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Slovak Lutherans: A tough-minded people

Lutheranism in Europe fared best in those countries where it was a majority and was supported by the government, such as in Scandinavia, the Baltic, and parts of Germany. But the shifting fortunes of religion and politics sometimes stranded Lutheran Christians in areas where they became the religious minority among other Christians. This was a difficult thing for these Lutherans, who often faced neglect and persecution from the majorities around them, and who had to struggle to maintain their distinct Lutheran identities. Such was (and is) the case of the Lutherans in the central European country of Slovakia, where centuries of being in the minority have challenged, but not destroyed, the Lutheran community there.

Movements for reform of the medieval Catholic church took hold in Slovakia in the 15th century, 100 years before Martin Luther, through the efforts of reformer Jan Hus and organized groups such as the Hussites and later the Bohemian Brethren. Lutheranism came to Slovakia in the early 16th century, and was quickly embraced by a good portion of the people, though it was fiercely opposed by the local medieval Catholic hierarchy, with the strong support of the Hungarians rulers of Slovakia.

Mark Granquist

The Roman Catholic attempts to wipe out Protestantism in Slovakia (and elsewhere), called the Counter-Reformation, reached their peak in the 17th century, when hundreds of Slovak Lutheran pastors were tortured, imprisoned, exiled, and even sold into slavery. The Lutheran churches and population in Slovakia came under tremendous pressure, and many had to go underground to survive. A measure of relief came in the 18th century when enlightened rulers came to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but the Lutherans in Slovakia had suffered greatly, and it took a long time for them to recover.

Slovak Lutherans in 1960 totaled more than 40,000 baptized members in 104 congregations.

Slovak Lutherans were, however, a stubborn (and even tough) people, and they withstood these centuries of persecution because of their deep commitment to the Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith. The Bible was translated into the local languages in the early 16th century, and groups of local cities issued Lutheran confessions of faith. But it was, above all, their hymns and hymnals that formed the core of their faith and held them together during the tough times.

Most essential was the work of Pastor Jiri Tranovsky (1592-1637), who translated the Augsburg Confession into Slovak, and produced the hymnal “Cithara Sanctorum,” which has formed the bedrock of Slovak Lutheranism over the centuries. Two hymns from this hymnal are to be found in the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal: “Your Heart, O God, Is Grieved” (602) and “God, My Lord, My Strength” (795).

The Slovak emigration

Slovaks began immigrating to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, and settled mainly in mining and industrial areas stretching from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. The majority of Slovak immigrants were Roman Catholic, but a sizable minority of Slovak Lutherans were also included.

It is hard to know how many Lutheran Slovaks emigrated, because they were lumped together with other ethnic groups, but a rough estimate of Slovak Lutherans in 1960 totaled more than 40,000 baptized members in 104 congregations. A substantial number of immigrants came to the U.S. before and after the First World War, and ministry in the Slovak language regularly occurred in these congregations through the 1980s.

Slovak-American Lutherans formed their first organization in 1902, the Slovak Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC), which affiliated with the Synodical Conference, that was dominated by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

As a result of internal tensions within the Slovak Lutheran community, about half the Slovaks left the SELC and formed the Slovak Zion Synod in 1918. The Slovak Zion Synod joined with the eastern United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) in 1920, becoming a non-geographical, ethnic synod within the ULCA, later the LCA, and now in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The Slovak Evangelical Lutheran Church changed its name to the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in 1959, and in 1971 it became a non-geographical district of the LCMS, which it remains today.

The Slovak Lutheran habit of independence is hard to overcome, and both the SELC and the Slovak Zion Synods maintain a measure of their own autonomy. One of the most important Slovak-American Lutherans was Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, a distinguished theologian and historian.

After World War Two, Slovakia was plunged under communist rule for 40 years, its state-atheism again challenging the Slovak Lutherans. Much damage was done to the Lutheran churches in Slovakia during this time, but, since the end of communism, American Lutherans (Slovaks and others) have worked hard to help rebuild the Slovak Lutheran communities in a newly independent Slovakia. Both the LCMS and the ELCA have sent teachers and assistance to the Slovak Lutherans, and many local congregations have helped in these efforts. Slovak Lutherans are, in many ways, survivors, and 500 years of history and tradition suggest that they will, once again, rebuild their Lutheran communities.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and lives in Northfield, Minnesota. He is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”

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