While Lutherans are the third-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, their numbers have never been large in the South. In South Carolina, Lutherans make up less than two percent of the population, with highest concentrations in Newberry and Lexington Counties. Among Protestants, Lutherans typically give greater weight to the historic (“catholic”) tradition going back to the ancient church and conduct a liturgy of worship that stands in continuity with that tradition. Their founder, the sixteenth-century German reformer Martin Luther, has profoundly influenced their theology with a strong emphasis on the unmerited love and grace of God. Most Lutherans in South Carolina are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which contains 165 congregations and 62,000 members.
Early Lutherans in South Carolina were invariably of German descent. The first were a part of the Purrysburg settlement of mainly French Swiss immigrants in the 1730s along the Savannah River. They came in larger numbers from the German Palatinate in 1735, mostly as indentured servants who settled in the Orangeburg area and on lowcountry plantations. In the 1740s there was an influx of German Lutherans into Saxe-Gotha Township, which also attracted significant numbers of Germans from the northern colonies. Lutheran immigration increased considerably in the 1750s, with many settling in Saxe-Gotha and the nearby Dutch Fork. These communities, unlike the Ebenezer colony on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, were not intentionally Lutheran and did not include the spiritual direction of clergy. The first pastor called to minister specifically to South Carolina Lutherans was Johannes Georg Friedrichs from Hanover, Germany, who came in 1755 to serve St. John’s congregation in Charleston and subsequently St. Matthew’s in Amelia Township.
Efforts to organize began with an ecumenical Union of Churches in 1788, involving nine Lutheran and six Reformed churches, but it expired by 1796. South Carolina Lutherans then joined with Lutheran churches in North Carolina in 1803 as part of the North Carolina Synod. Among factors that stimulated the need for a corporate Lutheran presence was the growing influence of revivalism throughout the South, a phenomenon that most Lutherans did not find appealing in light of their theology and practice. There was also the need for taking a united stand on appropriate practices concerning the slave population. In 1809 it was decided that slaves of Christian masters were eligible for baptism, and five years later a resolution was passed to admit “negroes” to the sacrament of Holy Communion and “make room for them in our Churches.” These measures were not intended to challenge the institution of slavery, however, which most Lutherans in the South found morally and theologically acceptable.
Difficulties in traveling long distances, together with a desire to avoid a divisive theological controversy that had erupted among North Carolina congregations, led South Carolina Lutherans to amicably withdraw and form their own synod in 1824. At the synod’s beginning there were ten Lutheran ministers and twenty-two congregations. Its first president was Pastor John Bachman of St. John’s, Charleston, a theologian-naturalist of unusual talent and competence who maintained a dominant presence for the next four decades in South Carolina Lutheranism. He was the primary force in establishing the first Lutheran seminary in the South (1830) and in affiliating the synod with the national expression of Lutheranism at the time, the General Synod, being elected president of that body in 1835. In the midst of a growing conservatism in Lutheran churches during the mid–nineteenth century, which led to Lutherans keeping their distance from ecumenical involvements and emphasizing their own exclusive version of Christian truths, Bachman’s theological openness and gentle nature were powerful examples that helped the synod avoid the divisions that often afflicted others.
The Civil War created a rupture that Lutherans could not avoid, and South Carolina Lutherans played a prominent role in the establishment of the General Synod of the Confederate States of America in 1863. Most Lutherans in the state supported secession and the war effort, with several of their clergy serving as both chaplains and soldiers. In the Reconstruction years the South Carolina Synod became part of the United Synod of the South, which continued until 1917, when synods of the North and the South finally reunited. The twentieth century saw Lutherans increasingly shed their European language and culture, assimilating with mainstream society. Lutheran (ELCA) institutions in South Carolina include Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, Newberry College in Newberry, Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, Inc. (facilities engaged in senior care), and Lutheran Family Services.
Anderson, H. George. Lutheranism in the Southeastern States, 1860–1886: A Social History. The Hague: Mouton, 1969.
Havens, Mary. “The Liturgical Traditions: Lutherans.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Lutheran Church in America, South Carolina Synod. A History of the Lutheran Church in South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1971. ———. A History of the Lutheran Church in South Carolina, 1971–1987.
Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1988.