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The Norwegian Heritage in Urban America: Conflict and Cooperation in a Norwegian Immigrant Community
    by Christen T. Jonassen (Volume 31: Page 73)

Did you, I wonder,
Know the land came with you? Did you sense
Norway’s irrevocable immanence
In bone and blood and mind?
Did you perceive that more than you had spanned
Ocean and continent - {1}

Ted Olsen      

The cultural heritage that the immigrant brings is intangible and invisible, yet pervasive and real, and often produces dramatically visible cultural products and behavior. It is neatly packaged in a marvel of miniaturization in the brain and expressed in the personality of the immigrant. It is evident in many ways and is far too complex in all its ramifications to be adequately described in this brief article. The author has developed elsewhere the proposition that the principal components of the Norwegian cultural heritage are the Viking, Christian, and scientific-humanistic value systems. {2} The Norwegian value system is thus seen as a special synthesis of these three world views as they are modified by the collective historical experience of the Norwegian people within a unique physical environment. If an examination can be limited in time and space to some crucial aspect of a community’s life, much can be learned about how the Norwegian heritage was influential in shaping that community’s social structure and processes. This essay will therefore focus on conflict and cooperation in a Norwegian immigrant community as a way of ascertaining the operation of some important aspects of the Norwegian heritage in a large American city.

It cannot be claimed that all Norwegian immigrant communities, or all urban ones, or even the same community, will exhibit the same characteristics at all times, but this study is presented as a record and illustration of how the Norwegian heritage fared and was reflected in one Norwegian-American urban community at one time and in one place. Those who are familiar with the Norwegian heritage in Norwegian communities in Europe and America will recognize similar elements of it operating in different settings.

In 1946-1947 the Brooklyn Norwegian immigrant community had probably reached its maximum development. It was a unique historical era; World War II had just ended victoriously and Norwegian consciousness had been raised to a fever pitch of awareness by the German occupation of the homeland and the struggle to free it from the Nazi yoke. What was true of the community then does not necessarily describe present conditions, but that moment in history presents a unique opportunity to observe certain aspects of the Norwegian heritage in an urban American environment.

In 1940 New York City had the largest urban population of Norwegian stock in the United States, 54,530. The next largest was Minneapolis with 42,557. New York City Norwegians were then concentrated in Brooklyn, where the United States Census counted 20,714 persons born in Norway and 14,700 born in the United States to Norwegian parents. Stranded Norwegian sailors and refugees not counted by the 1940 census swelled the population of the Norwegian colony.

The distinguished historian Theodore Blegen noted long ago that “one of the principal Norwegian-American economic, professional, and cultural centers is to be found in Brooklyn. The eastern city . . . is a lively center of Norwegian institutional and social activity . . . it represents fresher contacts with Norway than do the settlements of the Middle West.” {3} Yet this group has received comparatively little attention in the general histories of Norwegian settlement. One work, by A. H. Rygg, however, deals exclusively with Norwegians in New York and is a valuable source of historical data. {4} A comprehensive sociological study of the community in 1947 by the author of the present essay attempted to ascertain the reciprocal effect of the Norwegian heritage and the American urban environment on the nature of the colony and the behavior of its citizens. {5} Much of the material presented in this article is drawn from that study.

As compared to the settlements in the Midwest, the Brooklyn community was unquestionably more oriented to the sea and seafaring. Perhaps it was also more Norwegian, since its population was constantly renewed by immigrants and visitors from Norway. Speaking of the colony as it was in the nineteenth century, Rygg said, “There was always a strong whiff of the briny sea over the Norwegian colony in these early days. Most of the people encountered had either been or still were sailors, or they were employed in shipyards, on harbor vessels, or in business having to do with shipping. In consequence thereof, a strong atmosphere of the sea prevailed.” {6} A survey of occupations of Norwegian men in Brooklyn made by Nordisk Tidende in 1941 showed that this occupational orientation was still predominant then. {7}

In a community as heavily laden with seafarers one might expect some of them to exhibit characteristics of their Viking ancestors. Many were world-rovers, proudly independent and self-sufficient, following a masculine life-style of hard work, vigorous sports, and hard drinking. At the same time Norwegians in Norway and some of the Norwegian immigrants were strongly influenced by Christianity in the tradition of such fundamentalist evangelists as Hans Nielsen Hauge, Gisle Johnson, and Ole Hallesby. To this volatile ideational mix in the colony were added the ideas of immigrant journalists and intellectuals who rejected Christian fundamentalism in the name of the humanism of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, and Arnulf Øverland. With so much to divide them, what bound these Norwegians together enough to enable them to form and sustain a viable community?


