St. Louis, Missouri
The Lutheran Church has long been cognizant of its history, and in recent decades museums dedicated to Lutheran religion and culture have begun to spring up around the country. Thanks to the presence of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod headquarters in St. Louis, some of the best Lutheran museum sites can be found in the area of east-central Missouri. The largest Lutheran museum in the United States is part of the synod headquarters in Kirkwood. The Lutheran Heritage Museum in nearby Altenburg preserves a church and several buildings of one of the oldest Lutheran settlements west of the Mississippi River.
During the initial westward migrations of the early 19th century, Lutherans were among the first settlers to arrive in the Midwest in large numbers. Settlers from Scandinavia and Germany, all largely Lutherans, were especially prevalent among the farmers who arrived in the Great Plains. These began to establish themselves west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s.
Around this time, certain Lutheran groups in Saxony in Germany found themselves faced with persecution from the Prussian aristocracy. In 1838, about one thousand of these, led by their pastor Martin Stephen, fled to the New World. With one ship tragically lost at sea, about seven hundred survivors arrived in New Orleans in January 1839. They subsequently traveled up the Missisippi River and settled around St. Louis.
This Lutheran colony, established at Altenburg, became the foundation for the Lutheran Church in central United States. They soon made contact with other Lutheran groups in the Midwest and began organizing themselves regionally. In April 1847, a meeting was held in Chicago, where the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and other states was formed. Later shortened to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, this was the first of the three major Lutheran synods to be formed in the United States.
The LCMS absorbed other synods, eventually becoming a national religious organization. This process accelerated in the first half of the 20th century, when poor relations with Germany encouraged the Americanization of the Lutheran Church. During this time the church numbers grew significantly, and the permanent headquarters was established in Kirkwood, Missouri. A few years ago the LCMS opened a museum in Kirwkood celebrating its history and cultural legacy.
The Lutheran Museum at the Missouri Synod headquarters was opened in 2009. Exhibits focus on the history of the church in the Midwest over the last century and a half. Among the museum’s treasures are artifacts brought to the New World by German colonists, including first editions of books by Martin Luther.
The Lutheran Heritage Center in Altenburg is perhaps a more immersive experience. Established in 1985, it features a modern museum building with exhibits on the history of the colony. It also incorporates some of the original buildings of the town, including churches from 1845 and 1867, as well as the birthplace of Concordia Seminary.
The LCMS Lutheran Museum, also known as the Concordia Historical Institute Museum, is located in Kirkwood, a suburban community approximately 15 miles west of downtown St. Louis. It is open weekdays from 8:15am-3:30pm. The Lutheran Heritage Center is located in the center of the town of Altenburg, approximately 70 miles southeast of St. Louis. It is open year-round from 10:00am-4:00pm (closed Mon, Tue and Wed in Winter). There is no charge for admission for either site. Web: www.lutheranhistory.org (official site of the Concordia Historical Institute Museum); www.altenburgmuseum.org (official site of the Lutheran Heritage Center).
One of the greatest legacies of the early Lutheran community in Missouri is the Concordia Seminary. Originally founded in Altenburg, it was moved to Clayton in 1926 and is one of the largest seminaries in the United States.