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date: 25 March 2017

Martin Luther in North America

Summary and Keywords

The United States as a country was religiously formed by Reformed Protestants, who were later joined by substantial numbers of immigrant Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Jews. The role of Martin Luther in this religiously varied and pluralistic society has often changed over time, and has depended greatly on the context of those who have written about him. In some periods of time, especially the 18th century, Luther was little noticed or commented about, generally a figure solely in the distant past. In the 19th century, many American writers and scholars took notice of Luther, but often as a past symbol of some reality the author wished to address. Thus, Luther was seen essentially as one of the first modern individuals in the West, standing for religious and personal liberty against the reactionary forces of church and state. Some Protestants noted him for his stance against the medieval Western church and the papacy, which mirrored their own anti–Roman Catholic positions; American Roman Catholics saw him as the cause of the splintering of the true church and the author of all that was religiously problematic. After the Civil War, scholars began to access modern German scholarship about Luther, and the Luther birth anniversary of 1883 was perhaps the high point of his reputation in America. In the 20th century, there were positive and negative developments. On the negative side, two world wars soured Americans on things German, and some saw Luther as contributing to the rise of the Nazis and of the Holocaust. On the positive side, many of Luther’s works were translated into English, and many new historical and theological studies of the reformer were produced in English, along with translations of European works. American Lutherans began to produce substantial contributions to Luther studies, and newer works, even among Roman Catholics, sought to put Luther into his historical and theological contexts.

Keywords: Martin Luther, America, United States, American Lutherans, Luther anniversaries, Luther movies, Martin Luther King Jr.

Luther and Colonial America

In its original founding as an English colony in the New World, America was religiously shaped by inhabitants from the British islands, primarily by Anglicans, Puritans, and other dissenting Protestants (Baptists, Quakers, and others). Thus, the primary theological tradition behind the founding of the United States was Calvinistic Protestantism, eventually modified by the Enlightenment and by forms of Arminianism, especially through the influence of Methodism. Though originally envisioned, religious establishments were quickly discarded for religious pluralism and the ideal of voluntary religious associations, apart from governmental control. Even with the massive immigration of the 19th century, which brought millions of continental Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews to the country, this strong initial formation of the country persisted, and continued to shape religion in America to the present.

Given the way in which the United States was formed religiously by Protestants, it is not surprising that Martin Luther would often be a figure of great interest, utility, and sometimes contention. The presence of millions of Lutherans in the United States ensured that Luther would be remembered and studied, especially when the immigrant Lutherans made the transition to the use of English, producing Luther literature in English or translating European scholarship on Luther. But beyond this, American, Protestant, and Roman Catholic alike have often focused on Luther in his role as the progenitor of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, although they have differed (sometimes sharply) over the value and importance of Luther’s own reformation thoughts and actions. Luther was often used (or misused) from the contexts by which these Americans viewed the Reformation and the subsequent religious developments in the West. Thus, Luther has often been studied less for his own theological and religious positions than for how he affected later developments in Western Christianity.

In the founding of the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries, the leading theological figures tended to be those of the New England Calvinist Puritans and their descendants. These theologians were mostly interested in two aspects of the Reformation, the rise of Calvin and Calvinism and the reformation history in Great Britain, especially the struggle between the Anglicans and the dissenting Protestants. Given this focus, then, Luther was a distant forerunner, and someone whose reformation was incomplete, and whose direct influence was diffused only through the history of later developments. These Puritan thinkers tended to see the Protestant Reformation as a series of increasingly important events, begun perhaps with Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in 1517, but amplified by Calvin’s work in Geneva, and especially by the Puritan revolt against the “half-Roman” Anglican Church. Given the continuing struggle of the Puritans to form and reform their own religious tradition in New England, Luther’s most important contribution seemed to be his Protestant courage in standing up for the ongoing reformation of the medieval Church, a theme seen in some of the great Puritan theologians, especially Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

Outside of these New England Puritans, Luther was not often mentioned by colonial Americans, and when he was, it was in ways similarly useful to those of the Puritans. In one of his editions of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin noted the February date of Luther’s death, lauding him for his courage in standing up to entrenched hierarchies, and also for his (supposed) habits of personal temperance and industry. For the leaders of the American Revolution, influenced by the English Enlightenment, Luther’s utility was not so much his religious activity, but rather his political courage in standing up against the powerful and entrenched hierarchies of 16th-century Europe, both the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (the parallels to American revolutionary activity are intentional). In his A General History of the Christian Church (1790–1803) the scientist and historian Joseph Priestly praised Luther for these exact qualities, though he did admit that Luther had more than a few flaws. In one of the first editions of Luther’s own works printed in America, the Commentary on Galatians (1801), Luther was cast as a hero of the movement for reform that continued after his death. Other American leaders, however, did not have much to do with Luther at all, whether as a religious or a political figure. Those influenced by the deism of the French Revolution largely ignored Luther (for example, Thomas Jefferson), or were critical of him as largely medieval and superstitious, as seen in the attitudes of Thomas Paine.

