A Very Brief History of American Lutheranism

We Need Some Immigrants to Get the Job Done

So I’m headed to Germany and Denmark next week for vacation, and I figured I should do something related to that here on the blog. Naturally, I decided to look at Lutheranism!

But how to look at it? Well, I recently discovered that old U.S. Religion Census data from 1850–1936 + 1952 is digitized at the county level and available online. So I did the only thing a reasonable person can do: I downloaded all of it, crosswalked it into usable files for mapping, and mapped it! Below is a series of maps showing the Lutheran share of county population back to 1850.

I’ve averaged together some periods for simplicity, and to reduce the number of maps I had to make.

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Our story begins in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Sure, there’s a smattering in the midwest and Texas… but really, from 1850–1870, institutional American Lutheranism had not made major inroads in the west. Many Germans and Scandinavians did settle there and would have identified as Lutheran, but they lacked churches, and in many cases their children would have received little or no catechetical instruction. Outside of PA and eastern Ohio, Lutheran culture just wasn’t extremely robust.

But by the late 19th century, that had changed.

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There’s no data from 1880, so we skip to 1890, 1906, and 1916. The late-19th century and pre-WWI period saw several trends: strengthened institutions and an end to “early settlement” out west, Lutheran internal missions and evangelism, and, especially, large-scale Scandinavian settlement. The Scandinavians and Baltics seem to have been moderately more successful at bringing and planting their religion with them than many Germans, though this is partly because many of the Germans were Catholic, and also they tended to be better educated.

Byb this second period, the Lutheran heartland is visible. Pennsylvania is still a big cluster, but we also see the clusters in northern Ohio and eastern Michigan, and especially in the upper midwest. That is Lutheran country as we know it today!

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In the interwar and immediate postwar period, Lutheran church membership grew explosively. Transitioning towards English-language services, relatively high fertility, and robust ethnic networks centered around churches all played roles in this interwar expansion. Plus, America was settling down: immigration was curtailed, domestic migration rates were fairly low, and, especially post-war, the national trend was towards a kind of conventionalism and denominationalism in religion, which benefited Lutheranism mightily.

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Through 1990, Lutheranism’s spread westwards remains apparent, even as some declines start to show up in the east. But this gives us really “the map of Lutheran country.” Pennsylvania, northern Ohio and Indiana, northeastern Michigan, central Texas, and the upper Midwest. That’s our turf. Has been for a while, at least since the 1890s.

But what’s happened today? Well…

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To the naked eye, that might not look so bad. But there’s definitely no big new growth region. And if you open up the last map in another tab and flip between them, you’ll see declines in many places.

On to 2010, we get…

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Now we can see some real retreat along the fringes.

To highlight it another way, here’s 2010 Lutheran share vs. historical maximum county Lutheran share.

Lotta red on that map. Basically no blue. Lutheranism is shrinking essentially everywhere, and when I convert this to a rate of change, the map looks like this, showing percent change in the Lutheran population share since 1980:

There are pockets of growth in Alaska, specific counties in the south, and a very big growth cluster in the northern Great Plains. But it’s not enough to offset declines in Pennsylvania, New England, the west coast, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Lake Michigan, and the Carolinas. Lutheranism is declining at a precipitous pace in those areas, losing solidly half its population share in 30 years.

So seeing these maps, you may wonder what’s going on with Lutheran membership nationally. I’ve got that for you!

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In case you couldn’t tell, that line, it is pointed rather steeply downwards.

Here’s the same data, shown as a percent of national population.

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To review: the line? It’s going down.

Lutherans in 2016 were about the same share of the population they were in 1870. Probably when 2017 figures come in, we will find that Lutherans made up under 2% of the national population.

But there’s nothing Lutherans love more than infighting. So let’s bicker about about who is the worst.

Here’s the same data, broken out into three major categories back to 1890.

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From 1890 onwards, I have sufficiently detailed denominational data to track the denominations that eventually formed the present-day denominations of Lutheranism. And the result is that if we group Lutheranism into 3 big categories that are broadly “progressive/modernist” (ELCA and its precursors), “conservative/traditionalist” (LCMS, WELS, minor synods, and their precursors), and “conservative/modernist” (ELCA breakaways), we get some neat trends. First of all, the most severe decline is in ELCA. This is probably not due to demographic differences: according to Pew, “mainline Lutheranism,” meaning mostly ELCA, is actually ever so slightly younger than “evangelical Lutheranism,” meaning LCMS and WELS. Comparing LCMS to ELCA, ELCA is a very slight bit older than LCMS, but LCMS’ median age is probably rising faster.

