Lutheranism in Nevada

Lutheranism in America between 1840 and 1875 was divided into fifty-eight autonomous synods. Many were denominated by their states, such as the Wisconsin Synod, or were identified by the heritage of their membership, such as the Norwegian-Danish Conference. The Missouri Synod, founded in 1847 with a heavily German immigrant membership, was the largest of these groups and the first to establish a presence in California, in 1860.

The first documented Lutheran services in Nevada were led by Rev. Adolph Grier at the Carson Valley Home of Fritz Heise in the spring of 1877. The many Lutherans among the thousands of German and Scandinavian immigrants to Nevada were ministered to from time to time by Missouri Synod missionaries like Pastor Julius Becker from Inyo County in eastern California. In 1893, he presided over a resolution signed by thirty-four Gardnerville Lutherans to organize and build a church, but due to internal disagreements the Trinity Lutheran Congregation did not materialize for another two years. The congregation erected Nevada’s first Lutheran church, which was dedicated June 20, 1897. However, the independent-minded Gardnerville congregation did not affiliate with the Missouri Synod until 1907. To satisfy diverse cultural preferences, services were alternatively held in German and English for more than twenty years. Beginning in 1916 the church published the Nevada Lutheran, which carried news of church activities throughout the state. A new gothic structure replaced the original church shortly after its golden anniversary.

Oakland Pastor J.H. Theiss led the first Lutheran service in Reno on September 2, 1896. The small constituency met at the local Congregational church whence it received occasional ministrations from a variety of circuit-riding pastors from California. It was Rev. Francis E. Martens, D.D., who provided stability to the tiny group of worshippers, when he began a twenty-four-year pastorate in 1908. He organized a congregation and presided over the dedication of St. Luke Church at Bell and West Second Streets in 1914. Its services in German, Danish, and English reflected the diversity of the membership. St. Luke’s had about 300 active members when it opened Nevada’s first Lutheran parochial school in 1948. It later moved to its present location in southwest Reno.

Gardnerville and Reno Lutheran pastors, as well as occasional Missouri Synod circuit riders, provided services in the relatively nearby settlements of Genoa, Fallon, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Hawthorne, Babbitt, Hazen, and Wabuska. They also served more distant gatherings in McGill, Goldfield, Tonopah, and Las Vegas. Members of the Missouri Synod’s California-Nevada District decided in 1935 that Las Vegas showed promise for more focused Lutheran church work under the leadership of Pastor Edward A. Wessel. He organized the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in 1940, which dedicated its house of worship on Maryland Parkway in 1945. By 1959 it numbered 700 members. Mountain View Lutheran Church soon followed in 1957, joining Boulder City’s Christ Church and Henderson’s Our Savior congregations formed earlier. Ely, Ruth, McGill, and Elko developed small congregations in the 1950s, but, as elsewhere, did not immediately commit to formal affiliation with the Missouri Synod. Some Nevada Lutherans were looking for other alternatives.

Earlier, in 1918, forty-two Lutheran congregations that had been associated with various synod conventions formed the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA). It was this body that authorized Pastor Jim Oslund to establish a mission in Reno in 1947. The Good Shepherd congregation met at the Masonic Temple at 11 North Virginia Street until 1951, when it relocated to its present location at 501 California Avenue. Its first choir director was the popular singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. A similar chain of events began in Las Vegas in 1948, when a group of 75 persons gathered at the Odd Fellows Hall on North Ninth Street to form the Evangelical Church of the Reformation affiliated with the ULCA. After several relocations and name changes, the Reformation Lutheran Church dedicated its permanent home in 1956 on St. Louis Avenue—once on the edge of the city, but now in the heart of Las Vegas. The first pastor, William Arbaugh, had been on temporary assignment, but served until 1958. Both of these pioneer ULCA churches were about to be involved in a momentous reorganization of American Lutheranism.

The state’s explosive growth in the last half of the twentieth century was matched only by a series of tumultuous disputes among Lutherans nationwide over matters of doctrine, discipline, and governance. Among the divisive and unifying issues were the ordination of women, formality of the liturgy, exegetical tools for interpreting the Bible, and fellowship with non-Lutheran religious bodies. The complex set of mergers, schisms, and realignments resulted in the formation of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in 1960. Two years later several synods joined to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). In 1976, several hundred congregations withdrew from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) over the latter’s conservative positions and became the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC).

In 1988, the AELC joined the LCA and ALC to form the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), becoming the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with nearly five million members. The Missouri Synod became the second largest Lutheran body with half as many members, and the much smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), founded in 1850, remained independent of the larger groups. The three major Lutheran coalitions—as well as a scattering of unaffiliated Lutheran bodies—have churches in Nevada. Many maintain the tradition of a parochial school. All jealously guard their identification as “evangelical,” notwithstanding their alliance with the doctrinally conservative or more mainline Protestant wings. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Reno and the Reformation Lutheran Church in Las Vegas are the oldest of Nevada’s Lutheran congregations in the ELCA. Nevada churches affiliated with the ELCA have joined Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians to form the Religious Alliance in Nevada (RAIN), a social justice advocacy group to the Nevada State Legislature.

The ELCA has twenty-one affiliated churches in Nevada from Elko to Pahrump with multiple congregations in Las Vegas/Henderson and Reno/Sparks. The LCMS has sixteen churches—half of which are in the Las Vegas area. The Wisconsin Synod has seven churches and one mission in Southern Nevada and single churches in Reno and Lovelock. The total number of Lutherans in the state is conservatively estimated to be 11,000.

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