German Lutherans and Assimilation: Lessons in the Current Atmosphere of Islamophobia

[1] One of our great American patriots and public servants has always been a staunch advocate of the need for immigrant communities to assimilate into traditional American culture, adopting the English language and the values of its national heritage. So, it is not a surprise that he has also been critical of immigrants coming to America who do not assimilate into our culture. In addition, this patriot has been fully invested in the American laissez faire capitalist system. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the fact that immigrants curtail the American economy by working the menial labor jobs for less than the average English speaker. Finally, he has argued that immigrants who come arrive in this country in a weakened physical state tax the health care system by providing services for them.

[2] In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. In this essay, Franklin was responding to the increase in non-English immigrants to the North American colonies, primarily from Ireland and the German states. In fact, German immigrants outnumbered English-speaking immigrants by three to one during the 1750s.1 Philadelphia, Franklin’s hometown, was one of the prominent destinations for German immigrants. Germans from the Palatinate (of what is now south-west Germany) landed in Philadelphia, traveled up Germantown Ave. and if they did not settle in Germantown, continued past what is now the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and out toward the further counties of the English colony of William Penn.

[3] As the new settlers came through, Franklin was concerned that these “swarthy” Germans, as he called them, were not learning the common language of the colony, nor English culture. Instead, they seemed to keep to themselves and huddle together in their own settlements or farms out in the country. In addition, those that arrived at the docks sick after a long journey across the Atlantic had to be put under the care of local doctors and put a stress on the local economy.2 According to Carla Mulford, Franklin’s words reflected the fear among English-speaking colonists of the “Germanization of Pennsylvania.”3 As early as 1717 Pennsylvania Governor, William Keith worried that the influx of these foreigners was “dangerous.”4

[4] Of course, Franklin’s fears were not only defined by the altruistic ideals of establishing a unified nation. He was directly affected by the economics of German immigration. Franklin’s prominent and successful printing press was kept out of one prominent market: the publishing of Bibles. Permission to print King James Bibles was granted directly from the King, and Franklin failed to secure this grant. However, the King’s prohibition did not extend to non-English Bibles, specifically German Bibles. Thus, while Franklin pined away at lost profits, Christopher Sauer on Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia held the corner on the market in selling German Bibles to the pietistic German settlers.5

[5] For much of the history of North America, German Americans in the East and Midwest (as well the Finish, Swedish and Norwegian Lutherans) were considered fringe ethnic communities. German Dissenters, Reformed and Lutherans were not part of the centrist denominations that defined much of the WASP Christian piety of the new Republic, such as the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians. This “swarthy” race of non-English speakers spent much of their existence attempting to live out their own identity in a predominantly English-speaking country. These German communities had different ideas about assimilation.

[6] In fact, the heated debates about assimilating into English culture led to a split within the German Lutheran communities in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.6 This ultimately led in part to the development of two seminaries: Gettysburg, which followed Samuel Simon Schmucker in his move toward openness toward North American culture and American Evangelicalism; and Philadelphia, led by Charles Porterfield Krauth who articulated a German-Lutheran confessionalism. Further a field in the Midwest, the Missouri Synod Lutherans continued to maintain a German separateness throughout the nineteenth century. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that they began to be seen as part of the mainstream of American culture.7

[7] The catalyst for their movement toward the mainline was the modern barbaric slaughter of World War I. By the time the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, public rancor toward Germans ran dangerously high, so that German Americans were on occasion lynched on the streets for their suspected loyalty toward the Kaiser. In some cases they were forced to fly American flags to prove that they were “100 percent” American. A “spy hysteria” overtook Americans who came to “fear their German neighbors not simply as potential spies [for the Kaiser] but as Germans per se.” 8 German Americans were castigated in the press and often accused of being a fifth column.

