Erik L. Petersen
By Jacob Hodnefield (Volume XV: Page 176)
Most of the Norwegian clergymen who came to serve the new settlements in America were
Lutherans -- a natural situation, as the state church in Norway was Lutheran. Erik L.
Petersen was one of the few who were of another persuasion. He came to the United States a
Roman Catholic and subsequently went over to the Protestant Episcopal Church; in the
Minnesota diocese he took charge of certain Episcopal missions. His experiences
demonstrate the difficulties encountered by a man who deviates from the pattern. Because
his story illustrates a condition that was general in Norwegian settlements as to the
attitude of the immigrants toward churches other than their own, it has a place in the
history of immigration.
Erik L. Petersen was born in Christiania, Norway, on October 27, 1844, the son of Emil
Petersen and his wife, née Brinkman. From his father he inherited the emotional
temperament that characterized his life and activities. Apparently he was left to himself
a great deal during his boyhood. The family was poor, and little provision was made for
his early education. Through the years, however, he managed to acquire considerable
learning, with some assistance from relatives and friends.
As a child he was befriended by a Catholic priest in Christiania who had charge of the
new St. Olaf Church, a mission of the Roman Catholic Church. This priest undoubtedly was
J. C. Lichtle. Petersen has stated that he became acquainted with Lichtle in 1857, which
would have been in the boy's thirteenth year. The influence of this priest turned him
towards the Catholic Church and resulted in his subsequent affiliation with it.
Erik became interested in dramatics at an early age, and as a consequence he prepared
for the stage. He made his debut at the Bergen Theater on April 7, 1859, when he was
fourteen. How successful this venture was, it is difficult to determine. He played in the
theater in Christiania from 1860 to 1862. After that he traveled as "improvisator"
(someone who entertained by giving readings or declamations) until 1866, probably
visiting Germany during that period. He spent at least part of the time in Denmark, for
apparently his last engagement was in the Copenhagen theater. He was not more than
twenty-two, therefore, when he left the theatrical profession after seven years.
The following year, 1867, he began his studies in preparation for the ministry. At one
time he had intended to enter a monastery, but circumstances decided otherwise. The
Catholic mission in Norway, represented by the St. Olaf Church in Christiania, was then
controlled by the Barnabites from Germany, and was under the supervision of Father J. D.
Stub. Petersen would have preferred to go to Germany to train for the priesthood, but he
did not have the means. With the assistance of Father Stub, he was entered in the
Barnabite Cloister in Aubigny a la Mer, France, in 1867, a step which he afterwards
In an autobiographical essay, "Cloister Days,
he tells about the
journey via Lübeck and Paris to the House of St. Alfonso de Liguori, where he was to
remain for a year as a novice. There he entered upon his period of contemplation,
self-examination, and preparation. The institution was Italian in origin, and the members
were not popular in the French community where it was situated. There were four priests,
three lay brothers, and four novices. The group lived in solitude. The church was small,
on a desolate country road. At Aubigny, Petersen read the breviary and was given
permission to study French and Latin. After a time he obtained the freedom of the library,
and there he became acquainted with a rich store of French literature.
He was in doubt where he should go from Aubigny, as Father Stub and the Barnabites had
relinquished the mission in Norway. Father Stub assisted him again, however, and he
journeyed to Monza, Italy, to the Santa Maria de Carrobiolo cloister, a Barnabite
institution, which was chosen for him because there were supposed to be several
Scandinavian students there. He found but one Scandinavian student, a Swede. The place was
unattractive, the accommodations were poor, and he did not feel welcome. He was soon
transferred to the mission seminary of San Colocero in Milan, Italy, a Jesuit institution.
Subsequently he went to the College Brignole Sale, an institution where missionaries for
America were educated.
Petersen now determined to become a missionary to the Norwegians in America. This
decision was induced by false reports about religious conditions in the New World. Echoes
of the controversies among the Norwegian Lutheran synods in America reached Europe, and
these apparently were interpreted erroneously. His own explanation in "Cloister
Days" is clear and to the point:
St. Paul, Minnesota, where Bishop T. L. Grace resided, was a place where thousands of
my countrymen had settled. Among them, so I had been told, was a movement on foot towards
Catholicism, and Catholic priests of Scandinavian nationality were all that was needed to
lead said movement.
Such were the reports which had induced me to go to America, and to St. Paul in
particular. Having arrived there I soon found out, to my great dismay, that the idea of a
tendency among the Norwegians towards Catholicism was a mere phantom arising from a
misunderstanding of the actual state of things. The facts were: In the course of the
dissensions among the Scandinavian Lutherans in America, the "Synod" had
repeatedly been charged with Catholic sympathies -- a suspicion which said
"Synod" through its efforts in favor of "secret confessons,"
"secret conferences," etc., had itself corroborated, and in this way the
Catholics had very naturally been led to look upon the Synod as a connecting link between
their church and the Lutherans.
I was not long in finding out the mistake, and it was this discovery that perfectly
Petersen was ordained a deacon by the Archbishop of Genoa in 1872, and he migrated to
America later the same year. He was ordained a priest in the cathedral in St. Paul,
Minnesota, by Bishop T. L. Grace, December 21, 1872.
