The bibliography of Mark Granquist’s Lutherans in America: A New History, just published this January, attests to this. This book is the first comprehensive treatment since The Lutherans in North America, edited by E. Clifford Nelson and first published in 1975.* It contains many welcome improvements. Not only does Granquist cover the last forty years of American Lutheran history, but his single authorial voice yields a better narrative flow than his predecessor’s multi-author approach. He avoids getting bogged down in the intricacies of denominational politics, but does not shortchange American Lutheranism’s institutional, cultural, and theological complexity. Particularly commendable is his evenhanded analysis of recent Lutheran controversies: the conservative takeover of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the 1970s, the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the 1980s, and contemporary debates and schisms over such issues as ecumenism and sexuality. In short, Granquist’s book stands as the most complete synthesis of American Lutheran history currently in print.
But what especially caught my eye was the scarcity of historical scholarship to synthesize. Granquist’s bibliography lists, by my count, 152 monographs. Only three of them were published with major university presses, and none of these three were published in the last twenty years. The vast majority of books instead come from Lutheran publishers, smaller academic presses, or self-publication. More than half of them are over thirty years old. This observation is a shot neither at older books nor at denominational presses; both serve important purposes. Instead, it is meant to underscore the absence of Lutherans from the wider conversations of American religious history.
Granquist, to be sure, shares this concern. “Lutherans,” he writes, “definitely have been underrepresented in the writing of American religious histories, and it is my hope that this volume will begin to redress this imbalance” (4). His solution is to focus less on institutions and more on the “individual and social history of Lutherans in America, their own struggles to live lives of faith and to adapt to a new and different religious culture” (2). He also calls for a more critical, less “self-congratulating” approach. For example, whereas past scholars have seen Lutheran mergers as “good” and “inevitable,” he regards them as “neither inevitable nor completely good” (3-4).
These are commendable—and well-executed—goals. But the solution to the lack of Lutheranism in American religious historiography, I believe, will take more than writing “better denominational histories,” as Granquist aims to do and accomplishes (3). In order for Lutheranism to find its way out of the attic, historians will need to find ways to incorporate Lutherans into the broader story of American religion.
Granquist’s portrayal of “Lutherans in a New Nation, 1781-1820” (chapter five) hints at the difficulty of doing so. Though “aware of, and affected by, contemporary concerns,” Lutherans, he writes, “were removed from the mainstream of American political and religious life” (118). Granquist is undoubtedly correct that Lutherans stood on the periphery, not only in the Early Republic but at other times as well. But therein lies the problem. If Lutherans “were removed from the mainstream,” why do they matter and why should scholars of American religion care? In other words, remedying the sparseness of American Lutheran historiography will require solving the problem of American Lutheran history.
One possible solution is an emphasis on Lutheranism’s in-betweenness. Throughout much of their history, Lutherans stood in a middle ground within American Christianity—theologically, ethnically, and culturally. Though never regarded as the Catholic or Mormon “other,” Lutherans were frequently considered less than fully “Protestant” or “evangelical.” Similarly, while German and Scandinavian Americans avoided the brunt of nativism (with some major exceptions, such as World War I), they remained until recently below Anglo-Saxons in the hierarchy of American whiteness. Because of these and other factors, Lutherans have stood somewhere between insiders and outsiders in American religious culture for much of their history.
Certainly, there are several other interpretive approaches that can help graft Lutheranism into the larger narratives and debates of American religious history. But ultimately the solution rests on historians of American Lutheranism accomplishing two interrelated tasks. First, they must produce high quality monographic work that situates Lutherans within the broader context of American religion and culture. Second, they must convince other scholars that Lutheranism is not just another American Protestant denomination but a culturally and theologically distinctive tradition that merits inclusion in the historical front parlor on its own terms.
If that occurs, the next comprehensive history of Lutheranism in the United States—which hopefully will not take another forty years to produce—will not only build upon but perhaps also alter Granquist’s fine synthesis. In the meantime, American religious historians have in Lutherans in America a well-researched and well-written account that will certainly serve as the standard interpretation for the foreseeable future.
*L. DeAne Lagerquist’s _The Lutherans_ (1999), number nine in Greenwood Press’s Denominations in America series, is also a excellent introduction, but not long enough to be considered “comprehensive.”