Making their own faith : Lutheranism and American culture in the Civil War era.
From 1830 to 1900, the American Lutheran church grew from less than 50,000 members to more than 1,600,000—five times the growth rate of the U.S. population—and became the nation’s fourth largest religious denomination. Along with this tremendous growth came dramatic changes in theological and cultural outlook. In the antebellum era, the majority of Lutherans believed that their church was on its way to becoming part of the American Protestant mainstream. By increasing intra-Lutheran unity, cooperating with Anglo-evangelicals, and modifying certain traditional doctrines considered to be too Catholic, they hoped to raise their denomination’s level of respectability and influence. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, the opposite had occurred. Divided into numerous competing church bodies, wary of and often hostile toward other Protestants, and ardently committed to their church’s historic confessions, the vast majority of Lutherans stood as conservative outsiders in American religious life. The fulcrum of this change was the Civil War. In 1860, Lutherans stood more institutionally united than ever before and the majority supported the project of making their church an integral part of mainstream evangelical Protestantism. Six years later, the church was fractured by sectional divisions and, even more significantly, theological disputes shaped in large part by debates over liberty, slavery, the Union, and religious nationalism. Following the schisms of the Civil War years, Lutheranism turned inward. Though divided institutionally, most Lutherans in the postbellum era embraced a form of the faith that comprised four components: theological confessionalism, ecclesiastical separatism, social and political conservatism, and American exceptionalism. Previous histories have stressed the role of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia in the formation of American Lutheranism’s conservatism and outsiderhood. While these new arrivals from Europe undoubtedly increased the size of the church, the intellectual transformation of U.S. Lutheranism was driven primarily by native-born Americans and immigrants who formed their ideas in the context of the nation’s religion and culture. Rather than an importation from Europe then, the confessional and separatist identity of Lutheranism in the United States was a distinctively American creation.