More than 75 million people worldwide identify as Lutheran today, and about 7.8 million of them are American. In the United States, the majority of self-identified Lutherans tend to belong to one of two major churches: the Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Wisconsin Synod is the third largest group, with more than 380,000 members, and much smaller denominations account for the rest.
But Lutheranism itself is the result of three major divisions -- or “schisms” -- that have occurred since the earliest days of Christianity.
History of Lutheranism
Named for German theologian Martin Luther, Lutheranism is one of several Christian religions under the Protestant umbrella, formed as a result of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. Luther is widely recognized as one of the most influential historical figures of the movement, which initially intended to change the Catholic Church rather than separate from it.
In 1517, Luther was a Catholic monk displeased by what he saw as financial excesses and corruption in the Catholic Church. He demonstrated his objections to Catholicism by posting the 95 Theses on the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This collection of documents primarily questioned the authority of the pope and the role of money in the church.
Broadly speaking, Protestantism sprang from the idea that faith in God alone grants salvation. This ideology put Protestantism at odds with Catholicism, which emphasized specific actions and deeds to secure salvation.
It should be noted that the Catholic Church of the 16th century differed in many respects from modern Catholicism. Several of the practices that Protestants took issue with -- including the selling of forgiveness, or “indulgences” -- are no longer part of modern Catholicism.
The Spread of Lutheranism
Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1520 for refusing to denounce his ideas, and became a leading voice in similar movements happening throughout Europe at the time -- notably in England, France and Switzerland. Lutheranism quickly caught on in Scandinavia, where by 1600 it was the state church of Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
By the time the second wave of immigration to the United States began in the mid-1800s, Lutheranism had spread throughout much of northern and western Europe -- and developed to where disagreements in theology inspired some members to break away and establish their own churches in the New World.
Lutherans in America
The two largest Lutheran denominations in America are the result of smaller splinter groups joining to form large churches.
Missouri Synod is the older of the two, founded in in 1847 by a group of German immigrants, led by the Rev. Martin Stephan. Seeking to separate themselves from the Lutheran church in their homeland, the group established the Missouri Synod branch during a conference in Chicago, Illinois.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1988, when three groups -- the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches -- merged.
The majority of both denominations live in the Midwest; 64 percent of MS members reside there, compared to 51 percent of EVLA members.
In 2012, there were 2,278,586 members of the MS, and were 4,274,855 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in the U.S.
Missouri Synod vs. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Missouri Synod church considers itself a "confessional" branch of Lutheranism, which means that followers adhere to a stricter interpretation of the Bible, taking the stance that scripture is God’s word. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America places more importance on general meaning and tone of the Bible, but does not consider it infallible.
For this reason, the MS is often considered the more socially and politically conservative of the two. For example, the ELCA ordains women as pastors, while the MS does not.