Another Important Anniversary


The year 2003 has been a year of anniversaries for the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, but there is another anniversary this year that should be noted by all Lutherans in America. Three hundred years ago, on November 24, 1703, the first regular ordination of a Lutheran pastor in America took place.

Lutheranism took root in the new world in the seventeenth century, in two different places: the New Sweden Colony along the Delaware River, and the New Netherland Colony in what is now the State of New York. In New Netherland, however, the Lutherans were persecuted by the Dutch Reformed authorities, and they were forbidden to call a pastor and formally organize themselves. Despite these hardships the faithful Lutherans in New Netherland did succeed in preserving their confessional identity. They met privately in homes, and resisted the efforts of the authorities to convert them to Calvinism. Their national and ethnic backgrounds were very diverse. Among them were Frisians, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Poles, and Norwegians.

The Lutherans had gathered themselves into two congregations, in what is now New York City and Albany. After the English take-over of the colony in 1664, when religious liberty was granted, these congregations were more formally organized, and were served from 1669 to 1691 by pastors who had been sent to them from the Lutheran Church in Amsterdam, Holland. Following a lengthy vacancy, in 1702, they called a Swedish pastor from Philadelphia, Andreas Rudman, who served them for just over a year. When Rudman lost his strength through a serious bout with yellow fever in 1703, and when he accordingly decided that he needed to resign his call, his thoughts turned to a young and devout man whom he had known in his Philadelphia congregation.

Justus Falckner was a Saxon who had studied for the ministry at the University of Halle. He was the son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, but he felt himself to be inadequate for this calling. After his graduation he left for America, and settled near Philadelphia in 1700, where he worked as a land agent. He attended the Swedish Lutheran church in Philadelphia (Gloria Dei), and in this way he and Rudman became well acquainted before Rudman moved to New York.

In 1703 Rudman wrote to Falckner: “What shall I do about forsaking my little flock? Looking everywhere, I find no one better fitted than you to whom I may safely entrust my sheep.” After initially resisting the idea, Falckner finally accepted the call that the New York churches had tendered him. He wrote to a former professor in Germany: “I am staying as a regular preacher with a little Dutch Lutheran congregation, a state of affairs which I had so long avoided.” As Falckner stepped forward to the challenges and responsibilities of the pastoral office, the words of the hymn that he had written in his student days may have taken on a new meaning for him: “Rise, ye children of salvation, / All who cleave to Christ the Head! / Wake, arise, O mighty nation, / Ere the foe on Zion tread...” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #217).

When he was ordained, at Gloria Dei Church in Philadelphia, it was according to the Lutheran Church Order of Amsterdam, which stipulated that three pastors be present and concur in the ordination. Interestingly, the three pastors who participated (Rudman, Andreas Sandel, and Eric Tobias Bjork) were members of the Church of Sweden, and none of them would have had the authority to administer ordination according to the episcopal polity of Swedish Lutheranism. But in this situation, according to the needs of their Dutch-speaking sister congregations in New York, they did administer ordination to Falckner according to the congregational/synodical polity of Dutch Lutheranism.

Falckner was a faithful pastor, and he was greatly loved by his people. He organized several new congregations in various areas of New York and New Jersey where Lutheran families had settled. He was concerned about purity of doctrine, especially since his members were living in a region that was dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1708, for their benefit, he wrote Grondlycke Onderricht (“Fundamental Instruction”), the first Lutheran theological book to be authored and published in America. And his ministry crossed racial and social bounds: his church register records the baptisms of several slaves.

Falckner’s conscientious labors in the face of so much spiritual need probably wore him out before his time. He died in Germantown, New York, in 1723, at the age of 51. At the time he was serving fourteen congregations. There are still many congregations in New York and New Jersey that can trace their existence to his pastoral efforts, and some of the descendants of the people he served can also be found today in the ELS.

David Jay Webber is a “Thoughts of Faith” missionary in Ternopil’, Ukraine, where he serves as the Rector of Saint Sophia Lutheran Seminary.

Gloria Dei Church, Philadelphia

This article was published in the Lutheran Sentinel, Vol. 86, No. 11 (November 2003), p. 3. The printed version of this article differs slightly from the online version that appears here.

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