Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Lutherans are members of a Protestant tradition flowing from the life and thought of Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German monk turned theologian, pastor, and family patriarch. Lutherans became a major religious group in the Great Plains of North America in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and as the twenty-first century began, they continued to color the society and culture of various locales in the Plains and their borderlands.

Theologically, Lutherans have identified themselves as evangelical in that Luther in his break with Roman Catholicism stressed the Gospels and the evangel of justification by faith in the gracious work of God in Jesus Christ. An individual's ultimate standing before God, in other words, is not gained by moral works or by keeping God's law; rather, it is by sola gratia (grace alone) and sola fides (faith alone). Sola scriptura (Scripture alone) has also been a key affirmation of Lutherans, indicating that the canonical books of the Bible, not any church office, institution, or theological tradition, are the ultimate norm for Christian life and thought. Nevertheless, confessionalism has always been a strong component in Lutheran identity. Next to the ecumenical creeds of the early church, the two most important confessional documents for Lutherans have been the Augsburg Confession (1530) and Luther's Small Catechism (1529). These and other documents were gathered in 1580 into the Book of Concord, a collection that remains formally important for Lutheran theology.

Lutheran immigrants to the Great Plains brought with them not only a strong theological tradition but also conceptions of church order and elements of an ethos that shaped the social and cultural institutions they constructed. In the German and Scandinavian states from which the vast majority of Great Plains Lutherans came in the nineteenth century, Lutheranism was formally established. In the Plains of North America, however, legal nonestablishment, together with the vastness of the region, reinforced the primacy of the local congregation in Lutheran life. At the local level, Lutheran leadership is still formally embodied in the pastorate and also in elected lay officials. The office of bishop has become widespread among Lutheran groups, but as a useful administrative office rather than one representing apostolic succession. Above this local level, Lutherans organized regional synods based largely on differences in ethnicity. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century, as ethnicity has softened, has the plethora of Lutheran synodical bodies represented in the Great Plains begun to significantly diminish through mergers. Since 1988 the vast majority of Plains Lutherans are affiliated with either the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) or the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS), the former theologically and socially more pluralist than the latter.

An important aspect of a Lutheran ethos in the North American Plains has been pietism, a diffuse revitalization movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that was later reinforced by similar revitalization movements in the nineteenth century. This pietist stream reinforced among many Lutherans a stress on personalizing belief. It also stressed the embodiment of such commitment through "godly" practices and the avoidance of "worldly" practices. Also worth noting in a Lutheran ethos are the patriarchal family, enacted by Luther himself and carried on symbolically through the present by the local pastor and his family, and Lutheran corporate worship, which has consistently stressed the proclamation of the Word, the importance of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the role of music, particularly chorales, in engaging the participation of the entire community.

The arrival of Lutherans in the Plains began with major migrations of Germans and, to a lesser extent, Scandinavians to the central and upper portions of the Mississippi River basin in the 1840s and 1850s. The political and economic upheavals of an industrializing and liberalizing Europe were factors that prompted emigration, but economic opportunity, particularly land, was the most pervasive pull. By the time the American Civil War began in 1861, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, and a section of Texas had received thousands of these Lutheran emigrants. The Englishspeaking descendants of colonial-era Lutherans, primarily concentrated in Pennsylvania, and the more recent German-speaking Lutherans centered in Ohio held relatively little appeal for these newly arriving Lutherans. Instead, the emigrants formed new synods, most notably the Missouri Synod (1847), but also Hauge's Synod (Norwegian, 1846), the Texas Synod (German, 1851), the Norwegian Synod (1853), and the Augustana Synod (Swedish, 1860). The founding of Augustana College in Sioux Falls (now South Dakota) in 1860 foreshadowed what this planting of Lutheranism in the eastern borderlands of the U.S. Great Plains would bring once the Civil War ended.

Lutherans secured their initial planting in the Plains proper with two phases of settlement after 1865. The earlier phase was in the Northern Plains between roughly 1865 and 1900. The regional shape and depth of this migration is suggested by the establishment of Lutheran institutions of higher education. By 1900, in addition to Augustana College, the following had been founded: Bethany College (Augustana Synod) and Saint John's College (Missouri Synod) in Kansas; Dana College (United Danish), Midland College (General Synod), and Concordia Teachers College (Missouri Synod) in Nebraska; and Texas Lutheran College (Texas Synod).

The second phase was the spilling over of this migration into the Canadian Prairie Provinces between 1890 and 1914. The Lutheran population swelled enough so that in 1915 the General Council of Lutherans organized the Saskatoon Theological Seminary, Saskatchewan.

Lutheran communities in the Great Plains have received their finest literary depiction to date in the novels of Ole Rölvaag, who lived and worked on a farm in South Dakota for three years in the late 1890s before attending Augustana College. Prior to World War I, Lutherans in the Great Plains were comparatively isolated geographically and insulated culturally. Whether in Block Corners, Kansas, Dalesburg, South Dakota, or some other German or Scandinavian enclave in the Plains, community life for observant Lutherans was centered around church and school. The pastor and, in the most conservative communities, the Lutheran schoolteacher provided the theological, social, and cultural leadership locally that was integral to sustaining ethnic as well as religious identity until well into the twentieth century. The church building, and sometimes a separate school building, provided a material center for community life, which was expressed formally in corporate worship, in congregational and school events such as picnics and mission festivals, and, by the turn of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, women's groups and youth groups as well. Home missions by various Lutheran synods, while similar in most respects to those undertaken by various anglophone Protestant denominations, were limited to organizing congregations among the sending group's ethnic compatriots rather than seeking to evangelize outside the ethnic group.

The twentieth century's world wars and economic depression were major catalysts for undermining isolation and insulation. Lutheran ethnicity has not disappeared, however; it has merely softened its tone and expanded and blurred its borders. Radio storyteller Garrison Keillor's Norwegian Lutherans, while fictional and nostalgic, are evocative of a persistent ethos as much Lutheran as it is ethnic, and Lake Wobegon is a place almost as much Plains as it is Prairie. As of 1990 the political units of the Great Plains with the largest percentages of the population expressing a Lutheran a.liation are North Dakota (36 percent), South Dakota (30 percent), and Nebraska (16 percent). Such proportions suggest that, whatever changes may come to Plains Lutherans as a collective religious tradition and community, they will remain a significant element in the region.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Rölvaag, O. E.

Douglas Firth Anderson Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa

Coburn, Carol K. Life at Four Corners: Religion, Gender, and Education in a German-Lutheran Community, 1868. 1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Nelson, E. Clifford, ed. The Lutherans in North America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

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