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The Historical Value of Church Records
    By J. Magnus Rohne (Volume III: Page 73)

At some time in the future an historian will arise who will tell us just what religion has contributed to history. That the contribution has been a large one is an undoubted fact. Mohammedanism fired men to a furious frenzy and swept over large parts of Asia, over all of Northern Africa, and threatened Europe both from the east and from the west. The vast oriental systems of religion are still making history in China and other parts of the world. The influence of the Greek religion and philosophy has been of far-reaching importance. And there is the virile religion of the North, where Thor's hammer struck far and wide, sometimes for pillage, more often for conquest and order, but never for slavery and servitude.

Only a cursory glance is needed to recognize the contributions that the Christian religion has made to the history of the world. Certainly the average man knows more of the history of the Jewish race than of his own race. What other historical characters are so intimately known as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David? Our religious interest in these men has greatly enhanced our historical knowledge of them. That the popes and the Roman Catholic Church have played an important role in human history is universally acknowledged. At the time of the Reformation there occurred an upheaval that has affected human civilization in all its chief departments. Not only did great changes come over human thought and conceptions, but Europe witnessed a century of religious wars, beginning in 1547 and ending at the peace of Westphalia in 1648, when the map of the world underwent radical changes. In those struggles were planted seeds that bore abundant harvests of war and misery culminating in the World War in 1914. And the World War did not lack religious implications; let those who are inclined to doubt this merely recall the active participation of all the churches in that war. But history is not made out of wars -- wars are merely the crises that certain peace-time tendencies bring upon the human family.

Why has the church played such an important role in history? The explanation is to be found partly in the fact that the church both of the Old and the New Testament times has kept records of its deeds and teachings. This indeed is a part of its divine traditions. And so sedulously was this principle adhered to that it went into the blood of the leaders of the later Christian church. There are the letters of the martyrs, the works of the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, the histories of Josephus, Eusebius, and Socrates, the Codices of the Christian Emperors, the annals of the monks, and the Liber Pontificalis, or Pontifical Book. In the confusion arising from the barbaric invasions of Western Europe the church in the Middle Ages not only kept the records of its own history, but kept records of secular history as well. The obscure monk in his cold damp cell preserved for posterity accounts that have colored our history to this day. To illustrate: the Norsemen ran afoul of the monks in Ireland and in other places, scattering those that they did not put to the sword. In retaliation, the monks that survived sat down and wrote vivid accounts of these piratical forays, making the name of the Vikings synonymous with all that was ruthless and gruesome. For centuries the pens of the monks proved mightier than the Viking swords, and not until our generation have the Viking sagas been effectively checked against the annals of the monks. Only lately have the historians begun to see that the Vikings were law-givers instead of law-breakers and that peace and order followed the tumult of conquest. It was a case of pitting the pens of the Norsemen against the pens of monks, and the world was happy to get at the facts in the case. To give another example, history would have been vastly richer if we could have had the Saxon side of the struggle of the Saxons with Charlemagne, whose side is so ably presented by Einhard; but the Saxons were not Christians yet, and had no frail and anemic monks to keep the records of their proud and mighty chiefs. We shall, therefore, probably never know the many tales of valor which accumulated during the thirty-three years of heroic Saxon struggle against Charlemagne. Surely there is many an unhallowed burial ground on which one could muse as Thomas Gray did:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid,
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed
Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre!

In preserving history, as in shaping it, the pen is mightier than the sword. And because religion has stood back of the pen fully as often as it has stood back of the sword, it has contributed vastly to the history of the world.

Little argument is needed to prove the historical value of the church records of the Norwegians in America. The great need is to organize effectively the work of collecting and preserving these materials. Fortunately many of the churches have kept their own records systematically, and have thus simplified the historian's problem. On the other hand, some pastors and congregations have always regarded the matter of keeping church records as "nobody else's business," not recognizing that those who fail to keep them are delinquent in a public trust. The early Norwegian-American Lutheran church fathers belong to the Norwegian-Americans as a group, and in a broader sense to all Americans. Consequently the records of their activity are of general rather than of merely local or partisan interest. The task of the Norwegian-American historian is to have constantly wider groups view the church and other Norwegian-American institutions as integral parts of the great American life about us. The Norwegian-American skolemester did not realize that he was writing American and even world history when he, like the monk of old, bent over his papers in the bleak log hut and' wrote his records in Norwegian script. Those who are intrusted with the responsibility of keeping the church records should get some of the spirit of the old monks who were vividly conscious that they were "making" history. Let them feel that it is to the interest of generations not yet born that none of these records be lost.

