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The Norwegian Immigrant and His Church*
    by Eugene L. Fevold (Volume 23: Page 3)

* A paper read at the triennial meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association in May, 1966. Ed.

During the century following 1825, sparsely settled Norway contributed more than three quarters of a million of her sons and daughters to the making of America. While that figure does not seem large compared with the numerical strength of other immigrant groups, Norwayís proportional contribution was exceeded only by that of Ireland (in the post-Civil War period) and by Italy (from the 1890ís on) . The Tipper Midwest was the destination of most of these Norwegian immigrants: northern Illinois, Wisconsin, northern Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Then the line of settlement stretched westward across northern Montana and Idaho into Washington. There were enclaves of settlement in many other areas as well in New York City and its environs, Texas, and California, for example. {1}

Nearly all of these Norwegian immigrants were Lutheran in background and upbringing. Norway has had an episcopally organized Lutheran state church, or folk church, since the time of the Reformation. Many who came to America had a [4] deep affection for the faith, worship, and practice of the Lutheran Church; others did not. None, however, desired to duplicate on American soil the authoritarian organizational structure of the church of Norway.

The nineteenth century was for Norway an era of great change and progress on many fronts. It saw the establishment of a democratic form of government with the adoption of a liberal constitution in 1814, the emergence of a strong nationalistic spirit, and the development of a virile intellectual and cultural renaissance represented by such writers as Wergeland, Bjørnson, and Ibsen. More or less closely related to these phenomena were vigorous religious movements that profoundly influenced the immigrant and his relationship to his church. One of these is known as the Haugean revival, taking its name from the lay evangelist Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), who was imprisoned for his teachings, 1804-14. Haugeanism was a pietistic, grass-roots movement that brought new life and vitality into a church characterized by formalism and lethargy. It served as a leaven in all of Norwegian society, playing an important part in nurturing the democratic folk movement of the time, and stimulating the entrance into politics of representatives of the rural population. It increased tensions between the more privileged classes and the common people, as well as between the clergy and the laity. Some of these tensions were carried to the American frontier.

In the 1850ís a second religious movement began in Norway, known as the Johnsonian awakening. It takes its name from Professor Gisle Johnson (1822 94) of the theological faculty of the Royal Fredrik University in Christiania. It resembled the earlier Haugean revival in many of its emphases, with the difference that in this instance leadership was provided by the theological faculty and the clergy trained by them. It added a theological dimension lacking in Hangeanism. Johnsonianism represented an emphasis on both piety and orthodoxy that has been typical of Norwegian [5] Lutheranism in both Norway and America. It gave a pietistic tone to all of Norwegian life. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, religious skepticism developed rapidly in Norwegian intellectual circles, and many of Norwayís cultural leaders became indifferent or hostile to the church.

Both the Haugean and Johnsonian awakenings were powerful influences in shaping the views of both laymen and pastors who migrated to the United States. Dean Theodore C. Blegen, who has so effectively tapped the riches of communications sent back to Norway by immigrants, says that expressions of piety "flood the ĎAmerica letters.í" And he observes that large numbers of Norwegian immigrants brought with them to America "a deep religious impulse." {2}

Religion, however, played a relatively minor role as a cause of emigration. The basic motivation was a desire for material betterment. Intertwined with this fundamental interest was discontent with aspects of the Norwegian social and political situation. The much publicized episode of the sloop "Restaurationen" (the "Norwegian Mayflower"), which brought a small group of immigrants to New York in 1825, is not fully representative of Norwegian immigration, for the passengers included a few Norwegian Quakers and some of Quaker sympathies who migrated for religious reasons. Economic factors, however, were important with the "Sloopers" as well.

By and large, the attitude in Norway toward emigration, of both government and church, was skeptical and unsympathetic. Most leaders in public life looked upon it as a national catastrophe, practically a traitorous desertion of the fatherland. For one illustration, as early as May, 1887, Bishop Jacob Neumann of Bergen issued an episcopal letter to the "emigration-smitten" farmers of his diocese. He appealed to their patriotism in urging them to remain in [6] Norway and strongly emphasized the trials, disasters, and spiritual deprivation that were the lot of the emigrant. Toward the close of his epistle he made this dramatic appeal:

"Here in Norway rest the ashes of your fathers; here you first saw the light of day; here you enjoyed many childhood pleasures; here you received your first impressions of God and His love; here you are still surrounded by relatives and friends who share your joy and your sorrow, while there, when you are far away from all that has been dear to you, who shall close your eyes in the last hour of life? A strangerís hand! And who shall weep at your grave? Perhaps no one!

