Encyclopedia of Religion
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A movement within Protestant Christianity that traces its origins to Martin Luther and its confessional identity to a collection of teachings contained in The Book of Concord (1580). Prefacing these teachings with the three major ecumenical creeds—Nicene, Apostles, and Athanasian—Lutherans claim to maintain their connection to the ancient apostolic tradition. Contained in The Book of Concord are the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles (1537), the Augsburg Confession (1530) and its Apology (1531), and the Formula of Concord (1577). Originating in Germany, Lutheranism had spread into Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and eastern Europe by the time of Luther's death in 1545. The Lutheran Church was established as the state church in the Scandinavian countries. In 1619, Rasmus Jensen, a Lutheran pastor and one of those founding a colony on Hudson Bay, brought Lutheranism to North America. In the 1740s, German immigrants brought Lutheranism to Nova Scotia. Swedish immigrants to Fort Christina on the Delaware River in 1638 brought Lutheranism to the shores of the United States for the first time. Immigration throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, along with the gaining of converts, increased the number of Lutherans in the United States to nearly 10 million by the 1960s. Lutheran missionary societies during the latter part of the 1800s and early part of the 1900s took Lutheranism into Latin America, Australia, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther was a German theologian whose doctrinal conflicts with the papacy led to the Protestant Reformation. His reform of medieval theological anthropology from a body-soul dichotomy toward an individuated person and conscience led to new ways of understanding, as in the following: (1) the equality of secular and sacerdotal orders and a functional understanding of ministry and secular vocation (Beruf ), thus "the priesthood of all believers"; (2) salvation (justification) as based on the individual's faith relation to God as opposed to the medieval penitential system; (3) the role of secular order and authority in the providence of God and the individual's obedient relation to it; (4) the individual conscience before God as the basis of ethical action.

Luther served as a case study for Erik H. Erikson's use of psychoanalysis as a tool in historical research. Erikson's theory proposed that the public data of adult life were expressive of the inner depths of the psyche. His epigenetic theory claimed that not only the childhood stages of Luther's development but also the adult stages were formative in the development of Luther's theological thought. For example, through analysis of the relationship with his father, the corresponding crisis of individuation in the young adult stage, and Luther's struggle with issues of obedience and control in his monastic experiences, Erikson provides a new dimension to understanding Luther's reforming of the Catholic tradition from a corporate authority to individual conscience.

Luther's writings concerning secular authority as well as Judaism have received significant attention regarding their role in the development of the German National Socialists/Nazis (1925-1945). His writings were quoted by Nazi propagandists to justify their position on the Jewish question and encourage the support of the German Evangelical Church for their policies.

Polity and Liturgical Practices

Luther taught that there were two doctrines essential to Christianity: (1) the doctrine of justification by faith through grace (sola gratia ) and (2) the Scripture as the sole norm of faith and sole authority for doctrine (sola scriptura ). All else was nonessential (adiaphora ). This character of tolerance and the international character of Lutheranism has led to a diversity of stances taken by different bodies within the movement in terms of theology, polity, liturgical practices, and positions on social issues.

Lutheran polity takes a number of forms. Whereas some Lutheran bodies practice a strong congregational polity in which democratic principles function as authoritative for the particular congregation, the Lutheran Church of Sweden practices a strong episcopal polity based on its tradition of apostolic succession. Other bodies practice a form of presbyterianism in which power is vested in the assembly of congregations in a given geographic area (synod) or in a body of clergy (ministerium).

Luther's reform of the Roman liturgy maintained the basic structure of that liturgy, but his theological focus on the Word led him to emphasize the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, preaching, and hymnody. If the means of God's grace are Word and Sacrament, the people ought to be able to hear and understand that Word. Vestments, music, candles, icons, and such were adiaphorous and therefore optional. Such flexibility in liturgical practice remains today.

American Lutheranism

The diversity of expressions of Lutheranism in America can be attributed to several factors: immigration patterns, geography, and linguistic groups. The Lutheran immigrants who first came to the shores of the United States did not find the small states they were more familiar with in Europe. America was a vast land. So immigration patterns scattered the Lutherans throughout the country. Many of them were farmers and sought out climates and soils similar to those of their homelands in Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and settled in the Midwest. Others had been primarily fisherman and settled along the eastern seaboard.

The immigrants brought with them various languages. Wherever they settled, they established their own Lutheran church around that language and the particular customs of their native culture. Eventually, German-speaking Lutheran churches joined together in the state or territory to form a synod, an autonomous church. The same occurred with other linguistic groups. Due to these factors and the rapid immigration of the nineteenth century, there were more than 150 separate and autonomous Lutheran church bodies in the United States by 1850. Since then, Lutheranism in America has expended significant energies in efforts to unite by merging different Lutheran bodies into larger synodical entities. By 1988, with the creation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest of the bodies with approximately 5 million members, the 150 separate bodies had merged into 21 Lutheran bodies.

Lutheranism and Weber's Protestant Ethic

In his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , Max Weber claimed that much of Protestantism was integral to the development of capitalism and to a "Protestant" work ethic. Although Weber believed that Luther's concept of vocation (Beruf), linking the performance of one's work with one's faithfulness to God, and the individual conscience as the final seat of one's relationship with God, had an affinity with the spirit of capitalism, he concluded that the concept of vocation entailed a vision of the social order as an organic whole and did not demand the mastering of reality as did the spirit of capitalism. Weber also concluded that the individual conscience as understood by Luther also did not necessitate the domination of reality. Finally, Weber concluded that whereas Calvinism supported the development of a spirit of capitalism, Lutheranism most likely did not. Indeed, the point of the earliest version of the Protestant ethic essays was not to contrast Protestantism to Catholicism directly but to contrast Anglo-American Puritanism (the Protestant ethic), deriving from Calvin, to German Lutheranism.

Gary Mann


I. Asheim and V. Gold (eds.), Episcopacy in the Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970)

H. Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Career 1521-1530 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983)

M. Brecht, Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985)

G. Dünnhaupt (ed.), The Martin Luther Quincentennial (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985)

E. H. Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1962)

E. Gritsch and R. Jensen, Lutheranism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976)

M. Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity," "The Freedom of the Christian," "On Temporal Authority," and "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate," all in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings , ed. T. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991)

Lutheran Churches of the World (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972)

E. C. Nelson (ed.), The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980)

E. C. Nelson, The Rise of World Lutheranism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982)

T. Nichol, All These Lutherans (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986)

M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1930)

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