When people are willing to sacrifice and fight for something, one can be sure that it is of vital importance in their lives. Social conflict colors social relations and reveals in contrasting behavioral hues ideologies and values that motivate actions and create social structures.

It should not be assumed that all members of a community are always engaged in conflict. Conflict is intermittent and usually involves only a minority at any one time.

Three principal points of conflict were discernible within the Brooklyn community: the conflict between the first and second generations, the conflict between the “Neo-Vikings” and church-centered people, and the conflict between the Christian value system and that of scientific humanism. These conflicts cut across kinship and associational lines.

The conflict between the first and second generations was essentially a conflict between Norwegian values as incorporated in the value-attitude system of the parents, who were born and bred in Norway, and the value-attitude system of their children, who were strongly influenced by American peer groups and the American schools. It was not that the children wished to deny their Norwegian background; on the contrary, they were for the most part proud of it. {8} But differences arose concerning the practical aspects of everyday living. And the children were incapable of appreciating and understanding the values to which many of their parents clung with emotional obstinacy. The parents were able to convey to their children an intellectual knowledge of many things Norwegian, but the deeper emotional attitudes did not survive the transfer. This caused friction and lack of sympathy. A second-generation Norwegian defined the situation in a slightly different way: “The first generation was so occupied with making a living that they did not have time to sit down and evaluate the culture from which they sprang. The attitude of their neighbors was, forget the old world. And the American schools set out to make us one hundred percent American." {9}

Areas of conflict developed in the home. The Norwegian parents had been brought up in a home with strict discipline, where the father was completely dominant and the children obeyed immediately and without question. They had had very definite duties and responsibilities to live up to and perform. These first-generation parents were inclined to bring up their children in the same way. But the children soon learned that, generally speaking, their American friends had much more freedom and fewer responsibilities, and were not so strictly disciplined. Conflict therefore arose between these points of view, and at best the result was compromise, often after considerable unpleasantness. The older Norwegians had a certain attitude toward their homes and found it difficult to accept the “hotel” attitude that was so prevalent around them.

Another point of conflict involved education. In the Norway of the parents, a person was considered an adult at fourteen, and was at that time expected to take on adult responsibilities. Any boy not able to do so might be considered something less than a man, a burden to others, and a weakling who could not take care of himself. In America, economic dependence had been continued to eighteen, to twenty-two or even longer, as it has been to a large extent in modern Norway. Although Norwegians loved their children and were convinced of the value of an education, the old view persisted, making parents reluctant to extend education, and the children, who sensed this attitude, reluctant to accept it even if it had been offered. Up until about 1945, college-educated second-generation Norwegians in the community were something of a rarity. In more recent times, there has been a considerable change of attitude on the part of many parents, and more and more young men and women of Norwegian background are going to colleges and professional schools.

Another source of conflict between generations was the use of the Norwegian language. This was apparent especially in the churches, where the Norwegian language was being forced out. As the first generation aged and the control of the church passed to the second generation, they, who spoke English and considered themselves American, were not interested in maintaining the Norwegian language. As it became apparent that Norwegian must go, the old people waged a bitter fight to keep it. For them the Norwegian language evoked thousands of unexpressed memories. An immigrant speaking of the use of Norwegian in the churches said: “There the sermon was in Norwegian, and the hymns were the ancestral expressions of a mystic power, a comfort and consolation in distress, a continuum from childhood in Norway, filled with sentimental and warm memories.” {10} But for the second generation it meant little, and they could not see why they should pay another minister just to have it around.

The same problem was encountered in the clubs and lodges, but there a conflict based on age also entered the picture. Many organizations such as Bondeungdomslaget (The Farmer Youth Association) had been started by young men and women years before. The original members of the Bondeungdomslaget were no longer either farmers or youths and their interests had changed. They were now more interested in a good dinner than a cross-country run, more inclined to talk than to dance. But the second generation coming into the group were interested in the kinds of things - athletics, dances - that set the blood coursing more quickly, and they were more inclined to pursue these activities in American than in Norwegian ways. The original society had been organized to cater to the interests of one age group only; it now had to decide whether it would provide for different interests.

