A Swedish-American theological student from Rock Island, Illinois, in 1898 decided that the people of Puerto Rico needed to hear the Lutheran proclamation of the Gospel. Never mind that he himself had only been in America for nine years, that he was not ordained, and had no official or financial backing. Still, he was going to Puerto Rico.
And one other thing: He didn’t know a word of Spanish. But Gustav Swensson traveled to Puerto Rico, learned the language quickly, and began to preach in San Juan in 1899. This was the beginning of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Lutheranism that now numbers over one million Lutherans in Latin America, and tens of thousands of Hispanic Lutherans in the United States.
There had been Lutherans in Latin America for centuries, not in Spanish or Portuguese territories, but in the Virgin Islands and Guyana. In the 19th century, European Lutherans began to immigrate to South America — especially Brazil, Argentina, and Chile — and founded Lutheran congregations there. But they founded immigrant congregations in their immigrant languages, especially in German.
Mission work, it seems, was proper to Africa and Asia, but not to Latin America.
Though they lived in countries that spoke Spanish or Portuguese, they did not initially consider an outreach to their neighbors who used those languages. Mission work, it seems, was proper to Africa and Asia, but not to Latin America.
All of this changed in the 20th century. Swensson’s initial efforts in Puerto Rico were taken over by one American Lutheran group, Another started a mission in Argentina in 1908, and a third began in Columbia and Bolivia in the 1930s.
In the 1940s and 1950s, American Lutherans began serious efforts to reach out to Latin American populations in over 18 countries in the region. And the descendants of European Lutherans in Latin America began to make the transition to the use of Spanish or Portuguese within their communities, and to reach out themselves to the local populations. After World War II, there was a significant growth of Lutheranism and Lutheran churches in Latin America, which soon became autonomous and independent of their mission sponsors.
‘Foreign missions’ right at home
Spanish-speaking Lutheranism in Mexico and the United States actually began north of the border, and was taken back to Mexico by Hispanic converts and American Lutheran missionaries. As early as 1916, a few pastors from the Texas Synod began to work among Mexican-Americans in the Rio Grande Valley, which eventually grew into a full-fledged home mission project.
The Texas District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) also began outreach to Mexican-Americans in the same state in 1926, and their official records in 1932 list Spanish (Mexican) mission work in Chicago and Los Angeles as well.
Both of these were considered “home” missions (rather than “foreign” missions), and both included the formation of Spanish-speaking congregations, as well as Lutheran periodicals, theological books, and worship materials translated into Spanish. The LCMS even established a Spanish-language edition of its popular radio ministry, “The Lutheran Hour.”
Closer to home
From these bases in the southern United States, American Lutherans eventually took Lutheranism south of the border into Mexico. Building on earlier efforts among German immigrants to Mexico, the Missouri Synod began mission work in Mexico in 1940, and eventually formed the Lutheran Synod of Mexico.
Although a few Hispanic Lutherans in the United States arrived as immigrants, most of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in America converted to Lutheranism while in this country.
In 1936, Myrtle Nordin, of Lake Lillian, Minnesota, who had studied Spanish as an independent missionary in Columbia, gathered a group to form the Latin American Lutheran Mission (LALM). It began outreach with Spanish-speaking populations in South Texas and Northern Mexico, establishing congregations in Mexico that would eventually form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Mexico.
Beginning in 1945 the World Mission Prayer League began their mission work in Mexico, leading to the formation of the Lutheran Apostolic Alliance of Mexico (1977). Finally the American Lutheran Church began work in Mexico in 1947, building off the earlier work in South Texas, which led to the formation of the Mexican Lutheran Church (1957). There are currently about 10,000 Lutherans in Mexico.
Although a few Hispanic Lutherans in the United States arrived as immigrants (notably Puerto Rican Lutherans to New York), most of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in America converted to Lutheranism while in this country. Outreach to Hispanic Americans had begun early in the 20th century in Texas (as mentioned above), but this work accelerated about 1960, with specific and targeted home missions work.
By 2000, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America listed 180 congregations that used Spanish in worship (including those in Puerto Rico), with a total Hispanic membership of more than 39,000. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod listed 120 Hispanic congregations, with 96 “Hispanic workers” on its rolls. Both church bodies have special associations or conferences for Hispanic work.
With the Hispanic population in the United States growing rapidly, this portion of the population will continue to be an important sector for Lutherans in America.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.
Tags: American Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Mexico, Gustav Swensson, LALM, Latin America, Latin American Lutheran Mission, LCMS, Luther Seminary, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran Synod of Mexico, Mark Granquist, Mexican Lutheran Church, Myrtle Nordin, Portuguese, Puerto Rico, Spanish, Texas District, Texas Synod, The Lutheran Hour, World Mission Prayer League