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A Thanksgiving Day Address by Georg Sverdrup
    by James S. Hamre (Volume 24: Page 137)

GEORG SVERDRUP (1848-1907) was a prominent figure among Norwegian-American Lutherans during the latter quarter of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries. Born in Norway, a member of a family that for some time had been prominent in political and church life, Sverdrup came to America in 1874 to join the faculty of Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis. Two years later he became president of that institution, a position he held until his death. {1}

During the nineteenth century, various tendencies and movements appeared within the church in Norway. These varying and sometimes conflicting trends, however, were for the most part contained within the state church.

But the religious situation in America was different. The liberty in spiritual matters inherent in the New World meant the removal of old-world restraints. "Sprouts of disagreement . . . found a good soil . . . and developed in all their power." The result was the formation of separate Norwegian synods and groups together with a good deal of church controversy among them. {2} [138]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1846 and commonly known as Eielsenís Synod, was the earliest expression of the low-church tendency among the immigrants. Its founder was Elling Eielsen, lay preacher and pastor, who came to America in 1839 and worked among the Norwegian Americans until his death in 1883. This synod strove to realize his stress on an experienced religion and sought to resist formalism and what it considered to be "mass Christianity." In 1876 the group split, and a faction known as Haugeís Synod emerged as a second body seeking to give expression to a similar emphasis.

A quite different tendency was evidenced by the formation in 1853 of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, commonly called the Norwegian Synod. This church body was led by a group of able, university-educated pastors who stressed the importance and necessity of pure doctrine. It valued a more formal type of worship service. In 1887-1888 a group known as the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood withdrew from the Norwegian Synod because of differences growing out of a controversy over predestination.

Two groups formed in 1870 took a position between the tendencies of the Eielsen and Norwegian synods. These were the Norwegian-Danish Augustana Synod and the Conference for the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Sverdrup became a member of the Conference when he came to America; Augsburg Seminary was then a school maintained by that body. He says of this synod that it took a central position between two extremes: that of primarily stressing the individual as a believer and that of elevating the pastor to a position of dominance. The Conference emphasized the significance of the congregation. {3}

In 1890 three church bodies ó the Norwegian Augustana Synod, the Conference, and the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood ó joined to form the United Norwegian Lutheran [139] Church in America. Sverdrup played an important part in the efforts leading to this union, which adopted Augsburg Seminary as its theological school. The next year, however, saw the beginning of a bitter controversy over the seminary, the nature of theological education, and the role of the congregation in relation to the church. In 1893 the supporters of Augsburg Seminary formed the "Friends of Augsburg," and in 1897 they organized as the Lutheran Free Church. Until his death in 1907, Sverdrup was a leader in the new body. {4}

It was in the context of these historical developments that Sverdrup formulated and articulated his thought. Central in his theology was "the free and living congregation." It was his conviction that the congregation ó which he maintained that the New Testament portrays as a fellowship of believers bound together by the Holy Spirit ó had been suppressed in the course of history by both the papacy and the state church. But he also believed that in America God was offering to His people a chance to "restore from the ruins" the apostolic congregation. This new opportunity meant that instead of being dominated by the clergy (as with the papacy) or by the secular authority (as in the state church) the congregation in America was free to develop all of the gifts of the Spirit so that it might truly become the body of Christ.

It was imperative, however, that the unique opportunity to build "the free and living congregation" in America be grasped. Some of Sverdrupís writings reflect his feeling that many of his fellow Norwegian Americans still tended to think in state-church patterns. Thus they were not prepared to enter fully into this new and exciting moment in the history of the church. He saw it as a basic part of his task to strive to awaken his fellow countrymen in America to a realization of the special character of what he thought God was offering them.

Sverdrupís concern for the congregation is reflected in the [140] address that follows. In it, he points to features of the American scene that might be regarded as blessings ó or as dangers to the full development of "the congregation." The address ought to be read with the controversy of the 1890ís in mind. {5}

AMERICA AND THE CONGREGATION

Dear Friends!

