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Norwegian-American Lutheran Church History {1}
By George M. Stephenson (Volume II: Page 104)

A layman finds himself at a considerable disadvantage in attempting a review of Dr. Rohne's detailed history of Norwegian-American Lutheranism. After battling his way through a hurricane of theological controversies he lays the book down with a regret that he was deprived of instruction in standard theological courses in dogmatics, symbolics, liturgics, exegesis, hermeneutics, and pastoral theology as a preparation for the evaluation of certain types of church histories. The Norwegian immigrants came to America with a rich heritage of doctrinal controversy, which sprang up on the soil of Norway; and transplanting on the prairies of the Mississippi Valley increased its growth rather than stunted it. Contending steadfastly for the faith once delivered to the fathers, these Norwegian pioneers were cordial haters of heresy; and it is doubtful whether they loved overly much the exponents of heresy.

Dr. Rohne refuses to accept any responsibility for the Norwegian church fathers. He glories in their achievements, but he warns Norwegian-American Lutherans that he has attempted to present their history as it is, not as he would have liked to have it. The apology is wholly unnecessary, because every historian aspires to write history as it is and not as it might have been if men--even men who have taken holy orders--were not so incurably human. The doctrinal controversies that enlivened the hardships and drudgery of the pioneer Norwegian pastors were fought out by men who prided themselves on their orthodoxy; there were no higher critics among them. Elling Eielsen in his veneration of the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God yielded not one jot or tittle to his bitterest assailants in the other camps. Theirs was a typical Lutheran battle fought on American soil, each party contending for what it conceived to be Lutheranism and therefore historic Christianity.

During the period covered by Dr. Rohne's monograph three synodical organizations emerged: (1) the body which took its cue from that interesting character, Elling Eielsen; (2) the Paul Andersen group, which sojourned in the Synod of Northern Illinois from 1851 to 1860; (3) the university group, which formed the so-called Norwegian Synod. The leaders of the first two organizations could think of no better way of discrediting the third than by stigmatizing it as dominated by "state church" ideas, harking back to the rationalism and spiritual deadness of the established church of Norway. Professor Rohne gives a very good picture of religious conditions in Norway. While he does not believe that rationalism. took a strong hold in that country, he does admit that conditions in the state church were not what they ought to have been; likewise, while paying a great tribute to Hauge as a great religious force, he rejects the popular belief that he was the sole progenitor of the spiritual race in Norway. Although the author does not specifically say so, Paul Andersen was undoubtedly the most liberal of the Norwegian-American pastors in this period; and the Norwegian Synod men recognized him as such in his writings in the liberal General Synod papers and in Kirketidende.

Dr. Rohne has rendered a real service by writing a book that gives the religious background of Norwegian immigration, relates the early beginnings of Norwegian Lutheranism in America, traces in minute detail the organization of synods and the controversies that raged between them, and outlines the inception of educational and missionary activity. One has the feeling that he did not feel himself called upon to write a eulogy of the Norwegian immigrants or to scorch his pages with criticisms of individuals with whom he does not happen to agree. This is all the more praiseworthy because the remnants of the controversies which fill so many of his pages linger on; and Dr. Rohne as a churchman and a professor of Christianity in a Norwegian-American Lutheran institution must have matured convictions on these matters. Doubtless he will maintain the same poise in judging a lay reviewer who sees much to praise in his monograph, but who is impelled to write a few paragraphs of mild criticism.

The author obviously wrote his book with a certain type of reader in mind -- and his own mind was clear on all these matters of conflict -- but he has not made proper allowance for the limitations of the reader who has not steeped himself in theological lore and has not pored over the documents from which his material was drawn. In other words, in a book which will fall into the hands of readers who are new to the subject they should be kept aware of the stage they have reached. The author naturally sees each chapter in the light of his full knowledge of the subject, while the new reader sees it only in the light of what has gone before. If the author had followed the example of the evangelist and had stopped at more frequent intervals to tell the reader "what he has told him," his narrative would have been more lucid. As it is, sometimes we are unable to see the woods for the trees.

