The setting for the rise and development of Lutheranism was the small university town of Wittenberg, Germany, in the early part of the sixteenth century. It was there that the young monk priest Martin Luther formed certain concepts and attitudes not in harmony with the Catholic tradition. As professor and religious leader in that part of the Kingdom of Saxony, he had won the support of nobility and intellectuals alike in taking a stand against certain practices of the medieval church.
By recommending to the Elector of Saxony in 1527 the appointment of “authorized visitors” in the place of the former Catholic bishops to go into the parishes of Saxony and set aright the faltering and confused local congregations, Luther laid the foundation for the eventual establishment of the Lutheran Church.
Although Luther chose to refer to this Christian body that he initiated as the Evangelical Holy Catholic Church of Saxony, those who espoused and fostered his teachings and polity persisted in identifying the movement with his name.
The fact that Luther referred to the church that was emerging under his reforming influence as the “True Catholic Church,” known traditionally and officially by that name, reveals in part his great desire to conservatively hold on to as much as possible of the tradition.
It might also explain in some measure why Lutheranism has shown little departure from medieval Catholicism.
To appreciate Luther’s feelings, one must realize that he was a devout Catholic during his early life and that he departed only with great reluctance from this tradition. Regardless of the historical tendency to refer to Luther as a Protestant reformer, he began his reforming within the Catholic Church. He was a Catholic reformer before he was a Protestant reformer. Most students of Lutheran biography agree that Luther had no intention of getting himself excommunicated or of organizing a movement outside the framework of the mother church. However, he eventually found himself being swept along by the flood after he himself had lifted the floodgate and had been carried beyond the point of no return.
This exposition does not review the early life of Luther, but to ignore the particularly soul-struggling period of his life during which he developed the concepts and attitudes and interpretations that are reflected so vividly in the religion that bears his name would be unrealistic.
Martin Luther had succeeded, with the assistance and sacrifice of determined parents, in obtaining an education far beyond the expected achievement of a peasant of his day. After a frightening experience in a thunderstorm while returning to the university, he vowed to enter a monastery and become a monk. His concern for the condition of his own soul and the search for the way of salvation opened up to him great moments of truth during those cloistered years. As he came to grips with the great issues and problems of the doctrines of God, man, and salvation, he settled for certain answers that crystallized into a satisfying theology for himself. He was tormented, nevertheless, with the realization that his feelings and beliefs were at odds with the tradition of Catholicism to which he had committed himself.
Still the faithful member of the “Church Universal,” Luther began during the next few years to attract the attention of those in authority over him to his occasional complaint about abuses and errors in practice and doctrine. At first primarily involved with his own salvation and the sources and means of its achievement, he soon became concerned about the need for reform within the church itself so that the institution could be gradually conformed to its proper role and image according to the scriptures.
Luther found little comfort and no assurance of salvation in the sacraments and ordinances administered by the Catholic priesthood. He finally abandoned all but two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, having had his greatest struggle for faith over the sacrament of penance. Eventually one of the practices, the sale of indulgences, related to this sacrament was the triggering device which set off the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
As a result of his increasingly more frequent outbursts, he received at first only mild forms of admonishment and chastisement by his ecclesiastical superiors. But eventually the hierarchy began to take his influence seriously and to discredit him in the eyes of the rest of the clergy, the German nobility, and the populace in general.
Having lost faith in a supernatural priesthood preserved through apostolic succession and in the ordinances and sacraments administered by that priesthood, Martin turned to the scriptures. Here he found, by his interpretation, the final source of authority and revelation together with comfort and assurance in the doctrine of salvation by grace and justification by faith.
Before he was finally excommunicated by papal order in December 1520, he had preached sermons and written tracts denouncing many other abuses and errors. Among these were the pretense of papal infallibility, efficacy of the seven sacraments as channels of grace without first the gift of faith, sale of indulgences, transubstantiation, and neglect of the scripture in favor of tradition.
There were threats upon his life and continuous abuse from the press and cartoonists of the time. However, many others began to take sides with Luther, including some rather strange bedfellows who had not been invited and who represented, to Luther’s way of thinking, the extreme radical element that he had sought to avoid or ignore.
He became the object and source of discord between his own patron, King Frederick the Wise, and the emperor. Whereas the plaint of the Bible is to the effect that “of the making of many books there is no end,” here the burning of many books seemed to go on and on. Charges and counter-charges were hurled back and forth. The Pope was not only openly attacked but was also dubbed the anti-Christ.
