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The Lutheran movement is a group of denominations of Protestant Christianity by the original definition. See Protestantism for further discussion.


History of Lutheranism

Early history

Lutheranism as a movement traces its origin to the work of Martin Luther, a German religious scholar who sought to reform the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century.

The symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation occurred on October 31, 1517, when professor Luther posted an open invitation to debate his 95 theses (statements) involving current Roman Catholic dogma and practices upon the door of All Saints Church (customarily used as a notice board by the University) attached to the castle in Wittenberg, Saxony (Germany).

Between 1517 and 1520, Luther preached and published his scathing criticisms of the Roman Church in books and pamphlets. His ideas were supported by many other Christian theologians, and they also had a certain populist appeal. As a result, Luther gained many supporters and followers from all levels of society, from peasants who considered him a folk hero, to knights who swore to protect him, to rulers of German lands who wanted more independence from papal interference in their domestic policies. Luther also gained some powerful enemies, including the Pope in Rome and the youthful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Concerned about the "problem" of Luther, the Pope and Roman Catholic officials decided to send Luther the papal bull called the "Exsurge Domine" in 1520, which called on Luther to recant and abandon his ideas, with the unspoken threat of being killed if he did not recant (the Roman Church had killed earlier would-be reformers, notaby Czech reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake). Luther and a group of his supporters publicly burned the document in December of 1520.

Angered, Charles V wanted to outlaw Luther and his followers, but he was warned by advisors that doing so outright would cause a revolt, since Luther had become so popular. More importantly, the ruler of Luther's land, Frederick the Wise, refused to allow any of his subjects to be condemned without trial. So instead, Luther was to be summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms, where he was to recant his ideas publicly. Luther went to Worms (pronounced Vorms), but when called upon by Roman Catholic officials to recant, Luther made a historic stand, saying the following: "I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture ... I cannot and will not retract ... Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God, Amen!" --Martin Luther, April 16, 1521

Luther had been granted a Safe Conduct to travel to and from his trial, but remembering how a similar promise had been violated in the case of Jan Hus, Luther's supporters prevailed upon him to escape from Worms in the dark of night, before he too could be seized and executed. Luther remained in hiding for some time, all the while continuing to write and develop his ideas. Shortly after Luther escaped, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, which outlawed Luther and his followers, declared Luther and his followers heretics, and banned Luther's writings.

Other Protestant reformers

The Lutheran movement was bolstered by the work of several reformers, primarily among the early leaders was Philipp Melanchthon (a colleague of Luther's at the Leucorea University in Wittenberg), Huldreich Zwingli, and John Calvin (the founder of the Calvinist movement).

Religious war

What had started as a stricly theological and academic debate had now turned into something of a social and political conflict as well, pitting the Luther and his German supporters against the king of Spain (the francophone Charles V who also ruled the Low Countries, the New World and the Holy Roman Empire -- of which Germany was then a part), and the Italian Pope, as well as the supporters of the latter two. The conflict would erupt even further into a religious war, fueled by the political climate of the Holy Roman Empire and strong personalities on both sides.

At the 1526 session of the Diet, meeting that year in Speyer, it was decided that, until a General Council could meet and settle the theological issues raised by Martin Luther, the Edict of Worms would not be enforced and each Prince could decide if Lutheran teachings and worship would be allowed in his territories (Cuius regio, eius religio). But the 1529 session, also meeting Speyer, the decision the previous Diet of Speyer was reversed — despite the strong protests of the Lutheran princes and free cities (giving rise to the term protestant).

Lutheranism would become known as a separate movement after the 1530 Diet of Augsburg, which was convened by Charles V to try to stop the growing Protestant movement. At the Diet, Philipp Melanchthon presented a written summary of Lutheran beliefs called the Augsburg Confession. Several of the German princes (and later, kings and princes of other countries) signed the document to define "Lutheran" territories. These princes would ally to create the Schmalkaldic League in 1531, which lead to the Schmalkald War that pitted the Lutheran princes of the Schmalkaldic League against the Roman Catholic forces of Charles V.

After the conclusion of the Schmalkald War, Charles V attempted to impose Roman Catholic religious doctrine on the territories that he had defeated. However, the Lutheran movement was far from defeated. In 1577, the next generation of Lutheran theologians gathered the work of the previous generation to define the doctrine of the persisting Lutheran church. This document is known as the Formula of Concord, and in 1580, all documents were bound and distributed in a volume titled The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. This book is still used today, and is referred to as the Book of Concord.

