The history of Lutheranism in Europe is generally divided into several distinct periods. The first period, from 1520 to 1580, was one of doctrinal consolidation. Doctrinal disputes, especially that concerning antinomianism, began during Luther's lifetime, but became more heated after his death, when the controversy raised by Andreas Osiander over the meaning of Christ's death on the cross shook the whole German Evangelical Church. The opposing factions were the strict Lutherans, who refused any compromise with Rome or Calvinism, and the moderate wing, headed by Philip Melanchthon, who strove for reconciliation.
The period from 1580 to 1700 was called "the age of orthodoxy." Almost exclusive emphasis was put on right doctrine, and faith was understood as intellectual assent. During the early years of the 17th cent., Germany was racked by the Thirty Years War, and Lutheranism lost much of its territory. Religious boundaries were stabilized by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which maintained that with slight exceptions the religion of the prince was to be the religion of his subjects. The latter part of the century saw a reaction against the prevailing orthodoxy in the form of Pietism.
In 1817, Frederick William III of Prussia sought to merge forcibly the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Prussia into a single organization called the Prussian Union. Some conservative Lutherans opposed this move and withdrew from the union to found the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Prussia as a free church. After World War I, the churches were no longer governed by state laws but still received state support.
In the unification of German culture under the Nazi regime, the church did not escape. In 1933 a national organization, the German Evangelical Church, was formed. Under the direction of the Nazi party it tried to develop a national racial church, with pure Aryan blood as a prerequisite for membership. A revolt against this movement, led by Martin Niemoeller, resulted in the founding of the Confessing Church and the formation of the Confessional Synod, which issued (1934) its declaration rejecting the Reich's interference with the church.
The end of the war saw the formation of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKID), which is made up of members of both Lutheran and Reformed churches, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD), which functions as an expressly Lutheran constituency within the EKID. German churches have also cooperated wholeheartedly in the formation of the Lutheran World Federation (1947) and the World Council of Churches. The Lutheran Church is the established state church of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Finland; Sweden disestablished its Lutheran state church in 2000.
In North America, Lutherans from the Netherlands were among the settlers on Manhattan island in 1625. A congregation was formed there in 1648, but it was antedated by one established (1638) by Swedish settlers at Fort Christina (Wilmington) on the Delaware River. On nearby Tinicum Island the first Lutheran church building in the country was dedicated in 1646. Early in the 18th cent. exiles from the Palatinate established German Lutheran churches in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. The Salzburger migration to Georgia (1734) introduced Lutheranism in the South.
In the 18th cent., organization of the churches was begun by Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who brought about the formation (1748) in Pennsylvania of the first synod in the country. The Synod of New York and adjoining states followed (1786); that of North Carolina was created in 1803. With the settlement of the Midwest, the West, and the Northwest, many small synods were formed by Norwegians, Danes, Finns, and other national groups.
Once there were about 150 distinct Lutheran bodies, but in 1918 many of the autonomous Lutheran bodies merged into the United Lutheran Church of America. The Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, formed in 1872, broke up in 1960, when the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (with almost 400,000 members, now the third largest Lutheran group in the United States) withdrew. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, with some 2.5 million members, was also formerly part of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America. It is now the second largest group of Lutherans. The American Lutheran Church, formed in 1961, and the Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1962, united to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988, now the largest Lutheran group, with nearly 4.8 million members. These groups comprise about 95% of North American Lutherans. In an ecumenical spirit, the Evangelical Lutheran's Churchwide Assembly agreed (1997) on a full communion with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America, and it reached a similar agreement with the Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church in 1999.