Luther became bolder and displayed great courage in the face of opposition and apparent impending doom. He finally made his stand and met the test in the trial at Worms, where the whole turn of events had become an involvement of church and state.
Although Luther chose to rest his case on scriptural authority at the expense of trust in either the tradition of the Catholics or the principle of contemporary revelation as taught by some restorationists of his day, he nevertheless left the door to the future slightly ajar when he wrote:
“Nor can a Christian believer be forced beyond sacred Scriptures, … unless some new and proved revelation should be added; for we are forbidden by divine law to believe except what is proved either through the divine Scriptures or through Manifest revelation.” 1
On another occasion he wrote: “I have sought nothing beyond reforming the Church in conformity with the Holy Scriptures. The spiritual powers have been not only corrupted by sin, but absolutely destroyed; so that there is now nothing in them but a depraved reason and a will that is the enemy and opponent of God. I simply say that Christianity has ceased to exist among those who should have preserved it.” 2
The celebrated author Thomas Carlyle wrote that Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms on April 17, 1521, had been “the greatest scene in modern European history; the point, indeed, from which the whole subsequent history of civilization takes its rise.” 3
The extravagance of this statement will evoke a smile from some and resentment from others. Nonetheless, it represents the sentiment of a great number of non-German positive critics of Martin Luther. Carlyle’s approach is more interpretive than historical, but no perceptive student of Lutheranism can afford to be ignorant of its implications.
It is true that Luther had not contemplated seriously the international dimensions of his movement. He had no desire to make of Wittenberg a new Rome; but long before his death in 1546, many roads had led to his town. The Lutheran gospel had spread to many parts of Germany and had become the official religion of most of Scandinavia.
Several other contemporary movements, such as Calvinism and Anglicanism, although developing simultaneously but separately, had looked to Lutheranism for example and encouragement.
The reformation movement could never have succeeded had it been exclusively concerned with protesting and tearing down the mother church institution. If the old traditions, the old institutionalized form of religion were to be set aside, what was to take their place? Obviously, Luther eventually had to face the problem of rebuilding. The question was, upon what kind of foundation would the rebuilding be started and what direction would it take when once begun?
Luther had already faced the problem of separating the chaff from the wheat during his soul-searching experience. After the haze of tradition and authority of priesthood and sacramental religion had been cleared away, there remained for him the necessity of grace and justification through the goodness of God alone as revealed through the scriptures. Here was the basis for the Church. Man could look upon the grace of God. He would be justified through faith, a gift from God, not through the sacraments of the church or his own good works.
Much remained to be done in order to make the church meaningful in the lives of the followers. A new order demanded a new church, but Luther was not at first prepared to go too far in this matter. Gradually theological, doctrinal, and practical problems related to the establishment of Lutheranism began to take on the characteristics of institutionalization.
It was necessary to apply Christian principles, as he understood them in the new order, to the reconstruction of society. This was to be perhaps the hardest task of all. It had not been difficult to discredit the old institution in the eyes of those who were prone to look for weakness anyway. To convince the defectors that this did not mean the complete abandonment of religion of the traditional variety was another matter.
Step by step the solution of problems and the formation of a systematized theology and religious discipline were accomplished, using the old Catholic parishes and dioceses as the stones and blocks of the institutional foundation.
Some of Luther’s disciples took license from his writings to foment unrest not intended or expected by him. Many likewise read into his writings and sermons their own meanings. Some of these survived him and eventually exerted some influence in the formation of the Lutheran movement, which had expanded to include concepts and practices in addition to those originally taught by Luther himself.
In Europe the Lutheran Church became essentially a state religion in those areas where it was the predominant faith, in spite of Luther’s original insistence that, although complementing each other, church and state should remain separated. The polity and ecclesiastical structure continued to be episcopal or under the general governance of bishops with local ministerial authority vested in the pastor. Luther had originally hoped for congregational church government, but realizing the unreadiness, the lack of training, and the general illiteracy of the laity for such a responsibility, he settled for the already existing episcopal structure.
With the expansion of Christianity into the New World, there were eventually Lutherans among the emigrants. The first to come in significant numbers were Scandinavian Lutherans, followed soon by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, New York, and the Midwest.
The formation of different Lutheran churches in America reflected national and cultural ties as well as theological elements of common agreement that are characteristic of Lutheranism everywhere. However, a new dimension that developed, regardless of national background and in keeping with the democratic spirit abroad in the new land, was an ecclesiastical structuring that inclined toward congregational church government rather than the episcopal (bishopric) system of the Old World.
