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Thorstein Veblen and St. Olaf College:
A Group of Letters by Thorbjørn N. Mohn
Edited by Kenneth Bjork  (Volume XV: Page 122)

In the summer of 1890 Thorstein B. Veblen was seriously considered for a position as teacher of science on the faculty of St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota. We are briefly informed of this fact by his biographer, Joseph Doffman, who adds, "The administration personally liked him, but his religious views prevented his appointment." {1}

To one at all familiar with Veblen's later writings -- which have been variously ignored, damned, and acclaimed -- it is somewhat surprising that this independent and progressive social philosopher should have sought employment at a clerically controlled pioneer institution of the type that St. Olaf College represented in the nineteenth century; and his admirers may be tempted to consider the inevitable refusal as just another evidence of the bigotry endemic in the church college. A review of Veblen's early life and of the historical background of the school, however, reveals nothing unusual or unjust either in the application or in its rejection.

In his infancy and youth, Veblen was surrounded by the attitudes and principles that are associated with the Norwegian-American academies and colleges of the Middle West. Seven years after his birth on a Wisconsin farm in 1857, he moved with his family to Rice County, Minnesota. In a milieu at once conservative and pious, he knew the rural life of the Norwegian immigrants and the part played in it by religion; furthermore his biographer states that there is no evidence, in his early years, of opposition to the Lutheran church. When he left home at the age of seventeen to attend Carleton College he was actually considered as a candidate for the ministry. Carleton -- which like St. Olaf is located in Northfield -- was then strongly imbued with the puritanism of the Congregational Church, and its faculty was composed very largely of ministers. Though Thorstein gained the reputation of being something of a cynic during these college days and began early to read scientific and sociological literature frowned upon by the theologians, he accepted a position after his graduation as a teacher at Monona Academy, a school that had been operated since 1876 by the Norwegian Synod at Madison, Wisconsin. His first year of teaching, 1880-81, was the last in the history of the academy, but it sufficed to acquaint the young instructor with the ideals and policies of the Norwegian church school. In one other respect the year was important: Veblen, who had begun the study of Old Norse somewhat earlier with his brother Andrew, was brought into a stimulating relationship in Madison with Rasmus B. Anderson, professor of Scandinavian at the University of Wisconsin. Anderson apparently quickened the younger man's interest in the cultural ramifications of his Norwegian background.

Veblen next studied philosophy and economics at Johns Hopkins, and then for a doctorate in philosophy at Yale, mainly under the Reverend Noah Porter. It is evident that during the time he was at Yale, Veblen was a skeptic, though perhaps a mild one as he had been at Carleton; and his ideas in the field of religion were as yet a bit vague. In religious as in social and economic matters he was groping toward a philosophy that actually required years in which to mature. What is really significant is the fact that then, as later, his entire approach to the problems of society was traditionally philosophical and that it bore the clear imprint of theological influence. In 1884 he received the doctoral degree, after submitting a dissertation, interestingly, on "The Ethical Grounds of a Doctrine of Retribution." Although he was armed with a set of excellent recommendations, he was nevertheless unable to obtain a college teaching position -- either because of a native lack of aggressiveness, or the fact that he was a "Norskie" of a not too highly polished type, or the tendency of colleges to rely upon divinity schools to supply their teaching staffs, or because of a combination of these reasons. All that we know is that Veblen went home; spent several years in loafing and reading; suddenly in 1888 married Ellen Rolfe, the daughter of an Iowa farmer and, like her husband, a graduate of Carleton; lived at Stacyville, Iowa; apparently did some tutoring at Cedar Valley Seminary in Osage; and most certainly continued the abstract study of economics and philosophy. Indicative of his sustained interest in Old Norse and Icelandic is the fact that during this period he translated the Laxdæla Saga into English. {2}

It was this Veblen -- half loafer, half scholar, regarded by his wife's family and doubtless by others as a shiftless atheist, passionately interested in ideas and as preoccupied as a theologian with religious thoughts, gifted in an unusual degree in languages, and qualified by interest as well as background to serve as the philosopher of a society in transition -- who, not too vigorously, was looking for a position in almost any college that would offer him work. His applications were many, and since higher education was still largely in the hands of the churches, he did not neglect their schools. When Orson A. Veblen, Thorstein's brother, became a trustee of St. Olaf College in 1890, he and Andrew Veblen successfully urged Thorstein to apply at the Northfield institution which none of the family had attended. {3}

