Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Praising God in English: Lutherans and the language transition

Upon their arrival in North America, European Lutheran emigrants had to immediately face the reality of the English language, spoken by most of the rest of the citizens of the United States and Canada. Like almost all other immigrants, Lutherans sought initially to establish religious institutions in their native languages, but soon had to face the divisive question of whether these institutions should transition to the use of English, and if so, how? Resistance to this language transition was fierce, and divided homes, congregations, and denominations, but the pressure to use English was unstoppable, and eventually all Lutheran groups came to the use of English.

The problem was that Lutherans had no models for how Lutheranism might actually be structured in English, and whether this could actually work. The story is told of the old immigrant who allowed that God might indeed be able to understand English, but, he sniffed, “God doesn’t like English.”

Mark Granquist

God might indeed be able to understand English, but “God doesn’t like English.”

In a more serious vein, immigrant Lutherans had serious concerns that Lutheran theology and traditions might not be able to be translated into English with full expression and richness. Also, they had invested heavily in ethnic-language institutions and materials in North America in order to minister to the older generations and to recent immigrants, and were worried that these valuable ministries might go by the wayside.

European Lutherans arrive speaking their native tongues

German, Swedish, and Dutch Lutherans came to North America during the colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries. Like other ethnic immigrants, they founded congregations and parish schools in their native European languages, and developed a rich ethnic culture. But the pressure to use English was inevitable, especially as new Americanized generations of Lutherans came along.

Since there was only a small Swedish immigration, and since it fell off quickly, the Swedes made the initial transition to English, and since there were no other English-speaking Lutherans around, these colonial Swedish congregations became Episcopalian. The Germans lasted longer, but by about 1820 the transition to English was well accomplished, though not without many bitter fights.

Beginning around 1840, and lasting until the First World War (1914-18), a second, massive wave of European emigration brought millions of new Lutherans to North America. The colonial Lutheran pattern of ethnic-language congregations and institutions was replicated on a much larger scale this time; American Lutherans developed a rich culture in their ethnic languages — not just congregations and schools, but also hospitals and social service agencies, publishing houses and periodicals, among many others. As long as new immigrants kept coming (and it was hard to see then that they would not continue to come), the necessity of these ethnically-based ministries seemed irrefutable.

And yet the generational tide, and the need to be conversant in English, soon affected these immigrant groups, as well. New generations of younger Lutherans arose that spoke English primarily, and understood the ethnic language only imperfectly. Immigrant parents well understood that the route to success for their children was in English, and in many of the Lutheran schools and colleges the primary language of instruction became English by the late 19th century.

New arrivals start to accomodate to English

Though the immigrants increasingly accommodated English in many areas of their lives, the ethnic languages were maintained in two bastions, the home and the congregation. The battle over the use of English was ferocious (much like the modern “worship wars”), pitting children against their elders. Many younger Lutherans got very little out of worship services and sermons in the immigrant languages. To the young, they might as well be listening to Latin or Greek.

Up until the First World War (1914), the old immigrant languages reigned supreme for some, but in the next 15 years they collapsed almost entirely in favor of English. Why this dramatic decline? Anti-German and anti-foreign sentiment during the war spurred many Lutherans to adopt English as a means of showing patriotism.

During and after the war anti-immigration sentiment ran high, causing Congress to dramatically curtail immigration. And finally, the generational tide came in, with second and third generation, English-speaking Lutherans taking control of Lutheran congregations and institutions. American Lutherans began the task of building a Lutheranism in the English language.

This same dynamic is now playing itself out among the ethnic congregations of Lutherans that have come to North America during the third great wave of immigration that began around 1965. Lutheran emigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia have formed ethnic-language congregations in North America, and exhibit many of the patterns of language development of the earlier two waves. They are already beginning to struggle with many similar language and cultural issues, but if the patterns of the past hold true, they, too, will make the transition to English, and further enrich the mosaic of English-speaking Lutheranism in North America.

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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