A salute to Augustana

by Maria Erling

One more time, on June 24-26, the Augustana Heritage Association will sponsor a gathering, this time in Philadelphia, this time for good. Glimpses of East Coast Swedish Lutheranism will provide the theme for the gathering of former members of the Augustana Synod, a Lutheran church body that ended its separate existence in 1962 with the merger of four Lutheran denominations into the Lutheran Church in America. The LCA doesn’t exist any longer, either, because it is now a part of the ELCA. I’ve spent a career trying to explain all these mergers and stubborn refusals to seminary students, and it is always amazing to me that the several legacies of the many Lutheran traditions are still active in many places, making it prudent for students to prepare to meet their congregations with a bit of respect. And curiosity. And fun.

Augustana people like to gather because they understand each other’s sense of humor, the hymns remind them of their Luther League years, and the speakers know how to get them to their feet. The several Swedish immigrant denominations created their own unique cultural traditions and spirit, and Augustana’s Swedes held to this rule. They had holy places like Rock Island and Camp Augustana in Wisconsin, and progressive congregations in Minneapolis. In Minnesota they vied with Norwegians, which made Minnesota Swedes more pious; in New England and the rest of the Northeast, Augustana Lutherans were more urban and used to a bit more religious and ethnic diversity.

Mission Friends/Covenanters in New England were aligned with the Congregationalists, too, with a social boost that the Lutherans had to admire. At the same time the Northeastern Augustana churches liked their liturgy and expected their pastors to dress the part. So it will be fun to share those distinctive features with the people attending the gathering in Philadelphia.

I am personally grateful for the Augustana Heritage Association because of the strong churchmanship that motivated the founders of the Heritage Association. The association became their instrument to ensure that the characteristic values of the Augustana Church — stewardship, global mission, and youth work — would be strengthened in the ELCA, helping to strengthen loyalty and commitment to the church. By holding gatherings every two years, beginning in 1998, and held at colleges founded by the church, and at the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown, New York, the association helped to refresh and strengthen the social network that had been so important to so many. The response has been very gratifying, but now it is time to put energy and commitment into new ventures that will renew the church today.

Maria E. Erling is Professor of Modern Church History and Global Missions at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Her research has focused on American Lutheranism, including the historic Augustana Lutheran Synod, and along with Mark Granquist she is co-author of “The Augustana Story: Shaping North American Lutheranism.”

To learn more about the Augustana Heritage Association, visit: augustanaheritage.org