Had Veblen attempted to do so, he could not have chosen a worse moment to apply at a school which could hardly have been expected at any time to act favorably on his letter. St. Olaf had been launched in 1874, under the presidency of Thorbjørn N. Mohn, with the aim of educating young men and women from the Norwegian-American communities. Though not a preparatory school for ministers and not even officially an institution of the church, it had nevertheless been imbued with the ideas of the Reverend Bernt Julius Muus, a vigorous opponent of the common school and a warm advocate of a complete system of education controlled and guided by the church. As Muus once expressed it, St. Olaf's School must "look upon the eternal welfare of the children as its highest and most important aim," and nothing was to be taught in "contravention of the Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, and of Luther's Small Catechism." This somewhat bold, but religiously orthodox experiment in education was destined to expand into the familiar American liberal arts pattern; and St. Olaf's School became a college as well as an academy in 1886. The origins of St. Olaf College, as distinct from the earlier school, were rooted in a bitter controversy waged over the theological question of election. A group of clergymen, the so-called Anti-Missourians, broke away from the Norwegian Synod as a result of this controversy and, finding themselves without an educational institution of their own, they promised financial support to St. Olaf if it would add a college department and provide quarters for a separate theological school to serve the interests of the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood. An agreement was accordingly reached, and in 1890 the first college class -- numbering three -- was graduated. {4}

Despite President Mohn's generally tolerant nature, which he combined with deep religious convictions, several considerations made it a foregone conclusion that Veblen's application would be rejected. In 1890 the Anti-Missourians, the Norwegian Augustana Synod, and the Norwegian Conference united to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, and the new organization adopted St. Olaf as one of its schools. The college thus became the official instrument of a vigorous church organization. Furthermore, the program of the college, moving as it was toward a liberal education of the kind found elsewhere in the country, was regarded with disfavor by a certain element in the new church, who also frowned upon Mohn's "humanism." It was this element that actually forced the severance of official church ties in 1893 and threw the college once more upon its own resources. But most important in determining the choice of teachers in 1890 were the thinking habits fostered by the religious controversies through which the Norwegian-American people had just passed. These controversies, by no means the exclusive monopoly of the clergy and certainly positive as well as negative in their results, nevertheless sapped much of the creative energy of the immigrants and at the same time cultivated a certain sharpness in debate, which placed an unnatural premium on definitions and the interpretation of words.

When Veblen applied for a vacated position as instructor in the natural sciences, he was immediately asked to define his attitude toward certain basic tenets of the church. The letter explaining his religious views -- which would be a valuable historical document were it available -- has apparently been lost. The official records of the board of trustees, the body responsible for the hiring of faculty members, tell nothing of Veblen. But in the letter book of President Mohn marked "January 4, 1890, to July 24, 1891," are copies of several letters that give a reasonably fair, if slightly angled summary of the correspondence relative to the application. {5} They also reveal something of the philosophy of the first president of St. Olaf College. These letters appear below in the order of their writing.

THORBJØRN N. MOHN TO THORSTEIN VEBLEN

July 18, 90
T. B. VEBLEN Ph.D.
Stacyville Iowa

DEAR SIR: -- The Board of Trustees of St. Olaf College met yesterday and left it with the Ex. Com. to fill vacancies. The Ex. Com. met today and agreed that the undersigned should correspond with you in regard to the position left vacant by the resignation of Prof. Millis. {6} The Ex. Com. was pleased with your recommendations as far as they went; but this college being now practically controlled by the United church, the Com. thought it its duty to know something about the religious standpoint of those who applied for positions here, and as no one could give the Com. any information on this point concerning yourself I was requested to ask you whether you would be willing to state your views on such cardinal points as: the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, redemption of mankind, and such other points as you may think of interest to the Com. Furthermore what is your opinion about the Lutheran church and whether you are interested in public worship and Sunday school work and so forth.

Of course you understand that the Com. is interested in these things only on account of your application and that you are at perfect liberty to do as you please in regard to answer, as we have no business to inquire into your faith should you withdraw your application.

Very truly Yours
TH. N. MOHN

THORBJØRN N. MOHN TO J. OLSEN {7}

July 30, 90
THE REV. PASTOR J. OLSEN
St. Ansgar, Iowa

Dr. Veblen has answered my letter concerning his attitude toward Christianity. He was asked to express himself with reference to the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, redemption, and the interpretation of the Scriptures by the Lutheran church. He answers about as follows: The historical content of the Bible must naturally submit to the same criticism as all other historical material, without prejudice to scholarship. No one could be more interested in this than the student of social life. With reference to the divinity of Jesus, he agrees with what Jesus himself has said in the so-called synoptical gospels, and all later theories should go back to them for proof. Concerning redemption, he cannot believe that Jesus has atoned for the world, nor that the theory to the effect that Christ is the world's proxy is correct, and he believes that these gospels can be interpreted in a more liberal fashion.

