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Lutherans in the Caribbean

January is the time of year when many of us in the cold, northern climates begin to think about getting away from the snow and ice, and moving somewhere warm. Wouldn’t it be nice to settle on a tropical island somewhere, like in the Caribbean, and be done with winter once and for all? So why don’t we do that — move to the Caribbean?
I know what you are going to say: “I’d love to move to the Caribbean, but then wouldn’t it be impossible to find a good Lutheran Church?” Well, I have news for you; there are Lutherans in the Caribbean – many of them! (Start packing your boxes.)
There have been Lutherans in some parts of the Caribbean for almost 400 years. There are substantial numbers of Lutherans in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guyana, and Suriname, with scattered congregations in Antigua, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti. One of the 65 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is wholly in this area, the Caribbean Synod, which consists of congregations in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. As of 2010, there were more than 27,000 Lutherans around the Caribbean basin.
Historically, Lutheranism came to the Caribbean as the religion of white European and, later, American settlers. But in time some of these churches opened their doors to local inhabitants, Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans. Some of these congregations have become truly indigenous and multicultural ministries.
More recently, North Americans moved and settled in some parts of the Caribbean, beginning other congregations for expatriates and vacationers. There is quite a variety among Caribbean congregations; some are independent church bodies, while others are related to American Lutheran denominations, such as the ELCA, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

The early days of Caribbean Lutheranism

The oldest Lutheran congregation in the Caribbean was founded in the Virgin Islands in 1666 by Danish settlers on the island of St. Croix, the Frederik congregation in Charlotte Amalie; they later founded other congregations on the islands of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas in the 18th century. Although these congregations were originally intended for Danes, by the 1750s they were doing mission work with the enslaved Africans on the islands.

Mark Granquist

The oldest Lutheran congregation in the Caribbean was founded in the Virgin Islands in 1666 by Danish settlers on the island of St. Croix.

When the Danes sold these islands to the United States in 1917, these congregations affiliated with American Lutheran denominations. There are also several congregations of Virgin Island Lutherans on the mainland of the United States, most notably in New York City.
Similarly, Dutch Lutherans founded congregations in the area of Guyana and Suriname in the 18th century, as the Europeans planted colonies there. Congregations generally consisted of white settlers and their descendants until the middle of the 19th century, when they began to reach out to other populations. Guyana is especially racially diverse, and the Lutheran congregations there include African Americans, Native Americans, East Indians, and some Chinese.
Though served by pastors from Europe and America for quite some time, these Lutheran churches eventually became autonomous. These two church bodies now contain approximately 17,000 members.
Though it has a long history of European colonization, Lutherans did not become established on Puerto Rico until it became a part of the United States in 1898. In that year a young student, Gustav Swenson, moved to Puerto Rico and eventually started a Lutheran congregation there. He was eventually followed by a number of different pastors and missionaries from the United States, who began to preach in Spanish to the local population. By 2005, there were 28 Lutheran congregations in Puerto Rico, with some 5,000 members, as a part of the Caribbean Synod of the ELCA.
There are Lutheran congregations in some of the other islands of the Caribbean. There was a small Lutheran presence in Cuba up until the revolution of 1961, and some scattered congregations may still exist. There is a WELS congregation in Antigua, founded in the 1970s. There is one ELCA congregation in Bermuda, and two Lutheran congregations in the Bahamas — an LCMS congregation in Nassau and an ELCA congregation in Freeport. There is also a Lutheran presence in Haiti, connected with the Church of the Lutheran Confession in Alsace and Lorraine (France).
Although many of these Caribbean Lutheran congregations were begun by European or Americans, either as settlers or missionaries, most of their members are now predominantly local people — Virgin Islanders, Guyanese and Surinamese, Puerto Ricans, and others. They may be Hispanic, Native American, African American, or other local populations, worshipping in Spanish, English, French, or other local languages. These congregations enrich the palate of world Lutheranism, and help spread the gospel of Christ into every corner of the world.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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