Fortress Press

Caribbean Lutherans: The History of the Church in Puerto Rico

Caribbean Lutherans

The History of the Church in Puerto Rico

José David Rodríguez (Author), Idalia Negrón (Foreword by), Luis N. Rivera-Pagán (Afterword by)


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Caribbean Lutherans tells the story of the Lutheran church in Puerto Rico from a Caribbean perspective. Rodríguez intersperses archival research with cogent commentary and personal accounts, highlighting the power and agency of Puerto Rican and West Indian Lutherans amid the multifaceted legacy of Euro-American missionary efforts on the island. Readers may not be surprised to learn that the first Lutheran missionary in Puerto Rico was a Swedish American Lutheran; they may not be aware, however, that his welcome and success on the island were dependent on the hospitality of an Afro-Caribbean tailor from Jamaica. A winding journey of interactions among American Lutheran synods and a growing Puerto Rican church generated partnerships, tensions, and possibilities that continue to the present.

Puerto Rico and neighboring islands joined the United Lutheran Church in America as the Caribbean Synod in 1952. Today, they remain part of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America while many other Protestant denominations on the island have formed Puerto Rican "national" churches. Rodríguez explores the continuing tensions inherent in this legacy, bringing both academic expertise and personal experience to this first comprehensive account of the Lutheran church in Puerto Rico.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506496184
  • eBook ISBN 9781506496191
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Pages 228
  • Publication Date February 27, 2024


The book is a wonderful guide for gleaning the contribution of Caribbean Lutheranism--and beyond it, of mainline Latin American Protestantism--to decolonial possibilities for living out the Christian faith. Of particular interest is the careful attention to the contribution of women: from teachers, missionaries, and lay leaders to bishops. Without glossing over its complexities and ambiguities, Rodríguez shows how Lutheranism in the Caribbean has contributed to the gospel "giving more of itself" as good news.

Dr. Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and coauthor (with Guillermo Hansen) of Nuestra fe: Una introducción a la teología cristiana

José D. Rodríguez offers a sharp historiography channeling the faith of the Lutheran church in Puerto Rico from a Caribbean standpoint. Flowing in sacred spaces like that of a Lutheran tailor, Mr. John Christopher Owen Browne, Caribbean Lutherans deepens in accounts of pastors, lay leaders, Indigenous peoples, and women whose legacy affirms agency and the active role of people's transformational involvement in the mission. This unique book is a doorway for further research contributing to academia on matters of history, mission, and Lutheran identity.

The Rev. Dr. Patricia Cuyatti Chavez, former regional secretary for Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America in the Lutheran World Federation; pastor in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; author of Hanging On and Rising Up: Renewing, Re-envisioning, and Rebuilding the Cross from the "Marginalized"

This groundbreaking study of the mission of the Lutheran Church in Puerto Rico makes two significant contributions, relevant also to the study of the mission work of other Christian denominations on the island. First, it combines traditional historiographical methods with postcolonial and postmodern methods, and exhaustively examines documents and other authoritative classical sources as well as stories, music, poetry, and other art forms that depict the struggle of resistance against prejudice and cultural assimilation. In so doing, it uplifts the significant contributions that marginal populations have made to the mission of the church. The second is the theological grounding of this historical analysis: Mission work has its beginning and end in God. It is a theology of radical inclusion that brings all of us to forward justice, peace, and love. This theocentric perspective makes it clear that the purpose of mission is not church growth nor the well-being of the denomination. We are all subjects and objects of that mission whose purpose ultimately is to announce and to be a sign of the Kingdom that calls us to overcome all obstacles that impede the formation of beloved communities.

Dr. Ismael Garcia, emeritus professor of Christian ethics, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

This is the first comprehensive history of the Caribbean Synod as part of the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its predecessors. In his narrative--which includes important contextual and historical connections, inspiring stories, and detailed statistics--Dr. Rodríguez turns our invisibility in our Lutheran history books and denominational life into a text that documents important dimensions of the Lutheran traditional missionary ethos and its relationship with communities at the margins. Many of the dilemmas and issues presented by Rodríguez are vivitos y coleando (alive and kicking) in our days. As we launch efforts to renew and reform our denomination, this book is a must-read to help us be a church of the cross.