Conflict also arose about morals and behavioral norms: what was “sin” and what was not “sin.” Many Norwegians were members of deeply religious pietistic sects and what to these parents was “sinful” and “worldly behavior” was, to the children associating with American friends, just exercising their inalienable right to a good time. They could not understand why dancing, roller skating, or going to the movies should make one a candidate for eternal hellfire.

This conflict of values between the first and second generations appeared within every church congregation, the second generation wanting a more liberal attitude and the first generation obstinately and passionately opposing any change. A pastor, in his annual report in 1946, wrote of the problems of his church: “We realize . . . that there are still more difficulties to be overcome in the future. Bethelship Church is a bilingual church. We must face honestly the fact that as time passes on, and no new immigration takes place, our work will gradually go over to English. From a psychological point of view this is a delicate process which must be led in a wise and careful way. The English group must try to understand the elder Norwegian group who for years have carried the responsibility for the church. On the other hand, it is necessary that the Norwegian group meet the English group with concession and deference, realizing that the younger generation might have differences of opinion and attitudes on many questions”. {11}

Though modern Norwegians do not esteem such nasty Viking habits as raiding and pillage, they do admire other qualities traditionally attributed to the Vikings, such as courage, tenacity, self-sufficiency, and physical prowess. Like the Vikings, many are not averse to feasting and fighting. In this sense they are “Neo-Vikings.” In the Brooklyn community studied, they were bound to clash with the Christians, who stressed mildness, sobriety, and selflessness in a life devoted to achieving the end of all existence, eternal salvation.

The battle for men’s souls is graphically depicted in the history of the Bethelship Church, which started its work in an old ship, the Henry Leeds, bought for $65 and tied up at convenient docks in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A street scene in the early settlement was described thus in a church history:

“In 1905 it was decided to buy 57 Rapelye Street. It was an old brick building about one hundred feet from the corner of Columbia Street and Hamilton Avenue - the so-called ‘Grimstadhjø rnet.’* (*“Grimstad corner”: a hangout for immigrants from Grimstad, a town in Norway.) Sin was unveiled there in all its rich colors. It offended many, but caused other multitudes to be saved. There was opposition to the church meetings and some tried to disrupt them. There were saloons next door to the mission and right across the street. The one next door very soon had to close its doors, and the one across the street was always changing owners. However, many attempts were made to disrupt the meetings. One time two Italian singers were hired, who together with a howling phonograph sought to create as much noise as possible from the second story of the saloon. But the louder they sang and played the stronger sounded the testimonials and the evangelical songs. Crowds were attracted by the unusual din, which caused many who otherwise would never have come around to receive a wound in the soul by the double-edged sword which was being swung with such power.” {12}

There had always been a fundamental conflict between the “Neo-Viking” way of life on the one side and the asceticism of the religious fundamentalists on the other. Most of the time there was no direct contact between the two worlds. To go from one world to the other one had to go through the major psychological upheaval involved in “conversion” and “rebirth,” and churches arose which specialized in this rite of passage. Sometimes, however, the protagonists of both ways of life existed within the same family, which created an almost intolerable situation for the individuals involved. It was not too unusual for the wife to be a devout Christian and the husband a hard drinker who had no use for Christianity or “saved” Christians. {13} She had probably married him in the mistaken hope of converting him. In such cases the two acted as constant goads on each other, which led to a life of prolonged marital warfare.

In the community, although there was no organized social contact, there was interaction between these groups. The very existence of the saloons and the behavior of the “Neo-Vikings” stimulated the more religious to create associations that later developed into the twenty-one churches of the community. Furthermore, the “Neo-Vikings” were there as “horrible examples” to be thundered against in Sunday morning services. Thus, paradoxical as it may seem, the saloon was a factor in sustaining the church, since the saloon gave a dramatic raison d’etre for the church’s existence. The church had a similar effect on the saloon. The constant aim of the missions was to make the saloon group see the error of its ways and to point out the horrible fate of eternal hellfire in store for its habitués if they persisted in their way of life. The technique of “conversion” was to create so much anxiety that the individual would alter his old habits and experience a “rebirth.” But if the process was only partially successful, it simply created a tension which demanded more alcohol for relief.

Those who were not kristelig (saved), tended to look upon the church group as “joy killers” and bluenoses, and accuse them of being judgmental, self-righteous hypocrites. And at times the “saved” looked upon the “Neo-Vikings” with something that could hardly be described as “Christian love.” It was “righteous wrath,” because the saloon group persisted in “throwing away God’s gift of grace.” Some of those who were on the receiving end of this wrath called these church people “the fierce Christians.”

