Martin Luther's Fragmented Body: Lutheranism in Astoria, Oregon

By Welborn, C. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Martin Luther's Fragmented Body: Lutheranism in Astoria, Oregon


Welborn, C., Oregon Historical Quarterly


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ASTORIA, OREGON, IS HOME to an array of Christian churches. The existence of so many groups of people claiming to be followers of a singular person (Jesus) from a time and place so far removed from today's Astoria is fascinating evidence of the human search for the divine combined with a variety of geographical, political, nationalist, social, economic, and other factors. In this way, Astoria is much like many locales across the United States. When surveying Astoria's religious milieu, however, one question soon arises: Why have such a variety of Lutheran churches existed in such a small community? There are currently four Lutheran churches in Astoria, a town with a population of under ten thousand. In the late nineteenth century, however, there was a proliferation of churches serving a far smaller population. Astoria has had at least fourteen Lutheran congregations. From the late 1800s into the first decade of the twentieth century, there were at least ten Lutheran churches in a town whose population averaged under seven thousand residents. Astoria had a significant Scandinavian presence during the late nineteenth century, when the town began to grow, and Lutheranism had rooted strongly and quickly in Scandinavian countries during the Reformation period of the 1500s and later. Still, these facts may be insufficient explanation for the historical profusion of Astoria's Lutheran churches. While Astoria's Lutherans were initially divided primarily along ethnic lines, other factors--such as language, local geography, and ecclesiastical and theological divergences--appear to have contributed to the fragmented state of Lutheranism in Astoria. (1)

This study primarily relies on written records local to Astoria, including personal writings, newspaper excerpts, church-sponsored commemorative

literature, and other relevant material. Information from interviews and conversations also is used. The limitations of oral material include lack of accuracy due to distance from events and persons of specific interest as well as the deterioration of memory. Although generally of better quality, written source material--especially that of an earlier origin and with marginal documentation--is not without similar problems. As a result, a measure of interpretation is inevitable in this piece, as with any modern reconstruction of events from the distant past.

THE ROME-BASED CATHOLIC system began to take shape during the early centuries of the common era and attain political power shortly thereafter, and those who stood opposed to it were largely unsuccessful. It would be over a millennium before the political and religious system of Catholicism was successfully challenged by an insider, Martin Luther. Luther (1483-1546) was a German Roman Catholic cleric who for many years had been deeply dissatisfied with the religious state of affairs in his church. In this dissatisfaction he was hardly unique; many people before him had disputed various aspects of Rome-based Catholicism. Their voices and often their lives were extinguished before they could find significant support, but Luther successfully lighted the fuse that exploded the Catholicdominated religious system in western Europe. Retaining certain elements of Catholicism and altering or abandoning others, Lutheranism rained across northern Europe. As a result of Luther's antagonism-turned-protagonism, the religious climate, first of Europe and later of most other places around the globe, would never be the same. (2)

The Scandinavian region was especially fertile ground for Luther's ideas. Scandinavian leaders who were studying in Germany, where Lutheranism took root, returned to their countries and spread the new ideas. According to historian Harold J. Grimm, resistance to Rome in the Scandinavian countries "was at the outset [most] closely associated with political, economic, and social conditions." (3) Scandinavian monarchs adopted Lutheranism in the early sixteenth century, throwing off Rome's distant control in local politics.

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