In other words, this isn’t just about ELCA having more old people going the way of all flesh.

Neither is it fertility differences. While the data on this is somewhat limited, it turns out that a higher share of ELCA or other mainline Lutherans have children under age 18 than LCMS or other conservative Lutherans. Now, this is a weak indicator, because it’s highly sensitive to birth spacing and other underlying demographics, but the point is, there’s no evidence of a huge difference in birth rates here, certainly not one that favor’s conservatives. This is in contrast to, say, the Mormons, where over 40% of adult Mormons are a parent of a child under age 18.

All forms of Lutheranism have a very low rate of immigrants and racial minorities among them, and none of them are statistically different in either regard, which suggests that this isn’t a story about racial differences or immigration either.

In other words, this is a story about religious switching. ELCA has a higher rate of net switching out than the conservative denominations do.

But of course it does! I made a whole category for “ELCA breakaways”! How we count those people is tricky. Should NALC and LCMC be counted as part of ELCA, or part of the conservative wing?

Here’s each denominational grouping’s indexed population share since 1980:

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If you just compare conservatives and progressives, the progressive decline has been worse, but it’s not much worse. If you add the breakaways back in with the progressives, even though the breakaways were explicitly schisming from a more progressive church, then progressives with breakaways included do a little bit better than conservatives. But if you lump the breakaways in with the groups they were moving towards, then conservatives with breakaways do way better than progressives. Counting NALC and LCMC in with “more conservative Lutheranism,” fairly explicitly conservative denominations have had about 33% decline in population share since 1980, vs. 47% decline for progressives.

Arguing about who is facing church-ending-demographic-disaster-soonest is a very Lutheran thing to do.


Whither Now, Lutheran?

I’ll make just a few notes here. First of all, for every 3 people claimed as members by a Lutheran denomination, there are about 5 people who claim to be Lutheran in surveys. The Pew Religious Landscape Survey turned up about 11.5 million “Lutherans” in 2014, vs. about 6.8 million official baptized members. That is to say, there are a lot of nominal Lutherans out there. These are people who on some level accept the identity of “Lutheran,” and may regard Lutheran-situated value claims as having some meaning in their life, but who are not on the books (or probably attending church) anywhere.

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Some denominations have more of these marginal identifiers. Some have fewer. But here’s the thing: baptized membership is about 60% of LCMS reported adherency, and about 58% for WELS. For all “mainline evangelicals,” it’s about 70%.

For ELCA? For ELCA apparently 94% of self-reported adherents are baptised members. I want to note that that is a bit odd. The Episcopal Church has about 63%. The United Methodist Church has about 63% as well. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, claim to have about 92%. Roman Catholics have about 105% of self-reporting adherents claimed as members. Mormons are even more impressive: apparently with every 5 people who claim to be a Mormon, a 6th Mormon magically appears! Claimed membership is 119% of self-reported adherency.

I would humbly suggest that some of these numbers are *ahem* implausible. That is, that a common definition of membership is not being used. Some denominations have different views of membership than others, with the result that some more aggressively maintain their membership lists. I would suggest that perhaps ELCA is not maintaining its membership rolls quite in the same way that LCMS and WELS do, with the result that membership is overstated. Unless you want to argue that ELCA is just so much better at tying self-identity to formal membership which, cool, show me some evidence.

Meanwhile, there are probably at least 1.1 or 1.2 million people today who identify as LCMS but are not a member anywhere. Probably another 200,000 WELS, and another 200,000 to 400,000 other assorted conservative Lutherans. It’s really kind of incredible to think that half of the nation’s self-identifying evangelical Lutherans (meaning, here, more conservative Lutherans) aren’t part of any actual religious body. They’re floating around in the ether somewhere. This is a population that needs to be served.

Much of Lutheranism’s initial growth in America came from itinerant pastor-missionaries knocking on doors, looking for people who spoke German, and hauling them to Lutheran churches. These were people who may have been committed Lutherans in Germany (or Norway, or Sweden, or Latvia, or wherever), or they may not have been. But they were people who were open to the idea that Lutheranism meant something; they shared a language (literal and figurative), and they knocked on doors until they found people who spoke it.