[8] It was such fear about the sympathies of German Americans and their public ethnic associations that prompted President Woodrow Wilson to establish the Espionage Act of 1917, allowing the government to undertake surveillance, question, imprison or deport German Americans. One of the primary targets of the government was the Philadelphia Tageblatt newspaper that was known for its pro-Germany sympathies. The newspaper was closed down and its owners and editors were found guilty of promoting the “success of the enemies of the United States.” As Russel A. Kazal notes,

The pressure imposed on German Americans to forsake their ethnic identity was extreme in both nature and duration. No other ethnic group saw its “adoptive fatherland” twice enter a world war against its country of origin.9

[9] By the end of World War I, most of German America had lost its public German-ness. German community associations had closed. Many German Reformed and Lutheran congregations ceased holding their services in German. Sauerkraut was considered unpatriotic and was re-named “liberty cabbage.” In effect, German-Americans began to assimilate into the “Anglo-American establishment.”10 It must be noted, however, that German fringe communities do still exist (among Mennonites, Brethren and Amish) and are happy to remain on the periphery of mainstream American social-political life.

[10] This journey from the fringe to the center might be surprising for many American Lutherans who have come to expect that the current established denominations of Lutheranism in America are part of the mainline and dominant Protestant American culture. Yet, the journey has been a long one that has been fraught with charges of being anti-American, sectarian, violent, and a threat to the (Anglo) American way of life.

[11] In the fall of 2010 the Park 51 controversy, better known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” erupted. The vitriolic response by the nation toward Imam Feisal Rauf in particular, and Muslims in general, reached heights not seen since 2001. Feisal Rauf and his wife Daisy, founders of the Cordoba Initiative, were castigated as al-Qaeda operatives who were intent upon demonstrating that Islam would plant its flag on the ashes of ground zero.11

[12] While speaking to a Lutheran congregation on the topic of Muslims in America, I was shocked by the anger and fear about “those Muslims” who were intent upon destroying the United States. One participant lectured me that there were over 100 mosques in New York and “the Muslims” did not need one more. As I drove out of the parking lot of that particular Lutheran church after our meeting, I noticed another Lutheran church directly across the street. Of course, I knew that the history of Lutheranism in America prohibited the simple unification of German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and even English-speaking congregations. I wonder how many “swarthy” Lutheran congregations there were in this Pennsylvania town, and how threatened they once were because of their ethnic identity and religious beliefs? The fear of the Germanization of Pennsylvania has been replaced with the fear of the Islamization of America.

[13] According to a recent Gallop Poll survey, 53% of Americans have a negative image of Islam, and 29% admit to feeling a strong degree of prejudice towards Muslims. And yet, 63% of Americans admit to having little or no knowledge of Islam.12 The emotional effects of September 11th are still with us. With the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the attempted bombing in New York City in the fall of 2009, American society has little faith in a 100% American Muslim community. There certainly is a “terrorist hysteria” sweeping the nation.

[14] While there are congregations (or individuals within congregations) willing to move out of such hysteria to engage in dialogue with local American Muslim communities, the national atmosphere has poisoned any fruitful opportunities for rational reflection and positive communal engagement. While Imam Feisal and others saw the Park 51 issue as an opening into dialogue about the role of Muslims in America, such initiatives were quickly blown apart by a concerted media campaign to create further hysteria. American Muslim communities that had been interested in participating in American civic life have withdrawn themselves back into their “settlements” out of fear of not being considered 100% American or have simply lost heart.

[15] The American Muslim population is estimated at anywhere between 2.35 million and seven million, depending on who does the counting.13 Quite often the number is inflated either by Muslim groups in order to demonstrate the important place of a growing minority, or by fear mongers who wish to demonstrate the growing threat toward the American way of life. Most researchers have tended to categorize American Muslims into two large segments: African-American Muslim and Immigrant Muslim communities. By all accounts, African-American Muslims make up the largest single ethnic community among American Muslims. They represent anywhere from 30–42% of the total of the Muslim population.

