‘Lutherans learn to cooperate’
By the beginning of the 20th century, American Lutheranism had grown to be the third largest Protestant family in the United States, after Baptists and Methodists. Fueled by the arrival of millions of Lutheran immigrants from Europe, there were more than two dozen different Lutheran denominations divided by language and theology. Most wanted to become American and take their rightful place in the American religious scene, but their divisions made them less effective on the national level.
During the First World War (1917-18), these Lutherans sought to demonstrate their patriotism and to support their troops, but this required a degree of mutual coordination between the various Lutheran groups that had previously not existed.
In 1917 they formed the National Lutheran Commission on Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Welfare to raise funds and employ chaplains for the military camps. As that war was winding down in 1918, eight Lutheran denominations formed a more permanent organization, the National Lutheran Council (NLC), to explore more ways in which American Lutheran groups could cooperate and do their work more efficiently. One of the largest Lutheran denominations, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), did not formally join the NLC, but did coordinate some of its efforts with the new group.
The National Lutheran Council became a clearinghouse and coordinating center for the great expansion of American Lutherans in the first part of the 20th century.
There were many things for the NLC to do, things better accomplished in a coordinated fashion rather than separately. Two initial concerns were the support for and reconstruction of war-ravaged Lutheran churches, and support for Lutheran missions in Africa and Asia. It also coordinated many things domestically, including Lutheran efforts in education, social services, and home mission expansion, as well as services such as planning and publicity.
The National Lutheran Council became a clearinghouse and coordinating center for the great expansion of this work that American Lutherans carried out in the first part of the 20th century.
Lutherans at mid-century
During the Second World War (1941-45), the NLC again mobilized American Lutherans for action to support the troops, coordinate chaplains, provide assistance at home for the workers in the new defense industries, and other similar tasks. During and after this war, it helped sponsor a major fund drive, Lutheran World Action, which raised millions of dollars for war relief.
Together with the LCMS, the NLC cooperated in a new group, Lutheran World Relief, which shipped more than a billion pounds of relief supplies to troubled areas around the world in the 20 years after 1945. The NLC also coordinated the assistance for European Lutheran churches, and resettled war refugees in the United States and Canada.
During and after the Second World War, the NLC also broadened its work in North America. Important areas of this service included campus ministry, Lutheran higher education, social welfare services, aid to migrants and refugees, and planning and coordination for the massive post-war founding of new Lutheran congregations, especially in the new suburbs, and in the growing areas of the South and West. One particular area was the expansion of Lutheran media presence through radio, television, and even movies!
As American Lutherans continued to work together, many thought that this successful cooperation demonstrated the viability of the merger of American Lutheran denominations, and through the 1940s and 1950s, merger negotiations gained ground. At this time it proved impossible to get all eight Lutheran groups into a single merger, so in 1960 four groups formed the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and in 1962 four others formed the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). These mergers were made possible in part by the relationships and cooperative efforts that had been accomplished through the years by the NLC.
In the early 1960s, the ALC, LCA, and LCMS forged even closer working relationships in many of these minstry areas. By 1966 they had decided to form a new cooperative body, the Lutheran Council in the United States of America (LCUSA), which took over and expanded many of the functions of the NLC. LCUSA represented an unprecedented level of cooperation between Lutherans in America, representing over 95 percent of all American Lutherans.
LCUSA also continued and expanded the traditional efforts of the NLC in areas of social service, education, and campus ministry; assistance to refugees and immigrants; and many other activities. LCUSA became an important agency for planning and research, for historical and archival preservation, and as the public face of American Lutheranism.
As the ALC and LCA moved toward merger into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988, the continuing need for LCUSA was diminished. The new ELCA and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod decided that many of LCUSA’s functions could now be handled on a bilateral basis between the two denominations, or spun off into other groups, so LCUSA came to an end.
But these two groups, NLC and LCUSA, played an important role in the larger development of 20th-century American Lutheranism, and in its ministries to the nation and the world.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota.
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