Perhaps the most irreconcilable conflict in the community was that between the evangelical religious fundamentalists and the “scientific humanists.” Their differences were so basic that disagreements cut right across life patterns and affected all aspects of life. Humanism runs counter to supernaturalism, which interprets history as the actualization of divine providence. Humanism looks to man rather than to God as the agent of creation, who, by the application of intelligence and will, can control his fate.

In the Brooklyn community the protagonists of these two ways of life had for years been conducting ideological warfare. The pages of Nordisk Tidende bore constant evidence of the two groups’ sniping at each other. One avowed Christian wrote, “There is a spiritual conflict in this world between God and Satan. They both want our souls. No human being in this world can be neutral. The decision is personal and is of immediate concern.” {14}

Another individual complained that free utterance was taboo in Norwegian-American newspapers because the editors had been given the “scientific” facts too late in life and “have not been able to throw off the influence of theological dogma.” He explained that when children are conditioned to believe that “the Holy Writ” is the word of the creator they are not able later on to think independently. He then went on to review the scientific evidence for the theory of evolution. {15}

A contrary opinion was expressed by the Christian who wrote: “Science has thrown light on many things, but the ‘theory of evolution’ is an attack on the Bible by atheists. In no place do they profess their belief in an almighty, eternal, and sinless God. If the expression ‘the survival of the fittest’ can be used correctly, then it is the blessed Bible which through the ages has ‘survived’ all attacks of the unbelievers.” {16}

The opposing points of view were represented in Nordisk Tidende by two columnists. Paradoxically, the scientific humanist, who certainly was concerned mainly with the things of this world, used for his column a title that had biblical connotations, “The Text for the Day” (Dagens Text); while the pastor who wrote the column on the church page, more concerned with heavenly things, gave his column an English name, “This World of Ours”. Each one had his loyal and disputatious public.

One correspondent wrote: “‘Dagens Text’ by Roedder is without doubt the best thing in Nordisk Tidende. When one looks at the slop which is served each week on page ten [the church page], then one might think that they would not begrudge those who like sound common sense and reasoning this little piece of Roedder’s. But that is unfortunately not the case. They seem to think that if we could only be brought back to the ox wagon and wooden plow, things would be wonderful.” {17}

A rebuttal soon appeared: “An admirer of Roedder’s ‘Dagens Text’ writes in Nordisk Tidende for July fourth about the ‘slop’ that is served on page ten. Now it happens that this is the church page, and it is apparently its contents which, in comparison with Roedder’s philosophical viewpoint, are ‘slop.’ . . . But when such a one casts aspersions on the church and its work, then it is in order to say: ‘It is of no use; the church bells will ring long after it has been forgotten that the entire matter ever existed.’ Think that over and become wife.” {18}

To these fundamentalists the Christian faith represented a closed system in which all truths had been revealed and set down in the Bible. There was little room for additions or amendments. It was a psychological necessity for people who lived by these values to defend them at all costs. This was done in two ways: either by attempting to suppress the opinions of others which would be a threat to any part of the system, or by ignoring such facts or events as in themselves would constitute a threat. The church group in the community was strong enough to use both methods. There was constant pressure on the owner and editors of the newspaper to suppress opinions and news which did not conform to the values of the church group. Direct and veiled threats to boycott the newspaper and to deny it advertising were made, and pressure was brought to bear on the owner to suppress the opinions of writers the group did not like. The newspaper could not publish accounts of suicides, arrests for drunkenness, or anything else which reflected on the personal life and morals of any one in the ministerial profession. It could not accept any liquor advertisements because it would immediately lose the support of the most powerful organized faction of the community; nor were any saloons or taverns allowed to advertise in the newspaper. The result was that the newspaper had to steer a policy course which wound in and out among these ideological shoals. The church group was strongly against anything having to do with alcohol. One of the secular organizations conducted a bazaar for the benefit of one of the Norwegian institutions. In this connection they issued a program with advertising; among the advertisements was one for a saloon. As a result, the institution refused to accept the eight hundred dollars which the organization had collected, saying that it was tainted money.

Intime Forum, a society established in 1935, probably best reflected the spirit of scientific humanism. It presented plays, arranged for discussion groups on art, literature, and science, and invited prominent authors, poets, journalists, and politicians to give lectures on all kinds of subjects. The ideals of Intime Forum were tolerance and broadmindedness, reasonableness, sensitivity to all points of view, and freedom to discuss them. This attitude and these activities were anathema to the fundamentalist Christians who practiced the ascetic life-style demanded by their strict and literal interpretation of the Bible.

