Lutheranism – The First 500 Years, Part Three, 1717-1817

As the third century of Lutheranism began, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), one of the greatest musicians of all time, and also a devout Lutheran, was just hitting his stride.

Bach understood the power of music to help enhance the Word of God. He wrote many sacred pieces in which different parts of the Bible come to life. One of his most famous works is the St. Matthew Passion, a musical rendition of Matthew’s account of our Lord’s suffering and death.

Bach was born in Germany into a musical family. His father, as well as several uncles and brothers were professional musicians. His music is in the baroque style and he was a contemporary of George Friederich Handel, the composer who wrote the Messiah.

At the end of most of his works of music Bach would write the Latin phrase: “Soli Deo Gloria,” which means, “To God alone be Glory.” This fits in nicely with the great “Solas” of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia.

Sola Scriptura, means Scripture alone. The final authority for Christian doctrine and practice is the Bible, Holy Scripture, the Word of God. Human reason and church tradition, while important, are not to be given authority over the Bible when it comes to Christian doctrine and practice.

Sola Fide means faith alone. We are saved purely by faith in Christ. Our good works are important but they do not contribute to our salvation.

Sola Gratia means grace alone. It is God’s grace alone by which we are saved. It is all his doing and choosing. We are all rebellious sinners who are always turning away from God but God, in his grace, calls us his wandering sheep to come to him.

Here is a link to a YouTube video that tells the fascinating story of Bach’s personal Bible:

During his lifetime Bach was known more as a virtuoso organist and performer. He was not recognized as a great composer. Then, several decades after Bach died, Felix Mendelssohn . revived interest in Bach’s musical compositions and the popularity of his music has just continued to grow.

So J.S. Bach was certainly one of the major people of the third century of Lutheranism.

The other major development during the third century of Lutheranism was that it was finally established in America. There are many ways in which Lutheranism fits in well with the founding principles of the US. Lutherans believe that all baptized Christians are equal in the sight of God. This is summed up by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28 ESV)

This certainly fits in well with our Constitution’s reference to all men being created equal.

Lutherans also believe each individual congregation is its own complete entity. While it is beneficial for congregations to organize into associations and denominations to work cooperatively on various endeavors, true, Christian congregations don’t need a bishop or other outside authority to complete them.

When it comes to organized Lutheranism in America there are two names that really stand out. Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg and Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. We’ll hear more about Walther in the next installment of this series, which will cover the fourth century of Lutheranism. The third century of Lutheranism is when Muhlenberg led the way.

Long before Muhlenberg arrived, Lutherans were already in America, as early as the 1600’s, But they lacked pastors and organization. Finally, the University of Halle in Germany started sending over trained pastors, one of which was Muhlenberg.

Muhlenberg arrived in America in 1742, before the United States was even a country. Six years later, in 1748, he founded the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first Lutheran church body in America. Centered mainly in the Philadelphia area, the Pennsylvania Ministerium eventually expanded into several different states.

It was not always smooth sailing. In Part Two of this series we talked about Pietism, a movement within Lutheranism that emphasized religious feelings and experiences and good works over orthodox doctrine. The University of Halle was strongly influenced by pietism. As Lutherans arrived in America some were more pietistic and some were more orthodox so there was a fair amount of tension.

But Muhlenberg persisted and founded the Pennsylvania Ministerium. While Muhlenberg himself was very orthodox, as time went on many of the Lutherans in the Eastern US lost their Lutheran identity.

Muhlenberg not only founded the first Lutheran church body in America, he also founded a family dynasty. Many of his sons and grandsons went on to very distinguished careers in the church, in the military and in politics. One of his sons, Peter, who started out as a pastor, even served as an officer under George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

As the third century of Lutheranism came to close, another new religious movement was beginning, Rationalism. Where Pietism emphasized feelings, good words and religious experiences, Rationalism emphasized reason and logic as the supreme way of determining truth. This approach went well with the increasing influence of science on society and the Industrial Revolution that was about to start. We’ll hear more about that next month.

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