Lutherans in America

A New History

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Mark Granquist
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , January
     375 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Mark Granquist—Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota—puts it, this “new” history of Lutherans in America “had a long gestational period.” Dr. Granquist and I have been good friends since we were graduate students together at The University of Chicago in the previous century. After reading Granquist’s work, and using it in a class here at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Spring 2016, I have little doubt that this work had its inception back then. That said, Mark Granquist’s Lutherans in America delivers the best overview of U.S. Lutheran history currently in print. Students found it helpful as a supplement to my lectures, to the primary sources we discussed together, and to other literary texts and documents that more fully represented the diversity of Lutheran lived experience (especially among lay people) in the United States (which Granquist admits is in fact what he means by “America”).  

The structure of the book is straightforward: a linear history. After a (too) brief Introduction that admits how “in all honesty, this present history is deeply indebted to the labors of” a previous generation of scholarship, Granquist opens with a chapter outlining “The European Background to American Lutheranism.” Anyone looking for a history that contributes to “decolonizing Lutheranism,” as some of my current students ardently hope, will be disappointed here. This chapter follows prior narrative histories—especially those by E. Clifford Nelson and DeAne Lagerquist, to sketch Luther’s “conservatively radical” contribution to the Reformation (albeit conveniently eliding Luther’s simply radical stance on marriage). The remainder of the chapter—setting the tone for the rest, then traces Lutheran theological developments in the Confessions, the emergence of so-called Lutheran Orthodoxy (the revival of Aristotle among Protestants), and the Pietist movement—including the beginnings of missionary and social justice endeavors. What this conventional beginning and much of the narrative throughout misses, alas, is the vitality of the stories of Lutheran people—their struggles and successes, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. Those stories would tell how and why and in widely different ways across time Lutherans in America gathered together to pray, study, baptize, confirm their youth, sing, have sex and marry (not necessarily in that order), celebrate the Lord’s Supper, die, kill, feed the hungry, clothe the naked (among other practices), and move across oceans and across the North American continent in the name of Jesus, and on behalf of a movement centered in grace and faith.

The remainder of the chapters proceed chronologically in a periodization that is not exactly transparent, but not far from standard era-structuring in American history—for example: “Beginnings, 1619-1720”; “Lutherans in a New Nation, 1781-1820”; “Structuring an American Lutheranism, 1888-1918”; and “Uncertain Present, Uneasy Future, 1988-2013.” Each chapter ends with an essay-length and generally interesting “Excursus”: for instance, on “Lutheran Hymnals and Their Impact,” “Colleges and Controversy,” or “Hispanic Lutheranism,” that further illumines a particular person, topic, or group.

The historiography of the book reflects a traditional if not conservative method. As Granquist sees it, revising rather significantly a well-known adage of Ann Braude that “all American religious history is women’s history”: “all American religious history is actually denominational history”(4). Those words are, within the guild of American religion scholars, fighting terms. Such an institutional focus surely has its value and place: the denomination is an important social structure in U.S. (Protestant) history. But such an institutional focus of course favors clergy (and their controversies and intrigues), and obscures the material interests and behaviors, central symbolic and ritual practices, historical agency, and intellectual and social contributions of the vast majority of Lutherans, who were of course lay people but also theologians and institution-builders in their own right. Such a history of “living Lutheran” would have to be a little more than a denominational history, and include instead the history of everyday life and the ways Lutherans in the U.S. articulated and enacted their faith in their families, work, political life, and other relationships.

Not that Granquist didn’t make some effort to write a more inclusive narrative than previous denominational histories: For example, within the chapter on the years from 1965 to 1988 (“Turmoil, Change, and Consolidation”), in the section on “Changing Roles of Lutheran Women,” Granquist accurately describes how contextual changes spurred the movement across Protestant denominations to ordain women, resulting in the ordination of Elizabeth Platz and Barbara Andrews in 1970 in two of the three largest U.S. Lutheran denominations. But then Granquist gives scant attention to the ongoing and growing contributions of Lutheran women in the U.S. since then, and instead of telling their stories of struggle and/or success, spends four pages describing the arcane and relatively minor (in the larger scope of U.S. religious history) theological and institutional schism within the other major Lutheran denomination: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

So overall, this is a usable, solid history that will acquaint readers with a contextually-sensitive, consensus-seeking interpretation of changing Lutheran institutional configurations and individuals in the United States. It struggles to be more than that. Yet Granquist ends on a note of hope. He leaves a wide door open for a truly new history of Lutherans that would include the fascinating stories of Lutheran individuals and movements over the past half of a millennia. Those stories—and they are plentiful in archives and libraries for those with eyes to see, could unfold in a truly surprising and interesting historical narrative, for as Granquist puts it, in as close to an exclamation as his rhetorical style allows: “Lutherans in America have rich traditions from which to draw” (357).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Pahl is Professor of History of Christianity at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Granquist is associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, he taught at St. Olaf College (1992–2000) and Gustavus Adolphus College (2000–2007). Among other books, he is the author, with Maria Erling, of The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America (Fortress Press, 2008).



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