When news of the free and open discussions in Intime Forum and the subjects of these discussions got around, the leaders of the Forum were immediately attacked as atheists and radicals. One of them replied in this fashion in the society’s tenth anniversary publication: “The Forum’s leaders have from time to time been accused of disseminating radical propaganda - of starting a freethinkers’ society in the middle of our peaceful community. There is, right in our enlightened century, enough left of the Middle Ages so that ‘free thinking’ or the use of man’s greatest gift is looked upon as an improper activity. This is an old story. It happened in the market place of Athens. And when Galileo Galilei sought to propose his theory that the world was not the center of the universe, there was a dangerous commotion. The confession that the church demanded of Galileo is enlightening reading even today, and should be included in all school books . . .

“Many different points of view have been heard in the Forum, and each time Intime Forum has been pressured by special interests and groups . . .” {19}

Nordisk Tidende was watched carefully and nothing that deviated from the church viewpoint was overlooked. The editor, in a long article, made this incidental remark: “That the Stavanger milieu likewise has created a surplus of frustrated emotions is evidenced by two things: tremendous mission activity and migration.” {20} This statement was immediately pounced upon by the church columnist who replied in these words: “There you are - to be interested in spreading the gospel among the heathen at home and abroad is merely one way of demonstrating that one suffers from neuroses and is the helpless victim of a thwarted life . . . As an average emigrant interested in things religious, I haven’t the slightest feeling of being thwarted or frustrated. On the contrary, my leaving home was an adventure, a natural expression of my life in God. No, that interpretation of the urge to emigrate and the unfolding of a Christian life will hardly be accepted.” {21}

One week “Dagens Text” quoted an article by a pastor which told of a small boy who had looked for fifteen minutes at a book with obscene pictures in it and how, ever since, the book had plagued him terribly. Roedder accused the pastor of exaggeration and then went on to make some comparisons between the contents of the Bible and certain literary works, and to make some remarks on freedom of expression. {22}

He was immediately answered by the church columnist in these words: “Once in a while contemptuous disdain for the Christian way of life finds outlet in some of our own newspapers. Some may think it takes great courage to speak so realistically about filth and freedom of expression. I don’t. To class the Bible with the vulgar and obscene literature of the gutter does not denote courage, but rather reveals a perverted sense of the appropriate.” {23}

One of the most outspoken attacks on the value system of the church group was made in 1935 by a columnist who expressed his views in this fashion: “I said America is the last citadel [of religious revivals]. There are a few spots left in Europe where this type of revival still shows some spasmodic signs of life. Norway is one of them, especially in southern and western Norway.

“In these regions the so-called ‘Pentecostals’ are busily ‘bringing in the sheaves,’ and ‘speaking in tongues’ appears to be an everyday emotional debauchery. Now and then a community is startled by the commission of a gruesome crime or by a series of sexual irregularities, and not infrequently the doors of the local insane asylums are swung open to admit the victims of delusions, hallucinations, or worse. . . .

“Strictly orthodox Protestant churchmen are . . . hostile to [liberal] doctrines. Why? Because liberalism has a tendency to destroy belief in the ancient traditional religious doctrines handed down by the church from Jewish Bible times. Churchmen do not attack spurious liberals. It is the truly open-minded person who in Norway is called frisinnet who is the target of their hostility.

“Human society is not static. If it were, a doctrine of any sort, religious or otherwise, might conceivably be true. Some people speak of ‘eternal verities.’ That is an abstraction and literally means nothing.” {24}

It will be obvious that there was a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between those who believed that certain eternal and universal truths had been fully revealed, and the point of view expressed above. There were clear and decisive cleavages in the community. These differences in value system were reflected in the associational structure.

When values are organized they become social forces within the community. But a community is not composed just of contending forces and groups and their clashing value systems; there must also be cooperation. On what, and in what ways, did the members of this particular community cooperate?


There was, of course, much cooperation within the various worlds that have been described; and within the associations formed to further specific values, the members cooperated. But was there any evidence of cooperation on a larger scale that embraced the whole community? Was there something that could unite these divergent points of view?