As we gather for the first time in our new church, which with the help of God will henceforth be the place where we will come together for worship and edification, it is surely for many of us a moment of considerable importance.

At such a time we may survey the great work which is entrusted to our congregation, and involuntarily we think of that responsibility which is incumbent upon us in connection with our calling. We anxiously join with the apostle in asking who is sufficient for such a task.

And we sense our responsibility in a double measure when we see the peculiar dangers involved in the situation. The building of our new church has been burdensome, our expenses have been great, and externally our burdens are still oppressive. The project also presents a great temptation, which many congregations in our land have succumbed to: The vision is turned outward, temporal toil occupies the minds, and the congregation becomes worldly.

Recognizing the situation, we wish on this occasion to speak a word which may lift us up to an awareness of the fact that we here are only going through the same labor, struggle, danger, and tribulation that generally has been the lot of the congregation in our age, and especially in our adopted country.

We wish, therefore, to speak briefly about America and the [141] congregation, or about the advantages and difficulties of church life in America.

This is Thanksgiving Day, and we are reminded in a vivid way of the little band of Puritan Pilgrims who came over in the "Mayflower." They are said to have been the first to employ the custom of using a day in late autumn as a festival of thanksgiving for the Lordís help in granting the harvest of the year and the bounty of the earth. Who were these people, this little band of Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and whom we regard as the tiny seed from which the earthís mightiest free state has grown?

They were a handful of persecuted and oppressed Christians who were driven from England for the sake of their faith. They came to America seeking a refuge where they could worship their God and their Saviour according to the directions of the Lordís own word, without interference from men.

And we are thereby reminded of the great ó unspeakably great ó boon the discovery of America was for the oppressed in Europe. Here the many who were exposed to bloody persecutions by old-world ruling church bodies found an asylum. The papal church persecuted Protestants in a bloodier and more cruel way than the pagans in ancient times had ever mistreated the Christians. And it wasnít long before the Protestant state churches persecuted the so-called sects with almost as great violence.

America became a haven for the many who had been persecuted. It is strange and praiseworthy that just when the great religious struggles in Europe began in earnest ó when the Gospel once again advanced against the power of the church and the church mustered all its strength in order, if possible, to eradicate Godís Gospel and all who believed in it ó the Lord opened this great expansive land, providing an open door for the persecuted and oppressed so that they might be able to flee to a hiding place safe from the cutting wind and the storm. [142]

We cannot thank the Lord enough for this boon. For not only did many who were persecuted find a refuge here; it is also true that the far-reaching arms of oppression in the old countries were paralyzed, as it were, because Americaís wild forests and immense prairies provided a way out for the persecuted, a way which it would be impossible to close.

We praise the Lord who has made our country a place of refuge.

And not only that. Those who had suffered at home were not immediately ready fully to enjoy the freer life here. It took time before the principle of religious liberty was understood and acknowledged. Not until the great battle for freedom from England had ended and the newly formed states had been united was it recognized by everyone that if liberty was to be preserved without tearing the Union asunder, one principle had to be established, immovably and unchangeably: church and state were to be completely separated, so that no political coercion would threaten and no political advantage would tempt the confessor of one or the other religion. Jews and Christians, Catholics and Protestants, were to have equal rights in the state, and no obstacle on the part of the government was to be placed in the way of the freest possible exercise of religion.

This arrangement created an ideal situation for the life and work of the congregation. . . . Never before and nowhere else has the congregation enjoyed such favorable external conditions. It is completely free from the stateís enmity or friendship, power or weakness, and thus it may arrange its affairs as it wishes and is able, to the best of its understanding.

If we only consider what a great advantage this is, we should truly join in singing praise to our God. In such a remarkable manner and through mighty world conflicts, He has guided us here, and so we have received a complete freedom of religion as an unmerited gift; this enables the vitality and working power of Godís congregation to manifest itself unhindered by extraneous interference. [143]

Let us thank the Lord who has accomplished this task in a glorious manner and has permitted a beautiful and delightful lot to be ours.