Luther in Early 19th-Century America

The beginning of the 19th century in the United States was a time of tremendous religious vitality, occasioned mainly by the rapid growth of the Methodists and the Baptists, through their adoption of Arminian theology and the practice of revivalism to produce religious conversions and renewal. This was a time of great competition in the great religious free market that was America, and the growth and multiplication of religious groups led to a huge increase in the numbers of Americans who were drawn into organized religion. These forms of Protestantism had their roots in the older English Calvinist traditions, but which were significantly modified by Arminianism and the revivalism of Charles Finney. Even though John Wesley himself was greatly indebted to Luther’s understanding of justification by faith (the Aldersgate experience), he pushed beyond Luther in his understanding of sanctification and Christian renewal. His revivalist followers in the United States did not find Luther to be much use for them in this regard; although Luther was still a hero of Protestantism and liberty, his dialectical understanding of faith and the human religious condition was too nuanced to be of use to their religious fervor.

As a reaction to this dominant religious stream in early 19th-century America, the Unitarians developed their own version of rational religious deism out of Congregationalism. It was this tradition that continued the Enlightenment understanding of Luther as the heroic religious individual standing against hierarchy and oppression, following Priestly’s conclusions. Unitarian authors such as Jared Sparks and Thomas Bayley Fox wrote appreciatively, if not uncritically, of Luther’s contribution to the religious progress of Christianity and the Western world. If at times Luther and the other 16th-century reformers quarreled or fell short of a fulsome reformation, they could be excused for not fully attaining religious perfection. Another Unitarian author, Hannah Farnham Sawyer-Lee, brought forth a full English biography of Luther in 1839, and praised him in the same tones as the others.

The American transcendentalist movement, growing out of Unitarian roots but embracing continental Romanticism as well, had a similar appreciation for Luther. This movement’s signature figure was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose initial admiration for the German reformer was strong. In his early writings, Emerson often cited Luther approvingly, and in 1835 he delivered an important and widely influential lecture on Martin Luther. In this lecture, Emerson portrayed Luther as an idealized religious man who represented the spirit of his age and of his nation, not so much as a theologian (Emerson was dismissive of his theology) but rather as a prophet and religious poet. In later years, Emerson’s view of Luther moderated, and he was more critical of him, but still he could number Luther as one of the important men in history. Other American transcendentalist leaders, such as Theodore Parker and Frederic Henry Hedge, also admired Luther, though one of the others, Orestes Brownson, turned quite negative because of his own personal conversion to Roman Catholicism.

One feature of American Protestantism during the 19th century was its general hostility toward Roman Catholicism, an attitude with roots in the English Reformation and reinforced by the contemporary European political situation and growing flood of Roman Catholic immigrants to the United States. Virulent forms of anti-Catholicism were found in American religious and social culture, as well as in political groups such as the “Know-Nothings” and the American Protective Association. Of course, Martin Luther was a figure of great importance to these movements, especially his personal example of standing up to the power of the papacy, and his scathing condemnations of the pope and the medieval Catholic Church. Prominent opponents of Roman Catholicism, such as Samuel F. B. Morse and Lyman Beecher, cited Luther’s example and positions in their attacks against “Romanism and Papalism,” attacks that were intensified by immigration and the First Vatican Council in 1870. Such Protestants were also drawn to a similar picture of Luther in the writings of Merle d’Aubigné, a Swiss Protestant scholar, whose histories were translated into English and widely circulated in the United States after 1841. These histories lauded the anti-Roman stance of Luther and saw him as one of the great Protestant figures of history.

The decade of the 1840s saw the production of a number of books about Luther produced in English, or translated into that language. In 1844, a Methodist author, George Cubitt, wrote an English-language biography of Luther that followed the popular anti-Catholicism of the day. In 1846, English author William Hazlitt published Table Talk, a translation of Luther’s Tischreden, in London, which was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1848 to generally positive reviews in the United States. Leopold Ranke’s three-volume History of the Reformation was translated into English and published in 1845–1847, giving English readers a contemporary view of German scholarship on the Reformation. In 1846, American Baptist scholar Barnas Sears produced a German-language anthology of Luther’s works, meant for American students, which he followed with a complete biography of the reformer in 1850.