For the first generation, the principal source of unity arose out of the fact that they were all Norwegians. There was the obvious bond of a common language. But there were other values that they all had in common. They had certain deep feelings for things Norwegian: the Norwegian flag, old songs and music learned in the home, certain fundamental expectations about behavior, and national foods and crafts. The various holidays, national and religious, were celebrated by all even if in different ways. There was a phrase in the colony that seemed to imply much: “with Norway in their hearts.” It was a feeling that could hardly be analyzed or described, because it was not verbalized and was a blend of many memories and sentiments. These Norwegians quickly became assimilated. They gave up their language, became American citizens, and adopted American ways of life. They became almost passionately American; but always there was “Norway in their hearts.” Such sentiments are well illustrated by excerpts from a speech by a Norwegian: “Deep down there is that which gives us a strong feeling of solidarity - that is, Norway in our hearts.

“On that Nordmanns Forbundet was founded. On the basis that Norway, Norwegian culture, Norwegian heritage were stronger than boundaries - It is as if the Norwegian language, Norwegian national values - melodies from Norway - all that is apparent and all the hidden Norway - satisfies our greatest need, our greatest longing, wherever we roam in the world.

“That which follows us everywhere out there is the light from Norway - not only the light from the country itself, from the glaciers, from the living water - in waterfall, sea, and fjord - the light from sun-spangled foliage and white birches, and from our beautiful Norwegian midsummer . . . but also the light from the Norwegian spirit, as it grew like birches, often from poor soil, from clefts in the crags - the light from Wergeland - Edvard Grieg - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - Fridtjof Nansen.” {25}

The strong patriotism of the Norwegians has deep historical roots. It must be remembered that Norway did not become completely independent until 1905. Independence came after many centuries of struggle to free itself from domination by or union with other Scandinavian countries. There had been a resurgence of the most intense patriotic feeling beginning in the early nineteenth century. As the old days of greatness were glorified by the poets and writers, Norway set about making itself more completely Norwegian by extirpating “foreign influences.” The names of some cities were changed and in a deliberate manner the language was altered to diminish the Danish influence and make the Norwegian language “genuinely” Norwegian. In this way Norwegian self-esteem, which had suffered by being subordinated to Denmark and then to Sweden, was restored.

Norwegian ethnocentrism and strong feeling for the mother country has other psychological roots as well. The nature and religion of Norway may have conspired to create an individual whose social ties are not too highly developed, an individual who often feels lonely and shut out, and who has some difficulty in establishing warm personal relationships. {26} Yet the need for human response and intimate relationship is there. It is possible that all this need, when denied expression in primary relationships by culturally induced inhibitions, is projected onto the nation. In this way history supports the psychological processes of the functioning individual.

The patriotic feeling of the Norwegian community was tremendously intensified by the German occupation of Norway. It was like an electric shock that galvanized all groups to action. Differences were forgotten, and the indifferent were aroused. The circulation of Nordisk Tidende rose tremendously in spite of the fact that all immigration had been cut off. All groups organized efforts to help Norway. Norwegian Americans in the United States donated $31,757,000 to help Norway during and after World War II. {27} The fact that the United States and Norway were allies made these undertakings doubly desirable. Even the breach between secular and religious organizations was shakily bridged. Norsk Fylkning (Norwegian Federation) of New York was formed as a joint effort of all Norwegian groups to coordinate help for Norway.

The types of activity that Norsk Fylkning sponsored were in the main lectures and speeches, by Norwegians who had fought the Nazis and who had escaped to tell the tale, and by members of the royal family and government in exile. The programs also included singing and instrumental music.

After the war, there was an unsuccessful attempt to make this organization permanent. The churches sent but two delegates in all, and one of these, in the opinion of the church group, was something of a “black sheep.” Only a world war could have brought the religious and secular groups together.

An examination of joint activities over a number of years revealed that such functions were essentially those having to do with patriotism in one form or another. The activities included showing films and slides from Norway, welcoming visiting Norwegian royalty and other prominent Norwegians, and petitioning the city to name a street or park after Leif Erikson. {28}

Conspicuously lacking was cooperation in community affairs. The religious group showed a tremendous spirit of sacrifice when it came to building a church, and the secular societies cooperated in buying and building a hall for their activities. Except for the 17th of May celebration, however, the two factions did not combine on any sustained program that included the whole community. This was understandable, since they were rivals trying to capture minds, loyalty, and souls. Individual members of the two factions had very limited time and money available for activities outside of working hours. Nor did the Norwegian groups within the community participate in programs of civic betterment or neighborhood improvement. One Norwegian who had been active in the civic organizations of the larger community for years said that he had always been the only Norwegian member of such groups. One reason for this lack of involvement may have been that most community needs were met by the larger municipality.

