ROOTS of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
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 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.
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
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.
As early as 1812 the North Carolina Synod had inquired about the possibility of
better intersynodical cooperation, and that synod worked with Pennsylvania
publishing houses and the new theological seminary at Gettysburg rather than set
up its own support systems.
Cooperative Work Begins
Immigration of Lutherans continued to be heavy through the first two decades of
the 20th century, and the first significant mergers of church bodies 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). 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 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, with the exception of the Synodical Conference,
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.
The Early 20th Century
For the first 12 years of 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 establishing
new congregations, town and country ministry, 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, and as the 32
councilors continued to meet on a regular basis, other areas of commonality
naturally surfaced. In the late '40s and '50s there were proposals by the ULCA
and Augustana 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.
The '60s and '70s
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
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).
A New Player Takes the Field
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," stood firmly on its belief in the inerrancy
of the Bible. "A Brief Statement" had been adopted in 1932, stating:
Since the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God, it goes without saying that they
contain no errors or contradictions, but that they are in all their parts and
words the infallible truth ...
"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 1972 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
hookups so each could hear the others' votes, all three church bodies voted to
proceed on the path toward a new Lutheran church.
The ELCA Takes Shape
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
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 Dec. 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
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
delegates finalized legal details and elected the ELCA's first bishop, Herbert
Chilstrom, other officers and 228 other people to various boards, councils and
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 culture in which it serves, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus
Christ to the world.
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