The Lutheran denomination is the oldest Protestant denomination. It was founded (not deliberately at first) by Martin Luther, the German monk and professor who famously posted 95 Theses against the practice of indulgences in 1517. Luther saw contradictions between the Bible and current church practice as well as corruption and abuses within the (Catholic) church, and initially hoped for reform, not schism. When that proved impossible, he continued to spread his teachings despite excommunication and threats to his life.
Martin Luther taught that salvation comes by the grace of God and faith in Christ alone, and the many rituals and works prescribed by the church were not only unnecessary, but a stumbling block to salvation. He rejected such traditions as the intermediary role of priests, priestly celibacy, the Latin Bible and liturgy, purgatory, and transubstantiation, and advocated for the scriptures to be available to the laity in their own language.
Despite his rejection of many aspects of medieval Catholicism, Luther did accept any aspects of church practice that did not contradict the scriptures. Some other Protestant groups, by contrast, rejected any Catholic tradition not explicitly commanded in the Bible. For this reason, Lutheran churches tend to have more of a Catholic “look and feel” than their more austere Presbyterian counterparts.
Those who followed Luther’s teachings were called “Lutherans” by their opponents, and they accepted the name for themselves. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and into Scandanavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark). Today, Germany remains predominantly Lutheran, and Lutheranism is the official state church of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland.
In the 17th century, Lutherans from these countries began to migrate to the United States, bringing their language, culture, and Lutheran faith with them. As the number of Lutheran congregations grew, some began to join together to form “synods,” or church bodies.
On January 1, 1988, three American synods, the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America, merged to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
In August 1997, the ELCA declared full communion with the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church-USA. The ELCA also decided that the differences between it and the Roman Catholic Church in matters of salvation had essentially been resolved.