Women and Lay Activism: Aspects of Acculturation in the German Lutheran Churches of Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1870 - 1917

By Haderle, Irene | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Women and Lay Activism: Aspects of Acculturation in the German Lutheran Churches of Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1870 - 1917


Haderle, Irene, Michigan Historical Review


On January 18,1914 the German Erste Evangelisch-Lutherische Zion Kirche (First Evangelical-Lutheran Zion Church) of Ann Arbor held a celebration. The women's society of the church marked twenty-five years of existence with a church service, musical presentations, and an enormous banquet for 450 guests. (2) The Zion Church's rival, the Deutsche Evangelische Bethlehem Kirche (German Evangelical Bethlehem Church) of Ann Arbor, also had a women's society. This one had been founded earlier, in 1871, but had remained small until the 1890s. Only then did the women's societies of these two churches undergo continuous expansion, thus successfully establishing women's lay activism within their ethnic congregations. The Bethlehem women's society numbered 255 members in 1910, while the Zion society had 262. (3) This successful development is all the more remarkable given that there was no similar development among the men of these churches. Of course men were active in the bodies of church government; but the parish assembly met only once and the church council three times a year at most. Separate men's societies were not founded until 1915 and 1917. (4)

Two findings in this case study of German Lutheran church life in the US demand particular attention because they diverge from current scholarship, namely the discoveries that organized lay activity began late in Ann Arbor's German churches and that women assumed the leading role in parish societies. (5) The implication in the literature to date is that European immigrants, though accustomed to state churches, relatively swiftly adopted the principle of voluntary work in their parishes and thus adapted to the American system of free churches. (6) Moreover, most historical studies of ethnic churches in the US focus on the activities of men and thus give the impression that these congregations were male-run institutions with women appearing at most as Sunday churchgoers. The example of Ann Arbor shows that the opposite was in fact the case by the 1890s--those most involved in the churches were the women. (7)

How did it happen that lay societies were founded so late in the German churches of Ann Arbor, and how is the leading role of women to be understood? What forms did the women's church societies assume? Did German women follow the example of Anglo-American Protestants, and if so should they be understood as agents of Americanization within their German congregations? To answer these questions, this article examines the two most significant German churches in Ann Arbor to determine how German church life there was structured, how it developed over time, and which positions were assigned to men and which to women.

By the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Zion women's society in 1914, Germans could look back at almost a century of history in Ann Arbor. The first Germans, primarily families from Wurttemberg, had come to Ann Arbor as early as 1829 and thus were among the pioneers of a city that had been founded only five years earlier. (8) The settlement developed into a town with a population of 7,000 by the year 1870, gaining stature as the seat of the University of Michigan, although the inhabitants earned their livelihood predominantly in trade and industry. (9) Ann Arbor grew steadily during the period of this study and had a population of almost 20,000 by 1920. The number of Germans and their children also rose and averaged a quarter of the population between 1870 and 1917, comprising by far the largest group of immigrants in the city. (10) As in other American urban areas, the Germans established their own ethnic community with German-speaking institutions, a German press, and the typical residential concentration, the "little Germany" of Ann Arbor. But the existence of a German quarter did not mean that this group of immigrants was ghettoized. On the contrary, thanks in large part to their economic prowess, the Germans enjoyed the acknowledgement and respect of the Anglo-American inhabitants. …

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