Lutheran Church in the United States

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History in the United States[edit | edit source]

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
Detroit, Michigan

When Lutherans came to North America, they started church bodies that reflected, to some degree, the churches left behind. Many maintained their immigrant languages until the early 20th century. They sought pastors from the "old country". Many in dependent churches were established. It wasn't until over time, that they organized into synods and conferences.

The first Lutherans in what would become the United States were members of the Swedish Lutheran Church who landed in the Delaware Valley in 1638 to establish the colony of New Sweden. Many Lutherans came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, brought by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. A significant number of Scandinavian Lutherans settled in the states of the Upper Midwest. Large numbers also settled in major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Seattle.

The Lutheran church in the United States has historically been made up of several synods and conferences. There are at least 20 smaller Lutheran denominations in North America, with some of them being doctrinal offshoots of larger groups through the years, or groups that never merged. Source: Lutheranism by region

With 3.4 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the largest American Lutheran denomination, followed by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) with 2.0 million members, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) with 350,000 members.Lutheranism

Lutheran Religion Family Tree[edit | edit source]

This Lutheran Religion Family Tree diagrams the relationship of the many Lutheran "conferences".

Historical Record Lists: Lutheran Ministers and Pastors[edit | edit source]

Finding the Records[edit | edit source]

Look for Online Records[edit | edit source]

Some records have been digitized and posted online, where they are easily searched. More are being added all the time. Partner websites such as, Findmypast, MyHeritage, and American Ancestors can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.

Caution sign.png

Online databases are incomplete. This can lead to two common errors:

  1. Near matches: Researchers might mistakenly accept an entry very similar to their ancestor, thinking it is the only one available "so it must be mine". Only use information that matches your ancestor in date, place, other relationships, and details.
  2. Stopping research: Researchers might assume the database proves church records do not exist. Actually the record is still out there, just not in this incomplete collection of records. Keep searching!

Look for Digital Copies of Church Records Listed in the FamilySearch Catalog[edit | edit source]

There are thousands of entries of digitized Lutheran church records listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:

  • Online church records can be listed in the FamilySearch Catalog state-wide, county-wide, or for a town.
  • Some records might have viewing restrictions, and can only be viewed at a Family History Center near you, and/or by members of supporting organizations.

To find records statewide records:

a. Enter your state name in the "Place" search field of FamilySearch Catalog. You will see a list of topics and, at the top, the phrase "Places within United States, [STATE]".
b. Click on "Church records" in the topic list. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.

To find county-wide records:

c. From the original page, click on Places within United States, [STATE] and a list of counties will appear.
d. Click on your county.
e. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.

To find town records:

f. From the list of counties, click on Places within United States, [STATE], [COUNTY] and a list of towns will appear.
g. Click on your town if it appears, or the location which you believe was the parish which served your town or village.
h. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
i. Some combination of these icons will appear at the far right of the listing for the record. FHL icons.png. The magnifying glass indicates that the record is indexed. Clicking on the magnifying glass will take you to the index. Clicking on the camera will take you to an online digital copy of the records.

Correspond With or Visit the Actual Church[edit | edit source]

Some records are still held in the local churches. Contact the current minister to find out what records are still available.

  • Make an appointment to look at the records. Or ask the minister of the church to make a copy of the record for you.
  • To find church staff available, you might have to visit on Sunday.
  • Ask for small searches at a time, such as one birth record or a specific marriage. Never ask for "everything on a family or surname".
  • A donation ($25-$40) for their time and effort to help you would be appropriate.
  • If the church has a website, you may be able to e-mail a message.
  • See the Letter Writing Guide for Genealogy for help with composing letters.

Synods[edit | edit source]

Smaller Groups[edit | edit source]

Look for Online Published Books[edit | edit source]

Many records have been transcribed and published in books. These books may have been digitized and made available online. Likely sites where they may be available are:

Check the Church Cecords Collections in Archives and Libraries.[edit | edit source]

Some church records have been deposited for preservation in government archives or in libraries. Watch for links to digitized, online records offered by the archives. Some archives provide research services for a fee. For others, if you cannot visit in person, you might hire a researcher.

Denominational Archives[edit | edit source]

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA Archives)
321 Bonnie Lane
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

Phone: (847) 690-9410

The Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America preserve, protect and make accessible the records of the ELCA, its predecessor church bodies, inter-Lutheran agencies and prominent leaders of the church. Working with the archives of the 65 synods and nine regions of the ELCA, the ELCA Archives serves historians, congregations, synods, genealogists and others interested in Lutheran history by providing resources and answering questions. Has records of closed and merged parishes.

