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Lutheranism  
 
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Lutheranism, which is riven into numerous denominations, is a major branch of Christianity, as well as a reform movement within Christianity. As a branch of Christianity, it counts almost 70,000,000 adherents, about half of whom live in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries. Africa and North America also have large numbers of Lutherans.

The Lutheran Church is the largest denomination in Germany; and in most of the Nordic countries, it is not only the largest denomination, but also the state church. Even when it is not officially recognized as the state church (as in Finland), most Scandinavians consider themselves Lutheran, at least culturally.

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In the United States, the two largest Lutheran denominations are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA, which formed in 1988 after a merger of three "synods" or church bodies) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), but there are many other smaller Lutheran denominations and independent churches.

The largest Lutheran denomination in Canada is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), which was organized in 1986 through a merger of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church in America-Canada Section.

History and Belief

The history of Lutheranism may be dated to 1517, when German monk Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses condemning corrupt practices within the Roman Catholic Church.

Although Luther initially advocated for reform within the Church rather than a separation from it, he and his followers eventually left the Catholic Church. Braving excommunication and threats to his life, he continued his teachings, and in the process both developed a comprehensive theology distinct from that of Roman Catholicism and launched the Protestant Reformation that divided Western Christianity and precipitated the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Central to Lutheranism is the belief that salvation comes only by the grace of God and through faith in Christ alone. Luther's doctrine of "justification" contradicts the Roman Catholic doctrine of "faith and works." In Luther's view, "good works" are the product of faith rather than a means of salvation.

Luther believed that many of the rituals and good works prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church are not only unnecessary to salvation but actually impediments to it.

Further, he rejected not only the supremacy of the Pope, but also the intermediary function of priests, teaching that each individual has the capacity to reach God through scriptures and the Holy Spirit.

He considered the Bible the authoritative source of God and advocated that it be translated into vernacular languages to enable uneducated individuals to read it in their native languages rather than in Latin or Greek.

Luther believed that the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, such as baptism and communion, were not essential to salvation but could nevertheless be valuable as aids to faith.

He rejected such Roman Catholic traditions as priestly celibacy, purgatory, and the belief in transubstantiation (the "real presence" of God in the bread and wine of communion).

Lutheranism differs from other Protestant traditions in that it rejects the concept that some individuals are predestined to damnation, accepts some Roman Catholic traditions that do not contradict the scriptures, and rejects the notion of "once saved, always saved." Other theological differences that distinguish Lutheranism from Calvinism and other reform traditions involve fine points of Christology and the workings of grace.

Most Lutheran denominations embrace the Book of Concord, which collects the historical "confessions" of Luther and other early church leaders, as the authority for doctrine and practice, though not all denominations believe that it is binding in all respects.

Lutheranism expanded throughout the German states and into Scandinavia so that by the end of the sixteenth century, it was a major European branch of Christianity. It subsequently spread to all the inhabited continents.

Lutheranism first made its presence felt in North America in the seventeenth century, but it became a major denomination in the United States in the nineteenth century, with the emigration of German and Scandinavian believers. Although Lutheran churches are now found throughout the United States and Canada, they are most prolific in areas with large populations of descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants, especially the Upper Midwest of the United States.

Styles of Worship and Governance

Because Lutheranism is riven into so many different denominations, it is difficult to generalize about Lutheran liturgy and style of worship. Some Lutheran churches practice infant baptism, while others practice only adult baptism. Some Lutheran churches feature worship services that are similar to Roman Catholic or high-church Anglican services, while others favor more austere liturgical practices.

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A portrait of Martin Luther (1483-1546) painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529.
  
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