In addition to twenty churches, however, the community supported a hospital, two children’s homes, two old people’s homes, a day nursery, and a children’s camp, as well as some cultural and sport clubs. Many groups contributed to the support of these organizations, but the churches made the greatest effort.

Rygg, in commenting on the history of Norwegian organizations in New York City, indicated the difficulty which Norwegians had in cooperating in larger groups: “It may be said that the numerous Norwegian societies have served useful purposes, but it is nevertheless a fact that the colony has had many more societies than are actually needed. The difficulty that some Norwegians have in getting along together has often led to the duplication of societies of similar aims and purposes. This has resulted in a waste of energy and talent. Fewer, and consequently larger, societies could function better and with more economy and efficiency. {29}

It will be seen that in the main the various factions within the community were able to cooperate on activities that were essentially charitable and patriotic in character. One of the leaders who had for many years attempted to bring groups together said: “Norwegians agree on the value of being Norwegian, but thereafter they seem to be mainly concerned with showing that they are different from other Norwegians.” {30}


It is clear that there were four rather distinct value systems which constituted the dynamics in the social processes of conflict and cooperation within this community: there was the value system of the second generation which was predominantly American, but which contained some Norwegian influences; there was the value system of the “Neo-Vikings”; there was the value system of the church-centered groups; and there was the value system of the group whose basic philosophy was scientific secular humanism. The three main value systems that have contributed to the Norwegian heritage, plus the American pattern, were present as motivators of people’s behavior in the community.

The conflict between the first and second generations was essentially the conflict between American values and attitudes and the values and attitudes held by those who were habituated to the cultural pattern of Norway in their youth. The first generation, while it had succeeded in imparting an intellectual appreciation of things Norwegian to its children, had succeeded only partially in establishing Norwegian values as component elements of the value-attitude system of the second generation. This difference was the basis of the conflict between generations. It would seem therefore that the home was not the only factor in shaping values and personalities. The influence of American institutions, particularly the public school, the neighborhood and peer groups, was clearly evident in the result.

The conflict between the “Neo-Vikings” and the Christian outlook on life was perhaps the oldest of all and had been waged for centuries in Norway before the Christian way emerged the victor, yet without completely extirpating Viking influences. Those influences were suppressed and redefined, but continued to live a sub rosa existence, always affecting Norwegian behavior.

A tight little world of concepts and values which had been created over centuries of development in Norway interacted as components of the value-attitude systems of the Norwegian-American people. And, as in Norway, the battle lines of the Kulturkampf were boldly drawn. In fact, if anything, the struggle was more intense in America than in Norway, because the church that had been established in the early days of the colony had been founded by persons who were imbued with the strong religious fervor and asceticism of nineteenth-century Haugean Lutheranism. The spirit of that church, divorced from the cultural influences of the mother country, had remained essentially the same, while the church in Norway had altered considerably, as had other aspects of the cultural configuration there. The main cultural trend in Norway had been in the direction of the scientific humanistic orientation. This orientation had been lacking in the colony before 1920. There was therefore a wide gap between the value systems of the earlier immigrants and the later ones. This was recognized by one of the leading ministers of the colony who said, “Furthermore, it seems that the majority of immigrants who came over in the decade before the war have a totally different outlook than the immigrants from earlier times. It cannot be denied that the later groups who had Christian interests are of a different kind than the older groups who in their time founded the Lutheran churches and welfare work in this country.” {31}

The relationship of the Brooklyn colony to its parent culture was very apparent, but there was a difference, and an individual just arriving from Norway would observe this difference immediately. In some respects the immigrant culture was the culture of an older Norway with the addition of some new elements. It was as if a section of nineteenth-century Norway had suddenly been detached from the homeland, been isolated, and developed without the evolutionary influences that had continued to shape modern Norway. A woman expressed it this way: “I felt strange at first here in Brooklyn; I had a peculiar feeling as if I had gone up in the attic and rummaged through mother’s old things that brought back memories of the old days.” {32}

The Norwegian poet Herman Wildenvey visited the colony and wrote a long poem about it; one of the verses goes as follows:

“I looked about me in the hall.
It was a most peculiar crew.
Well, - Brooklyn’s children, Norway’s all
Have their special visage new.” {33}

In the colony various cultural elements converged that had been separated and that had for decades developed along different lines and under different influences. During this time, differences had been created which resulted in a conflict of cultures within the community. The values of the heritage had persisted because they had met fundamental human social and psychological needs of functioning individuals. Different values became incorporated into individuals’ value-attitude systems, and thereby motivated social intercourse. In the processes of conflict and cooperation, values became organized through the formation of associations by the people who held those values and who wanted to combine to protect and sustain them by transforming them into action patterns that would be repeated. These action patterns then became the programs and activities of organizations such as churches, lodges, sport clubs, social, cultural, and patriotic organizations, and saloons.