In several places Dr. Rohne refers to the fact that the constant hammering of the symbolists in the "Missouri" Synod, in the Norwegian Synod, and in the Joint Synod of Ohio on the inconsistency of Paul Andersen's group remaining in the Synod of Northern Illinois, which was a member of the "loose" General Synod, drove them into a stricter confessionalism and ultimately out of "heretical" company; but he fails to do full justice either to the position of the Scandinavians in the General Synod or to that of the "New Lutherans," that is, those who subscribed to Doctor Schmucker's "Definite Synodical Platform" which created such a furore in every Lutheran synod in 1855 and after. Dr. Rohne has confined himself pretty largely to Norwegian sources; if he had gone through the files of the ultra liberal Lutheran Observer, the moderately conservative Missionary, and the mildly unionistic Hemlandet, he would have received a different slant on this vexed question. The strong "Missouri" influence in the Norwegian Synod (of which the author is aware), and the blind and uncompromising symbolism of the "Missourians" from that day until this, ought to have put the author on his guard. It is true, as the author points out, that, years after, Paul Andersen admitted that in his early career he assumed a false doctrinal position; but in all fairness it should be emphasized that the very unreasonableness of the "foreign" symbolists probably drove him and many of like mind into the other camp. That the influx of German, Norwegian, and Swedish symbolists checked the development of a liberal theology within the American Lutheran Church, whether for better or worse, is unquestionably true; but that their methods were in some cases questionable is equally true.

The fact that the Norwegian Lutheran synods in most matters held studiously aloof from the General Synod and the General Council may possibly justify Dr. Rohne's slight treatment of the Synod of Northern Illinois; but he has all but overlooked the genuinely benevolent interest in the welfare of their Norwegian brethren on the part of General Synod men like the indefatigable philanthropist and wise editor, W. A. Passavant; the college president, W. M. Reynolds; and the theological professor and editor, S. W. Harkey. These men were sincerely interested in bringing about a better understanding between the Scandinavians and the other Lutheran bodies, as their manuscript correspondence shows; but they were unable to cope with the peculiarly effective propaganda emanating from the papers edited by that remarkably gifted, but certainly one-sided, "Missourian," Dr. C. F. W. Walther.

Dr. Rohne's discussions of the Synod of Northern Illinois (which he always terms "Northern Illinois Synod ") are based entirely on Norwegian and Swedish sources, largely the writings of Hatlestad and Norelius. He naively accepts their version of the doctrinal controversy between the Scandinavian symbolists and the "new measure" Lutherans within the Synod of Northern Illinois. His account of the difficulties that arose in connection with the Scandinavian professorship at Illinois State University which led to the secession of the Scandinavians and the organization of the independent Scandinavian Augustana Synod in 1860 is essentially that of the Scandinavian professor himself, the Reverend L. P. Esbj┐rn, who was hardly qualified to sit in judgment on his own case, although it is true that the Scandinavian Conference at Chicago voted unanimously to sustain him. But if one reads the other side in papers like the Lutheran Observer and the Olive Branch and in the correspondence between Hasselquist and Harkey and Reynolds, that unfortunate affair appears in a somewhat different light. Esbj┐rn's defense as published in several papers smacks strongly of special pleading. Moreover Dr. Rohne is in error in stating that the Synod of Northern Illinois was formed by a few Swedes and Norwegians, with Esbj┐rn and Andersen in the lead. The fact is that it was organized by Americans, Germans, and Norwegians, Esbj┐rn and his lay delegate arriving the day after the organization of the Synod had been effected. So far was Esbj┐rn from shaping the constitution of the Synod that he affiliated with it only after permission had been granted him to have printed in the minutes his doctrinal position, which was quite at variance with that of the constitution.

Possibly the rather disproportionate space allotted to the shortcomings of Dr. Rohne's monograph may leave the impression that the author has failed in his effort to contribute to our knowledge of Norwegian-American Lutheranism and of American church history; but if this be the case, the impression is entirely misleading. The author set himself to an exceedingly difficult task; and the reader and the reviewer may well ask himself if he or any one else could have excelled him. Unmistakably the author has placed under heavy obligation those who have sought a better understanding of the subject and he has lightened the burden of those who may take up their pens to develop the subject still further.

<1> Norwegian American Lutheranism up to 1872, by J. Magnus Rohne, professor of Christianity in Luther College, Decorah, Iowa (New York. The Macmillan Company, 1926. xxiv, 271 p.)

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