"Give heed, then, to the advice David gave to his people: ĎStay in the land and support yourself honestly.'" {3} "

Although the church of Norway, as an institution, did not take steps to provide spiritual leaders for the emigrants, many individual ministers followed them to America. Their numbers were insufficient, however, and the immigrant congregations soon realized that they would have to train their own ministers and in all other respects become completely self-sustaining.

Because the bulk of Norwegian immigrants who affiliated with churches in the United States remained Lutheran, the focus of this discussion is the Norwegian immigrant and the Lutheran Church. {4} This restriction is in no way intended to minimize the importance of other Norwegian-American denominational groups, but is dictated by the need for brevity.

In September, 1843, the first Norwegian-American Lutheran congregation was organized in the Muskego settlement, about twenty miles southwest of Milwaukee. Its first pastor was Claus L. Clausen, a Danish schoolteacher with [7] Haugean views. Within a few years many more congregations were organized in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, several under the leadership of the aggressive pastor, J. W. C. Dietrichson. Prior to 1843, church work had not been formally organized, and spiritual guidance was provided by Haugean laymen. Steps to establish a church body were then taken under the leadership of the ablest and most aggressive of these, Elling Eielsen, who at the urging of his followers was ordained that same year. The church formed in 1846, popularly referred to as the Eielsen Synod, underwent a reorganization a number of years later, when it became Haugeís Synod. Eielsenís group was radically Haugean, particularly in its early years, in its emphases lay oriented, somewhat anticlerical, low-churchly, pietistic, and evangelistic.

A marked tendency toward divisiveness arose from the very start. As early as 1853 a second church body, destined to be much larger and more influential than Eielsenís group, was organized, popularly known as the Norwegian Synod. It was formed, and grew rapidly, under the leadership of young, aggressive, and well-educated pastors, including, in addition to Clausen, such men as Adolph C. Preus, Herman A. Preus, and Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, who successively served it as president. This group sought to perpetuate the worship, doctrine, and practice of the church of Norway. They were traditionalists in this respect. They stressed church order and organization and thus were critical of unsupervised lay preaching. Their concern for "pure doctrine" was increased and strengthened by the close ties which were early established with Missouri Synod Lutherans, a German body.

In the free environment of the American frontier, divergent views that held together in Norway under the broad umbrella of the state church were assuming separate institutional or synodical expression. Fortunately this decided tendency toward religious fragmentation was, in the course of time, chiefly in the twentieth century, to be counteracted and [8] largely overcome by a strong union movement among Norwegian-American Lutherans.

The process of fragmentation continued as many immigrants sought to occupy religious ground somewhere between the options provided by Eielsenís type of Haugeanism and by the Norwegian Synod. Two additional church bodies emerged which aimed at an intermediate position, the very small Norwegian Augustana Synod and the larger Norwegian-Danish Conference, of which Professors Georg Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal were the best-known leaders. Despite the tendencies toward fragmentation, there were strong factors operating to overcome differences, the most forceful being a mutual heritage. These Norwegian Lutherans were unified by a common language, a common hymnody, the same form of catechetical instruction, uniform devotional books, and the like.

In 1890 the intermediate groups were consolidated, under the presidency of Gjermund Hoyme, in the United Norwegian Lutheran Church, which sought to hold in balance church order and lay activity, pietism and orthodoxy, and other divisive tendencies. This effort at union was not entirely successful, for in 1897 a minority in the United Church organized the Lutheran Free Church. The formation of the United Church had been the first step on the way to a second merger in 1917, which saw the reunion of the great majority of Norwegian-American Lutherans in the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, which was later called the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The largest group not included in 1917 was the Lutheran Free Church; in 1963 it joined many Norwegian-American Lutherans in the American Lutheran Church, of which the Evangelical Lutheran Church had become a part. Unquestionably the 1917 merger was one of the great events in the story of the Norwegian immigrant and his church.

During the second half of the nineteenth century these Lutheran churches were involved in a number of controversies. [9] The differences were rooted in deep religious convictions but probably were also an expression of individualism. Some were simply transplanted from Norway, such as the long dispute about the legitimacy or function of lay preaching. Others were provoked by the American environment, manifesting themselves in sharp debates about slavery and the American public school. {5} The most violent controversy of all, one centering in the difficult doctrine of predestination and related questions, came about through contacts with other American Lutherans (the Missouri Synod) and involved tensions transplanted from Norway.

