Lesson 6 Table of Contents Lesson 8

L e s s o n 7


1. Key personalities

Martin Luther (1483-1546). German theologian, the leader of the Reformation in Germany. The Lutheran Church, which he founded, became the established church in the north German states.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). One of the chief reformers of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, Zwingli established the Reformation at Zurich.

John Hus (c. 1369-1415). Early religious reformer in Bohemia, executed as a heretic.

John Calvin (1509-1564). French theologian who established the Protestant Reformation at Geneva, Switzerland. His theological system, known as Calvinism, forms the doctrinal basis of the Reformed churches.

2. Main trends

The bulk of German immigrants in America have been members of either the Lutheran or Catholic churches. Due to England's anti- Catholic disposition, there were few German Catholics in America during the colonial period. But their number increased greatly during the 19th century. German Protestants belonging to the Lutheran and Reformed churches had begun to arrive in America during the colonial period.

Many of the German settlers of the colonial period were, however, members of various nonconformist sects who in many cases fled Europe to escape persecution by the authorities and the established churches there, whether Protestant or Catholic. Let us now consider in turn some of the religious denominations in the U.S. which have had strong links to German immigration.

The Catholics

Large numbers of German Catholics, particularly from Austria, Bavaria, Alsace, Baden and the Rhineland, settled in America during the 19th century and established numerous German-speaking parishes and parochial schools. Around 1900, some German-speaking priests urged that the Catholic church in the U.S. ought to be divided up into separately administered ethnic divisions. The issue had been raised by Peter Paul Cahensly, a Catholic layman in Germany. What added fuel to the controversy was the feeling among many German-American Catholics that the interests of their parishes were being neglected by a church hierarchy in which the Irish seemed to enjoy a favored position. The issue was largely resolved by the general decline in the use of German in American churches following World War I. There are, of course, no doctrinal differences between German Catholics and other Catholics.

The Lutherans

The mass of German-speaking immigrants who came to America in colonial times were Lutherans. The House of Hanover, which ruled England, was a German dynasty with strong ties to the Continent. Most of the Lutherans who came to America at that time were from northern Germany. Others, like the Salzburgers, were Protestant refugees from the predominantly Catholic south.

The Lutherans in Germany have maintained a largely unified church. The situation in the U.S. is quite different, and the Lutherans here are divided into a number of competing churches and synods. Some of these divisions are due to differences in national origin between German and Scandinavian Lutherans, but some divisions involve doctrinal issues. The Missouri Synod, originally formed by German settlers in Missouri, has a reputation of leaning in the direction of conservativism. The Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1962 by a merger of German and Scandinavian groups is the largest Lutheran church in the U.S.

The Reformed Churches

During the course of the Reformation the Protestant camp split into two major groups. On the one hand there were the followers of Martin Luther, whose church became dominant in the north of Germany, Scandinavia, Latvia, and Estonia. The other group of Protestants were the Reformed faction, whose movement originated in Switzerland and followed the course set by such reformers as Calvin and Zwingli. The Reformed Church later took root in Holland and, as Presbyterians, in Scotland. The Huguenots in France were also a part of the Calvinist movement.

Although the Lutheran Church predominated in northern Germany after the Reformation, there was also a Reformed Church there. The Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Prussia were merged in the 1820s. In the U.S. the denomination known as the Evangelical and Reformed Church came into existence in 1934, representing a merger of German Calvinists and German Lutherans. Especially in rural communities of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for some time to have united "Lutherisch und Reformierte" congregations. In 1957 the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ.

Anabaptist Sects

The term Anabaptist seems to have been coined by the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who was no friend to the movement. There are today three surviving Anabaptist sects: The Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. The Mennonites, who can still be found in Europe as well as America, are the largest Anabaptist group. The Amish, originally a dissident Mennonite sect, are a much smaller group. The Hutterites, numbering only about 16,000, are the smallest. All three groups are characterized by distinctive dress and a society which prefers to keep its distance from the outside world. They all insist on farming as their principal occupation. The Hutterites are distinguished by the fact that their settlements are communitarian in character with all property held in common.

The Mennonites originated in Switzerland in opposition to the Protestant Church which had been established at Zurich by Ulrich Zwingli. Another early center of the Mennonite movement was in Holland. The most important early leader of the Mennonites was Menno Simons, after whom the sect was named. Large numbers of Mennonites migrated to Russia and to Pennsylvania during the colonial period and later established settlements in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, particularly in Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. During the late 19th century a new wave of German-speaking Mennonites arrived from Russia after their liberties there had been revoked. They settled on the Great Plains, particularly in frontier Kansas, and became leading pioneers in agriculture. Like the other Anabaptist denominations, the Mennonites are opposed to military service. They have no objection to higher education, however, and there are several well-established Mennonite colleges, the oldest being Bethel College in Newton, KS. Goshen College in Goshen, IN is notable for its extensive archive of documents dealing with Mennonite history.

The Amish also originated in Switzerland but soon spread to Alsace. The founder of the sect, Jacob Ammann, was a Mennonite minister who caused a schism in the church over the issue of excommunication and avoidance of excommunicated persons.

The Hutterites, or Hutterian Brethren, began in the Tyrol of western Austria. Jacob Hutter, an important early leader of the sect, was burned as a heretic in Austria. The Hutterites sought refuge in Russia during the 18th century but decided to leave when a new military conscription law in 1872 threatened their traditional opposition to military service. Like the Mennonites in Russia they chose to emigrate to America and take up a new existence on the harsh western frontier.