The development of several synods or central Lutheran systems in America rather than just one has been consistent with Luther’s original attempt to avoid the formation of a single worldwide monolithic structure such as had been the case with medieval Catholicism. Local autonomy has been preserved as far as possible in the congregation, wherein the authority and right of a free people of God to hear the gospel and receive the sacraments without prescription and direction from any earthly hierarchy is affirmed.
Local pastors or ministers, although chosen from among those trained for the ministry, receive their calls from God through the congregation. Thus the voice or will of God is made known through the “priesthood of all believers.” Church property is also held by the local congregation, which exercises self-governing control and responsibility over it.
Traditionally, Lutherans have prided themselves on their consistently fundamentalist confession so that a universal Lutheran theology could be expected with reference to basic principles and doctrines.
Coming to America from their various points of continental origin, however, they adapted and adjusted to the language and culture with varying degrees of hesitancy. The influence of distinctive Lutheran teachings on American church life and society in general was slow coming and then felt mostly among the agrarian and middle-class peoples in the Great Lakes and Midwest areas.
However, Lutheranism’s greatest impact upon American religious thought and life didn’t have to wait for direct infusion by the Lutherans themselves. At least three basic teachings of Luther, which had found their way from the earliest days of the Reformation into the broad stream of Protestantism, had already been carried by several immigrating denominational groups. These included justification by faith, authority of the Bible, and priesthood of all believers. Eventually, several forces, including Americanization and the ecumenical spirit in general, have combined to bring about the union of the many Lutheran groups into fewer synods and conferences, thus increasing their common strength.
A trend toward liberalism that gained momentum particularly in Europe has also taken hold in America since the end of World War I, but to a lesser degree. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 has continued to be a constitution for fundamentalists. Some modernists, however, profess views not consistent with its prescriptions. This confession, authored by Phillip Melanchthon, Luther’s trusted disciple, was designed to present the evangelical beliefs and at the same time avoid unnecessary conflict with the Catholic tradition. Among the traditional elements preserved in these articles of faith were the creedal trinitarian doctrine of God, original sin, literal resurrection, millenarianism, the “real presence” of Christ in the host of the Lord’s Supper (however, without transubstantiation or consubstantiation), the second coming, and infant baptism.
The Lutherans denounced the Anabaptist teaching of the need for baptism by adult believers alone. They taught that man plays a role in his own salvation as he forms his attitude of submission and realization of helplessness before God, not through deeds or good works or conformity to the law. Only faith, a gift from God, will bring salvation. However, if faith produces no good works, there is something amiss with the faith.
Veneration of relics and saints was viewed as a useless supernaturalism, and the traditional five sacraments other than baptism and the Lord’s Supper were deemed useful only in the development of Christian character and discipline when accompanied by faith. Indulgences were rejected as an abuse of the principle of repentance. Remission of sins was believed possible through the atonement of Christ and the repentant submission of the individual to the mercy of God in an I/thou relationship and not through mediation of the church by its priests and through its sacraments.
In substance, these were the tenets and beliefs of subsequent generations of Lutherans. They were subscribed to by Lutheran colonials and immigrants and preserved into our own time.
Although for many generations Lutherans avoided involvement in any compromising dialogue with other Christian groups, even other evangelical Protestants, the tendency since the end of World War II has been increasingly in the direction of Christian unity or ecumenism. Lutherans have taken an active part in the World Council of Churches and its member institutions on the national level, but with some reservations.
A spirit of liberalism has emerged and found expression among clergy and laity alike. In many instances it is necessary to describe contemporary representative views and beliefs at both the fundamentalist and modernist levels in order to be fair.
The liberal Lutherans, although in the minority, tend to subscribe to beliefs consistent with the general trend among Protestant liberals. This can best be described as a leaning toward humanism with a naturalistic interpretation of traditional religious phenomena and views wherever possible. Such well-established orthodox Lutheran teachings as the inerrancy of the scriptures, the special creation, the virgin birth, and a literal physical resurrection have come under “intellectual” scrutiny. The liberal mind has made allowance for the human factor in accepting the Bible as being partly uninspired, containing myth and legend: the creation was the result of God’s operating through natural law, probably evolution; Joseph and Mary were the natural parents of Jesus, and therefore his birth was natural; and although there will be survival of the spiritual personality after death, there will be no literal physical resurrection.
