Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Facing Wars and the Depression

Lutherans in America after 500 years: Chapter Four

In the short space of 30 years, 1915 to 1945, American Lutherans endured two World Wars, a social and economic boom, a crushing economic collapse, and a wrenching process of internal change and rearrangement that dramatically altered the face of Lutheranism in America. And, in spite of all the challenges and upheavals, the number of Lutherans in America actually grew in this period, from 3.7 million baptized members in 1915, to nearly 5.7 million baptized members in 1945, proving that American Lutheranism can grow, even in the midst of challenges.

Prior to American involvement in World War I in 1917, American Lutherans were a divided and often isolated group. Though a sizeable segment of Lutherans in North America traced their origins to Colonial times (mainly in the East and South), the majority of them were 19th-century Midwestern immigrants, divided up into separate ethnic denominations. Some felt a loyalty to fellow Lutherans in Germany, but most Lutherans were isolationist, wanting to stay out of foreign wars.

Mark Granquist

When the United States abruptly entered the war in April 1917, American Lutherans were jolted out of their ethnic cocoons; they faced an eruption of popular sentiment not only against anything German, but against “foreign-ness” in general. In the heat of war, American Lutherans jumped to prove their patriotism, very actively supporting the war efforts.

The rapid changes within American Lutheranism, and in the wider society, brought conflict and fear.

Canceling big pan-Lutheran plans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in October 1917, they organized to provide military chaplaincy for the troops. Cooperative groups, like the National Lutheran Council and Lutheran Brotherhood, date to this time.

Following the War to End All Wars

After World War I, American Lutherans faced rapid changes in society, as well as in their congregations and denominations. Many Lutherans still worshipped in a foreign language, but the war accelerated the switch to English, which effectively happened in the decade of the 1920s. The pressure for consolidation led to three major mergers (in 1917, 1918, and 1930), while most American Lutheran groups were pulled into further conversations about unity.

The weakness of European Lutheranism led to a crisis in Lutheran missions around the world, and American Lutherans were called in to take over for Asian and African missions “orphaned” by the war. The number of Lutheran congregations in North America grew from 15,000 in 1915 to 16,500 in 1930. There was a similar growth in educational and social service institutions.

Yet through this period after World War I, there were worrisome developments. The rapid changes within American Lutheranism, and in the wider society, brought conflict and fear. The vote for women, the “red menace,” prohibition, and disputes over evolution, meant constant social ferment.

The 1920s saw a disastrous economic decline for American farmers (previewing the greater depression in the 1930s), problematic because most American Lutherans lived in rural areas. Yet American Lutherans began to think more outside of their own boundaries, participating more in national and international efforts for mission and Christian cooperation.

Struggles facing Lutherans nationally and in congregations

Starting in 1929, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a wrenching challenge to American Lutheranism. The economic crisis of this time meant that the American form of voluntary religion suffered deeply. Lutheran congregations saw a dramatic drop in financial resources, and Lutheran pastors often went without pay.

Though there was a greatly increased need for religious and social services, Lutheran church bodies and institutions, seeing benevolent giving drop by one-half, had dramatically fewer resources. There was also a “spiritual depression” in the United States, as attendance at worship and participation in religious activities also declined. Some Lutheran educational and social service institutions closed their doors during this time, and the rest struggled to survive.

As the world situation worsened during the 1930s, American Lutherans remained politically isolationist, strongly feeling that America should stay out of European affairs. There even was a small pacifist movement among them.

Yet with the Nazi invasions of Denmark and Norway in 1940, and then Pearl Harbor in 1941, American Lutherans once again jumped full throttle into supporting the American war effort. They pulled together pastors and resources to minister to overseas troops and to large new communities of defense workers, while trying to maintain the life of their own congregations.

In 1945, by the end of World War II, North American Lutheranism had grown to more than five million members. Because of their efforts in evangelism and mission, and in spite of the challenges of the past 30 years, they had emerged as a much stronger religious force in their North American communities.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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