The third boon which we should mention is the gift of a model constitution providing civic freedom and popular self-government. It is said that the children of the world are wiser than the children of light in their own generation. And that fact is significant in this connection. Little by little our people have developed forms for the exercise and practice of freedom, and in many respects these are also useful in the self-government of the congregation. Our congregational life has profited a great deal from the civic forms of freedom among us. The exercise of liberty works in a powerful way:

We see that even the Catholic Church, with its fixed and deep-rooted tradition, is by no means the same in the United States as it is in the old countries. So perceptible is the difference that at the present moment the pope has found it necessary strongly to rebuke the leaders in the American Catholic Church because they were altogether too liberal-minded and Americanized. {6}

We acknowledge with thanks to God that He has bestowed civic freedom upon the free congregation in order that it might draw instruction in many external matters from those who have learned how to utilize freedom after a great deal of painful experience.

But on an occasion such as this, we cannot pass over or hide the difficulties which threaten the congregation in our land and in our time. These dangers are especially those in-eluded under the one comprehensive designation: the tendency of the church toward worldliness.

Never before and nowhere else has this cutting and penetrating cry been more needed: "On guard! On guard! Wake up! Wake up, so that this danger shall not deceive Godís congregation!" [144]

The first and most important work of Godís congregation is the proclamation of His word; all its other work and life is dependent upon this, the central and vital point in the entire organism. Nothing is more important and nothing is more sensitive.

It is into this vital work that the tendency toward worldliness seeks to enter. It is no secret that there are thousands of church groups in America that scarcely deserve the honorable name of congregation. This is true because a secularized proclamation has dulled and blunted the cutting edge of the word until it no longer is able to accomplish its God-given purpose.

Since all compulsion is removed, the sermon must be attractive. For in America there must be a large number of people involved or an occasion is no good. And so by an unfortunate misunderstanding, it readily happens that the task of the pastor becomes merely that of gathering many people by carnal eloquence instead of by Godís living and saving Gospel. The sermon must be pleasing in one manner or another so that listeners are attracted to the exciting or shocking "entertainment." So the preaching is about social and political questions, and the sermon is made as sensational as possible. In this way there will be large gatherings and "many people."

But such an approach is altogether worldliness. For if the object throughout in preaching is not to seek the one lost sheep ó in order to rescue it so that . . . there may be "added to the church daily such as should be saved" ó then eternity, heaven, and salvation are no longer the purpose of the sermon. {7}

So let us be on guard! It is the old saving Gospel that must be preached. It is that invitation of Jesus which says "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden" which ought to sound throughout the whole message. But if we succeed in being faithful, even though in frailty and weakness, there is [145]

another danger for the congregation that immediately makes itself known.

There is a peculiar feeling of greatness in being so free and independent as in the American congregation. For as soon as the congregation recognizes its ability to stand on its own feet, it is at once tempted to extend itself beyond its calling. It seeks not only to draw souls to God and guide them to heaven, but also to rule in the world and to control it. The desire for dominion over the state and for political influence shows itself at once. And the stronger the church body becomes and the more votes it controls, the greater is the tendency for the congregation to mix in politics and to begin to use its power for worldly ends. The Methodists and Catholics have often displayed this tendency and have shown us the way not to go.

But what is not always accomplished by a sense of the congregationís power is often realized by its sense of weakness. We have no support from the secular authority of the state, and we cannot collect taxes with the strong arm of the law. Thus we are tempted to seek the friendship of the world by flattery, begging, and often by cringing. We bow deeply to those who have something and are able to do something, forgetting that the congregation seeks menís salvation rather than their money. We forget that the congregation has its strength in the Lord and not in men.

