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A century of merger mania

Without a doubt, the 1900s were a century of merger for American Lutherans. From more than a dozen different major Lutheran church bodies in 1900 (not counting many smaller ones) to two major denominations in 2000, Lutherans spent the 20th century merging. Fifty years ago, Lutherans were celebrating the completion of two major mergers, bringing together eight different Lutheran bodies into the American Lutheran Church (ALC; 1960-1988) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA; 1962-1988). But the road to these unions was neither quick nor smooth.

Mark Granquist

These two mergers were preceded by three mergers in the early part of the century. Eastern Lutherans (from the colonial “Muhlenberg” tradition) had reunited in 1918 to form the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA; 1918-1962). The majority of Norwegian-American Lutherans overcame their differences to merge in 1917, forming the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC; 1917-1960). And four Midwestern German denominations, the Ohio, Iowa, Buffalo, and Texas Synods, worked out a merger in 1930, forming the American Lutheran Church (ALC; 1930-1960).
These three denominations, along with the Augustana Synod (Swedish), UELC (Danish), AELC (Danish), Suomi Synod (Finnish), and the Lutheran Free Church (Norwegian), cooperated in an association called the National Lutheran Council (NLC).
Even before these mergers were completed, American Lutherans began to explore the possibilities of further ones. By the 1920s, the immigrant Lutherans were quickly making the transition to English, greatly lessening the need for separate linguistic denominations. This was the age of consolidation in many areas of American life, including the great American corporations and large Protestant mergers.
Many Lutherans hoped that a united Lutheran denomination would strengthen their outreach to the world, and show the power of their influence. (Lutherans had become the fourth-largest Protestant family in the United States.) But how was such a further merger to be accomplished, and who would be invited to the table?

Essentials or everything?

Though merger discussions began in the 1920s, they languished through the Great Depression and World War II. After the war the pace of discussions quickened, though huge obstacles remained, especially around the degree of theological unanimity required to achieve merger.
The Eastern Lutheran ULCA held to unity in essentials only, while the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) insisted on complete doctrinal agreement before fellowship or merger. These two large Lutheran groups defined the borders of merger negotiation, while the seven smaller groups positioned themselves in between.
Which direction should these seven Lutheran groups go? If the ULCA was included in negotiations, the LCMS likely would not participate. If Missouri was included, it would only work if the ULCA was excluded. Through the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the Lutheran “merger dance” was a complicated balancing act of competing positions and ideas.
Finally in 1952, the whole process collapsed. The Augustana Synod, historically close to some of the Eastern Lutheran groups, decided to walk out of merger negotiations that had excluded the ULCA, leaving behind the ELC (Norwegians), the Midwest Germans (ALC), and others. At this point, two different merger negotiations were underway:
1. ULCA, Augustana, Suomi, and the AELC, and
2. ELC, Lutheran Free, UELC, and ALC.
Missouri declined to participate in either merger process.

Delaying the inevitable?

Once these merger processes got rolling, they moved to form two large Lutheran church bodies, each in excess of two million members. The first, in 1960, was the American Lutheran Church (1960-1988), which consisted of the ELC, the “old” ALC (Germans), and the UELC. The Norwegian Lutheran Free Church eventually came into the merger in 1963, after a bruising round of congregational voting. The Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1962, consisting of the ULCA, Augustana, Suomi, and the AELC.
The outcome of this process was deeply problematic to many people. On the surface, it was hard for many to see why there should be two mergers and not one, while others were upset that Missouri did not participate in either process. But others were heartened that the number of Lutheran denominations was now at least reduced to three: the LCA, the ALC, and the LCMS. Optimism ran high in some quarters that this was just another step toward the formation of a single Lutheran denomination in the United States.
Yet it never happened. And the great expectations of the benefits of merger never materialized, either. American Lutherans in 1962 numbered around 8.0 million members. In 2012, these numbers have declined to around 7.4 million members, even while the population of the United States has doubled. Merger has not brought either the growth or the influence for which its proponents had hoped, even with the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1988, bringing together the LCA and ALC, along with a portion of congregations that left the LCMS.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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