The biggest advance in Luther and Reformation studies at this time, however, came from two German Reformed scholars at Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania, Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin. Schaff was born and educated in Germany, and had studied under the leading Reformation scholars in that country. Emigrating to the United States in 1844, he began at once to bring the latest continental scholarship to America, and defined the new discipline of Church History. His inaugural address on the Reformation and the spirit of Protestantism was published in English in 1845 and achieved a wide circulation and acclaim, though it was not without its critics. Schaff went on to eventually produce a standard English multivolume history of Christianity, in whose Reformation volume Luther came to play a central role not just for the Lutherans, but as the progenitor of all Protestantism. Schaff’s American colleague Nevin also produced solid and original works on the Reformation era, and featured Luther extensively in his other works as well.

From the beginning there had been Lutherans in America, but for most of the 18th century they continued to use the European languages in their religious life, which limited their wider impact. Early in the 19th century, the colonial Lutherans made the transition to the use of English and began to move more in concert with their Protestant neighbors. The twin influences of rationalism, on one hand, and of revivalistic Protestantism, on the other, meant that Lutheran confessional distinctives were often downplayed in exchange for pan-Protestant ecumenism. These Lutherans did not often produce original works about Luther for a wider audience, and when they did, they often echoed other American writers. The leading theologian of these American Lutherans, Samuel Simon Schmucker, read widely in continental scholarship and wrote several works about Luther and the Reformation. But Schmucker downplayed Lutheran distinctives, and produced in 1855 an “American Edition” of the Augsburg Confession (1530) that attempted to “correct” certain parts of the confession that Schmucker believed were medieval Roman elements, things from which Lutherans had moved on (such as the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration). However, there was a Lutheran confessional revival occurring at the time, both among American Lutherans like Charles Porterfield Krauth and strict confessional immigrants like C. F. W. Walther of the Missouri Synod, who countered the more “American” Lutherans in the 1850s and 1860s. Drawing on the conservative confessional Lutherans in Germany, this section of American Lutheranism contested with Schmucker and his allies for the right to define Luther and Lutheranism, picturing him as the truest form of Protestantism. Contained in a religious world dominated by Reformed Protestantism, American Lutherans struggled to define their religious leader and their religious tradition in this new context.

As America lurched toward Civil War, imploding over the issue of the abolition of slavery, Luther was, at times, a symbol of courage and resolve for some of the Abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier. These social critics were attracted to the image of Luther standing alone, defying all the powers civil and ecclesiastic, in support of the ideals for which he stood. They generally admired him less for his theological positions than for his strength of courage and devotion to the “righteous cause,” which, of course, they believed paralleled their unwavering opposition to the institution of slavery.

Luther in Late 19th-Century America

From the middle of the 19th century onward, there was a growing trend for Americans to travel to Germany for advanced study, and to incorporate German scholastic methods and scholarship into American colleges and universities; one example of this trend was the establishment of the first American Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins in 1876. A number of American theologians and church historians took degrees in Germany or studied there and were influenced by German scholarship on Luther and the Reformation. Philip Schaff had advocated the German model in the United States since the 1840s, while translations of German scholarship (such as Ranke’s History of the Reformation) became increasingly influential. Newer scholars, such as George Park Fisher at Yale and Henry Boynton Smith at Union Seminary, each produced new works of historical scholarship influenced by the latest German works; Park’s The Reformation (1873) was especially influential. This generation of scholars tended to view Luther along the lines of contemporary German nationalism, picturing Luther as the heroic progenitor of the modern German nation-state that was coming into existence at that time. A major accomplishment of this period was the sixth volume of Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, in which he dealt with the Protestant Reformation.

The period between 1865 and the beginnings of the World War I in 1914 was also notable for the massive immigration of southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Roman Catholics) into the United States, as well as the growth of organized Roman Catholicism in this country. The older anti-Romanism and anti-immigrant sentiments were revived, and echoes can be seen during this time in some of the writings about Luther emphasizing the themes of Luther’s resistance to Rome and the corruptions of the medieval Roman church of his day (and by extension, to the Roman Catholic church of the 19th century). The First Vatican Council in 1870 was a matter of great negative comment. Roman Catholic leaders and scholars, such as John Martin Spaulding and James Cardinal Gibbons, produced historical works of their own on the Reformation. Their judgments on Luther were as unsparingly condemnatory of the Protestant reformer as the works of Park and Smith were laudatory; to these Roman Catholic authors, the splitting of the medieval Western church was an unmitigated tragedy traced back to Luther’s own personal failings, and the traumas of Europe after the Reformation were squarely the fault of Luther and his followers. On both the Roman Catholic and Protestant sides, Luther was rarely a nuanced, historical individual, but rather a symbol of the writer’s own ideologies.

