The Lutheran Church in Texas traces its roots to 1851, when the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas was founded. During the following ninety years, much of the work of the churches consisted of gathering traditionally Lutheran European immigrants and their children scattered throughout the state. Though most Lutherans settled in rural communities and small towns located in the central and southeastern sections of the state, the sheer number of persons often outstripped the meager supply of clergy and financial resources. The several urban churches were often ethnic retreats in the growing and changing cities, yet they anticipated the future growth of the Lutheran Church after World War II. Lutheranism was introduced into Texas as a result of immigration and missionary efforts of several northern European groups. Lutheran pastors accompanied or followed the settlers into Texas to organize congregations and synods. Language barriers and European backgrounds kept the various groups separated for many years. Since 1930, however, three of the national bodies represented in Texas have joined in the American Lutheran Conference, a federation embracing many Lutherans of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and German extraction. Another large Lutheran group in Texas was the United Lutheran Church in America, a similar organization. A third group was the Synodical Conference. Lutheran bodies in Texas that belonged to the American Lutheran Conference were the Texas Conference of the Iowa District, Evangelical (formerly Norwegian) Lutheran Church of America; the Texas Conference, Augustana Synod of North America, a group composed largely of persons of Swedish extraction; and the Texas District, American Lutheran Church, an organization of German immigrants.
The Texas Conference of the Iowa District, Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, developed from a small group of Norwegians who moved to Texas during the Mexican War under the leadership of Johan R. Reierson. Norwegian Lutheranism developed its chief strength in Texas in Bosque County, but as Norwegians continued to come to Texas from Europe and from the northern states, congregations of Norwegian Lutherans were established at Waco, Normanna, Oslo Settlement, Dallas, and Fort Worth. These congregations did not belong to any synod until 1900, when they joined the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a national body. In 1917, when this synod joined two other Norwegian groups to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, the congregations in Texas followed the merger and became the Texas Conference of the Iowa District. The loyalty of these relatively few members to the principles and traditions of their church is strongly attested by the fact that they founded and maintained Clifton Academy from 1896 until 1936, when the school became a junior college.
The origin of Swedish Lutheranism in Texas dates back to 1838, when Swante M. Swenson came to Austin to make his home. The organization of a formal Swedish Lutheran congregation in Texas had to wait, however, until a larger settlement of Swedes could be formed and a minister obtained. The first Swedish Lutheran congregations in Texas were organized in 1870 at Austin and Brushy (now Round Rock). The request of the Swedish Lutherans in Texas for the services of permanently stationed ministers was referred by the mother church in Sweden to the Augustana Synod of North America, which had recently been organized in the north central states. This synod sent Rev. S. P. A. Lindahl in 1874 to investigate mission possibilities in Texas. Lindahl's report resulted in the arrival of Rev. L. A. Hokanzon, who led the Austin and Brushy congregations into the Augustana Synod in 1875. Swedish settlers went out into other parts of Texas, and additional congregations resulted. Statewide auxiliary organizations, such as the Luther League, the Women's Missionary Federation, and Brotherhood, have rendered valuable service to the Texas Conference. The vitality of Swedish Lutheranism in Texas expressed itself in the founding in 1906 of Trinity Lutheran College, which eventually merged with Texas Lutheran College at Seguin. Fifteen congregations and 3,022 baptized members indicated the numerical strength of the Texas Conference, the Augustana Synod, in 1945.
Germans, attracted by offers of free land, immigrated to Texas in small numbers in the 1820s and 1830s. This influx became heavy in the 1840s and continued so for several decades, while numerous German settlements were formed in various parts of the state. When a description of the orphaned condition of German Protestants in Texas reached C. F. Spittler, director of the Pilger Mission von St. Chrischona in Basel, Switzerland, Theobald G. Kleis and Christoph A. Sager were sent from Spittler's missionary training school to Texas in 1850. In the following year, Spittler was able to send six additional men, all ordained Lutheran ministers. Five of these, under the chairmanship of Rev. C. Braun, who had been sent to Texas in 1850 by the Lutheran Synod of Pittsburgh, organized the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas in Houston in November 1851. The Swiss training school continued to send help until by 1896 at least eighty-five pastors had arrived in Texas from that source. In spite of this generous assistance, the German Lutherans felt the need for affiliation with a large body in America, especially because they were numerous and widely scattered. To secure this affiliation, in 1853 the Texas Synod joined the Lutheran General Synod, a federation of several bodies in northeastern states. This connection ended in 1868, and membership was secured in 1869 in the Lutheran General Council, a similar federation. When the General Council could not supply the pastors needed in Texas, the Texas Synod withdrew in 1895 and voted to join the Lutheran Synod of Iowa and other states. These changes, however, particularly the decision of the Texas Synod to sever connections with St. Chrischona and to affiliate with the Iowa Synod, did not meet with unanimous approval on the part of the Texas pastors and their congregations. In 1896 the Texas Synod divided into two branches over the new alignment.