The theological position of all these immigrant churches was a most conservative one, as their doctrinal debates and discussions revealed. As one brief illustration: In 1880:81 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Norwayís poet-patriot, visited the United States and during his stay made a lecture tour through the Midwest. He was greatly admired by the immigrants for his patriotism, his poetry and novels, and for his rather democratic political theories. But on his American tour he proceeded to air his liberal religious views. Since he denied many traditional Christian teachings, his discussions of religious subjects created a tremendous furor. His chief critics were clergymen, "the real leaders of the people," according to Arthur Paulson, who has studied the incident. A small group of Norwegian-American intelligentsia, led by Luth Jaeger, a Minneapolis editor, loyally defended and championed Bjørnson. Anything smacking strongly of theological innovation or liberalism was rejected by most of these immigrant people. The same treatment was accorded the [10] Norwegian liberal pastor Kristofer Janson, who also made a lecture tour in America (1879:80), and spent a dozen years in Minneapolis in the 1880ís and 1890's. {6}

The type of life inculcated by the Norwegian Lutheran churches was generally pietistic. The church, in seeking to strengthen the moral fiber of its people under rough frontier conditions which often tempted them to forget traditional morality, stressed strict standards, sometimes emphasizing prohibitions; for example, the rejection of many types of amusement, strict observance of the sabbath, abstinence from alcoholic beverages, and the like. William Warren Sweet, a historian of American churches, in writing about the role of religion on the frontier, has said that the many admirable qualities brought there and nurtured "would have gone for naught had there not been planted in the far flung communities of the west the seeds of moral, spiritual and cultural life. As Horace Bushnell stated long ago in referring to the American west, barbarism was the first danger." {7} The churches of the Norwegian immigrants, like other denominations, made their contributions to moral, spiritual, and cultural uplift on the frontier.

In a famous essay Professor Marcus L. Hansen has set forth the thesis that frontier churches are always inclined to be puritanical. {8} His proposition is undoubtedly sound. In the case of the Norwegian immigrants, however, it must be strongly underscored that a pietistic-puritanical orientation was part of the cargo brought across the Atlantic as a result of the impact of the Haugean and Johnsonian awakenings. While, generally speaking, the standards of conduct promoted by the church among Norwegian immigrants were rather austere, one is at the same time faced with extensive [11] evidence that drunkenness was an extremely serious problem in many Norwegian-American communities, as it was in Norway in the 1830ís and 1840ís. Nevertheless, many Norwegian Lutheran church people, following the exhortations of their pastors and other leaders, became promoters and supporters of the prohibition movement.

Undoubtedly one of the stupendous achievements recorded in our national history was the conquest and settlement of the westward-moving frontier. Norwegian immigrants played a significant part in this accomplishment, particularly in the Upper Midwest. From the mid-nineteenth century and on, much of the history of church work among Norwegian Americans is the story of what we would call "home missions" carried on under pioneer conditions. The various church bodies and individual congregations strove valiantly to follow the waves of immigrants to their places of settlement. In so doing they established hundreds of congregations, dotting prairies, valleys, and woodlands with churches. The constitution of a Norwegian Lutheran congregation in southern Wisconsin (Wiota), dating from 1851, includes a paragraph which begins: "This congregationís territory shall extend as far north, south, east, and west as there are Norwegian settlers who will accept this constitution." The Midwestern frontier provided an almost limitless mission challenge to congregations and pastors.

Group isolation and insularity characterized these immigrant churches. Generally speaking, they were suspicious of and poorly informed about American denominations. But, as probably could have been anticipated, from the very beginning many immigrants from Norway affiliated with a variety of American church bodies, sometimes for geographic reasons, sometimes in consequence of vigorous American mission activity, or, in other instances, for doctrinal reasons, or because Americanization proceeded too slowly in their own group. Usually it was a matter of an individual or family joining a non-Lutheran congregation, rather than group affiliation [12] by a community with an American denomination. Norwegian Baptists and Methodists, however, formed separate conferences, which were later absorbed into the mother denominations. One of the most interesting and successful stories of recruitment among the earliest Norwegian immigrants by an American denomination concerns the Mormons. In the 1840ís, while headquartered at Nauvoo, Illinois, prior to their famous trek to Utah, the Mormons were conveniently located for proselyting work in Norwegian settlements. Some converts migrated to Utah. Subsequently some of them went to Scandinavia from Utah as Mormon missionaries, and although they were far more successful in Denmark than in Norway or Sweden, it is estimated that during the period 1850 1900 about 30,000 Scandinavians went to Mormon Utah. {9}

Not all Norwegian immigrants came under the religious-ethical influence of the church, but sizable numbers did. From the 1880ís and on, the percentage of immigrants indifferent to religion increased. More were going to the cities, such as Brooklyn, Chicago, and Minneapolis, where social pressures leading to church membership were not so great as in rural areas. Some of the newcomers reflected the skeptical climate of opinion which was making headway in Norway, and the coolness toward religion that often accompanied the newer views. At the time of the merger of 1917 there were about half a million members in Norwegian-American Lutheran churches, about 30 per cent of all first- and second-generation Norwegians. {10} Many others, not formally affiliated, were within the sphere of the churches.

