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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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100 years ago, ‘patriots’ in any language

American Lutherans and World War I

As a devout Presbyterian, President Woodrow Wilson understood the significance of 1917. Four centuries after Martin Luther’s courageous stand unleashed the Protestant Reformation, Europe was again embroiled in conflict. By April, Wilson had concluded the U.S. must join the fight.

Proclaiming before Congress that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson concluded with words lifted straight from the Diet of Worms: “God helping her, [America] can do no other” (Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Andrew Preston; Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

Between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and U.S. entrance in 1917, Lutherans tended to be nominally pro-German. Many were descended from German immigrants, but even Scandinavian Lutherans inherited their ancestral lands’ suspicion of Britain. The war upon Germany unleashed a wave of soul-searching and recrimination from outsiders who viewed Lutherans as “foreign.”

Viewed with suspicion

Many Lutheran churches, especially in the more recently settled Midwest, offered services in German, Norwegian, Swedish or other Scandinavian languages. Families often settled in church-centered ethnic communities.

But war turned community assets into liabilities. As xenophobia (fear of strangers) swept the nation, Americans established defense councils, renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and heaped suspicion upon non-English speakers. Government authorities also required the ethnic press to file translations of all articles, said Maria Erling, historian of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettsyburg (Pa.). Fears of perceived disloyalty led Scandinavian churches to hasten a transition to English already underway within a new, American-born generation.

German churches fell under particular suspicion. Many responded with Americanization campaigns. For example, Zion Lutheran, Ann Arbor, Mich., stopped its German services and switched church records to English.

In 1917 four Pasadena, Calif., churches had “German” in their names. By the late 1920s, there were none.

In Middletown, Conn., German Evangelical Lutheran Church sandblasted its facade and renamed itself “St. Paul.” Even this action failed to protect Middletown delicatessen owner Carl Theodore Herrman. Roused from slumber by a mob and accused of making pro-German remarks, he was made to kiss an American flag. While police arrived, many townspeople contributed donations toward the ringleaders’ fines.

Perhaps the most surprised victims were Southern Lutherans, many from long-established, even pre-Revolutionary, families.

John Horine, editor of the Southern Lutheran Church Visitor, wrote in 1916: “The relationship of the Lutheran Church in America to the German nation and government, if it exists at all, must be very distant — a sort of second cousinship twice removed.” 

Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary completed a magnificent granite building on the highest point in Columbia, S.C., in 1911. Initially this was a source of pride. After 1914, however, “rumors began to fly that the ‘German Lutherans’ had built not a seminary, but a fortress on that elevation, so that they could rain cannon fire on the city from the cupola on top,” said seminary historian Susan McArver.

While Columbians had experienced just that from Union troops 50 years prior, Southern Lutherans were shocked to find themselves under such suspicion, McArver said.


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