  • Partial lists of church records in its collection are:
    • American Lutheran Church (ALC) Archives. ALC Congregations on Microfilm. Dubuque, Iowa: The Archives, [197-?]. (Family History Library fiche 6330690-93.) Arranged by state and city of congregation. Note: The ALC Archives are now part of the ELCA Archives.
    • American Lutheran Church Shelf List Index to Their Church Records Microfilmed as of 1987. N.p., 1988. (Family History Library book 973 K2aL.)

There are nine regional archives, each with collected church records from that region. This document ELCA Regional Archives and Holdings (PDF) gives descriptions of the collections and all the contact information for each region. Active ELCA congregations are primarily responsible for maintaining their own archives. Therefore, we recommend that researchers interested in the records of an active congregation contact the church before contacting the archive.

Concordia Seminary
Home of the Concordia Historical Institute

Concordia Historical Institute
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
801 De Mun Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63105
Telephone: 314-505-7900
Fax: 314-505-7901

Records for former and active congregations of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

ODESSA: A German-Russian Genealogical Library

Odessa is a digital library dedicated to the cultural and family history of the millions of Germans who emigrated to Russia in the 1800s and their descendants, who are now scattered throughout the world. The Odessa document collection consists primarily of digitized books and records plus indexes of microfilms and research aids that enable users to trace individual and family migrations since the early 1800s. This site contains German-Russian emigrant ancestry in pocket settlements in mid-west states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Contains transcribed minutes of meetings, membership lists (some with parentage listed), birth, deaths, and marriages.]

Norwegian Lutherans[edit | edit source]

Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library

Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library
415 West Main Street
Madison, WI 53703-3116

Telephone:[1] 608-255-2224
Fax: 608-255-6842

Minnesota[edit | edit source]

Locating Lutheranism
History Department
1520 St. Olaf Avenue
Northfield, MN 55057

Phone: 507-786-3803

  • Online digital records
  • Locating Lutheranism explores Lutheran life and institutions in their American context using digital resources. The larger, on-going project will collect an archive of images, documents, and other items and display interpretative exhibits on a variety of topics. This pilot project, begun in summer 2014, focuses on Norwegian-American Lutheran congregations in Minnesota.

Wisconsin[edit | edit source]

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Archives
N16 W23377 Stone Ridge Drive
Waukesha, WI 53188

Maryland[edit | edit source]

350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Toll free: (800) 235-4045 or (410) 260-6400
Fax: (410) 974-2525

Information Recorded in the Records[edit | edit source]

Different time periods and practices of different record keepers will affect how much information can be found in the records. This outline will show the types of details which might be found (best case scenario):

Baptisms[edit | edit source]

Children were usually baptized a few days after birth, and therefore, the baptism record proves date of birth.

  • baptism date
  • birth date and place
  • the infant's name
  • parents' names
  • father's occupation
  • status of legitimacy
  • names of witnesses or godparents, who may be relatives
  • the family's place of residence
  • death information, as an added note or signified by a cross

Marriages[edit | edit source]

Marriage registers can give:

  • the marriage date
  • the names of the bride and groom
  • indicate whether the bride and groom were single or widowed
  • their residences
  • their occupations
  • fathers' names
  • the names of previous spouses and their death dates
  • names of witnesses, who might be relatives.

Burials[edit | edit source]

Burial registers may give:

  • the name of the deceased
  • the date and place of death or burial
  • the deceased's age
  • place of residence
  • cause of death
  • the names of survivors, especially a widow or widower
  • father's name in the case of a child

Reading the Records[edit | edit source]

Many of the records of German congregations will be written in Fraktur (old German) script. Other congregations will have records written in the handwriting used in those countries.

The following articles can be used for ready reference when reading German handwriting.

Vocabulary found on Specific Records:

Dates, Numbers, Abbreviations:

Miscellaneous Vocabulary:


  • Fraktur Font - many forms and books are printed in this font

German Given Names:

The records of some congregations were written in Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. For help reading them see:

Carefully Compare Any Record You Find to Known Facts About the Ancestor[edit | edit source]

You will possibly find many different people with the same name as your ancestor, especially when a family stayed in a locality for several generations, and several children were named after the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Be prepared to find the correct church records by gathering in advance as many of these exact details about the ancestor as possible:

  • name, including middle name and maiden name
  • names of all spouses, including middle and maiden name
  • exact or closely estimated dates of birth, marriage, and death
  • names and approximate birthdates of children
  • all known places of residence
  • occupations
  • military service details

Carefully evaluate the church records you find to make sure you have really found records for your ancestor and not just a near match. If one or more of the details do not line up, be careful about accepting the entry as your ancestor. There are guiding principles for deciding how to resolve discrepancies between records that are seemingly close. For more instruction in evaluating evidence see Evaluate the Evidence.