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Parochial schools and “Lutheran ethnicity”

Ole Oleson lived with his wife Bergit, two sons, and three daughters near Lake Johanna in Pope County in 1880. The three girls were enrolled in public school. Gottlib Schmidt lived with his wife Threasa and their six children in New Ulm in 1895. Their children were in school too, but probably in a parochial school.

Four-and-a-half million immigrants came from Germany or the countries that constituted Germany in the last half of the 19th century, and nearly one-and-a-half million immigrants came from the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Finland in the same time frame. The 392 Ole Olesons and the 6,432 Schmidts in Minnesota in the late 19th century had choices in where they sent their children. Those choices were there partly because of the cultural background they brought and partly because of the speed with which they integrated into their new country.

The Germans tended to include Lutheran elementary schools when they started a parish; the Scandinavians were less likely to do so. The oldest Lutheran church in North America, St. Matthew in New York City, established a Lutheran school in 1752. In 2007-2008, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) had 1,200 schools with 138,000 students; the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) had 344 schools with 30,000 students; and, groups that became the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had 180 schools with 14,000 students. Although it is somewhat of a generalization, LCMS and WELS grew out of the German immigration and ELCA grew out of the Scandinavian immigration. Although WELS and LCMS have less than half the membership of the ELCA, they have the great majority of elementary and secondary schools.

Prof. John Isch

The Germans wanted to preserve the language that Luther used and to raise their children in a German culture.

As Norman Madson noted in an anniversary booklet, both the Scandinavians and the Germans emigrated from countries in which the state provided a Lutheran education. When they came to the U.S., they were confronted with a public school which did not include religious instruction and where the teaching was in English. The Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes had less difficulty accepting public education at the elementary level and were less insistent on preserving their mother tongue. They also tended to come with skills and occupations which required a quick assimilation into the existing culture, including language and associations.

Georg Sverdrup (1848-1907), a Norwegian theologian, also contended that the state, not the church, was responsible for education and churches should not use their money to do the work of the state. The Scandinavians thus tended to establish colleges which would provide a Christian training for young people, both to move into the American society and to be Christian teachers in public schools. That became the basis for the great Lutheran colleges in the Midwest.

The Germans, on the other hand, for complex reasons, wanted to preserve the language that Luther used and they wanted to raise their children in a German culture. The early theologians of LCMS, WELS, and, later, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), such as Walther, Hoenecke, and Madson believed that Lutheran schools were essential, not merely for language and cultural preservation, but also so that the Bible could be read and studied and taught by teachers who were trained by the Lutheran church for Lutheran elementary schools. The battles at the beginning of the 20th century over the Bennett Law and in legal attempts to restrict or close parochial schools strengthened the resolve of WELS, LCMS, and ELS to preserve their schools so the next generation could also contend for the faith. These three church bodies thus established colleges to train teachers for their own schools.

The changing environment for parochial schools

Eventually culture and language became less relevant reasons for Lutheran parochial schools and Lutheran schools became “Americanized.” Public schools became more professional and had access to financial resources that private schools did not. The boom years after World War II dramatically increased enrollment in Lutheran educational institutions.

There is a growing interest in early childhood education which goes across all the Lutheran church bodies.

At present, Lutheran schools face declining enrollments which mirror declines in birth rates and in the number of church-going Lutherans. They also face the expense of maintaining buildings, keeping current with technology, and meeting the new emphasis on effectiveness and accountability. Other nonpublic schools, such as Catholic schools, face similar challenges.

On the positive side, there is a growing interest in early childhood education which goes across all the Lutheran church bodies. Early childhood education has become important in evangelism and in meeting a need for today’s families.

Today, 11 percent of all pre-Kindergarten-12 children in the United States attend a nonpublic school. Schools such as Lutheran ones offer a choice for parents and provide the means by which a church can assist them in the most important part of a child’s education.

John Isch is professor emeritus at Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota. He also served as editor of The Lutheran Educator, the official publication of the WELS college.

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