Lutheranism is the branch of Protestantism that generally follows the teachings of the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther. The Lutheran movement diffused after 1517 from Saxony through many other German territories into Scandinavia. In the 18th century it spread to America and, thereafter, into many nations of the world, and it has come to number more than 70 million adherents. As such, it lays claim to being the largest non-Roman Catholic body in the Western Christian church.
Lutheranism appeared in Europe after a century of reformist stirrings in Italy under Girolamo Savonarola, in Bohemia under John Huss, and in England under the Lollards. The personal experience of the troubled monk Luther gave shape to many of the original impulses of the Protestant Reformation and colors Lutheranism to the present. Like many people of conscience in his day, Luther was disturbed by immorality and corruption in the Roman Catholic church, but he concentrated more on reform of what he thought was corrupt teaching. After he experienced what he believed to be the stirrings of grace, he proclaimed a message of divine promise and denounced the human merits through which, he feared, most Catholics thought they were earning the favor of God.
Lutheranism soon became more than the experience of Luther, but it never deviated from his theme that people are made right with God sola gratia and sola fide--that is, only by the divine initiative of grace as received through God's gift of faith. Because Luther came across his discoveries by reading the Bible, he also liked to add to his motto the exhortation sola scriptura, which means that Lutherans are to use the Bible alone as the source and norm for their teachings.
The Lutheran movement gained popularity quickly in Germany at a time of rising nationalism among people who resented sending their wealth to Rome. The early Lutherans were strongly based in the universities and used their learning to spread the faith among an international community of scholars. By 1530 they were formulating their own confessions of faith and proceeding independently amid the non-Lutheran reform parties that proliferated across most of northern Europe. By 1580 and through the next century, these confessions became increasingly rigid scholastic expressions, designed to define the church in formal terms. Ever since, Lutheranism has been known as a doctrinal and even dogmatic church.
Lutheranism did not and could not live only by the teaching of its professors. In the late 17th century its more gentle side, which grew out of the piety of Luther, appeared in the form of a movement called pietism. Nominally orthodox in belief and practice, the Pietists stressed Bible reading, circles of prayer and devotion, and the works of love. This pietism was somewhat unstable; in its downgrading of doctrine it helped prepare Lutherans for the age of Enlightenment, when many leaders and some of the faithful turned to rationalism. Subsequently, theology under Lutheran influence has often taken on a radical character, especially in Germany. As a result, there is often a considerable gap between intellectual expressions of Lutheranism and the liturgy and preaching of its congregations.
From the beginning, Lutheranism had to wrestle with the problem of its relation to civil authorities. Although Luther was a rebel against papal teaching, he was docile about reforming the civil order and rejected radical revolts by the peasants. Fearing anarchy more than authoritarianism, the Lutherans gravitated to biblical teachings that stressed the authority of the state more than the civil freedom of its citizens. Most of them were content not to separate church and state, and in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) approved the principle that the ruler determined the faith of the ruled. Later Lutherans have enthusiastically embraced republican and democratic government as applications of the principle that God is active in different ways through the two realms of civil and churchly authority. Many German Lutherans were silent or cooperative, however, when the Nazi regime took over the church; only the Confessing Church, led by Martin Niemoller, opposed the regime outright.
Lutherans have been more ready than many other Christians to see the permanence of evil in the powers of the created and fallen world--that is, the world under the influence of sin. Thus, they have put more energy into works of welfare and charity--into orphanages, hospitals, and deaconesses' movements--than into social schemes to transform the world.
In Europe most Lutheran churches are episcopal--that is, ruled by bishops, and the churches of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are established (see church and state). In North America and elsewhere Lutherans prefer congregational and synodical forms of government, in which local churches link together for common purposes. In the United States, Lutherans have united in three main bodies: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (membership, 2.6 million), the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Lutheran Church. The latter two and a third group, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, united in 1987 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (membership, about 5.2 million).
Lutheranism is generally friendly to the ecumenical movement, and with some exceptions, Lutheran churches have participated in worldwide gatherings of Christians across confessional and denominational boundaries. Lutherans consider themselves to be both evangelical and catholic because they have points in common with the other Protestant churches on the one hand, and with Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Christians on the other. In the ecumenical age, however, they have kept a very distinct identity through their general loyalty to the teachings of 16th-century Lutheranism.
Bachmann, E. T. and Mercia (1989) Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook; Bergendoff, C. (1967) The Church of the Lutheran Reformation;
Bodensieck, J., ed. (1965) Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, 3 vols.);
Gritsch, Eric W. (1994) Fortress Introduction to Lutheranism;
Hopfl, H., ed. (1991) Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority;
Lueker, Erwin, ed. (1987) Lutheran Cyclopedia.