The Rev. Dr. Francisco Javier Goitía-Padilla, director for Formation for Leadership, Church Community and Leadership, ELCA

Many readers will be surprised to learn that the presence of Lutherans in the Caribbean much predates the existence of Lutheranism in the continental US. Rodríguez's book concentrates on the history of the Lutheran church in Puerto Rico and has the merit of exploring the historical periods before the arrival of US missionaries in the wake of the Spanish-American war. The stories of fleeing slaves from the Danish West Indies, of freedom fighters against Spanish colonialism, of women leaders, and of people of color who identified with the Lutheran church are intertwined with the reports and letters of the first US missionaries and their ambiguous mix of American idealism, dubious colonialist assumptions, and honest zeal in spreading the gospel and serving the people of Puerto Rico. The result is a very illuminating, well-balanced, and judicious exposition of a denominational history set amid the larger political, economic, and cultural forces that have traversed Puerto Rico since Spanish colonization.

Dr. Guillermo Hansen, professor of theology and global Christianity, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota

It is very comfortable to talk about voiceless people and cultures: but providentially, Rodríguez is not deaf. Only a sympathetic historian, systematician, and pastor such as he could have done justice to our--in this order--Taino, Jamaican, Virgin Islands, and Scandinavian Lutheran and Moravian DNA. This comprehensive essay decolonizes North Atlantic white supremacy. By doing that, José David makes the Greater Caribbean political-religious narratives part of church history, and no longer a mere footnote of "missions."

The Rev. Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez, professor of systematic theology, Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, and author of The Vexing Gadfly: The Late Kierkegaard on Economic Matters

This long-awaited book is a treasure trove of information about the origins of the Lutheran witness to the gospel in the Caribbean. But for many of us, it is much more than that. It is our family history: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. With decolonial sensitivity, Prof. Rodríguez has collected and curated for us the "little stories" of how we, Caribbean Puerto Rican Lutherans, came to be. It is a fascinating narrative that interweaves great sacrifices from early missionaries, chaplains, and deaconesses; Bibles being smuggled by Lutheran pirates and corsairs; courageous leadership from wise local lay leaders, especially the women; and all happening against the backdrop of two world wars, increasing racial tensions, and imperial-colonial intrigues. Yet somehow, it all worked, and the Caribbean Puerto Rican Lutheran presence continues to be strong, now sending pastors to the mission field in the mainland US and leadership to the ELCA Churchwide organization! Gracias, José, por rescatar nuestra historia.

The Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos, director for Theological Diversity and Engagement Office of the Presiding Bishop, ELCA

José David Rodríguez's book is the first academic history by a Puerto Rican about the Lutheran church, which arrived with the rest of the Protestant churches after the Hispanic American War. The book has an excellent introduction on Lutheran Protestantism in the Caribbean starting in the seventeenth century, when Dutch, German, and Danish missionaries first arrived on the islands. Dr. José David Rodríguez was the program director of the Hispanic Ministries program and director of the PhD program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the US, as well as rector (president) at the Institute of Theological Education (ISEDET) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is a fitting researcher to write this history, as he was raised in the Lutheran tradition and his father was a professor of theology at ISEDET in Argentina and at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, where students from all Protestant denominations on the island attend. The book contains a rich chapter on the development of the leadership role of women in the Lutheran church, which gives us a more contemporary vision of the history of his denomination.

Few studies on denominational history in Puerto Rico have been made with equal academic rigor, even among those of the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and United Evangelical churches, as well as the other Protestant denominations that arrived alongside the Lutherans after 1898. Caribbean Lutherans is therefore not only a contribution to the history of the church, but no doubt also a valuable contribution to the history of Puerto Rico as a whole.

Dr. Samuel Silva Gotay, distinguished professor, retired, University of Puerto Rico