Perhaps the height of this period came with the American observances of the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1883, which was celebrated with great enthusiasm on the part of the Protestants and marked with great distain on the part of the Roman Catholics. There were many popular celebrations of Luther, especially in November of that year around the date of his birth, and dozens of books on Luther were published. To most of these Protestants, Luther’s own theology was of little importance, and they probably would have disagreed with him on that score. Again, it was Luther the heroic Protestant symbol that made all the difference. American Roman Catholics, however, continued their vilification of Luther in response.

Between these two groups was the growing number of American Lutherans who actually were interested in Luther’s own theology. The Lutheran confessional revival of the mid-19th century continued, and there was a renewed interest by Lutherans in the works of the 16th-century reformers. In 1880, C. F. W. Walther and the Missouri Synod began the publication of a multivolume set of Luther’s works in German (the St. Louis edition), based on the work of Johann Georg Walch. The Lutheran confessional documents, the Book of Concord, were translated into English and annotated in a two-volume edition in 1882–1883 by Henry Eyster Jacobs, who also wrote a widely popular biography of Luther in 1898. American Lutherans produced a flood of their own books about Luther, or translated German volumes about him. In a more tangible symbol, both of the veneration of their founder and of their own increasing visibility, American Lutherans raised funds to erect a statue of Luther himself in Washington, DC, which was dedicated in 1884. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Martin Luther was a popular figure in American culture. For liberal American Protestants, especially the new proponents of the Social Gospel theology, such as Walter Rauschenbusch and others, Luther continued to serve as a symbol of the “new” Protestant Reformation overcoming the old medieval Western church, and as an inspiration for the push for social transformations.

By the beginning of the 20th century there was an important wave of new works about Luther and, increasingly, his theology. An important figure at this time was the church historian Williston Walker, the successor to Park at Yale, who wrote a new history of the Reformation in 1900, and a very influential textbook, A History of the Christian Church, in 1918 (a revised version of which was still in print in 2016). Walker attempted a balanced picture of Luther in appreciation of the reformer’s contribution but did not make him the focal point of the entire Reformation. In a similar vein was a biography of Luther produced in 1911 by Arthur Cushman McGiffert of Union Seminary. A further important development was the work of historian Preserved Smith of Cornell, who produced translations of Luther’s own works, including an edition of the Table Talk in 1907, and a two-volume edition of Luther’s Correspondence, 1913 and 1918. The work of these scholars attempted to focus attention on Luther himself, and less on the mythic hero of the Protestant Reformation.

This more nuanced Protestant reading of Luther did not, however, extend during this time period to American Roman Catholics, who continued and even deepened their negative attacks on the Protestant reformer. European Roman Catholic writings on Luther, such as those by Hartmann Grisar (6 volumes, 1913–1917) and Heinrich Denifle (1913) were translated into English by American Roman Catholics and achieved a wide circulation in those circles. The entry of Martin Luther in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–1912) is perhaps the most negative of them all; in this entry, written by Henry Ganss, Luther is accused of every possible personality disorder, moral failing, and theological heresy. It would be another fifty years before some American Roman Catholic scholars and writers would attempt a more nuanced description of Luther.

The first two decades of the 20th century were a period of linguistic change for American Lutherans, especially the 19th-century immigrants whose transition from the European languages to English was driven by generational change and the xenophobia that arose during World War I. This linguistic transition occasioned the production by American Lutherans of a stream of new works by and about Luther. German scholarship on Luther was translated into English, most notably the two-volume work of Julius Köstlin on Luther’s theology (1897). More importantly was the publication of two multivolume sets of Luther’s writings into English. John Nicolas Lenker assembled a group of translators to produce a twelve-volume set entitled The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (1903–1910), while a six-volume set, The Works of Martin Luther (the Philadelphia or Holman edition,1915–1932) was put together by editor Henry Eyster Jacobs. These new sets of Luther in English, along with the previously mentioned works of Preserved Smith, meant that for the first time, a significant portion of Luther’s truly massive literary output was available in English. This was a boon not only for American Lutherans but also for those English speakers who were interested in reading Luther’s own works directly, not mediated through German or American scholars.