The American urban environment of the Brooklyn Norwegian colony and the ideological contradictions derived from the Norwegian heritage produced strains and stresses, but the social fabric, though woven from so many cultural skeins, did not break. A viable community was formed and persisted. What made it possible were the bonds of Norwegian consciousness that were stronger than the forces that would tend to divide.

While there is still a Norwegian community in Brooklyn, Knight E. Hoover’s research and census data show that there has been some dispersal within Brooklyn and to the outlying areas of metropolitan New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. {34} Without the benefit of systematic new research on community conflict, but based on a reading of Nordisk Tidende and numerous visits to the community, the author’s impression is that the lines of cleavage that divided the community have been blurred. The issues that formerly engaged people no longer seem to produce as passionate and bitter debate; ideology may not have vanished, but it has been much weakened.


<1> Ted Olsen, “Salute to Norway,” in The Hawk’s Way (New York, 1941), 41-42.

<2> Christen T. Jonassen, Value Systems and Personality in a Western Civilization: The Norwegians in Europe and America (Columbus, Ohio, 1983).

<3> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940), 516.

<4> A. N. Rygg, Norwegians in New York 1825-1925 (Brooklyn, New York, 1941).

<5> Christen T. Jonassen, “The Norwegians in Bay Ridge: A Sociological Study of an Ethnic Group” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1947).

<6> Rygg, Norwegians in New York, 28.

<7> Nordisk Tidende, “An X-Ray Picture of a Norwegian American Colony” (Brooklyn, New York, 1941).

<8> Nordisk Tidende, May 20, 1946.

<9> Nordisk Tidende, January 24, 1935.

<10> Nordisk Tidende, June 27, 1946.

<11> Bethelship Norwegian Methodist Church, Annual Report Book, 1946, 9, 11.

<12> Bethelship Norwegian Methodist Menighet, Femti Aars Jubelæet: 1874-1924. Translated and quoted by Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 438.

<13> Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 414.

<14> Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 416.

<15> Nordisk Tidende, December 5, 1946.

<16> Nordisk Tidende, February ' 21, 1946.

<17> Nordisk Tidende, July 4, 1946.

<18> Nordisk Tidende, August 1, 1946.

<19> Intime Forum, Tenth Anniversary Number, 1945, 5.

<20> Nordisk Tidende, November 14, 1946. Stavanger is in southwestern Norway, an area which has been called the “Bible Belt” of Norway - a stronghold of religious fundamentalism.

<21> Nordisk Tidende, November 21, 1946.

<22> Nordisk Tidende, April 10, 1946.

<23> Nordisk Tidende, April 17, 1946.

<24> Harry Sundby-Hansen, in Nordisk Tidende, January 24, 1935.

<25> Speech at the anniversary of Nordmanns Forbundet, in Wilhelm Morgenstierne, Et større Norge (Oslo, 1932), 119, 120. Quoted and translated by Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 422, 423.

<26> For data supporting this thesis see Jonassen, Value Systems and Personality and “Norwegians in Bay Ridge.”

<27> A. N. Rygg, American Relief for Norway (Brooklyn, New York, 1946), 138-144.

<28> See files of Nordisk Tidende, especially before and after the 17th of May.

<29> Rygg, Norwegians in New York , 80.

<30> Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 426.

<31> C. O. Pedersen, in Nordisk Tidende, March 21, 1946.

<32> Jonassen, “Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” 429.

<33> Herman Wildenvey, “Amerikanske billeder - Bay Ridge,” Stanza 62, in Stjernenes Speil (Oslo, 1935). Translated by Jonassen.

<34> Knight E. Hoover, “The Ecology of Norwegian Americans in Metropolitan New York from 1940-1980,” in George A. Theodorson, ed., Urban Patterns: Studies in Human Ecology (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1982), 202-206; Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940: Nativity and Percentage of the White Population, 80-86; Twentieth Census of the United States, 1980: Ancestry of Persons, 581-585.


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