[16] The African-American Muslim population owes its identity to the forced migration and slavery from the Muslim kingdoms of West Africa to the colonies in North America and the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.14 While African-American Islam truly came of age in the early part of the twentieth century as a Black Nationalist movement under the aegis of Elijah Muhammad, it has journeyed to become varied and representative of many different denominations and pieties. The largest current expression of African-American Islam are members of the Muslim American Society, established under the leadership of the late Warith Deen Muhammad, who worked hard at gaining recognition around the world as an orthodox Sunni Muslim community.

[17] African-American Islam is a truly homegrown religion and phenomenon. Perhaps our reticence to accept Islam as truly American has more to do with issues of racism than Islamophobia?15 Outside of the major metropolitan areas of Chicago, Detroit, Newark, New York City, and Philadelphia, where African-American Islam has deep roots, most Americans do not associate a black face with Islam, but an olive one — dare we say a “swarthy” one?

[18] The Immigrant American Muslim population has been defined as those American Muslims whose ancestry voluntarily migrated to the United States. According to the recent 2007 Pew Research Project Muslims in America, the immigrant Muslim population comes from 68 different countries around the world.16 Most of these immigrant Muslims originally came from the Indian Sub-continent, which includes the current countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They entered the country as a result of the 1965 Immigration Act that opened up immigration to non-European countries.17

[19] As a result, thousands of Muslims from South Asia and Southeast Asia came to the United States for the purpose of higher education. They trained to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Thus, the second and third generation immigrant American Muslim population of today tends to place a high value on education and professional training. It was not until the late 1980s and early 90s when the most recent migration of Arabic-speaking Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East began arriving in search of better economic opportunities, often fleeing turmoil in their home countries. While Arabs make up only 15–18% of all Muslims worldwide, immigrants from the 22 nations that make up the Arab World have been a large segment of the recent immigrant Muslim population. The majority of these Arab Muslims came from Lebanon, Somalia, and Yemen during their civil wars.

[20] Lutherans have traditionally been at the forefront of immigration concerns and refugee resettlement issues. This has been primarily because of the traumatic German, Latvian and Lithuanian experiences following World War II. Lutheran World Relief, which was organized to respond to the world crisis of the refugee problem after World War II, has continued to advocate on behalf of refugees, displaced persons and forced migrants. Even throughout the recession, American Lutherans from the ELCA and Missouri Synod have continued to provide generous support for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

[21] However, when it comes to the Muslim immigrant, have we forgotten our heritage? Have we as Americans Lutherans lost our empathy as we have become ourselves part of the mainstream? It seems to me that within the American context, we American Lutherans have a wonderful opportunity to engage with Muslim Americans as fellow citizens on the journey toward civic engagement.18 We ourselves have gone through an agonizing journey, and we might have a great deal to share with African-American and Immigrant-American Muslims. Of course, we would need to work through our own North American cultural “terrorist hysteria.”

[22] An important part of working through the hysteria is actively listening to how Muslim Americans define themselves and their own piety, rather than defining it for them. Muslim Americans are often charged with being members of a violent religion. I often hear from concerned Christians who have read the Qur’an and are deeply disturbed by its claims about Muhammad, women, and “the Sword.” My usual response is — “Find a Muslim in your community and ask them about these things.” Of course, it is easier to continue to believe in the bogeyman that is created on some Islamophobic blog, than to deal with a flesh and blood individual and their own self-definitions of their faith.19 This is not to say that there will not be theological, social and even political differences of opinion, but a real life encounter and conversation is much more faithful and ultimately fruitful than our own perception of the Other.

[23] Muslim Americans would very much like to participate in the civic and religious mainstream conversations that have now become standard among Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations in the United States.20 However, like the Lutheran communities of the early nineteenth century, Muslim Americans are not a homogenous community. They reflect a wide variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, and histories. They do not represent similar interests, nor do they speak as a whole. Their theological piety of individual responsibility before God generally prohibits their promoting public leaders to speak on behalf of other believers, which will frustrate media sources, and people of good will who wish to seek them out. Their journey toward the center of American life will be difficult. Assimilating into “English” culture is difficult. Reflecting back on our own experience, we as American Lutherans, especially German American Lutherans, have more in common with our Muslim neighbors than we might care to admit. Perhaps that is what is so unsettling for us.