Luther in Early 20th-Century America

World War I occasioned a brief but intense storm of popular xenophobia in the United States during 1917 and 1918. Things German were especially suspect, but popular attitudes turned sharply against anything or anyone considered to be “foreign.” Lutherans in America, especially the more recent immigrants, rushed to assert their American patriotism and commitment to the war effort, including campaigns to buy war bonds. However, the timing of the entry of the United States into World War I in April, 1917 upset the elaborate plans that American Lutherans had been making to celebrate Martin Luther and the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in November of that year. Luther the champion of liberty and Luther the progenitor of Protestantism were no longer themes that worked in the wartime crusade against things German. Although American academics generally took a measured tone in observing the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 1917, popular observances were muted and did not rise to anywhere near the heights of the Luther celebrations of 1883. Some American Roman Catholic writers seized on the situation to continue their attacks on Luther, specifically as a cause of the German imperial war mentality. American Lutheran celebrations in 1917 were more about demonstrating their patriotism and their contributions to their new country than they were about celebrating Luther himself.

The period around World War I also saw the scholarly reappraisal of Martin Luther known as the “Luther Renaissance.” Already at the turn of the 20th century, the production of the new critical edition of Luther’s works, the Weimar Ausgabe (1883–), had drawn such scholars as Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch to produce a new generation of Luther scholarship. But it was the pioneering work of Karl Holl about the time of the celebrations of 1917 that represented this new surge of scholarly interest in Luther, in contrast to the ways that Luther had beens pictured in the 19th century. A bit later came the Swedish Luther renaissance with the Lundensian school, including Ragnar Bring, Gustaf Aulén, and Anders Nygren, and their new and original contributions to Luther scholarship. But as important as these new scholarly works were, it took a long time for them to be translated into English; the Swedish scholarship was translated after World War II, and the work of Holl is still largely untranslated. The direct impact of these scholars on American understandings of Luther was limited for a long time. Of more direct importance to American Protestantism of the 1920s and 1930s were the Neo-Orthodox theologians, above all Karl Barth, but also Emil Brunner and the American brothers Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. This searching and critical reappraisal of the 19th century Liberal Protestant tradition was very important and influential in American Protestantism. Since this new theology was rooted in Reformed Protestantism, their appraisal of Luther was naturally colored by this tradition, and through them into several generations of American Protestantism. These Neo-Orthodox theologians had an often ambivalent relationship with Luther, acknowledging his extreme importance but very critical of aspects of his theology. Part of this critique turned on traditional Reformed readings of Luther, especially his dialectic of Law and Gospel, the “third use of the law,” and questions of justification and sanctification. Newer criticisms, especially from the Niebuhrs, charged Luther’s understandings of the relation of church and state with being quietistic, leading to an inability to rightly critique immoral political and social systems. These views of Luther gained currency with the upheavals of the 1930s and the rise of National Socialism and the German Christians in Germany, events which also (again) wrecked American Lutheran plans, this time for a celebration the 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1933.

The early 20th century in America also saw the final great division of Protestantism into rival camps, a struggle known as the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy. Conservative American Protestants increasingly based their theology on five bedrock “fundamentals,” the most important of which was the doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Alhough this was mainly a Reformed Protestant battle, American Lutherans were drawn into this fray, especially as they began to do their theology in English. For them, the battle was over the question of whether Luther and later Lutheran theologians had a doctrine of Scripture that could be expressed in the term “inerrancy.” Some more conservative American Lutherans agreed, employing the term inerrancy in doctrinal statements, such as the “Chicago Theses” (1919), though it is uncertain whether they intended the term in the same way as the Reformed Fundamentalists. Other American Lutherans suggested that Luther’s concept of the Word of God was incompatible with the use of the term. Luther scholar Johann M. Reu maintained a position that Luther did not admit of error in the Scriptures in his Luther and the Scriptures (1944), while Joseph Sittler pushed the other direction in his The Word of God in the Structure of Lutheran Theology (1948).1 The question of Luther, the doctrine of Scripture, and the term inerrancy continued to be an open question, and one that divided American Lutherans.

Luther in America after World War II

The reputation of Martin Luther in the English-speaking world took another hit with World War II, and especially with the Jewish Holocaust. The suspicions, previously voiced by Barth and the Niebuhrs, that Luther’s theology led to quietism and a much too cozy relationship with the state were dramatically confirmed in the minds of many with the failures of Christians in Germany during the Nazi era. Even worse, some of Luther’s later anti-Jewish writings were dredged up with the claim that it was Luther’s writings that had prepared the way for Hitler and the Final Solution. An English writer, Peter Wiener, pushed out a pamphlet in 1945 provocatively entitled Martin Luther: Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor, which was published in London and New York; though little more than a hack job quickly countered by English historian Gordon Rupp in his Martin Luther: Hitler’s Cause or Cure, also in 1945, the damage was done, and Luther’s reputation in America was seriously affected.2 The charge kept being repeated in certain circles, especially by journalist William Shirer in his very popular book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960); though this book was eventually refuted by a number of scholars, especially Uwe Siemon-Netto in The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth (1995), the charge that Luther led to Hitler had become a widely established interpretation.3