Prof. Bøckman {8} and I have discussed the matter and are agreed that Dr. Veblen cannot bring our youth nearer to Christ, that we cannot in good faith say to our students, "Listen to him." We feel that Dr. Veblen would treat the historical content of the Bible as he would handle an old document that one might find in China. He does not believe that Jesus is true God, for he subscribes to what Jesus himself has said about this in the synoptical gospels, and we of course know that we do not there find that Jesus has actually said: I am true God. The Gospel of John does not belong to the synoptical gospels and therefore it is to be regarded as something that must seek its proof in the first three gospels. Finally, he does not believe that Jesus has atoned for any sin. Since St. Olaf was founded to combat these principles and since I have later heard that it is well known that Dr. Veblen holds these views, we believed that it was impossible to employ him, however honorable and gifted he may otherwise be. As soon as I have more information about the other candidates, I shall call another meeting of the Executive Committee. We can then go over Dr. Veblen's letter and make a final decision.

Very respectfully yours,
TH. N. MOHN

THORBJØRN N. MOHN TO C. J. ROLLEFSON {9}

Aug. 5 [l8]90
MR. C. J. ROLLEFSON
Hazel Run, Minn.

MY DEAR SIR: -- Your's with enclosed 5.00 for diploma received, and enclosed find receipt for same. Thanks!

We have not heard from Fossum {10} yet, and we can not use Mr. Veblen because he is not a Christian in faith. This proves the necessity of Christian colleges among our people. Poor Veblen does not see the difference between science and religion. He does not see that all our speculations depend upon premises found upon this planet, but that there must be great truths founded upon facts existing in other planets and places than this earth and that we can get these truths only by revelation, and because they do not depend on truths found here but elsewhere we have to take them as they come to us, their authenticity being established. When you get East and study those truths appertaining to this planet you will not, I know, be confounded in this manner of reasoning. You may have to change a good many of your notions upon this and that subject, but when you are advised to throw away Christianity, wait until you have looked the whole field over and you will see how ridiculous such ideas are as are entertained by those who reject Christianity. Be honest and seek the truth only as you find it yourself and you are all right.

Truly yours
TH. N. MOHN

THORBJØRN N. MOHN TO THORSTEIN VEBLEN

Aug. 27 90
T. VEBLEN Ph.D.
Stacyville, Iowa

DEAR SIR: -- This is to inform you that Mr. C. Rollefson has been appointed til [sic] teach nat. sciences at this institution.

Very Resp. Yours
TH. N. MOHN

 

Notes

{1} Thorstein Veblen and His America, 78 (New York, 1934).

{2} The Laxdæla Saga, Translated from, the Icelandic, with an Introduction Thorstein Veblen (New York, 1925).

{3} Dorfman's biography is the chief source of information for the life of Veblen. Also useful are J. A. Hobson, Veblen, a volume in the Modern Sociologists series (New York, 1937), and Paul T. Homan, "Thorstein Veblen," in Howard W. Odum, ed., American Masters of Social Science (New York. 1927).

{4} For the early history of St. Olaf College, see C. A. Mellby, St. Olaf College through Fifty Years, 1874-1924 (Northfield, 1925); J. A. Aasgaard, ed., Quarter Centennial Souvenir of St. Olaf College, 1874-1899 (Northfield, 1900); I. F. Grose. "The Beginnings of St. Olaf College," Studies and Records, 5:110-121 (Northfield 1930); and the early catalogues of the college.

{5} The Mohn manuscripts have been presented to the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association by George Mohn, son of Thorbjørn N. Mohn. The letters concerning Veblen are in English except for the letter of Mohn to Olsen, the original of which is in Norwegian and has been translated by the writer of this paper.

{6} Frank E. Millis, A. M., had been in charge of the department of natural sciences since 1888, teaching physics, chemistry, mathematics, and zoology. He resigned to head the physics department at De Pauw University in Indiana.

{7} Well-known pastor and vice-president of the St. Olaf College board of trustees.

{8} The Reverend M. O. Bøckman was instructor in religion at St. Olaf and president of the board of trustees, having succeeded the Reverend B. J. Muus in the latter capacity. He was later professor of religion at Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis and at Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul.

{9} Rollefson was one of the first three graduates of St. Olaf College, in 1890. He had also studied at the University of Minnesota, and he later renewed his studies at Cornell University. He taught at St. Olaf, and for a long period of years he was a member of the faculty of the State Teachers College at Superior, Wisconsin.

{10} Andrew Fossum received the Ph.D. degree in classical languages at Johns Hopkins, 1887, then studied abroad and engaged in archeological work in Greece. Later he became a member of the St. Olaf College faculty.

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