Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004


The branch of the Western Christian church that adopted the religious principles of Martin Luther (1483-1546), as opposed to those of the Roman Catholic Church and of the followers of John Calvin (1509-1564), the Anglican Communion, and the sectaries of the Reformation period. Lutheran churches often term themselves Evangelical as distinct from Reformed, but these uses are not always strictly applied.

Lutheranism cannot be defined or understood without some reference to the personal experience and the biblical studies of Luther, which came to voice in 1517 in his famous Ninety-five Theses for debate over indulgences and in his attack on the theology and sacramental practice of the late medieval church of the West. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated; his followers accepted the designation “Lutheran? in part against his will and in spite of the fact that it was filled, in many instances, with implications of derision and sectarianism. The Lutheran movement spread from the Wittenberg University through much of Germany and into Scandinavia, where it was established by law.

The theological vigour of Luther's generation gave way to an arid orthodoxy in the late 16th and 17th centuries. This in turn precipitated a pietist reaction that asserted the need for living faith in addition to right doctrine (see Pietism). The Pietists encouraged missionary and charitable work in addition to devotional practice. Eighteenth-century Lutheranism was marked by Rationalist influences. Orthodoxy was reasserted during the next century, notably by the Danish bishop and poet N.F.S. Grundtvig. Grundtvig's contemporary and countryman Søren Kierkegaard criticized orthodoxy and the state church through a highly personalized philosophy that was to form the basis of Existentialism.

In America, Lutherans were among the earliest colonists to settle in New Netherland and New Sweden (on the Delaware River), and they were followed by German colonists who settled especially in the present Middle Atlantic states, the Shenandoah Valley, Georgia, and Nova Scotia, Canada. Because of some geographic and much linguistic isolation and because the majority of American Protestantism was at first of Reformed background, Lutheranism did not play a major role in shaping the early political and religious complexion of the nation.

The geographic spread of Lutheranism in the United States was extended by migrations to the western frontier and by the large immigrations during the 19th and early 20th centuries of Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns. Many of these immigrants settled in the Midwest, and from there later pushed on to the far West. Since immigrants brought with them from Europe a variety of languages and customs, they organized in congregations and later synods according to their national origins. It was largely the prolongation of linguistic and ethnic barriers that prevented Lutheran union until well into the 20th century, when the barriers broke down and advance into intra-Lutheran ecumenical relations became rapid.

Lutheran doctrinal statements are usually said to include nine separate formulations that together form the Book of Concord. Three belong to the early Christian church—the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed in its western form, and the so-called Athanasian Creed. Six derive from the 16th-century Reformation—the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Schmalkald Articles, Luther's two Catechisms, and the Formula of Concord. Only the three early creeds and the Augsburg Confession are recognized by all Lutherans. Luther's Catechisms have met almost universal acceptance, but many Lutheran churches rejected the Formula of Concord because of its strict and detailed doctrinal statements. The Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism may properly be said to define Lutheranism inclusively in its doctrinal aspect, though Lutherans may be divided on many issues raised since the Augsburg Confession of 1530.

The largest and one of the oldest of non-Roman Catholic, non-Orthodox families of Christians, Lutheranism is represented in most areas of the world, but its particular geographic orientation has been in northern and western Europe and in younger countries settled by Germans and Scandinavians. It has been represented with less strength in Switzerland, the Low Countries, and Scotland, where Reformed confessions predominated, and it has been a secondary influence in the British empire and the Commonwealth of Nations, where the Anglican communion has prevailed. Because of early and persistent efforts of continental missionary societies and later separate Lutheran denominations, Lutheranism has been significantly represented in the mission fields and in the formation of what were formerly called the younger churches.

Lutheranism acknowledges no world headquarters, but the vast majority of the world's Lutherans cooperate in the Lutheran World Federation, which has offices in Geneva.

Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


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