Results of the Lutheran Reformation

Luther and his followers began a large exodus from the Roman Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation. In the years and decades following Luther's posting of the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, large numbers of Europeans left the Roman Church, including the vast majority of Germanic people (the only Germanics who remained in the Catholic church were those under the domain and/or influence of Roman Catholic Austria). Because Luther sparked this mass movement, he is known as the father of the Protestant Reformation, and the father of Protestantism in general.

Today, 1 out every 4 Christians in the world is a Protestant, and 1 out of every 5 Protestants in the world is a Lutheran. Approximately 5 out of every 100 Christians in the world is a Lutheran.

Lutheran doctrine

The Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (formal principle)

One of the signature teachings of the Lutheran Reformation is the teaching named Sola scriptura -- "Scripture alone." Lutherans believe that the Bible is the only standard by which teachings and doctrines can be judged. Lutherans also hold that the Holy Scripture is explained and interpreted by the Book of Concord -- a series of Confessions of faith composed by Lutherans in the 16th Century. Traditionally, Lutheran pastors, congregations and church bodies agree to teach in harmony with the the Book of Concord because it teaches and faithfully explains the Word of God. For this reason, Lutherans who follow the Book of Concord closely, especially conservative Lutherans, often refer to themselves as Confessional Lutherans. Other Lutherans, who agree with the main teachings of the Lutheran Confessions, but may take exception to some of its doctrine, subscribe to the Book of Concord in so far as they are in harmony with Holy Scripture.

Some Lutheran church bodies also teach Biblical inerrancy. Others adopt the viewpoint that the Bible contains God's Word, but is essentially a human document, subject to error in non-spiritual matters. Those who hold to the former reject modern liberal scholarship, while those that hold to the latter embrace it.

Central doctrines (material principle)

The central teaching of Lutheranism is the doctrine of salvation by God's grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide) for the sake of Christ's merit alone (Sola Christus). Lutherans believe that God made the world perfect, holy and sinless. However, Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, trusting in their own strength, knowledge and wisdom. Because of this Original Sin -- the sin from which all other sins come -- all of human beings are born sinful and sinners. For Lutherans, it is not actual sins -- the sinful acts committed by an individual -- that earn God's wrath. It is who they are that condemns them.

Lutherans teach that sinners cannot do anything to satisfy God's justice. Every human thought and deed is believed to be colored by sin and sinful motives. God must intervene in this world because He loves sinners and, by His grace alone -- His free gift of mercy -- a person is forgiven, adopted as a child of God and given eternal salvation.

Lutherans believe that individuals receive this gift of salvation by faith alone -- a full and complete trust in God's promises to forgive and to save. Even faith itself is seen as a gift of God, created in the hearts of Christians when they hear God's Word preached and when they are baptized.

Lutherans teach that salvation is possible only because of the birth, perfect life of obedience, sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus Christ, Lutherans believe God and Man meet. Because He is God, He is sinless and so a worthy sacrifice, without spot or blemish. Because He is a man, He could die. In His death, death is destroyed, our debt paid for and our sins forgiven.

Lutherans believe that all who trust in Jesus alone can be sure of their salvation. They teach that, at death Christians are immediately taken into the presence of God in Heaven, where they await the resurrection of the body at the second coming of Christ.

Most Lutherans also teach:

  • Single Predestination: God chose to save His children before the world was created, but does not predestine the lost to be damned. Unlike Calvin, who said explained how the reprobate come to be damned (double predestination), Luther said it was a mystery-something which humanity cannot, and probably should not, comprehend.
  • Infant Baptism
  • Baptismal Regeneration
  • The Real Presence of Christ's Body and Blood "in, with and under" the Bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.
  • Amillennialism

For an overview of Lutheran theology, see:

ELCA Perspective: Braaten, Carl E., Principles of Lutheran Theology Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

LCMS Perspective: Pieper, Franz. Christian dogmatics. Saint Louis, Mo. : Concordia Pub. House, 1950-1957.

Lutheran religious practices

Lutherans generally place great emphasis on a liturgical approach to worship services; music also forms a large part of a traditional Lutheran service. Lutheran hymns are sometimes known as chorales, and Luther himself composed hymns and hymn tunes, the most famous of which is "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" ("Ein Feste Burg"). Many Lutheran churches have active music ministries, including choirs, hand-bell choirs, children's choirs and sometimes carillon societies (to ring bells in a bell tower). Johann Sebastian Bach, a devout Lutheran, composed music for the Lutheran church.

