Lutheranism in America: Past, Present, and Future
A Panel Discussion in Celebration of the 350th Anniversary of St. Matthew Lutheran Church
November 6, 2014
Lutheranism in America: Past
By Kathryn M. Galchutt
Various scholars have noted that Lutheranism in America reached the height of its strength around the 1960s. During the hundred year period from the 1870s to the 1960s, Lutherans in America experienced tremendous growth. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, large numbers of Lutheran immigrants from northern Europe, from the countries of Germany and Scandinavia, poured into the United States, many of them settling in the American Midwest. This substantial Lutheran growth made Lutherans one of the largest Protestant groups in the United States, following Baptists and Methodists.
The historian Mark Granquist noted that the strong growth in terms of Lutheran membership was accompanied by a growth in the number of Lutheran pastors, church buildings, and finances. By the mid-twentieth century, Lutherans had come out of their ethnic subcultures and were engaging more with each other and also with American society. Because of these developments, American Lutheranism around the early 1960s was “bursting with energy and optimism, with great plans for the future.”1
Yet today, the state of Lutherans in America does not seem so optimistic. The almost “natural” growth that American Lutheranism experienced with northern European immigration and the relatively high birthrates that followed for the next generation or two has ended. Lutherans in America since the 1970s have been in a pattern of demographic decline. This decline of Lutherans has taken place amid a rapid growth in the U.S. population due to the Immigration Act of 1965 and the increase in immigrant groups from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. So Lutherans no longer have the substantial position and presence in American society which they once held.
In addition, Lutherans, like the rest of American society, were “battered and bruised by the social upheavals of the 1960s and the continuing cultural wars that have divided the United States since then.” In addition, various theological conflicts of the 1970s and beyond have continued to create further divisions among Lutherans in America. As Mark Granquist concluded “contemporary American Lutheranism seems divided, confused, and uncertain of how to proceed. Contemporary American Lutherans are still doing a tremendous amount of good work and good ministry around the United States, but it seems much more scattered, fragmented, and much less confident” than before.2
But it is important to remember that the century between the 1870s and the 1960s was not typical of the 350 years and more of Lutheran history in America. One only has to consider the history of St. Matthew Lutheran Church to understand the history of Lutherans in America has not only been a story of growth and progress, it has also been a story of challenge and struggle.
While we are celebrating 2014 as the 350 anniversary of St. Matthew as a recognized and legal congregation in North America, the congregation’s history actually goes back to 1649. The area that today is New York was one of the first major sites of Lutheran settlement in the Americas. In the early 1600s, this was an area under Dutch control. The Dutch ruled over a colony known as New Netherlands and a city on the island of Manhattan known as New Amsterdam.
But as New Amsterdam was struggling to take shape, the Dutch West Indian Company
hired a strict governor, Peter Stuyvesant, to manage the colony, beginning in 1647.
Stuyvesant was the son and son-in-law of Dutch Reformed ministers and he wanted to impose a monopoly of Dutch Reformed religion on New Amsterdam for the sake of truth and good order.
However, there were a large number of Lutherans in New Amsterdam as many had fled northern Europe due to the trials and tribulations of the Thirty Years War. These Lutherans were not satisfied with Dutch Reformed worship as they desired the sacraments of Baptism and Communion that were not recognized by Reformed Christians. So in 1649, a group of Lutheran laymen in New Netherlands requested a pastor, marking the beginnings of the oldest continuous Lutheran congregation in the Americas.
Even though the request for a Lutheran pastor was made it 1649, it would be years
before the first Lutheran pastor arrived to minister in New Netherlands. In addition, as Peter Stuyvesant became aware of this attempt to secure a Lutheran pastor and became aware of private Lutheran worship in the colony, the Lutherans of New Netherlands experienced a period of persecution. In the 1650s, Lutherans were fined and jailed for attempting to worship outside the official Dutch Reformed Church. During the Dutch period, Lutherans struggled as “a church under the cross.”
When the English took over New Netherlands in 1664 and renamed it New York, they showed a recognition of the religious diversity already present in the colony. So it was 350 years ago that Lutherans in the colony of New York received a charter of religious freedom. By coming under English rule, Lutherans in North America gained the ability to develop a fuller church life. It was this charter of religious freedom which allowed for the formal establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthew in 1664.th
In the centuries which followed, St. Matthew Lutheran Church experienced tremendous growth and development. St. Matthew served as the “mother church” of Lutheranism in New York City and also had a considerable influence on the larger Lutheran church and on American society.
St. Matthew flourished during the period of heavy German immigration and reached the height of its influence in the late 1800s. St. Matthew used its resources to develop strong institutions, supporting a large parochial school and founding a collegiate institute, Concordia College in 1881. In addition, St. Matthew contributed to other Lutheran institutions in New York, including a Lutheran hospital, orphanage, and nursing home as well as an agency which served newly arrived immigrants to the city.3
But by the mid-twentieth century, St. Matthew faced new challenges as its traditional members moved to other parts of the city and to the suburbs. While Lutheran theology has emphasized the evangelical nature of Christianity, Lutheranism in America has struggled in moving outside of its traditional ethnic boundaries. As Manhattan’s population grew increasingly diverse, the traditional ethnic membership of St. Matthew declined and St. Matthew struggled to maintain its strong presence in the city.4
However, under the leadership of the Rev. Alfred Trinklein in the 1950s and 1960s, the remaining members of St. Matthew began to embrace their changing urban environment and the great diversity of people in Manhattan. That diversity is present today in both the people and the pastor of St. Matthew, the Rev. Peter Deebrah. Still, St. Matthew struggles today as a small congregation located on the very northern tip of Manhattan, in a neighborhood full of socioeconomic challenges.5
In many ways, the history of St. Matthew Lutheran Church parallels the history of Lutherans in America. It is a history which includes great growth and development, but also considerable stress and struggle. It is good to remember what the religious scholar Matthew Rose, once admonished, “at absolutely no point does the gospel guarantee historical success or moral progress.”6 Lutheranism is known for emphasizing the theology of the cross, not the theology of glory. In the spirit of true Christianity, the Lutheran past can teach us that to be a Christian is to be faithful, not to be successful.