The postwar decades also saw a growing tide of more positive Luther studies, however. The works of the Swedish Luther renaissance, books by Aulén, Nygren, and Gustaf Wingren, were translated into English, giving American readers an alternative to German scholarship on the subject. A new generation of young American theologians and church historians, many of them Lutherans, did graduate work or study in Europe, and produced a growing number of scholarly studies of their own and translations of new European works; these new scholars included Jaroslav Pelikan, Lewis Spitz, George Forell, and Ernest Schwiebert, among many others. There was an interesting florescence of scholars from Great Britain who also wrote important studies of Luther in English, including Philip Watson, Let God Be God (1947), and Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (1953).4 Perhaps the most important book of the age was a new biography of Luther by Yale church historian Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (1950), which was frequently used in academic courses and also became a best-seller, remaining in print, probably the most widely read Luther biography in English.5 That Bainton, a Quaker scholar of the Anabaptists, should be so interested in Luther is remarkable, but he produced a vivid and human portrait of the reformer, which probably accounts for its long-running popularity.

The new studies of Luther also resulted in new and expanded English-language publications of Luther’s writings. In the 1950s, Westminster Press (Presbyterian) in Philadelphia began a twenty-six volume series entitled “Library of Christian Classics,” in which Luther and Calvin each had four volumes (Augustine only had three!), and thus Luther’s writings were even more widely disseminated. The most important work of this age was the new American edition of Luther’s Works in fifty-five volumes, begun in 1955 as a collaboration between Lutheran publishing houses Muhlenberg (later Fortress) and Concordia.6 The fifty-five volumes, produced through 1986, made available in English a substantial portion of the standard Weimar edition, much of which had never before been translated. Concordia eventually decided to bring out another series of twenty additional volumes in the series, beginning in 2009. One more volume must be mentioned here, the single-volume anthology of Luther’s writings edited by church historian John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (1962);7 this volume was widely used in seminary courses of Luther and the Reformation—perhaps with Bainton’s biography the two books that most widely introduced Luther to the American public.

Outside of Luther scholars, others began to explore the life and thought of Luther in the 1950s and 1960s. One important interpreter of Luther was the German-born systematic theologian Paul Tillich, who taught for many years in the United States, and whose theological works were widely influential in the postwar period. Luther was a powerful influence on Tillich himself, and on his theological writings, even if it must be said that Tillich’s use of Luther’s theology was as a point of departure for his own existentialist theology. Others became very interested in the person of the reformer himself, especially the psychologist Erik Erikson, whose study of Luther, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958), brought the psychoanalytical theory to bear on Luther’s life and thought.8 Many historians and theologians were less than impressed by Erikson’s work, but it, too, achieved a wide reading, and became a model of the field of psychohistory. Erikson’s work was popularized in the play Luther (1961) by playwright John Osbourne, which achieved some popular success.

In a similar vein, the 1950s saw the first of a string of Luther biographical movies and television productions. The first movie, Martin Luther (1953), was a full cinematic production, starring Niall MacGinnis and directed by Irving Pichel; it was nominated in two technical categories for the Academy Awards. The Osbourne play Luther was produced for television in the 1960s and was filmed in 1973, with Stacy Keach in the title role. Around the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983 there was a documentary, Where Luther Walked (1981), narrated by Roland Bainton, and a BBC production, Martin Luther, Herectic (1983), starring Jonathan Pryce. In 2002 a PBS television series, Empire, had an episode on Luther, starring Timothy West, and in 2003 there was a full length film, Luther, starring Joseph Feinnes and a cast of other notable actors. Many Americans who had never read anything by or about Martin Luther were exposed to his life and his ideas by means of these media productions.9

Luther in Late 20th-Century and Early 21st-Century America

As has been seen, there was an expansion of young American scholars taking their degrees in the areas of Luther studies and Reformation studies after World War II, and this wave of scholarship began maturing in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period of great ferment in American public life, and interest in Luther scholarship was also influenced by the popular turmoil. More and more books about Luther began to locate him within the social conflicts of late medieval Europe, as well as in the political situation of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Works about Luther had long emphasized him as a pioneer of modernity, whether the Enlightenment pioneer of individual freedom, the Romantic hero of liberty, the American icon of anti-Catholicism, or the 19th-century forerunner of German nationalism. In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of scholars came to stress his medieval roots, and how Luther represented an attempt at continuity with late medieval piety. Newer studies also sought to see him as one part of a larger social, political, and religious revolution, not only as a single individual.