The next few months must have been a period of bewilderment. He probably realized soon
after his arrival that the Norwegian Lutheran immigrants offered no field for the
activities of a Catholic priest. For a brief time he substituted in the French St. Louis
Church in St. Paul, and there his official acts are recorded for the period from February
23 to May 19, 1873.
It is not known what occupied him during the latter part of 1873. Probably it was
during these months that he came under the influence of Bishop Henry B. Whipple of the
Protestant Episcopal Church. In the journal of the Minnesota diocese for 1874 it is
recorded that "the Reverend Eric Petersen, priest of the Church of Rome, was received
into the Church on the day of Intercession in St. Mark's Church, Minneapolis." The
date was December 5, 187, according to Petersen.
There were probably several reasons why he decided to join the Protestant Episcopal
Church. His daughter states that "his reason for leaving the Catholic Church was his
inability to accept the papal decree that the pope was infallible." This decree had
been issued by Pope Plus IX on July 18, 1870. At that time Petersen was a student in Italy
and in the midst of the controversy regarding this pronouncement. He probably had
entertained objections to it since its enunciation. Moreover, he no doubt welcomed the
greater opportunity of reaching his countrymen from an Episcopal pulpit. The Norwegians
did not harbor the same animosity towards the Episcopal Church that they did towards the
The Episcopal Church appointed Petersen a missionary to the Scandinavians, with
headquarters in Faribault, Minnesota. There a Norwegian congregation was organized, and
services were held in the old chapel of the Bishop Seabury Mission. Besides serving the
Faribault congregation, Petersen preached at various other places in the diocese.
facilitate his work he translated the Mission Service into Norwegian. This was
printed in Chicago in 1875. Later he made a translation of the entire Book of Common
Prayer which was published in 1880. He is quoted as saying: "My translation of
the Mission Service has been introduced, but without success. The Scandinavians cling to
their ancient Lutheran service, and any alteration in that respect is useless."
In an article in Spirit of Missions, entitled "Among the Scandinavians in
Minnesota," Petersen reports on his work as follows: "It was on the 5th of
December, 1873, that the Rt. Rev. Bishop Whipple received me into the Protestant Episcopal
Church in the Parish of St. Mark's, Minneapolis. My first desire after having been
introduced into the Church was to begin a Mission for the Scandinavians in
Minnesota." He reports further that his first missionary tour began January 5, 1874,
and took him to "St. Peter, St. James, Mankato, Kasson, Rochester, Winona, Red Wing,
Hastings, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Northfield, and Faribault."
My sermons treat more of moral than dogmatic themes, because I wish to avoid disputes
with the Lutheran preachers and bring my instructions within the understanding of my
. . . . Now what is the meaning of this Mission among the Scandinavians? Chiefly to
make our Church known amongst them, and, if possible, in the course of time, in a peaceful
manner, to join together the Lutheran and the Episcopal Churches here in the West . . . .
But, if any one should look for great and immediate results, he would deceive himself in a
most cruel manner.
. . . . The Scandinavians are divided into many Lutheran sects, every one insisting
that it is the legitimate daughter of the Lutheran Church in the old country . . . . The
Scandinavians who come to this country are nearly all grown people, and, as a class, do
not understand the English language. This makes it impossible for them to follow English
preaching or service. It does not seem that this will be better in the future, because the
Lutheran preachers do all that is possible to keep the people away from the English
schools as well as from the English churches. Some of them go so far as to say that it is
impossible to preach true Christianity in the English language. . . . The only way to
propagate the truth in this wide Mission field would be to have a reasonable number of
Prayer Books, and other good treatises, printed in the Swedish and Norwegian languages . .
. . My work is for the coming generation which will be more accustomed to the English
language and American life than the present, and will better appreciate the blessings of
the Episcopal Church.
Thus it is evident that his missionary work among the Scandinavians was disappointing.
Here and there a few Norwegians and Swedes joined his church but their number was small.
It was an almost hopeless struggle against insurmountable obstacles.
Petersen had a strong voice and was a great orator. Those who heard him testify that he
preached powerful sermons. He stood high in the estimation of Bishop Whipple and other
leaders of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Minnesota.
And even though the visible
results of his service in the Episcopal Church were not great, the fourteen years of his
ministry had a real value. Petersen's erudition was widely known. He was at home in at
least seven languages, and at times he augmented his income by giving private language
During his service in the Episcopal Church Petersen carried on amazing literary
activities, the most notable being his contributions to Norwegian papers in the form of
book reviews. Occasional lectures of his appeared in the public press, as well as articles
on various subjects. His comments on books appeared principally in Budstikken
of Minneapolis, and were written during the late seventies and the eighties until July,
1887, four months before his death. These reviews vary from short articles to longer ones
of two, three, or even four columns. In them he undertook no less a task than that of
interpreting to the intelligent Norwegians in America the new books that were within their
reach and might be within their interest. And he assumed that their interest had a wide
range. The task was prodigious, but the result was happy.
