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Augustana Synod to re-gather 50 years after LCA merger

Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, an Augustana Synod congregation, shown here in 1949, eventually became the largest Lutheran church in the world. Photo provided by Mark GranquistNostalgia can be a dual-edged sword for the church. If it means “remembering when times were good,” the trip down memory lane can be detrimental to the present. But that’s not the only option for commemorating what has come before.
“If we know our past, we know more about who we are in the present,” explained the Rev. Wayne Peterson, pastor at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church (ELCA), Plymouth, Minnesota. “Knowing our family roots is important for our self-identity.”
One of the predecessor church bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is looking back to identify a future. People who grew up in an Augustana Lutheran Synod congregation and cherished its distinctive legacy formed The Augustana Heritage Association (AHA) in 2000. The AHA’s purpose is to “define, promote, and perpetuate the heritage and legacy of the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church.”
The purpose of the AHA is not to wistfully look back and dwell in the past, but to understand the past as a means to give direction for the future.
The AHA has held biennial midsummer gatherings since then. This summer it will meet at Gustavus Adolphus College June 21-24 under the theme, “A Living Legacy.” The AHA met at Gustavus once before, in 2004, and it is fitting that it returns for Gustavus’ sesquicentennial year and the 50th anniversary of Augustana’s merger into the Lutheran Church in America (LCA).
The gathering begins on Thursday evening, June 21, at 7:30 p.m., with a hymn sing led by Garrison Keillor, the bard of Lake Wobegon and author of Life Among the Lutherans. This event is open to the public. Tickets are $25 and are available through the Gustavus website:

People who grew up in an Augustana Lutheran Synod congregation and cherished its distinctive legacy formed The Augustana Heritage Association (AHA) in 2000.

Guest speakers and a panel discussion will highlight plenary sessions on Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23. The Gathering will close with a celebration of Holy Communion on Sunday morning, June 24.
Among the featured speakers will be Bishop Antje Jackelén of the Diocese of Lund, Church of Sweden; Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of the ELCA’s Global Mission Unit; and David Swartling, Secretary of the ELCA.

From whence came the Augustana Synod

In 1860, a small group of Swedes (among them, Eric Norelius, who two years later would found Gustavus Adolphus College) met in Andover, Illinois, and formed a new church body that would focus on ministering to the growing number of Swedish immigrants in the United States. They named their denomination after the Lutheran foundational statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, which in Latin is known as Augustana.
The Augustana Synod thrived for 102 years and in 1962 merged with three other Lutheran church bodies to form the LCA. Twenty-five years later, the LCA became part of the ELCA.
Augustana’s influence through merger was substantial, according to Peterson. “Augustana had an outsized portion of social ministry,” he told Metro Lutheran. “While it only had about seven percent [in attendance] of the newly-formed LCA, it brought something like 30 percent of the social ministries,” he continued.
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and Ecumen — a collection of nursing homes and senior living centers — have their roots in the Augustana Synod, Peterson explained.
“The Augustana Synod had both a theological conservativism and [a commitment to] social action,” said the Rev. Michael Edwins, a retired pastor from the Augustana tradition. “The pietism, which helped to found the Lutheran Bible Institute, was outgoing, so there was no hesitation in admitting the sinfulness of the world, but there was hope because people who were sinful weren’t seen as bad; they just needed to be cared for.”
Peterson cited an additional on-going influence in the ELCA. “One very practical aspect of the legacy is the pension system,” he said. Augustana’s system was better funded than some of the other synods, and it took families into account better.
Luther Seminary church history professor Mark Granquist added, “The history [of the Augustana Synod] is a little different than that of the Norwegian bodies. When Swedes came to the U.S., they founded Augustana, and that was the only [Lutheran] option for Swedish immigrants.” The Norwegian immigrants had numerous Lutheran synodical options.
“Unlike the Norwegians, the Swedish options were Baptist, like Bethel College, or the Covenant Church,” explained Granquist. “With only one Lutheran option, they never went through the internal battles that the Norwegians did. They experienced less denominational splitting and regathering, so some people say there was more churchly unity.”

A day for everyone

There are just over 250 former Augustana congregations in Minnesota today. Members of these congregations are encouraged by Peterson to attend all of this Augustana Gathering, but there is also a special “Commuter Day” option on Saturday, June 23. It is an opportunity for interested individuals to learn a little bit about their congregation’s spiritual roots and legacy. The commuter experience begins with an 11 a.m. worship service using the old Augustana liturgy, followed by a buffet lunch, and then a 2 p.m. presentation on Augustana in American Church History by Dr. James Bratt, Professor of Church History at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cost of the Commuter Day option is only $15 per person. The offering that day will go to the Christ Chapel Endowment Fund.

The Augustana Synod thrived for 102 years and in 1962 merged with three other Lutheran church bodies to form the LCA.

The presence of Christ Chapel in the center of the Gustavus campus is itself an Augustana legacy. In the late 1950s, knowing that the Augustana Synod would soon be merging with other church bodies, the congregations of the Minnesota Conference of the Augustana Synod determined to make a parting gift to Gustavus by building a chapel for the college. Special offerings were taken by congregations throughout the Conference, and Christ Chapel was completed in January 1962, just as the Augustana Synod officially became part of the LCA.
Registration information for the Augustana Heritage Gathering, the Commuter Day experience, and the hymn sing with Garrison Keillor is available online at www.gus For questions about registration, contact Amy Pehrson at 507/933-7169 or

The good old days

Gustavus Adolphus will host the gathering because it is one of three ELCA colleges arising from the Augustana Synod. The others are Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, and Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Since 2000, the biennial events have rotated among the three colleges.
The 2012 gathering will be the last, according to Peterson. “I’m 57 now and was seven years old when Augustana went out of business,” he said. “Most folks [in attendance] will be in their 70s and 80s.”
Arland Hultgren, Luther Seminary retired professor with roots in the Augustana Synod, said that most people think of Augustana like a ‘57 Chevy. It went out of business at the boom time of the Christian Church in the U.S., with congregational growth, strong youth programs, and a dynamic missionary presence, and so they have very positive memories. But the synod didn’t have to go through the turbulent changes of the 1960s, with assassinations, movements for civil and women’s rights, and the like, that affect today’s church bodies.
Granquist concluded, “Augustana went into merger at a time when all church bodies had a sense of self. People were loyal in a different way than today. There was a communal pride that led to support of church colleges, seminaries, and social service agencies.”
Peterson wonders whether the church today can regain the kind of loyalty that Augustana engendered so that 50 years after its end, people still meet to ask questions about the future.

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