Lutheran Quarterly

Winter 2023 Featured Essay

How the Priesthood of All Believers Became American
by Jonathan Strom

It is hard to overstate how ubiquitous the phrase “priesthood of all believers” has become in American Protestantism. In that deeply fractured context, it is widely embraced from the Southern Baptists on the Evangelical right to peace church Quakers on the left. Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek, the epitome of the American mega-church, devotes significant attention to the priesthood of all believers in his popular works.1 Lutherans in America, of course, also embrace the priesthood of all believers as part of their legacy.2 If, alongside the slogan of sola scriptura, there is a piece of the Reformation’s legacy that continues to resonate broadly in the Protestantism of the twenty-first century in North America, it is the common priesthood or the priesthood of all believers. While we might be tempted to treat this as an historical constant, that was far from the case. In early America, including among Lutherans, it was not a central feature of American Protestantism. That changed in the nineteenth century when it became for many a signature characteristic that cut across confessions and denominations. Even as the common priesthood remained closely associated with Luther and the Reformation, by the early twentieth century, Lutherans no longer exclusively defined it, and it took on broader cultural relevance in American Protestantism. In turn, this came to affect how some American Lutherans understood it.

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