Texas Synod I (those who joined the Iowa Synod) acceded to a partial reorganization as called for by the Iowa Synod and became a district of that body, although it retained the name Texas Synod. In 1930 it accompanied the Iowa Synod into the American Lutheran Church, a union of the Iowa, Ohio, and Buffalo Lutheran synods, and was given the official name Texas District, American Lutheran Church. In the same year the American Lutheran Church, with all of its districts, joined with the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, the Augustana Synod of North America, and two other Lutheran bodies not represented in Texas, to form the American Lutheran Conference. The churches that belong to this Conference cooperate in the work of missions, charity, and education. Before the division in 1896, the Texas Synod had published a periodical called Der Gemeindebote, from 1892 to 1903. It reappeared as Der Lutherbote from 1915 to 1930, when it was supplanted by the Lutheran Standard, the official paper of the American Lutheran Church. Other efforts at self-help led to the formation of such state organizations as the Sunday School Teachers Association, the Luther League, Brotherhood, Chautauqua, the Women's Missionary Federation, and the Church Workers' Institute. In 1945 the Texas District, American Lutheran Church, reported a baptized membership of 50,031, nearly 200 congregations and preaching places, and 158 ministers and ordained professors.
After the division in 1896, Texas Synod II (those who did not join the Iowa Synod) kept up the old connection with St. Chrischona in Switzerland and continued to receive pastors from that institution. In 1903 this synod began publishing a periodical, Der Treue Zeuge. New congregations were organized as the synod's men labored faithfully at their tasks. Its progress was hampered, however, by the return of several pastors to Europe and by the withdrawal in 1913 and 1914 of more than half of its ministers and congregations, who joined Texas Synod I. In 1915 Texas Synod II was recognized by the Lutheran General Council and began to receive help from that body. In 1918 it passed with the General Council into the United Lutheran Church in America, a federation of Lutheran synods comparable in size and strength to the American Lutheran Conference and to the Lutheran Synodical Conference. Affiliation with the United Lutheran Church has made it possible for Texas Synod II to expand considerably its work and influence in the state. Besides its regular program of evangelism in congregations and missions, Texas Synod II sponsors a Texas Women's Missionary Society, a Lutheran League, and Brotherhood. Its reported strength in 1946 was twenty-two pastors, thirty-two congregations, and a baptized membership of 8,404.
World War II marked a critical time in the demography of Texas and the expansion of Texas Lutheran churches. The influx of war workers and military personnel pushed Texas into the urban era during the 1940s and brought more Lutherans to the state. With so many persons relocated southward, church headquarters in the Northeast and Midwest became more attentive to the spiritual needs of this mobile population. Congregations close to military bases increased in size, while new churches and chaplaincies began in areas previously unserved. After the war these same church headquarters continued to coordinate their congregational developments to minimize competition as they reached more persons in Texas. Between 1940 and 1950 the rate of increase for Lutheran Church membership outpaced even the rapid population growth in Texas. The next decade witnessed similar expansion as Lutherans focused their future church-development efforts almost exclusively on the numerous urban areas. Thus, despite a mid-1950s decline in the historic center of Texas Lutheranism, new churches existed to welcome former rural residents into the Texas cities. The churches that became the Texas District of the ALC (American Lutheran Church) in 1960 experienced a slight contraction of congregations between 1940 and 1950 (from 212 to 204), but this was only organizational adjustment, for baptized membership expanded from 48,017 to 64,237. By 1960 the ALC in Texas reported an additional 41 congregations (up to 245) and a total of 98,514 members. The LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) reported Texas growth from 115 congregations with 30,171 baptized members in 1940 to 163 churches and 45,998 members in 1950, and 251 congregations with 78,347 baptized members in 1960. The third largest group of Texas Lutherans that united with the others in 1961 as a synod of the LCA (Lutheran Church in America) grew from forty-four congregations with over 11,000 members in 1940 to fifty congregations and some 15,000 baptized in 1950 and more than 25,000 baptized members in eighty-one congregations in 1960.
The Lutheran Church had a landmark year in 1960, when the American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church merged. In Texas this national merger meant the union of the Texas Circuit and the Texas District of the ALC. The Texas District had observed its centennial in 1951, including in its celebration a pilgrimage to the first Lutheran church built on Texas soil at Neighborsville, now at the edge of New Braunfels. The district continued supporting Texas Lutheran College, Lutheran General Hospital, and the Lutheran Welfare Society, as well as missions in India and New Guinea. It consisted of 98,514 baptized (68,996 confirmed) members in 218 congregations served by 186 pastors; it also included 13 pastors serving as teachers and administrators, plus 25 retired pastors.