1. Carla Mulford, “Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Germans, and the Ethnic Origins of Nations,” in Halle Pietism, Colonial North America, and the Young United States, ed. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008) 151.

2. Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.,” in Observations On the late and present Conduct of the French, with Regard to their Encroachments upon the British Colonies in North America, William Clarke (Boston: S. Kneeland, 1755) 13.

3. Mulford, 154.

4. E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in North America rev. ed (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 28.

5. Here I am fully indebted to my colleague the Rev. Dr. Karl Krueger for his knowledge and information on this subject.

6. Nelson, 95–101.

7. For a very helpful perspective on the rise and fall of “Mainline” Protestantism, see Joseph Bottum, “The death of Protestant America: a political theory of the Protestant mainline,” First Things No 185 (Aug–Sept 2008): 23–33.

8. Russel A. Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) 173.

9. Kazal, 188 and 274, respectively.

10. Kazal, 2.

11. For information on the Cordoba Imitative see

12. Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Towards Muslims and Islam (Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Gallup, Inc., 2009) 8.

13. See the 2007 Pew Research Center Study, the 2001 CUNY Religious Identification Survey, the 2000 Mosque Study Project, and the 2007 CIA Fact Book.

14. See Sylvanie Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

15. “The ‘asabiya of African-American Muslims and an American Christian Response,” Missiology: An International Review, vol. XXXI, no. 4 (October 2003) 449–458.

16. Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007) 15.

17. Diana Eck, A New Religious America (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001) 6–7. See also M.A. Muqtedar Khan, “Constructing the American Muslim Community,” in Religion and Immigration: Christians, Jewish and Muslim Expressions in the U.S., Eds. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith and John L. Esposito (New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2003) 175–198.

18. See Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslims on the Americanization Path (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1998).

19. “Reading Their Book of Faith: North American Muslims and their Interpretations of the Qur’an In the Post 9/11 Era,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48/3 (Fall 2009) 257–266.

20. Here I am referring to the oft-repeated phrase “Judeo-Christian Nation” that only came in vogue with Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: an essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday, 1955). Prior to this, Judaism and Catholicism were rarely if at all considered part of Anglo-American culture.


Bottum,Joseph. “The death of Protestant America: a political theory of the Protestant mainline.” First Things. No 185 (Aug–Sept 2008): 23–33.

Diouf, Sylvanie. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Eck, Diana. A New Religious America. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

Franklin, Benjamin. “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” In Observations On the late and present Conduct of the French, with Regard to their Encroachments upon the British Colonies in North America, William Clarke. Boston: S. Kneeland, 1755.

Abu Dhabi Gallup Center. Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Towards Muslims and Islam. Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Gallup, Inc., 2009.

Grafton, David D. “The ‘asabiya of African-American Muslims and an American Christian Response.” Missiology: An International Review, vol. XXXI, no. 4 (October 2003) 449–458.

_____. “Reading Their Book of Faith: North American Muslims and their Interpretations of the Qur’an In the Post 9/11 Era.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48/3 (Fall 2009) 257–266.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. Muslims on the Americanization Path. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1998.

Herberg, Will. Protestant, Catholic, Jew: an essay in American Religious Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Kazal, Russel A. Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Khan, M.A. Muqtedar. “Constructing the American Muslim Community.” In Religion and Immigration: Christians, Jewish and Muslim Expressions in the U.S., eds. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith and John L. Esposito, 175–198. New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2003.

Mulford, Carla. “Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Germans, and the Ethnic Origins of Nations.” In Halle Pietism, Colonial North America, and the Young United States, ed. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, 117–160. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008.

Nelson, E. Clifford. The Lutherans in North America, rev. ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Pew Research Center. Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007.

David Grafton

David D. Grafton is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, Hartford, Connecticut.