Students of the Norwegian immigrant group agree that the church was the most important social institution established in its midst. The comment of Professor Einar Haugen is [13] representative: "The first and most persistent of the immigrantís institutions was the Lutheran Church," and in it the Norwegian pioneer found "a natural center for his social and religious cravings." Professor Laurence Larson, speaking of the Norwegian immigrant group of which he was a part, wrote, "In pioneer times the church was our greatest and most influential institution. . . . In the study of our history we shall never get far away from the church." The typical Norwegian community was located in the rural Upper Midwest, and in most such communities the church was the cohesive social force. And, notably in the early period, the homes of the clergy were the chief centers of culture in these communities, and the pastors were the intellectual leaders. The significant socio-cultural leaven provided by some pastorsí wives is illustrated in the life of Mrs. Ulrik Vilhelm Koren in northeastern Iowa. {11}

Next to the church the immigrant press was one of the more influential social forces. One area where the church seems to have exerted little direct influence but where the press was powerful was in the shaping of political views. Rather typical of the attitude of the pioneer clergymen was that of Pastor J. W. C. Dietrichson. Before the election of 1848, he was approached by representatives of each of the three parties: Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers asking him to influence Norwegians on their behalf, but, he wrote in a letter, "I considered it the correct thing to remain neutral." Some of the clergy, especially in the early years, exercised a good deal of influence upon the immigrant press, and not only upon religious periodicals. For example, when in 1852 the newspaper Emigranten began publication, among the early leaders in getting it under way was Pastor Claus L. Clausen. Throughout its history it maintained ecclesiastical interests and was friendly to the church. Dean Blegen says of Emigranten that [14] "it came to reflect, as no other pioneer Norwegian-American newspaper did, the life and position of the majority of the immigrants." {12} There were, of course, journals that were critical of the church, for among the four hundred or so Norwegian papers in existence at one time or another the whole political-social-religious spectrum was represented.

Since the school (in addition to church and press) was another influential social force among Norwegian immigrants, the churchís relation to education must be briefly mentioned. As early as the 1840ís the emerging American public school system was the object of much criticism from Norwegian Americans. Many pioneer congregations established parochial schools; these normally supplemented the public elementary institutions, but some of them also taught the three Rís and other "secular" subjects.

Conservative pastors were among the leading critics of the common school. They had reservations about its efficiency as well as its nonreligious spirit and lack of discipline, but more fundamentally they feared that exposure to the public school would accelerate the Americanization process so rapidly that immigrant children would lose their cultural heritage and possibly their Lutheran faith as well. There were, however, numerous Norwegian-American defenders of the public schools, both lay and clerical, who presented their case in the press. During the time the controversy raged, the typical immigrant sent his children to public school, supplementing this with religious instruction in summer parochial school.

The most significant and enduring direct contribution which the church made to education was through the church colleges established by Norwegian-American Lutherans Luther of Decorah, Iowa; Augsburg of Minneapolis; Augustana of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; St. Olaf of Northfield, Minnesota; Pacific Lutheran of Parkland, Washington; and Waldorf of Forest City, Iowa. No consideration of the Norwegian immigrant [15] and his church would be complete without mention of the influence these colleges exerted upon his children. Maintaining close connections with the church, these institutions have been one of the major cultural forces in Norwegian-American life. Dr. G. H. Gerberding, a theological professor of another Lutheran synod, who knew the Norwegians of the Midwest rather well, wrote:

"And how they love education. How they will plan and how ready they are to sacrifice and to suffer that their children may have an education. I actually saw large families living in sod shacks on the open prairie sending a boy or girl to Concordia College." {13}

The whole sociological crisis of the Americanization of the immigrant churches was focused in the problem of the transition from the Norwegian language to English. In relation to this, the church was primarily a conservative force. Of the various factors which contributed to the preservation of Norse, the church was undoubtedly most significant. In fact, the linguistic rigidity of the church taxed the patience of many second-generation Norwegians who were embarrassed by tile immigrant status of their parents. Out of respect for the older generation, for whom Norwegian was "the language of the heart," if not of the market place, a congregation often retained Norwegian beyond the time when the new generation, including young Americanized pastors, had begun to clamor for a change.

