Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Revising American Lutheranism

He was, if nothing else, an ambitious young man, with a vision of truly American Lutheranism. At the time of his birth in 1799, the new American republic was growing and expanding, with a sense of incurable optimism, vibrant energy, and unlimited horizons. Samuel Simon Schmucker embodied this new American spirit in his untiring work for the consolidation and expansion of Lutheranism in North America.

From a very young age, Schmucker played a prominent role, not only in American Lutheranism, but in the wider world of Anglo-American Protestantism. No stranger to controversy, he was admired by many and detested by others, but he left an indelible mark on his church and his age.

A third-generation American Lutheran, Schmucker was born into an extended Lutheran clerical family. Intelligent and precocious, he studied theology first with his father, then at Princeton Theological Seminary. (There was no Lutheran seminary at that time.) He was ordained at age 21, and began serving Lutheran congregations in Virginia. Concerned for Lutheran ministerial education, the (very) young Schmucker set up a proto-seminary in his parsonage, personally training a number of clergy candidates, among all his other duties.

Founding a seminary at Gettysburg

Although by the early 1820s the geographical expansion of American Lutheranism had resulted in the formation of six regional synods, there was no national organization to coordinate their efforts or expand Lutheranism further. In 1820 an attempt was made to form a General Synod to meet this need, but in 1823 opposition and infighting among American Lutherans imperiled this fledgling institution.

Mark Granquist

In the 1850s, as a part of this vision of an expansive and ecumenical Lutheranism, Schmucker and others offered, anonymously at first, a new “American” revision of the Lutheran theological standard, the Augsburg Confession.

Though he was dealing with the painful loss of his young wife, Schmucker swung into action and, through dozens of letters and personal contacts, along with coordinating his family’s efforts, he managed to save the nascent General Synod from collapse. For the next 50 years, Schmucker would be its leading figure.

In 1826 the General Synod established the first permanent Lutheran seminary, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Schmucker, of course, was instrumental in its formation, and was elected the first (and only) professor of this institution at age 26. For the next 38 years he would put his personal stamp on the institution, and on North American Lutheranism, through his education and preparation of some 400 Lutheran pastors, and the publication of more than 40 books, including an influential theological textbook, a handbook for synodical and congregation organization, and a number of polemical works.

Charting ecumenical Lutheranism

This period of time was both formative and divisive for American Lutheran theology. Many Lutherans were drawn to the dominant reformed or Revivalistic Protestantism, some leaned toward Deism, and still others, reacting against these trends, pushed for strict Lutheran confessionalism. Schmucker tried to forge a centrist pathway for American Lutherans in the midst of these diverging tendencies. Against the strict and separatist Lutherans, he insisted that Lutheran confessionalism ought to be open enough to allow contacts with and influences from the wider Protestant world.

In the 1850s, as a part of this vision of an expansive and ecumenical Lutheranism, Schmucker and others offered, anonymously at first, a new “American” revision of the Lutheran theological standard, the Augsburg Confession. Convinced that the only way to “save” this confessional document for American Lutherans was to modify it theologically in several places where it did not fit current American Lutheran practice, they did so.

Schmucker and his allies believed that Augsburg’s maintenance of doctrines such as Baptismal Regeneration and the Real Presence was a medieval Catholic holdover, beliefs that American Lutherans no longer held (which, in the majority, they probably did not). The only way to maintain the authority of the Augsburg Confession (which Schmucker did believe in) was to bring it into conformity with contemporary American Lutheran sensibilities.

However well intentioned, this attempt was a failure and cost the unity of his beloved General Synod. Conservative Lutherans outside the General Synod went ballistic over Schmucker’s attempt to modify the Augsburg Confession, and saw in it the proof that the General Synod had completely forfeited its Lutheran heritage.

More ominously, Schmucker’s proposed American edition also created unrest within important sections of the General Synod itself, and among some of Schmucker’s former students, who were now important theological leaders. The ensuing controversy over Schmucker’s “American” Lutheranism resulted eventually in a split in the General Synod; the withdrawal of several constituent synods; and the eventual formation, in 1867, of a rival national organization of Lutheran synods, the General Council.

Schmucker’s legacy in American Lutheranism is complicated and contested. Some Lutherans consider him a symbol of all the things in American Lutheranism that they do not like. Others see in him a vision of ecumenical Christian openness that they admire. Regardless, his influence is rooted deeply in a Lutheranism in America that he was instrumental in forming.

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

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