A legacy too long ignored
On Palm Sunday, 1669, a Lutheran pastor in Albany, New York, baptized into his congregation an African-American man, who was given the name, Emmanuel. In subsequent years other African Americans, enslaved or free, became members of the Lutheran congregations in New York and New Jersey. African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, longer than many European immigrants whom we generally think of as being Lutheran.
African Americans became Lutherans in many places in the colonial period. In addition to New York, they were found in the Carolinas and Georgia, on the Danish Virgin Islands, and in British and Dutch Guiana in South America.
Though not always, they often were slaves of Lutheran masters; initially, Lutherans were against slavery, but some quickly adapted to it in this country. By the time of the Civil War, there were several thousand African American Lutheran members in the South, and many more (probably 8,000-10,000) who had been baptized Lutheran.
In 1832 an African-American Lutheran preacher named Jehu Jones formed St. Paul’s Colored Lutheran Church in Philadelphia which lasted until 1849. Another African-American Lutheran, Daniel Payne, graduated from Gettysburg Seminary in 1837. After some years as a Lutheran pastor he became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, longer than many European immigrants whom we generally think of as being Lutheran.
After the Civil War, most of the African-American Lutherans in the South left the white congregations, where they had generally been second-class citizens. In response, various Southern Lutheran synods began sporadic efforts to evangelize the newly-freed African Americans, and to establish separate Lutheran congregations. Starting in 1868, the Lutheran synods in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia began to license African-American preachers to preach the gospel and gather in congregations.
These efforts were poorly funded at best, and in 1889 (out of desperation) African-American preachers in the North Carolina Synod formed the Alpha Synod, the first African-American Lutheran church organization. This little synod, and the other African- American Lutheran congregations in the South, struggled for survival through the end of the 19th century.
African-American Lutherans move North and West
As national Lutheran denominations formed in the 19th century, they began to do mission work outside their own ethnic boundaries. Many times this meant foreign missions, but it also meant, to some, evangelism among minority groups in the United States. In 1877 the Synodical Conference (dominated by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) began mission work among African Americans — first in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then more successfully in New Orleans.
Subsequently, the Synodical Conference also incorporated the preachers and congregations of the Alpha Synod, and began a very successful mission work among African Americans in Alabama. (They were joined here by the Joint Synod of Ohio.) In the South these African-American Lutherans opened schools, academies, and teacher-training institutions, one of which grew into Concordia College, Selma, Alabama, the only historically-black Lutheran college in the country.
Beginning around World War I, the “Great Migration” of African Americans to the cities of the North and West brought new African-American Lutheran congregations in these cities, 38 of them founded between 1923 and 1950. Some of these congregations were formed by migrants from the American South, while others were comprised of immigrants from the Virgin Islands and South America. By 1950, there were nearly 11,000 African-American Lutherans, primarily in urban areas.
With the Civil Rights movement, beginning in the 1950s, the old era of African-American Lutheranism began to change. Prior to this time, most Lutheran congregations were segregated. Beginning in the 1960s, the three largest American Lutheran denominations began to push for integrated congregations, and increased outreach to African Americans. In the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the number of African-American members jumped from 5,000 in 1962 to 49,000 (with 111 African-American pastors) in 1989, when the LCA became a part of the ELCA. In all the American Lutheran bodies in 1991, there were 132,000 African-American Lutherans (about two percent of all Lutherans). In the last 20 years, new Lutheran immigrants from Africa have formed a number of congregations around the country.
How should these numbers be seen? The numbers are, in part, a success story, but they also indicate that, had white Lutherans been more consistently supportive of African-American Lutherans, these numbers could have been much higher. African-American Lutherans have often heroically struggled to build and maintain their congregations, only occasionally assisted by white Lutherans. Their accomplishments must be honored, and their 350 year legacy lifted up.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.