With a majority of members still holding to the more conservative fundamentalist principles as established and developed by Lutheran tradition, the Lutheran Church remains the largest Protestant denomination in the world today. Because of present world conditions, it is difficult to accurately estimate the total number of adherents, particularly behind the iron curtain, but Lutheranism continues to be the professed faith of a large part of the German population and nearly all Scandinavians.
Today, Lutheran membership throughout the world is about 80 million, with close to 18 million of that number residing in the United States. Several small independent Lutheran groups in the United States, with a total adult membership of less than fifty thousand, could be added to this figure.
The great majority of U.S. Lutherans belong to one of three comparatively equal-sized groups within the main body of Lutheranism: (1) American Lutheran Church, an amalgamation of the American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Free Church; (2) Lutheran Church in America, a combining of the United Lutheran Church in America, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church; (3) Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America (Synodical Conference), a uniting of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod were once included in the Synodical Conference, but they are now independent.
The word restoration was scarcely heard above the theological and ecclesiastical din of the sixteenth century, and Luther was not a restorationist in the stricter meaning of the term. From our perspective, however, it is possible to view the work of Luther and its resulting Lutheranism in the light of their significance for the Latter-day restoration. If we regard the Restoration as the fulfillment of a spiritual awakening process, the dawn of which appeared in the hour of the Reformation, then the Reformation becomes even more significant. It was not disconnected from the Restoration, but rather the preliminary phase of it.
For Luther, the first principle of the gospel was faith. The establishment and development of this as the paramount theme of contemporary as well as historical Lutheranism reflects a basic understanding of the gospel and provides us with a common ground from which to make certain comparisons of significant similarities and differences with reference to Mormonism.
In addition to justification by faith as a first principle, both Lutheranism and Mormonism teach salvation by grace through the atonement of Jesus Christ, whom they recognize as the sole head of the church. However, beyond the point of a redemption salvation, Mormonism emphasizes the responsible role of the individual in contributing through his good works to a possible exaltation.
While both churches recognize an apostasy from true Christianity, Lutheranism finds the remedy in reform, whereas Mormonism claims the necessity of inspired restoration, not only for theological purposes but also to reestablish a broken line of apostolic succession and authority. Lutheranism, denying Petrine primacy and presidency, holds that sufficient authority is present in the scriptures, while a priesthood of all believers qualifies every Lutheran as a priest unto himself.
The hierarchical polity of Mormonism, which emphasizes authority from the top down, contrasts markedly with Lutheranism’s congregational grass-roots authority in America, but the LDS doctrine of common consent infuses a semi-democratic spirit into the Mormon system, so that by comparison it tends to be less authoritarian than European Episcopal Lutheranism.
Although Lutheranism has preserved a semblance of ritual and symbolism in the liturgical communion, and Mormonism has its temple ceremonies, both churches repudiate undue sacramentarianism; both faiths stress the importance of theology; and both emphasize the importance of the pastoral duty and temporal service to the congregation by the local ecclesiastical leader, the Lutheran pastor and the Mormon bishop.
Luther himself established the Lutheran tradition of caring for the flock not only in the counsel he gave to others but also by his good example. In comforting the bereaved, the sick, and the dying, he used what he called “the healing plasters of the scripture.” To his dying father he counseled, “Our departure from this life is a smaller thing to God than my journey would be from Wittenberg to Mansfeld. It is only an hour’s sleep, and after that, all will be different.”
To the ailing, he prescribed spiritual medicine to supplement the medicine of the physician: “Good cheer is half the battle. … We become ill with our own imagination.” To the young men of his parish, he said, “Seek proper and pious wives, who have the grace of God, and who study the scriptures. …” 4
Although the twentieth century Lutheran is less conscious than his fathers of the perpetuated influence of Martin Luther in the life of the faithful, there is still ample evidence of his great contribution. Much has been preserved that reflects the degree of inspiration enjoyed by this man of God as a forerunner of the Restoration, who, in the words of President Joseph Fielding Smith, “did more than any other individual in casting off the yoke of bondage placed upon the people by the papacy. … Luther’s task, therefore, was a heavy one, but he nobly carried it through to the bitter end.” 5
Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1952), vol. 3, p. 290.
Lecture on Martin Luther (Deseret News Press, 1926), pp. 32–33.
Theodore G. Trappert, ed., Letters of Spiritual Counsel, volume 18 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).
Essentials in Church History, 21st ed. (Deseret Book Co., 1966), p. 19.