These three Anabaptist groups are portrayed in a superb multimedia program [available also in German] at the Menno-Hof Center in Shipshewana, IN.


The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Christian branches and was established in 1458, years before the time of the general Protestant Reformation. The church was known originally as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) and is sometimes called the Moravian Brethren. A group of them who left Bohemia and Moravia during the early 18th century found refuge in Saxony on the estate of Count von Zinzendorf, who became a bishop of their church. It was he who led a group of Moravians to Pennsylvania, where they established settlements at Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz. A huge painting at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, "David Zeisberger Preaching the Gospel to the Indians," is a reminder of the Moravians' extensive mission work among Indian tribes. Members of the sect have long taken a particular interest in music, both choral and instrumental, and their music festivals have received national attention.

German Baptists

The Baptists in the U.S. are divided into a number of conferences. One of these, now known as the North American Baptist Conference, was organized between 1840 and 1851 by scattered German Baptist congregations. They now number about 57,000 members. Although they have their own theological seminary in Rochester, NY, their theological position is much the same as that of other Baptists.

The Church of the Brethren (Dunkers)

The word "dunker" is derived from the German verb "tunken" (to immerse). One of the central tenets of this sect is that baptism must be done by full immersion three times. The movement grew out of German Pietism. The Pietists were German Protestants of the 18th century who, like the English Puritans, stressed simplicity of dress, manners, and worship. The Dunkers, who wear distinctive dress, settled in Pennsylvania in colonial times and are now divided into several separate denominations.

The Schwenkfelder Church

This church was founded by Caspar Schwenkfelder von Ossig (1498-1561), a nobleman from Silesia who was raised as a Catholic but eagerly joined the Protestant Reformation. Members of this sect began to arrive in America in 1734 and settled near Philadelphia. They are a small denomination which has completely disappeared in Europe and has only a few thousand members in the U.S.

The Jews

The first Jews to reach America were a small group of Portuguese Jews who came by way of Brazil. By the 18th century, however, significant numbers of German-speaking Jews had begun to settle in America. Most of the Jews in America in mid-19th century appear to have come from a German-speaking background.

Reform Judaism is a movement which began in Germany during the early 19th century. German Jews in 19th-century America took a lead in fostering the movement in the U.S. Isidor Kalisch (1816-1886), a political refugee of the 1848 Revolution, became an influential Reform rabbi in the U.S. Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) was a native of Bohemia whose name was originally Weis. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1846 he settled in Cincinnati, where he founded the Hebrew Union College and a national conference of Reformed rabbis. At the end of the 19th century, however, there was a new wave of Jewish immigration, this time from eastern Europe. The new immigrants spoke Yiddish, originally a German dialect, and belonged to the Orthodox rather than the Reform branch of Judaism. By 1900 there was a class difference between the affluent, well educated, and progressively minded German Jews and the newer Jewish immigrants. As the new wave of immigrants gained in status these social distinctions tended to disappear. Conservative Judaism, which has gained in importance in recent years, tends to strike a balance between the traditionalism of Orthodox Judaism and the assimilationist tendencies of the Reform movement.

The 1930s and 1940s brought a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany - exiles from Hitler. Most of them were middle class and many were professionals who have made signal contributions to American culture. The Leo Baeck Institute in New York preserves an extensive archival collection of documents pertaining to the immigration of German Jewish refugees to the U.S. during the Hitler era.

The Ethical Culture Society

The Ethical Culture Society regards itself as a religious denomination and in many ways functions as a church. Nevertheless, it does not consider a belief in God to be one of its tenets. The society was founded in New York in 1876 by Felix Adler (1851-1933), who was brought to the U.S. from Germany in 1857. Adler, a professor of political and social ethics at Columbia University, came from a Jewish background.


Many Germans in the 19th century could not accept the churches' transcendentalism, religious dogmatism, and the antidemocratic alliance between throne and altar. Instead, they prefered to construct their world view on the basis of the natural sciences, the antispeculative/materialistic philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, with man in the center of things. For their private and public conduct freethinkers developed rigorous ethical standards drawing largely from philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the classical authors Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The contemporary writer Kurt Vonnegut, born in Indianapolis, is proud of his German freethinker family tradition.

3. Suggested further reading

Karl J. R. Arndt. George Rapp's Harmony Society 1785-1847. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Walter A. Baepler. A Century of Grace: A History of the Missouri Synod 1847-1947. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1947.

Harold S. Bender. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955-1959, 4 vols.

Stephen Birmingham. Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

The Brethren Encyclopedia. Ambler, PA: Brethren Encyplopedia, Inc., 1983-1984, 3 vols.

Philip Gleason. The Conservative Reformers: German-American Catholics and the Social Order. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Ruth Gay. Jews in America: A Short History. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Frank S. Mead. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville: Abingdon, 1980.

Emmet Rothan. The German Catholic Immigrant in the United States, 1830-1860. Washington, D.C.: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1946.

C. Henry Smith. The Coming of the Russian Mennonites. Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1927.

John R. Weinlick. The Moravian Church Through the Ages. Bethlehem, PA: Interprovisional Board of Christian Education, 1966.

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Created: 4 August 1998, SEL
Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: Eberhard Reichmann, reichman@ucs.indiana.edu
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