Atlantic History Lutherans
Wolfgang Splitter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0172


Lutheranism came to North America when a shipload of Dutch Reformed, together with a few scattered German and Scandinavian Lutherans, landed in New Netherlands in 1624. This group was followed by small bands of Lutherans who chiefly settled in New Jersey. With the founding of New Sweden on the lower Delaware River in 1638, Swedish and Finnish Lutherans began to trickle in, growing to a sizeable community by the 1650s. Small numbers of Scandinavian Lutherans continued to arrive in subsequent decades. The first wave of large-scale German immigration in 1710 brought 1,000–2,000 Palatine Lutherans to the banks of the lower Hudson River. When hundreds of them moved to the Schoharie Valley without official permission in 1712–1713, New York’s governor ordered them to vacate. After years of dispute, many Palatines left the colony for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Between 1725 and 1770, tens of thousands of German Lutherans immigrated, most of whom established themselves in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Others went farther south, forming small minorities in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Prior to 1700, Swedish pastors attended to most colonial Lutherans, including some Germans. While ministers from Sweden continued to serve Scandinavians in America throughout the 18th century, most early German Lutherans hired poorly trained divines or self-styled preachers for want of professional clergy. Until the Revolution, newly arriving pastors from Germany—the majority of them sent by the Francke Foundations in Halle, Prussia—could not keep pace with the rapidly growing demand for spiritual care. The first Lutheran synod in 1748, uniting six German and Swedish divines and ten Pennsylvania parishes, inaugurated the Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania as a consistory-like authority. It marks the beginning of churched Lutheranism in America, based on common doctrinal, liturgical, and statutory grounds and under the leadership of educated ministers. Even before Swedish Lutherans set up their own ecclesial institutions in the late 1750s, the Ministerium under Hallesian aegis became a Pietist stronghold that curbed the influence of non-Pietist preachers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Personal rivalries among pastors and conflicts between clergy and laity over participation in congregational affairs led to much local unrest and caused many parishes to split. Apart from sporadic attempts by Swedish ministers to convert Delawares to Christianity, Lutheran preachers never made any concerted effort to proselytize Natives or Africans in colonial British America.

General Overviews

Historiography of Lutheranism in North America still continues to be a domain of writers of German- or Swedish-Lutheran background. Keeping within the narrow confines of culture and confession, no general overview published between the 1850s and the 1950s has become part of mainstream scholarship. This older literature reflects the deep internal rift that divided colonial Lutherans, replicating the conflict in Germany between Pietist and orthodox Lutherans over matters of worship and theology. Among church historians in the United States, Augustus Gräbner (Gräbner 1892) and, based on his incomplete work, Friedrich Bente (Bente 1918) belong to the orthodox minority who criticize Pietist pastors for watering down doctrinal essentials and professional standards and for flinging the doors wide open to Calvinist beliefs and rationalist irreligion. Bente sees Lutheranism in America up to 1900 as a succession of three periods: “Pietist unionism” with Calvinism, “Reformed enthusiasm,” and “truly American”—meaning: authentic—Lutheranism. Among the majority of pro-Pietist writers, Wolf 1889 is typical of contemporary denominational triumphantism and of oversimplifications in the presentation of historical facts and in the characterization of colonial church leaders. Although staying within the Pietist Lutheran tradition, Jacobs 1893 is recommendable as the most evenhanded work of the older histories by Lutheran clergymen and lay writers in the United States. The last work of this kind, Wentz 1955 retains much of the eulogizing rhetoric of previous narratives that outweighs research and analysis. Glatfelter 1981 is the first comprehensive study that diligently balances Pietist and orthodox Lutheran (and Reformed) views. Composed by a Dutch theologian, Kooiman 1946 focuses on the experience of a group of colonials who were Dutch but not Reformed, and Lutheran but neither German nor Scandinavian. Schomerus 1965 widens the traditional perspective by looking at colonial Lutheranism from the angle of European church law versus Pennsylvania legislation.

  • Bente, Friedrich. Amerikanisches Luthertum: Summarischer Überblick über die ersten Anfänge und Niedergänge desselben. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1918.

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    Critical appraisal of the Halle Pietists’ pioneering work. Considers Missouri-Synod Lutheranism in the United States the most authentic implementation of Martin Luther’s ideas in America.

  • Glatfelter, Charles H. Pastors and People: German Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Pennsylvania Field, 1717–1793. Vol. 2. Breinigsville: Pennsylvania German Society, 1981.

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    Explores the German Lutheran and Reformed experiences in the Mid-Atlantic region before 1800. For all its condensed and simultaneous coverage of two Protestant denominations a solidly contrived, readable, and very dependable overview.

  • Gräbner, Augustus L. Geschichte der Lutherischen Kirche in America. Vol. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1892.

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    Critical appraisal of the development of churched Lutheranism in 18th-century North America under Pietist aegis.

  • Jacobs, Henry E. A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States. New York: Christian Literature, 1893.

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    Comprehensive description of more than 250 years of Lutheranism in North America. Quotes numerous manuscripts and rare contemporary literature in an English translation.

  • Kooiman, Willem Jan. De Nederlandsche Luthersche Gemeenten in Noord-Amerika 1649–1772. Amsterdam: W. ten Have, 1946.

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    Outlines the history of Dutch Lutheranism in colonial North America.

  • Schomerus, Rudolf. “Die verfassungsrechtliche Entwicklung der lutherischen Kirche in Nordamerika von 1638 bis 1792.” PhD diss., University of Göttingen, 1965.

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    Analyzes the evolution of German and Swedish Lutheran church bodies in North America prior to 1800 under legal aspects. Treats the problems of authority, legitimacy, and tradition involved in uniting Lutherans of diverse cultural and doctrinal backgrounds.

  • Wentz, Abdel R. A Basic History of Lutheranism in America. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1955.

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    Revised and enlarged version of the original 1923 work. Sketchy treatment of colonial Lutheranism. Depicts the Halle organizers of the German Lutheran Church in North America as proponents of a moderate Pietist-confessionalist synthesis.

  • Wolf, Edmund J. The Lutherans in America: A Story of Struggle, Progress, Influence and Marvelous Growth. New York: J. A. Hill, 1889.

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    Narrative of 250 years of Lutheranism in North America, planted firmly in the Halle Pietist tradition. Written for inspiration and edification rather than knowledge and analysis.

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