One aspect of this reappraisal included studies that looked frankly and honestly at some of Luther’s own failings, especially his later anti-Jewish writings and his harsh rhetoric aimed at the pope and the papacy. Studies that located Luther in his time went a long way toward putting Luther writings into the larger situation of his day, though this scholarship was generally careful not to absolve him of these sentiments. Luther’s late writings on the Jews were especially problematic, and American Lutheran denominations eventually issued statements rejecting these writings, as they also eventually did with some of his more incendiary statements about the Anabaptists.

The 1960s saw a sea change for American Roman Catholics as well, due substantially to the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965. Following the lead of many European scholars, some American Roman Catholic scholars began to make a renewed and much more balanced appraisal of Luther. Rejecting the polemical Roman Catholic writing on Luther from the early 20th century, Catholic scholars such as Jared Wicks and Harry McSorley tried to understand Luther within the context of other late-medieval advocates for reform within the medieval Western church. This portrait of the reformer emphasized the “catholic” Luther, one who did not seek to split the church but was forced out of it. This picture meshed with developments among certain American Lutherans who preferred to think of themselves as “Evangelical Catholics,” and saw the Protestant Reformation (and Luther) within the historical traditions of the Western Christian church. Ecumenical dialogues between Lutherans and Roman Catholics (both within the United States and internationally) sought to bring the two groups closer together, and to overcome (as much as possible) the bitter polemics of the 16th century. The promulgation of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the two groups in 1997 appeared to some as a breakthrough, although many other theologians (on both sides) expressed reservations, believing that that document was oversold.

This period also saw two major Luther anniversaries that occasioned the writing of many books on Luther by American authors, and the translation of many other European Luther studies into English. The 450th anniversary of the Reformation in 1967 and the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983 were the occasions for much scholarly and theological reflection, though the popular celebrations of these anniversaries were not as elaborate or widespread as those of the 19th century. One interesting factor in the evolving public knowledge of Martin Luther in America was the growing awareness and celebration of the life and work of American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose fame and influence continued to grow after his assassination in 1968. Because of the growing popularity of King, the general American public is now much more aware of the Civil Rights leader than they are of the 16th-century reformer. When the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired a program on the reformer Martin Luther in 2002, it developed materials that compared him with King, emphasizing the points of commonality between the two leaders. In the minds of the American public in the early 21st century, Martin Luther is seen in a number of divergent ways; some follow him as the 16th-century progenitor of Protestantism and the heroic individual, while others see him as the psychologically tortured man of Erikson and Osbourne; still others fixate on the alleged Nazi connections and the very real anti-Judaism in some of his later works.

All in all, Luther in the American context has been a mass of conflicting opinions. At times, Luther was virtually ignored because of the dominance of Reformed Protestantism in the development of the religious life of the United States. In many other times, he was a figurehead or a foil for a number of different religious positions not of his own making. Luther was, and still is in the main, either a hero or a villain, depending on how American people wish to use him. In part, because he himself is such a complicated figure, and because he wrote so massive a corpus of theological works, the tendency to fixate on one or another aspect of Luther is perhaps understandable. But the “American” Luther has to be seen within these contexts, and within the social and religious forces that have shaped American attitudes toward him.

Review of the Literature

The most complete book on this topic is Hartmut Lehman, Martin Luther in the American Imagination.10 This 1988 volume is an extensive survey of the use and understanding of Martin Luther in the United States, especially for the 18th and 19th centuries. This volume does thin out quite a bit for the 20th century, especially after 1945. The 2016 article by Robert Kolb, “Nordamerikanische Lutherforschung,” is a compact yet thorough examination of the work of American Luther scholars up as far as the beginnings of the 21st century.11 Bernard Holm's 1961 essay "Luther and Twentieth Century America"; Lowell Green's 1977 "Luther Research in English-Speaking Countries Since 1971"; and Lewis Spitz's 1983 "Luther in America: Reformation History Since Philip Schaff" are also useful, but not as complete or current as that of Kolb.12 Two essays in a 1968 festschrift for Wilhelm Pauck explore particular aspects of the study of Luther in America, one by Theodore Bachmann and the other by James Luther Adams.13 The 2012 article by Mark Granquist, “The Popular Perceptions of Martin Luther in American Culture,” is an attempt to survey the influence and perceptions of Luther in American popular culture;14 though limited in its scope, there is not much else written on this aspect of the subject. George Robbert's 1965 article, “A Checklist of Luther’s Writings in English,” gives valuable bibliographic detail on translations of Luther’s works into English up to 1965.15 The 1982 monograph by Arthur Repp, Sr., Luther’s Catechism Comes to America: Theological Effects on the Issues of the Small Catechism Prepared in or for America Prior to 1850, looks in detail at the early dissemination of Luther’s Small Catechism in America up to 1850, while Lutherans in America: A New History, the 2015 history of American Lutherans by Granquist, gives general background to Luther among this particular group.16