There are something like 3.5–4 million American Lutheran-identifiers who are not formally part of any church. That’s about 1.1 or 1.2% of the national population. If we use some rough estimates of the Lutheran share of various immigrant groups in the 1800s, then it turns out that the share of “nominal but unattached Lutherans” is probably about the same today as it was between 1850 and 1870, when the country was packed with recent German and Scandinavian immigrants, just after the “Great Saxon Migration” LCMS folks like to talk about.

And that’s not even including recent immigrants themselves! The success of Lutheranism in demographic terms has historically rested on immigration. Here’s a fun graph:

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Huge majorities of Lutheran churches maintained major non-English worship practices or services as late as WWII. I know somebody who grew up and was baptised in a Norwegian mission church in the 1970s and they spoke Norwegian in the service. Immigration has always been in our church’s bones.

Today, approximately 3% of the Lutherans Pew tracks are immigrants. Put another way, about 0.8% of immigrants claim to be Lutheran, versus 3.6% of Americans on the whole. I suspect when we make the adjustment for church membership, the picture may be even starker.

Of course, immigrant-origin countries have changed. We aren’t going to get a wave of Lutherans from some big Lutheran country.

Well, I mean, probably. There are 8 million Lutherans in Ethiopia. There are 7 million in Tanzania. There are 6 million in Indonesia! 6 million! India has 4 million more! I could go on. The sum of the story is that a lot of very big immigrant-sending countries turn out to have similar numbers of Lutherans as the US has. I get that our German/Scandinavian churches are very accustomed to having assorted sausages and Oktoberfest beer at events, but it might be time to learn to like injera, or have a plate of dosai at the potluck. There are more Lutherans eating a daily meal of rice than pretzels, and there may be more Lutherans eating nasi goreng than lutefisk.

So how many immigrants are there from countries with large Lutheran populations, that is, immigrants who, even if not Lutheran, probably have been exposed to our churches, our schools, and some of our teachings, and likely respect them?

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That line, you see, is going up. But of course, most immigrants from countries with Lutheran churches are never going to be open to evangelism. So let’s make a simple assumption. Let’s assume that a mere 10% of these people are somehow nominally attached to Lutheranism, by familial confession, or perhaps just positive reputational image due to Lutheran schools. In 2014, that would be about 750,000 immigrants from countries with Lutherans who probably are Lutheran or have very positive views towards Lutherans. In 2014, there were about 350,000 immigrants total within all Lutheran churches, and the racial demographics of those churches suggest most of those immigrants are actually from countries with very few Lutherans, that is, Latin America. So there are probably at least half-a-million or so Probably-Open-to-Lutheranism-or-Already-Consider-Themselves-Lutheran-Right-Now immigrants in the United States.

Fertility is falling. I’d love to see that reverse, but I’m a realist: it probably won’t turn on a dime. Population aging is real. If we want our churches to be fiscally solvent as places where the next generation can hear the gospel, be catechized, commune, and have spiritual fellowship as a church, we gotta start looking out the door. Even if we do nothing but sticking to low-hanging-fruit like nominal Lutherans and immigrants already biased in our favor, that’s about 3.5–5 million people, a huge mission field. And if you allow yourselves to imagine (gasp) that people without pre-existing proclivities towards Lutheranism might be moved along by the spirit to consider the freedom to be found in the gospel, it gets even larger.

But look, it’s fine to ignore this stuff. We can just let whoever wanders in on Sunday be our whole mission field. And then we get the pleasure of wringing our hands ferociously and complaining about how society is getting worse and why can’t our young people find somebody to settle down with and, hey, when are you going to have kids, anyways? And it is fun to revel in irony and bathe in despair for the societal future of the church. But what may be less fun but more helpful is to evangelize to others.


PS- I cited a book called “Factors in the Expansion of the Methodist Episcopal Church: 1784–1812.” It’s my grandpa’s dissertation! I never knew it existed until this winter, as I had never heard him talk about it. It’s a historical population geography of Methodist church growth, 1784–1812, but has tons of data on other churches too. Also, here’s a picture of one of the many maps my grandpa made for the book back in 1954:

Guys! The compulsive mapping… it appears to be a genetic condition. I never knew about this book until a few months ago. Who knew that my writing was just picking up on my grandpa’s work?

I’m an Advisor at Demographic Intelligence, the nation’s leading producer of rigorous national- and regional birth and marriage forecasts. I’m also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a Senior Contributor at The Federalist, and I write periodically for Vox’s Big Idea column. I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth. I am not paid one penny by anybody for this blog post.

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DISCLAIMER: My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

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