Organizations that brought together Wisconsinites who shared beliefs occupied a place of central importance in community life, supporting immigrants and their descendants both spiritually and culturally as they established themselves in their new home. Many Germans sought to replicate the religious communities they had belonged to in their homelands, while others were drawn to uniquely American churches. Still others saw in America an opportunity to shed all religious affiliations.
While the earliest Catholics in the Wisconsin were French missionaries, immigrants from German-speaking lands in Central Europe, especially Bavaria, but also the Cologne region, did much to shape Catholic life in the state. For example, the first four prelates of the Diocese of Milwaukee, the oldest in Wisconsin, were all born in German-speaking Europe.
German and Scandinavian (especially Norwegian) Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin preserved strong ethnic identities and used their heritage languages in worship services well into the 20th century. Wisconsin’s German Lutherans placed special value on the ability to read Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible in the original German. This led to the founding of many parochial schools across the state where German was either the language of instruction or taught as a required subject.
The diversity of German-speaking Christian denominations in Wisconsin was not limited to Catholics and Lutherans. The first German-speaking Reformed congregation in the state was founded by Swiss immigrants in Green County in 1845. The Moravian Church also established a presence in Wisconsin in the 1840s, as did German-speaking Methodists, most of whom found their way to this originally English-speaking denomination in America.
Until the 1880s, the largest Jewish community in the state was comprised of German Jews in Milwaukee, where Wisconsin’s first synagogue was built in 1856. When large numbers of Eastern European and Russian Jews arrived later in the century, Milwaukee’s German Jews, in the spirit of the Talmudic pronouncement “All of Israel is responsible for each other” (Kol Yisrael arvim zeh la-zeh), founded aid organizations to promote the immigrants’ acculturation, such as The Settlement Community Center, whose first president in 1900 was Lizzie Black Kander (1858-1940), author of the famous Settlement Cook Book.
Other German-speaking immigrants, including many Forty-Eighters, rejected traditional, hierarchical religion. Some of them founded Freie Gemeinden (Free Congregations) that emphasized the freedom of their members to practice their beliefs without state or church interference. Sauk City’s Free Congregation of Sauk County, the last such community in America, is today affiliated with the Unitarian Universalists.