The transition from Norwegian to English was painful, involving as it did a psychological reorientation of which many first-generation immigrants were incapable. Novelist O. E. Rølvaag was probably unexcelled in his understanding of the poignancy of the Americanization process, particularly in his Giants in the Earth. World War I gave a powerful impetus to the linguistic transition, and by the time of World War II it had been completed. For our purposes this brief reference to [16] the transition in the language of the church is simply a symbolic reminder of the whole complex process of Americanization that the church experienced.

President Lars W. Boe of St. Olaf College, an outstanding religious and educational leader during the crucial period when the immigrant was in transition, wrote in the 1930ís concerning the religious and cultural issues at stake in that experience:

"Ours is a mediating generation. By training and tradition we live in the spiritual and cultural land of the fathers. With our children we are steadily marching into the land of tomorrow. Ours is the riches of two cultures and often the poverty of the desert wanderer. We live between memory and reality. Ours is the agony of a divided loyalty and joy in the discovery of a new unity. Like Moses of old we see the new but cannot fully enter in. To us has been given the task of mediating a culture, of preserving and transferring to our children in a new land the cultural and spiritual values bound up in the character, art, music, literature, and Christian faith of a generation no longer found even in the land from which the fathers came." {14}


<1> Studies of Norwegian immigration are: Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, 1938); Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825ó1860 (Northfield, 1931); Ingrid Semmingsen, Veien mot vest: Utvandringen fra Norge til Amerika (Oslo, 1942, 1950).

<2> Theodore C. Blegen, "The Immigrant Image of America," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 19:8 (Northfield, 1956); Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 100 (Northfield, 1940).

<3> Gunnar J. Malmin, tr. and ed., "Bishop Jacob Neumannís Word of Admonition to the Peasants," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 1:108 (Minneapolis, 1926). The quotation is from Psalms 37:3, as translated by Malmin from the Norwegian Bible used in Neumannís time.

<4> For a full discussion, see E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church among Norwegian-Americans (Minneapolis, 1960); this work is in two volumes, the first by both authors, the second by Professor Nelson alone.

<5> The slavery question was discussed in the Norwegian Synod, an ironic situation inasmuch as Norwegian immigrants almost to a man were opposed to slavery and allied themselves with Lincolnís party. The controversy began after the Civil War was under way and climaxed in 1868. The central issue was one of Biblical interpretation: What did the Bible say about slavery and how was it to be interpreted? Some members of the clergy, although not proslavery, felt that their loyalty to Scripture demanded a distinction between slavery as an evil and slavery as a sin. The laity were not interested in what seemed to them a theoretical discussion of the problem. Nelson and Fevold, The Lutheran Church, 1:169- 180.

<6> See Arthur Paulson, "Bjørnson and the Norwegian-Americans, 1880-81," in Studies and Records, 5:84-109 (1930). The words quoted are on page 87. See also Nina Draxten, "Kristofer Jansonís Lecture Tour, 1879-80," in Norwegian-American Studies, 22: 18-74 (1965).

< 7> William Warren Sweet, Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840, 137 (New York, 1952).

< 8> Marcus Lee Hansen, The Immigrant in American History, chapter 5 (New York, 1964).

< 9> See P. Stiansen, History of the Norwegian Baptists in America (Wheaton, Illinois, 1939); Arlow W. Andersen, The Salt of the Earth: A History of Norwegian-Danish Methodism in America (Nashville, 1962); William Mulder, "Norwegian Forerunners among the Early Mormons," in Studies and Records, 19:61 (1956); Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia (Minneapolis, 1957); Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847-1893, 76-131 (Northfield, 1958).

< 10> Nelson, The Lutheran Church, 2: 225, 245.

< 11> On the church as a social institution, see Laurence M. Larson, "The Collection and Preservation of Sources," A. C. Paulson and Kenneth Bjørk, "A School and Language Controversy in 1858," and Einar Haugen, "Norwegian Migration to America," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 9:98, 10:77, 18: 19 (1936, 1938, 1954); David T. Nelson, tr. and ed., The Diary of Elisabeth Koren, 1853- 1855 (Northfield, 1955).

< 12> Theodore C. Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, 151 (Minneapolis, 1955); Blegen, Norwegian Migration: American Transition, 303.

< 13> G. H. Gerberding, Reminiscent Reflections of a Youthful Octogenarian, 150 (Minneapolis, 1928).

< 14> See Boeís introduction, in P. M. Glasoe, The Landstad-Lindeman Hymnbook, 3 (Minneapolis, 1938).

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