Only a year after the merger of 1960 another merger was effected on the national level, bringing together the Augustana Lutheran Church (formerly a member of the American Lutheran Conference), the United Lutheran Church, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, all of which had components in Texas, including the Texas Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church, the Texas Synod of the United Lutheran Church, and Danevang Lutheran Church. On January 1, 1961, the Texas Conference surrendered its identity to a new and larger church by uniting with the Texas Synod of the United Lutheran Church, called above Texas Synod II. This body, like the Texas Conference, had long joined in support and management of Texas Lutheran College, had participated in the work of the Lutheran Welfare Society, and had become a partner in Lutheran student service (now called campus ministry). It also had a periodical called the Texas Lutheran (see TEXAS-LOUISIANA LUTHERAN). By the date of the merger it consisted of sixty pastors, fifty-six congregations, and 19,258 baptized members. The third group involved in the merger was the congregation at Danevang, which had until then been a member of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church. Like the parent body it had dropped the "Danish" from its name and called itself simply the American Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Texas has another body of Lutherans besides the two that grew out of mergers-the Texas District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. It has been in existence since a colony of 558 Wends settled in the part of Bastrop County that now belongs to Lee County. In Germany the Wends had lived partly in Prussia and partly in Saxony, in an area called Lusatia. When they reached Texas in 1855 they soon made contact with another contingent of Lutherans from Saxony that had immigrated to America in 1839 and settled in Perry County, Missouri, most of them in St. Louis. These Missouri settlers had organized the conservative Missouri Synod, which soon became the leader of a federation known as the Synodical Conference. The Wends were received as a section of the Western District of that body and then as partners in the new Southern District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. In 1903 they were recognized as the Texas District. The relationship assured them of pastors for the new congregations surrounding the original settlement and for the immigrants from northern states who provided nuclei for new churches. As a result the Missouri Synod Lutherans soon had congregations in various parts of Texas, especially in the larger cities. To assist in securing an adequate number of pastors for the growing district, they established Lutheran Concordia College in the 1920s (see CONCORDIA LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY AT AUSTIN). Like the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, generally, the Texas District emphasized a parochial school in every parish. At the close of 1970 the synod had 102,322 baptized members in Texas in 285 congregations, served by 225 pastors and 375 teachers (125 men and 250 women). Arrangements were completed in 1970 whereby the Texas District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, became a full partner in Lutheran Social Service of Texas. Texas Lutherans generally were also involved in Lutheran Council U.S.A., which superseded the National Lutheran Council, a less inclusive agency.
Increasing cooperation of people with varied national backgrounds was greatly facilitated by the common use of the English language. In the 1970s worship services in languages other than English had become a rarity except in Spanish-speaking areas of the Rio Grande valley. By 1969 the Lutheran Church reached a peak as the fourth largest Christian church in the state of Texas (after the Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist churches, representing 2.18 percent of the population. The ALC reported a membership of 107,063, the LCMS 104,364, and the LCA 32,357. In subsequent decades, the Lutheran churches continued to add adherents, but did not keep up with the rapid rate of Texas population growth. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Texas Lutheran churches received a large numbers of members from the East and Midwest as Lutherans entered the Sunbelt after the oil crises of the 1970s. In addition, many congregations, especially those close to the Rio Grande, welcomed northern retirees who moved to Texas for the winters. Military bases were shrinking, however, as was the manufacture of military hardware after the Vietnam War, and the oil and gas industry slumped in the 1980s. By 1980, though Lutherans had continued to increase in number, they had slipped to less than 2 percent of the total population, with 117,074 LCMS baptized members in 311 congregations, 106,657 ALC members in 251 churches, and 106 LCA congregations with 36,670 baptized. In addition, other Lutheran Church bodies reported their presence: the WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) gathered 2,453 baptized members in nineteen congregations, the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) had four churches of 925 total members, the three congregations of the CLC (Church of the Lutheran Confession) listed 201 members, and the ELS (Evangelical Lutheran Synod) reported 157 members in two churches.
Within the Lutheran churches during the 1970s and 1980s occurred movements toward both increased cooperation and division. The LCMS had positioned itself since the 1950s as a more conservative church body than the LCA and, in time, than the ALC. In the mid-1970s a moderate group of leaders in the LCMS was ousted, and many of them entered the AELC. Although minimal in size in Texas, the AELC served as a catalyst for further Lutheran unity in North America. In 1988 discussions and negotiations led to the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, forming a new church formed from the AELC, ALC, and LCA. This movement toward unification, however, intensified the polarization from the LCMS, which in Texas in the 1980s gradually withdrew from mutual contact with the ALC and LCA congregations and dissolved its formal partnership in university campus ministry. Only the Lutheran Social Service of Texas (later renamed Lutheran Social Service of the South) remained an organization for mutual ministry in hospital and nursing-home care and adoption services.
By 1990 the ELCA-related congregations in Texas embraced 155,276 members in 401 congregations, while the LCMS numbered 345 churches with 134,280 members. In addition, the WELS reported 4,463 baptized members in 36 congregations, the 3 churches of the CLC had 144 members, and the 2 ELS congregations listed 146 baptized. Two church bodies reported new Texas congregations: 2 Free Lutheran congregations reported 144 baptized, while 71 persons affiliated with a Church of the Lutheran Brethren congregation. This variety of Lutherans present in Texas, led in size by congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, continue to be the fourth largest Christian body in Texas (closely followed in size by the Church of Christ). Although scattered across the state and present in all larger cities, Lutherans predominate still within a roughly triangular area bounded by San Antonio, Austin, and Houston.