Under God’s sky: The Minnesota District

Paul E. Koelpin

The summer of 1918 was a season of action. American troops were engaged in heavy fighting along the Western Front during World War I. Halfway around the world, Vladimir Lenin was establishing his communist dictatorship in Russia. Closer to home, a group of pastors, teachers, and lay delegates—130 in all—met in June at Trinity, St. Paul, to form the Minnesota District of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Other States.


German Lutheran missionaries had spread the gospel in Minnesota even before it became a state in 1858. Under the leadership of Lutheran pastor and missionary to India, “Father” J. C. F. Heyer, several pastors and congregations organized as the Minnesota Synod in 1860. Already in colonial times, Lutheran synods followed along state, linguistic, and cultural lines. This “state synod” was a gathering of specifically German Lutheran churches. Although it was an independent church body, the small Minnesota Synod did seek affiliation with other larger Lutheran organizations for mutual support and assistance. The process fine-tuned Minnesota’s confessional stance and practice, and the Minnesota Synod became a charter member of the Synodical Conference in 1872.

Proximity to northern state synods in Wisconsin and Michigan, a like-minded Lutheran identity, and strong cultural ties resulted in establishing a formal unification as a “Joint Synod” in October 1892. Each synod remained autonomous while pursuing ways to function more effectively and efficiently as Lutheran churches joined in a common cause. Eventually, the Minnesota Synod adopted a reorganization plan and constitution, which formally made it a “district” of the Wisconsin Synod.

In 1918, the Minnesota District brought 22,000 communicant members into the new synod. Today, not quite one hundred years later, communicant membership in the district has nearly doubled. At its formation, the Minnesota District also included 18 congregations from mission work in the Dakotas. Within two years, these churches organized as the Dakota-Montana District.


Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Minnesota District in terms of the wider synod is the college located in New Ulm. Dedicated in 1884 as a worker training institution for the then Minnesota Synod, the school, called Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC), owed its origins to Pastor C. J. Albrecht, a pastor at St. Paul, New Ulm, and the fifth president of the Minnesota Synod.

Albrecht was a man of action. After the synod struggled to sort out location options and to secure funding for the project, Albrecht had footings poured for a building on the picturesque hillcrest overlooking the city in the Minnesota River valley. He begged the synod’s indulgence for his boldness, and DMLC was born. In 1995, Northwestern College (in Watertown, Wisconsin) was amalgamated with DMLC to become Martin Luther College (MLC). Today MLC is the “WELS College of Ministry.” Its chief purpose is the training of pastors, teachers, and staff ministers for our synod. Nearly every called worker in our church body since 1995 has some connection to this school.

The Minnesota District has had a strong connection to education—with 61 early childhood ministries and 38 elementary schools. Three area Lutheran high schools provide secondary education. St. Croix Lutheran High School was founded in 1958 in West St. Paul; West Lutheran High School in Plymouth and Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School in New Ulm were both started in 1979. Since its founding St. Croix has moved to a second campus site and has been visionary in its approach—attracting hundreds of foreign exchange students (chiefly from Asian countries) and establishing an area Lutheran “middle school” on the campus as well.


The district is also the headquarters of The Lutheran Home Association in Belle Plaine. The “Lutheran Home” began in 1898 when Sophie Boessling donated farm land and money to Trinity congregation in Belle Plaine. Boessling intended that the donation be used to build a home for orphans and the aged. The Home became recognized for excellent care of the elderly and has continued to expand its facilities and services. Jesus Cares Ministries, which has served the spiritual needs of people with developmental disabilities since 1985, became part of its ministry in 1998.

Proximity to high quality medical facilities such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the hospitals in the Twin Cities led to the formation of the Lutheran Institutional Ministry Association (LIMA). In addition to visiting the sick, LIMA also supports campus ministry efforts such as The Beacon (Minnesota State University, Mankato) and True North (Twin Cities universities) and has begun coordinating with WELS Prison Ministries (which is headquartered in New Ulm).


The Minnesota District includes a handful of congregations in extreme western Wisconsin and congregations in Iowa and Missouri. Mission development in the last several decades focused mainly in the expanding suburbs of the Twin Cities; Rochester, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa; and St. Louis, Mo.

Evangelism opportunities multiplied with the movement of peoples to these metropolitan areas. God used the work of Pastor Loren Steele to reach out to changing communities, especially to people of Asian descent. After his ordination at Emanuel in St. Paul in 1986, Steele began intensive outreach with Hmong immigrants in his neighborhood, resulting in a specifically Hmong congregation (Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church) and the local training of Hmong men to serve as pastors. Hmong ministry remains strong in the district.

German Lutheran missionaries planted strong churches and schools as Minnesota was being settled in the 1800s; WELS mission work continues among people of other cultures, languages, and nations on the very same ground. All by God’s design and to his glory!

Paul Koelpin, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

This is the ninth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.


District president: Pastor Charles Degner
Congregations: 158
Mission churches:
Baptized members: 49,454
Communicant members: 39,746
Early childhood ministries: 61
Lutheran elementary schools: 38
Area Lutheran high schools: 3



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Author: Paul E. Koelpin
Volume 101, Number 9
Issue: September 2014

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