Further Reading

Adams, James Luther. “Paul Tillich on Luther.” In Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 304–334. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968.Find this resource:

Bachmann, E. Theodore. “Walther, Schaff, and Krauth on Luther.” In Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 187–230. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968.Find this resource:

Granquist, Mark. Lutherans in America: A New History. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015.Find this resource:

Granquist, Mark. “The Popular Perceptions of Martin Luther in American Culture,” Trinity Seminary Review 33 (Summer 2012): 7–18.Find this resource:

Green, Lowell C. “Luther Research in English-Speaking Countries Since 1971.” Lutherjahrbuch 44 (1977): 105–126.Find this resource:

Holm, Bernard J. “Luther and Twentieth Century America.” In Luther in the 20th Century. Decorah, IA: Luther College Press, 1961, pp. 83–105.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. “Nordamerikanische Lutherforschung.” In Luther Handbuch, 3d ed., edited by Albrecht Beutel. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr/Siebeck, 2016.Find this resource:

Lehmann, Hartmut. Martin Luther in the American Imagination. American Studies: A Monograph Series, 63. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1988.Find this resource:

Repp, Arthur C., Sr. Luther’s Catechism Comes to America: Theological Effects on the Issues of the Small Catechism Prepared in or for America Prior to 1850. ATLA Monograph Series, 18. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow, 1982.Find this resource:

Robbert, George S. “A Checklist of Luther’s Writings in English” Concordia Theological Monthly 36 (December 1965): 772–792.Find this resource:

Spitz, Lewis W. “Luther in America: Reformation History Since Philip Schaff.” In Luther in der Neuzeit: Wissenschaftliches Symposion des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte, edited by Bernd Moeller, 160–177. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1983.Find this resource:


(1.) Johann M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1944); and Joseph Sittler, The Word of God in the Structure of Lutheran Theology (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1948).

(2.) Peter Wiener, Martin Luther: Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor (London and New York: Hutchinson, 1945); and Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther: Hitler’s Cause or Cure? (London: Lutterworth, 1945).

(3.) William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960); and Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth (St. Louis: Concordia, 1995).

(4.) Philip Watson, Let God Be God (London: Epworth, 1947); and Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1953).

(5.) Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950).

(6.) Luther’s Works in fifty-five volumes, begun in 1955, vols. 1–30, Concordia, vols. 31–55, Muhlenberg.

(7.) John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1962).

(8.) Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Norton, 1958).

(10.) Hartmut Lehmann, Martin Luther in the American Imagination. American Studies: A Monograph Series, 63 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1988).

(11.) Robert Kolb, “Nordamerikanische Lutherforschung,” in Luther Handbuch, 3d ed., edited by Albrecht Beutel (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr/Siebeck, 2016).

(12.) Lowell C. Green, “Luther Research in English-Speaking Countries Since 1971,” Lutherjahrbuch 44 (1977): 105–126; Bernard J. Holm, “Luther and Twentieth Century America,” in Luther in the 20th Century (Decorah, IA: Luther College Press, 1961), 83–105; and Lewis W. Spitz, “Luther in America: Reformation History Since Philip Schaff,” in Luther in der Neuzeit: Wissenschaftliches Symposion des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte, edited by Bernd Moeller, 160–177 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1983).

(13.) James Luther Adams, “Paul Tillich on Luther,” in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 304–334 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968); and E. Theodore Bachmann, “Walther, Schaff, and Krauth on Luther,” in Interpreters of Luther, 187–230.

(14.) Mark Granquist, “The Popular Perceptions of Martin Luther in American Culture,” Trinity Seminary Review 33 (Summer 2012): 7–18.

(15.) George S. Robbert, “A Checklist of Luther’s Writings in English,” Concordia Theological Monthly 36 (December 1965): 772–792.

(16.) Arthur C., Repp, Sr., Luther’s Catechism Comes to America: Theological Effects on the Issues of the Small Catechism Prepared in or for America Prior to 1850, ATLA Monograph Series, 18 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1982); and Mark Granquist, Lutherans in America: A New History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).