The American Civil War caused splits between Northern and Southern churches in most of the major denominations in the country. The Lutheran Church was no exception. The 19th century saw the Lutheran Church in America torn by doctrinal disputes and rocked by organizational rancor. When Southern Lutherans separated from their Northern counterparts, it was only one of several major challenges faced by the church.
The Lutheran faith came to the United States with Lutheran immigrants from Europe. These immigrants banded together first in congregations and then in territorial synods, affiliations of several congregations. In 1820 a constitution was drafted to join several territorial synods into an organization known as the General Synod. According to Sydney Ahlstrom in his "Religious History of the American People," by 1860 the General Synod had 164,000 communicants and comprised two-thirds of the Lutherans in the America. The other third were mostly recent immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia who preferred the doctrines, practices and language of the Lutheran Church of their native country to the American culture of the General Synod.
In 1863 Southern Lutheran Churches from the General Synod split to form the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Confederate States of America, which later became known as the United Synod of the South. The General Synod continued to serve most of the Northern Lutheran congregations. Around that time, however, European immigrants formed the Augustana Synod, which was mostly Swedish; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, which was German and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. Because German and Scandinavian immigrants settled mainly in the north, their Lutheran organizations were less affected by the secession of the South than the General Synod.
Causes of the Split
The United Synod of the South split away partially due to practical reasons. They found it difficult to maintain communion with an organization when members were at war with that organization's nation. The other cause of the split, however, was slavery. The Northern church believed slavery to be a sin. At the 20th Convention of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States in May 1962, delegates passed a resolution declaring the war to be "a righteous judgment of God, visited upon us because of the individual and national sins." Among those sins was playing a part in the institution of slavery. Delegates called on states with legalized slavery to "initiate a system of constitutional emancipation." Southern Lutherans considered these proclamations to be meddling in affairs that should be in the domain of the individual states.
After the War
After the war, the United Synod of the South returned to communion and cordial relations with the General Synod, but they decided not to rejoin the organization. The Northern church of the time was torn with various social and doctrinal controversies. Immigrant groups were assimilating poorly into mainstream Lutheranism. The United Synod of the South felt its needs would be served best if it remained a separate administrative unit. It was not until 1918 that the organizational split caused by the war was mended.
- A Religious History of the American People; Sydney E. Ahlstrom
- Dictionary of Christianity in America; Daniel G. Reid
- The Catholic Encyclopedia: Lutheranism
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: A Lutheran Resolution on the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s Response to a Lutheran Delegation
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: ELCA Family History
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