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Review of “Lutherans in America” by Mark Granquist

Mark Granquist, Lutherans in America: A New History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 375 pp.

It has been observed that there are countless dissertations, articles, and books on the Shakers, a tiny and now basically extinct group of American Christians, while the research on American Lutherans, once the third-largest Protestant group in America, is thin on the ground. Maybe this is a testimony to a certain kind of success, namely the successful transplantation of Lutheranism to a new continent with its new form of government and new patterns of cultural life. Maybe it’s a condemnation of our unexceptional ordinariness.

But whatever the rest of the world—or academia—may think of us, it’s hard not to be fascinated by our own family history. Mark Granquist has done an excellent job of drawing together the many and disparate branches of the family tree into a coherent narrative in his new history. Any Lutheran seeking to fill in the gaps—which will almost certainly mean correcting distorted preconceptions—will do well to read it cover to cover. I’ll comment on the items that struck me most.

indexThe first is that, having “arrived” socially and economically since the Second World War and the Baby Boom, we Lutherans tend to assume that we have always been privileged. The earliest Lutherans were anything but that. The vast majority of them were Germans who came to the colonies as indentured servants, bound for seven years of service that was just a shade above slavery. Those who came with at least political freedom, like the Swedes in Delaware, hung on by a fingernail; mere survival was brutally difficult. What pastors were willing to put up with to serve their far-flung and often recalcitrant flocks is little short of awe-inspiring. Though it was indeed so difficult that few were actually willing to do it, spawning the industry of pastoral charlatanism.

Related to this is Granquist’s explosion of “the myth of the boat” (a topic he also treated in LF Winter 2010). I’ve often heard it said that Lutherans have always been inward-looking, building little kingdoms of church and school and college for their own, while the grateful immigrants streamed into the waiting arms of the church. Quite the contrary! The rates of return to church life of even Lutheran immigrants was shockingly poor—a high of 25% for Norwegians and less than 10% for Danes—and even those came in largely due to tireless evangelical effort on the part of the pastors to draw them in. If the clergy weren’t overly active at seeking out other ethnic or racial groups, it was because they couldn’t possibly keep up with the people who were already their own charges. Not lack of concern but lack of workers for the harvest was the problem. And lack of funds: something like three out of four Lutheran schools, colleges, or seminaries went under, and what remain today are the survivors of a harsh winnowing process.

Of course, Lutherans did draw in those outside the obvious ethnic enclaves. There were efforts, almost entirely unsuccessful, to reach Native Americans. The one area of real and obvious failure was with regard to African Americans. Besides the truly egregious acceptance of slavery—even by leaders of the Salzburgers in Georgia who initially argued vehemently against it—was the fact that there were many congregations of African Americans, and these were repeatedly ignored and underfunded. Most ultimately went elsewhere after so much neglect. It’s a recurring theme and the most shameful of American Lutherans’ missional failures.

What also emerges, though, is that it’s something of a misnomer to think of Lutherans as “white,” as embarrassed denominational officials tend to. That is true now, of course, when ethnic distinctions have by and large faded away, but as with the case of privilege, “whiteness” seems to be a consequence of the Baby Boom and its attendant social changes, not an inherent quality of Lutherans for all of American history. Lutherans were ethnic, exotic, acceptable insofar as they were Protestant but in most other respects a quirky facet of the American landscape. Hard as it is to imagine now, overcoming their own internal distrust—between types of Germans, types of Scandinavians, between these branches and also between them and the minority Lutherans of eastern Europe—was no small task.

Here again, though, it’s important to realize that Lutherans were headed toward the English language already in the 1700s. They weren’t reluctant to speak the tongue of Americans or engage them culturally at all. What reversed the process, temporarily, was the mass of immigration starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. A reversion to German or Swedish was not a refusal of America but an appropriate missional response.

Ethnic diversity meant also “denominational” diversity, a reality imposed upon Lutherans by the sheer political fact of American disestablishment. The two large Lutheran denominations, three mid-size Lutheran denominations, and several dozen Lutheran micro-synods we have today might well qualify as more unity and less division than in centuries past. Accordingly, and almost inevitably, Granquist’s history is very much an institutional history, with the corresponding effluence of acronyms. His reference to luminous personalities is much appreciated, but by and large they are not the center of the story. Perhaps this is a matter of dispute among historians, but I remain curious: do institutions drive history, or do personalities? (Or, if both, by what relative weighting?) Muhlenberg is obviously one case of a personality driving history, and I have my own (not entirely objective) opinions about personalities driving Lutheranism in more recent history, but I’m in no position to judge on the time in between. Some of the gap in personality history is addressed in the excurses between the chapters, roughly two pages each taking up a more specific topic. One of these concerns a young missionary woman, Thea Rønning; another, “Father” Adam Keffer of Canadian Lutheranism. But I think it is a question worth further exploration.

Granquist warns the reader at the outset of his final chapter, which covers 1988 to 2013, how dangerous it is for historians to draw to close to the present. In the very final section, entitled “Hope” (tacitly suggesting that the reader may have come to the end without any), he reveals that his first readers of the final chapter’s draft thought it either too optimistic or too pessimistic! Undoubtedly readers will have their own Rorschach-test reaction to it as well.

Provisional conclusions are admittedly dangerous, but if the sign of success for American Lutherans is unity, then Granquist is surely right that we’ve come as far as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future; and if the sign is numerical growth and percentage of the U.S. population, then we have failed miserably. Another wave of immigration from, say, East Africa or Indonesia might help us out, unless of course our denominations descend into competitive infighting for alliances. My own sympathies lie with Granquist’s own call—expressed with the subtlety befitting the long view of a historian—to return to the theological and catechetical roots of Lutheranism. We have certainly succeeded in becoming Americans; let us prove our worth to the wider culture with our distinctive gifts.

A final word, not on the text but on the book itself. I have had occasion to complain before about the less than impressive job Fortress does on its publications. Here again I have to raise the same complaint. The cover features an anemic graphic of the U.S.; the layout is dull; the margins are cramped; the internal graphics look like bad scans; and there were entirely too many typos and related errors for a book that has gone through the publishing process. Granquist and the reader surely deserved better.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the editor of Lutheran Forum.

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