Lutherans Making a World of Difference: Planting and Deepening the American Church

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As the year slips away, I’m grateful for the notable Lutherans we’ve looked at in the first nine monthly columns—and I’m mindful of the scores of “Lutherans making a world of difference” we haven’t even mentioned yet. So, this month we focus on four individuals who helped plant and deepen the Lutheran movement in North America.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787) is often called the patriarch of Lutherans in America. Born in Einbeck, Germany, he was educated for ministry at the University of Gottingen and the University of Halle—a center for Lutheran pietism. In 1742 Muhlenberg was sent as a missionary to America, landing in Charleston, SC, and making his way to Philadelphia, PA. At that time Lutheran congregations were scattered across the eastern seaboard, and they represented various ethnic groups.

Theses scattered congregations also lacked a cohesive organization and a plan for growing the church in America. During Muhlenberg’s forty-five years of ministry in America, he struggled against schismatics and imposters, travelled incessantly, corresponded widely and set a course of Lutheranism for coming generations.

Muhlenberg preached in German, Dutch, and English—and he had a powerful voice. Muhlenberg established the first Lutheran synod in America, the Ministerium of Pennsylvania in 1748 when the first delegates met in Philadelphia. Muhlenberg also submitted a liturgy to the Ministerium which became the only authorized Lutheran liturgy in America for the next forty years.

Muhlenberg’s concern with questions of stewardship, pastoral care, and education strengthened the church life of Lutheranism in America. In this fashion he aided greatly in the transition from the state churches of Europe to the free churches of America.

Muhlenberg and his sons made their mark not just on the Lutheran church, but on American public life as well. One son served as a general under George Washington; another son became a member of the Continental Congress and was later the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.[1]

William Alfred Passavant (1821-1894) was another pioneer of American Lutheranism in the 19th century—a time that witnessed an upsurge of organized Christian social concern and welfare in Europe. Through the efforts of Theodore Fliedner (1800-1864) an institution for the education of deaconesses was begun in Kaiserwerth, Germany, in 1833. By the late 1840s “inner mission” societies, offering opportunities for works of love motivated by faith, sprang up in many places—starting in Germany, spreading to Scandinavia and eventually to America.

Passavant had the distinction of establishing the largest number orphanages, hospitals, homes for the aged, and other institutions of mercy among Lutherans in America. In addition to his “inner mission” work, Pasavant also edited church publications and helped found the Pittsburgh Synod in 1845 and the General Council in 1867.[2]

Elizabeth Fedde (1850-1921) was trained as a deaconess in Lovisenberg, Norway and in 1882 was invited to come to New York City to take up a ministry to the Norwegian seamen in port and on the ships in the harbor. Beginning humbly in 1883, the Norwegian Relief Society started out in three small rented rooms in a building next to the Seamen’s Church. From this small beginning, the Lutheran deaconess movement grew to include a Lutheran Deaconess house in Brooklyn, NY. Over the next years Sr. Elizabeth established the Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital of the Lutheran Free Church in Minneapolis.[3] The Lutheran deaconess movement spread to almost all lands where there are Lutheran churches, and by the mid-twentieth century there were over 35,000 deaconesses serving parishes, schools, hospitals, and prisons.[4]

Eric Norelius (1833-1916), born in Sweden, hoped to become a minister, but his family didn’t have the financial means to provide for his education. On the advice of a pastor he came to America in 1850, after a sea voyage that lasted seventy-five days. Finding his way to a major Swedish settlement in Andover, IL, he because acquainted with the settlement’s founder, Pastor Lars P. Esbjorn, who befriended Norelius and made it possible for him to study for the ministry at Capital University in Columbus, OH. Following his ordination Norelius spent the next sixty years as a missionary pastor, evangelist, publisher, humanitarian and churchman.[5]

Norelius is remembered as one of the founders of Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN. He is also credited with helping establish Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota in 1865, when the congregation he was serving (Vasa Lutheran Church near Red Wing, MN) opened its church to care for four orphans who had recently emigrated from Sweden. Pastor Norelius at first arranged care for the orphans in a refurbished church basement. This later became Vasa Children’s Home, Minnesota’s first and oldest orphanage. Pastor Norelius saw children in need and came up with a community response that inspired hope and changed their lives and the life of the community.[6]

For Reflection and Response

  • Muhlenberg kept an amazing journal, covering his over four decades of pastoral ministry. His entry for June 12, 1763 includes the following reflections: “Second Sunday after Trinity. Violent, steady rain…..We sang, as chief hymn, ‘Komt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn.’ I baptized a child. Preached on the Gospel text: ‘And yet here is room.’ Afterwards I made another announcement concerning the outstanding pew rents. At noon I went with my wife to neighbor Matthias Landeberger’s and baptized his little daughter. About 2 p.m. I waded with the funeral director to Peter Bluhm’s and to Philip Sensefelder’s and escorted their two children’s funerals to the church. After the burial I stopped in at the home of Peter Draess, the sick elder, whose wife was just then in labor pains. From there I went to Mr. John Graef’s, where I married William Davis, widower, and Jane Muller, widow. I was summoned to Mr. Georg Bluhm, a Reformed man, and his wife, to baptize their little son. When I got home I had to marry John Closs and Susanna McLean. In the evening I went with my wife to Mr. John Graef’s, where a group of their friends had assembled. We dined with them and had edifying conversation. During the night I was much afflicted with headache.”[7] What do you think ministry was like for Muhlenberg and the other early Lutheran pastors in America? How has ministry changed over the years?
  • Did you know that, thanks to pioneers like Passavant, Fedde, and Norelius Lutherans today sponsor one of the largest networks of health care and human services in America? Learn about Lutheran Services in America by visiting their website:

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.


[1] Philip H. Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship (Augsburg, 1980), pp. 388-390.

[2] E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in North America (Fortress Press, 1975), pp.197-198.

[3] Pfatteicher, pp. 98-99.

[4] Pfatteicher, p. 382.

[5] Nelson, p. 167.


[7] Quoted in Gail Ramshaw, More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 236.