Children's ministries are considered fundamental in most Lutheran churches. Almost all maintain Sunday Schools, and many host or maintain private nursery-schools, primary schools, regional high schools and universities. Lutheran pastors and staff are repeatedly reminded that most evangelism occurs within the church, with children.

Pastors usually teach in the common language of the parish. In the U.S., some congregations and synods traditionally taught in German or Norwegian, but this custom is now declining.

Pastors almost always have substantial theological educations, including Greek and Hebrew so that they can refer directly to the canonical Christian scriptures in the original language. Lutheran pastors may marry and have families.

Lutheran ecumenism

Lutherans believe in the idea that there should be a single Christian church, and a single Christian faith. This belief is ingrained in the Lutheran confessions, and reflects the history of Lutheranism as a reform movement rather than a separatist movement.

For that reason, a number of modern Lutheran denominations, now largely separated from state control, are reaching out to other Lutheran denominations as well as other Christian denominations.

However, more conservative varieties of Lutheran strive to maintain historical distinctiveness.

The largest organizations of Lutheran churches around the world are the Lutheran World Federation and the International Lutheran Council, which include the great majority of Lutheran denominations around the globe.

Lutheranism in the United States

In the U.S., congregations are grouped into over 20 different denominations. The three largest Lutheran bodies in the United States are, in order of size: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the more conservative Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the even more conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). These denominations provide seminaries, pastoral care, and Sunday School and liturgical materials. Local congregations contribute funds to support them and receive services and materials. Denominations help to start new congregations affiliated with them.

Denomination organization

The ELCA is divided into 64 geographical and 1 non-geographical synods. The ELCA has "Full Communion" agreements with The Episcopal Church (named Called to Common Mission), the Moravian Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Churches in the United States. The ELCA permits the ordination of women to the pastoral office, and is currently studying the issue of Censored page, and will decide at its 2005 Churchwide assembly whether to bless same-sex marriage and clergy in active same-sex relationships.

The LCMS is a single synod divided into 35 districts. It permits only qualified men to serve as pastors. It encourages women to be active in the church and affirms women's sufferage, but it limits some forms of lay leadership (for example, president of a congregation) to men only. The LCMS does not permit active homosexuals to serve in the ministry, and it has affirmed marriage as being between one man and one woman. LCMS teaches "Levels of Fellowship", Close Communion, and has undergone recent internal struggles regarding participation of its clergy in interfaith "events". Particularly controversial was the post-911 "A Prayer for America", held at Yankee Stadium, in which a higher-ranking clergyman offered a prayer alongside representatives of various faiths.

The WELS consists of a single synod. As with the LCMS, it permits only qualified men to serve as pastors and adopts similar positions on homosexuality and marriage. WELS does not support women's sufferage in the church. WELS teaches the "Unit Concept" of fellowship. Strict adherence to this requires a refraining from all worship, including prayer, with those not in fellowship with WELS.

Inter-deomination relations

U.S. denominations differ on doctrine and practice. Doctrinally the denominations differ primarily based on the degree of authority they place on the written text of Scripture. The ELCA subscribes to the "historical-critical " method of Scripture interpretation, which attempts to interpret the text discounted for the historical, cultural, or scientific limitations or biases imposed by the original writers. Many members of the ELCA believe that higher criticism represents the best efforts of modern scholarship.

The LCMS and WELS follow the traditional "historical-grammatical " method of interpreting the Scripture text, which seeks to understand the text as it is written within the context of history, culture, and language.

As a result of doctorinal differences, cooperation between different denominations varies. There is collaboration on some forms of outreach (for example, Lutheran World Relief). In worship practice, however, the conservative demoninations practice typically practice close(d) communion, limiting celebration of the eucharist to those within their own denominations out of concern for doctrinal differences.