At the same time ó as we gratefully acknowledge how much we can learn from the free people in their external practice and exercise of the benefits of freedom ó we nevertheless see also a temptation in an all-too-slavish imitation of the ways of the world. There is already a danger for people in secular and civic life to become accustomed to the view that what the majority wishes and votes for must also be true and right. Since the majority decides and determines what shall be law and who is to be in authority, people are tempted to accept the idea that the majority also determines what is true and right. [146]

This pattern of thought, which is so dangerous in the civic world, also penetrates into the church. We seek by majority rule to decide not only external matters which concern the work of the church in the world, but we also try to decide everything by vote, so that the question "What does God say?" is no longer asked, but only "What do we say?" When this happens, the congregation is conforming to the world and has lost its divine strength because it no longer stands on the immovable rock of truth. {8}

There is no more pitiful picture in the Scriptures ó and one could almost add in all human literature ó than that of Samson slumbering in Delilahís lap, with his locks cut off and his powers wasted. But that is actually a picture of the secularized, enfeebled, and enslaved congregation.

Let us be on guard! For to whom much is given, of him much will be required.

Nowhere in the world does the congregation have greater freedom and better circumstances than it has here among us. And so nowhere is there greater responsibility. There is scarcely any place, however, where there are greater dangers from the tendency toward worldliness than we face here. For even Godís living children feel themselves strongly tempted to seek the friendship and assistance of the world in order that it might appear that the congregation is going forward and that the kingdom of God is thriving among us.

And what then is more "American" in the bad sense than to put oneís faith in appearances and to trust in the power of money?

As we once again concentrate on our present situation, I believe that, in this question of the congregationís relation to [147] the world and its secularizing influences, perhaps just as much depends upon the women of the congregation as upon its men.

In questions such as these, I wonder whether women do not have the predominant influence. As they arrange our homes, so we learn to live. And much the same applies to a great part of our congregational life as well. If women will stand guard against the tendency toward worldliness, a good deal is gained; but if they abandon this task as guardians, everything is as good as lost.

So at this turning point in the history of our congregation, we turn especially to the women and our industrious and able womenís society with this request: Help all of us in this difficult period and in this dangerous world, so that the congregation may be faithful to its sacred calling and to its heavenly bridegroom, in order that we may be found among those who have their lamps burning as we wait for his coming. Amen.

Notes

<1> The first chapter of Andreas Hellandís Georg Sverdrup: The Man and His Message (Minneapolis, 1947) contains a discussion of the outstanding place of the Sverdrup family in Norwegian life.

<2> J. A. Bergh, Den norsk lutherske kirkes historie i Amerika, 525 (Minneapolis, 1914).

<3> Sverdrupís writings were collected, edited, and published in six volumes after his death by Andreas Helland under the title Professor Georg Sverdrups samlede skrifter i udvaig (Minneapolis, 1909ó1912). See vol. 1, p. 223ó224.

<4> For a more detailed discussion of these and subsequent developments among the Norwegian-Lutheran groups, see E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-American, vols. (Minneapolis, 1960).

<5> Entitled "Amerika og menigheden," it is included in vol. 4 of Sverdrupís Samlede skrifter i udvaig, p. 370ó876. The address was delivered on Thanksgiving Day, 1896, in Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. The occasion marked the first meeting of the congregation in the basement of the unfinished church building.

<6> This is a reference to the dispute over "Americanism" within the Roman Catholic Church during the 1890ís. See Thomas R. McAvoy, The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 1895ó1900 (Chicago, 1957).

<7> The reference is to Acts 2: 47.

<8> During the controversy of the 1890ís centering around Augsburg Seminary, the factions that developed within the United Norwegian Lutheran Church were sometimes referred to as "the majority" and "the minority." Those supporting the position of men like Sverdrup, who were associated with Augsburg Seminary, were members of the minority. Certain of Sverdrupís writings indicate that he felt that the majority did not always deal fairly with the minority. See for example "Samfundsmagt og fri menighed," in his Samlede skrifter i udvaig, vol. 2, p. 144ó156.

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