Our Lutheran Heritage
We attribute the beginning of the Lutheran Church to Martin Luther when he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” referred to as “The 95 Theses” in 1517. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg University at the time. He became convinced that religious authority only comes from the Bible and salvation can only be obtained through faith. As a result, Luther believed some false teachings and practices were being embraced by the Catholic Church. In particular, the Catholic Church taught that the decrees of the Pope and religious officials carried religious authority and that salvation could result from good works that are pleasing to God. When the Pope decided to raise money to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling a new series of indulgences that were purported to absolve sin, Luther became so upset with corruption in the Church that he spent the following six months developing his 95 theses in response.
Luther structured his theses as questions and propositions that he hoped would provoke discussion and debate among scholars and the clergy. His intent was to reform the Catholic Church and not create a schism that would divide the Church. However, his 95 theses quickly spread throughout Germany and eventually all of Europe reaching many sympathetic people. When “The 95 Theses” reached the Vatican, the Pope considered them contrary to Church teachings. The Church convened commissions to examine Luther’s position and concluded he was a heretic. In 1520, the Pope condemned Luther’s propositions and gave him 120 days to recant. Luther refused to recant and was excommunicated by the Pope in 1521 causing a split in the Catholic Church which became the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. A year later, Luther returned to the Wittenberg Castle Church in Eisenach, where he previously served, and organized the Lutheran Church.
In 1837, the United Rhine Mission Society sent John Muelhauser to serve in North America. He formed the Wisconsin Synod in 1850. In 1868, the Synod severed ties with Germany. The Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska Synods merged with each becoming districts of the Wisconsin Synod in 1917. The Synod changed its name to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) in 1959 and continued to add congregations in Florida, California, and other states and expand foreign missionary efforts. Today, the WELS baptized membership exceeds 364,000.