Lutheran publishers

English-language publishers of books on Luther and Lutheran theology

  1. Concordia Publishing House (LCMS)
  2. Augsburg Fortress and Fortress Press (ELCA)
  3. Northwestern Publishing House (WELS)
  4. Openbook Publishers (Lutheran Church of Australia)
  5. Ambassador Publications (AFLC)

Modern Lutheranism in Europe

Lutheranism is the state religion of several Scandinavian countries in Northern Europe, including Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. In these countries, the churches are supported directly by taxes. With the extension of the European Union, the status of state churches is largely revised; they remain a State Church but win greater autonomy. In Sweden, Lutheranism was the state religion up until the year 2000. The church is no longer supported by taxes, but the fees are collected similarly to taxes. Lutheranism is also prominent in Estonia, and Latvia. Members of the predominant churches in Germany, whether Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic are also required by the state to pay a church tax in addition to their normal income tax. Certain parts of Germany are traditionally Lutheran (generally towards the north and east) while others are historically Catholic (especially Bavaria and areas along the Rhine). Modern mobility and a decrease in religiosity have, however, been instrumental in shifting the demographic situation, as did the movements of German refugees from areas lost to Poland and Russia as a result of World War Two.

Notably, the European churches have very low attending memberships at the offices; due to the history of those European churches, most parts of them knew persecution during the 17th and 18th centuries. The church attendance on Sunday is not decisive and houses offices are still perennial, particularly in southern Europe. Most people feel it is more important to attend to the lot of conference and training and Biblical studies. So, in northern Europe many attend religious services only for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. Confirmation is treated seriously and is usually delayed until the end of the high school courses. The Lutheran confirmation training usually constitutes the largest exposure of Northern Europeans to Christian doctrines.

Except in Northern Europe (see above), very few seminaries are state-supported. Due to large agreements like the Concorde de Leuenberg (1962), involving many churches raising from the Reformation the training for students in theology embraces a wide range of theologies including modern and contemporary movements in biblical criticism and theology.

Many major seaports contain an outpost of the Norwegian Lutheran church to provide aid, social opportunities and pastoral care for visiting Norwegian seamen. Few Norwegian Lutheran pastors achieve their pastoral care in foreign countries such as France.

Number of Lutherans worldwide

Europe 66 million

  • Germany - 40 million 1
  • Sweden - 7.8 million 2
  • Denmark - 5.1 million 2
  • Finland - 4.7 million 2
  • Norway - 4 million 2
  • Latvia - 1.3 million 3
  • Estonia - 1.1 million 3
  • Hungary - 500,000 3
  • Iceland - 250,000 2
  • Others - 1 million

North America 19 million

  • USA 18 million 4
  • Canada - 800,000

Africa 11 million

  • Ethiopia - 3.3 million 5
  • Tanzania - 2.2 million 5
  • Madagascar - 1.5 million 5
  • Namibia - 900,000 5
  • South Africa - 850,000 5
  • Nigeria - 650,000 5
  • Others - 1.3 million

Asia 6 million

  • Indonesia - 2.4 million 5
  • India - 1.3 million 5
  • Papua New Guinea - 900,000 5
  • Australia - 250,000 5
  • Others 800,000

Latin America & Brazil 2 million

  • All Spanish speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere - 1 million
  • Brazil - 1 million 6

Total 104 million

notes: This list includes all people who are at least nominally Lutheran, not just those who are members of a Lutheran Church. Numbers rounded.


  1. The EKD (German Evangelical Church) released a figure in November 2004 that says that 26 million Germans (31.3% of the national population) are members of a Lutheran church. says that about half of the German population (40 million people) is at least nominally Lutheran.
  2. Data on Scandinavian countries is from the CIA Factbook: Denmark , Finland , Iceland , Norway , Sweden .
  3. Data on other European countries from
  4. The US government does not collect data on religious identification (it is against US law for the government to ask the people about their religion), but based on several independent surveys conducted between 1990 and 2004, 6% of Americans (about 18 million people) are self-identified Lutherans. About 9 million Americans are members of Lutheran churches, another 9 million are not church-members but still consider themselves Lutherans.
  5. Numbers for Asia and Africa are from the LWF and from
  6. The most reliable estimate for the number of Lutherans in Brazil is 1 million, although some sources put the number as high as 4 million.

Famous American Lutherans

See the complete List of famous Lutherans

Some of the most famous Lutherans today are:

See also

External links

  • Luther Search
  • The Augsburg Confession
  • The Augsburg Confession (1530) in HTML
  • Project Wittenberg online archive
  • The Book of Concord
  • Another version of the Book of Concord
  • Famous Lutherans

Last updated: 02-07-2005 04:22:05
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55