A continued series in Budstikken appeared under the general heading
"Studier ved læsebordet" (Studies at the Reading Desk), which began with the
issue of February 26, 1879, and continued until toward the end of 1883. Another series had
the caption, "Fra bogladen" (From the Bookstore).
The range of his reading and reviews was extraordinary. It included almost anything of
interest published in Norwegian in this country, many works appearing in Norway and
Sweden, and occasionally books in other languages. He even included Latin titles. He had a
great interest in theology, church history, and literature; but he also reviewed books of
practical value in everyday life. Fiction was a frequent topic, usually Norwegian but also
English fiction. His subjects included literary history and criticism, Bible history,
Norwegian church history, Lutheran church reports and church calendars, songbooks,
temperance books, theology, the English Reformation, Catholic literature in the three
northern kingdoms since the Reformation, dictionaries of the Bible, the Dictionary of
Christian Antiquities, textbooks, German and French grammars, books on agriculture,
cookbooks, the literature of periodicals, the history of the theater in Norway, emigration
from Norway to Holland and England, the language controversy in Norway, the works of
Bunyan, Boyesen, and Alexander Kielland, of Bjørnson, Ibsen, and Kristofer Janson, a
biography of Garfield, the lectures of John Ireland, the Iron Age in the north of Europe,
and so on.
In his reviews he was very outspoken, and commented freely on the subject matter, the
style, the composition, and the author. If his criticism was favorable, he praised
liberally and described wherein the merit lay. If his criticism was adverse, he condemned
unsparingly. Thus he was very favorable in his estimate of Henrik Ibsen and less favorable
in his criticism of other Norwegian writers. He praised Bjørnson as a writer of fiction
but condemned him as a theater director and attacked his attitude on religion. He was
severe, sometimes scathing, in his criticism of certain Lutheran synods and pastors in
this country. The Norwegian Synod apparently drew most of his attacks. He was perhaps
somewhat partial to the Catholic Church, even though he had left it. He was consistent in
his defense of Christianity and quick to oppose any attack upon the Christian faith,
although his loyalty was somewhat divided among churches. He discussed history and
literature as from a professor's chair. At all times he spoke with an air of authority, an
essential attribute of a competent reviewer.
Besides his activities in literary criticism, two autobiographical series deserve
special mention. One is a group of articles that appeared in Albert Lea posten in
1883 under the general heading, "Theaterliv; billeder og minder" (Theater Life;
Portraits and Recollections)
In this series he told of his own experiences in the
theatrical profession and added a number of biographical sketches of notable players on
the Norwegian stage. The second is his "Cloister Days," which appeared in Scandinavia
in 1884-85, as already mentioned. In it he narrated his experiences in France and
Italy during his preparation for the priesthood.
On December 9, 1873, Petersen had married Anne. Sophie Olson, a widow, who was
born in Norway in 1838. Three children were born of this union, of whom two died in
infancy. The surviving child, Mrs. H. J. McComb, is living in California. Mrs. Petersen
died in Santa Aha, California, in 1923.
During the middle eighties Petersen began to suffer from dropsy and heart disease. To
these was added eventually melancholia, and the result was a disturbed mind. On his last
appearance in the Faribault church he was too ill to stand, and remained seated while
delivering the sermon. He ended his own life during an attack of illness on November 2,
<1> Information about Petersen's early life and education, as well as about the
period of his residence in Faribault, Minnesota. was obtained from his daughter, Mrs.
Sophie Petersen McComb, of Santa Ana, California, in letters written March 27, August 11,
September 16, and October 31, 1934. Details concerning his religious activities in
Minnesota were received in interviews with Mrs. C. C. Dokken and other residents of
Faribault, Minnesota; with Dr. C. C. Rollit, St. Paul, and other members of the Episcopal
Church; and with Father Ralquin, St. Paul, and others of the Catholic Church.
<2> Scandinavia (Chicago), 1:194-197, 220-228; 2: 255-260, 279-281,
303 (1884, 1885).
<3> Protestant Episcopal Church, Diocese of Minnesota, Journal, 1874, p.
65. A list of the clergy in the Journal, 1878, p. 9, notes that Petersen was
received into the Episcopal Church on December 3, 1873.
<4> Diocese of Minnesota, Journal, 1878, p. 88.
<5> George C. Tanner, Fifty Years of Church Work in the Diocese of Minnesota,
1857-1907, 488 (St. Paul, 1909); William C. Pope, The Church in St. Paul, 234-237
(St. Paul, 1911). Pope reports the addition of Erik L. Petersen to the Episcopal clergy
and gives the Swedish translation of an invitation by himself (Pope) to the Swedes in St.
Paul to attend services by Petersen in the Church of the Good Shepherd, Twelfth and Cedar
streets. St. Paul. The invitation states that the Swedish ritual will be used.
<6> Spirit of Missions (New York), 38:336 (June, 1874).
<7> Minnesota Missionary (Faribault, Minnesota), November, 1887, p. 5.
<8> Budstikken, 1879-1887.
<9> Albert Lea (Minnesota) posten from early in 1883 to May 11 of
thc same year.
<10> Faribault (Minnesota) Democrat, November 4, 1887; Faribault
Republican, November 9, 1887; Minnesota Missionary, November, 1887, p. 5.