and acknowledged theological leader until his death in 1887. The Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference (1872) united like-minded, confessional Lutheran synods into a loose federation, which existed until 1970. The Missouri Synod has been rigidly confessional in its theology, subscribing to the Lutheran Confessions because (not in so far as) they were in conformity with the Scriptures. In its church polity it has been congregational, the synod having only advisory jurisdiction over the congregations. Between 1910 and 1930 the process of Americanization produced a language transition from German to English and altered attitudes within the synod.

The Missouri Synod has supported a strong system of parish or parochial schools. It has maintained a system of preparatory schools for training future professional workers within the synod, two theological seminaries, and two teacher training institutions. Especially since 1894 it has been active in foreign missions and since World War II has been increasingly concerned about social questions. The “International Lutheran Hour,” a radio ministry, has been under the sponsorship of the Lutheran Layman's League, an organization within the Missouri Synod. The Missouri Synod numbered about 2,877,000 members in 1971.

(4) Independent Lutheran church bodies in America in 1972 are the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (1853); the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Canada; the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (1918); the Church of the Lutheran Confession; the Apostolic Lutheran Church (1961); the Church of the Lutheran Brethren; the Eielson Synod; the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations; the Fellowship of Authentic Lutherans (1971). The total number of Lutherans in the USA in 1971 was 8,872,000 members.

(5) The Lutheran Council in the USA was organized in 1967 as a federation of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, The American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the small Synod of Lutheran Churches which merged with the Missouri Synod in 1970. LCUSA continues the work of the National Lutheran Council, organized in 1918. The Lutheran Council has a theological commission to which all three members must belong for the purpose of carrying on theological discussions. Membership in its other commissions, e.g., publicity, armed services, student welfare, is voluntary. Public relations and welfare have been major concerns. However, the Lutheran Council has fostered dialogues with the Roman Catholic, the Presbyterian, and the Episcopalian churches. It operates independently of, but in coordination with, the Lutheran World Federation.

See J. Bodensieck (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church (3 vols., 1965) as the best reference work for American Lutheranism.