When this wider responsibility for and interest in the church records become more generally recognized, the contemporary records will be kept more adequately than has been the case, and the records in general, both of congregations and of families, will be preserved more carefully. Furthermore, congregations and families will feel less reticence in laying the records open to inspection by competent scholars, knowing that a recognized common interest, which is above partisan feelings and claims, places upon the historian a serious obligation. At times in the past the Norwegian-American church historian has been the object of a subtle mistrust, for he has been suspected of suiting his material to the pleasures of some cherished group or party. In so far as he has actually done this, he has failed in his high calling as an historian and has forgotten that the achievements of Eielsen, Clausen, Dietrichson, H. A. Stub, Laur. Larsen, H. A. Preus, Koren, Brandt, and other leaders are the common possession of all Norwegian-Americans and all Americans.

In accordance with the principle set forth above, the present writer claims a possessive interest, for example, in Elling Eielsen that is equal to that of the most belligerent Ellingian, and he deplores the fact that Eielsen had very little interest in keeping protocols. So far as is known, no records have been kept of Eielsen's work after 1839 save such as were later written by others. But in the latter there are of course possibilities for errors and omissions. Even when Eielsen was performing the tremendously important task of organizing the first Norwegian Lutheran Synod in America, he was so modest about it that he wrote no account of how it took place. Only a short letter and the "Old Constitution" are the records left to his curious spiritual descendants; and the letter speaks of elements lacking in the "Old Constitution" as we have it at present. {1} Of all that stirring and interesting history centering around Elling Eielsen nothing more of an official nature is found until 1854, when the Reverend P. A. Rasmussen issued an annual report for the Eielsen group. From 1856 to 1861 Rasmussen issued Kirkelig Tidende, but this was of no value to the Eielsen group as Eielsen and Rasmussen separated shortly after the Tidende began to come out. There are some letters and, of course, some secondary source material from this period, but how would not our history have been enriched if Eielsen had caused some one to keep the records, even if he himself had not cared to bother about them. No matter how well-disposed the historian may be, he cannot begin to fill in the gaps caused by the absence of records. Strange as it may sound, the historian must depend more on Eielsen's enemies than on his friends for first-hand accounts. Anyone can readily see what a handicap is thus placed upon the scholar, who must constantly discount the adverse counts of Eielsen's opponents without having the least idea where the discount should begin or end. No matter what the historian does, he can never be certain that he has done justice to all concerned. If Eielsen has any better friend than the writer, let him join in keeping a sharp lookout for first-hand material about this interesting man. Rasmussen's Report of 1854 {2} should by all means be republished and the files of his Kirkelig Tidende should be completed. {3}

A very different situation confronts the historian when he begins to write the history of the former Norwegian Synod. At the outset he has the records of the work of organization as presented in the Reverend J. W. C. Dietrichson's Travels among the Norwegian Emigrants in the United North American Free States. {4} This book was published in 1846, but it carries the records of church work back to 1839 and the records of immigration back to 1825. Dietrichson kept accurate records, as did the other pastors of this group.

In 1851 a constitution was written, and though it was later rewritten and re-adopted, it served as the general basis upon which the Norwegian Synod was organized in 1853. The first four paragraphs of the by-laws of this constitution take up the question of proper church records:

1. It devolves upon the president of the Synod to keep: 1. a copy-book of all official letters that have been sent or received; 2. through the secretary of the Synod a protocol of the proceedings of the Synod, which protocols are authorized by the Church Council and revised by the Synod.

2. It devolves upon the Church Council through its secretary to keep the following official records: 1. A protocol of proceedings; 2 a copy-book of official letters that have been sent and received, which protocols are authorized by the president of the Synod and revised by the Synod.

3. It devolves upon every pastor belonging to the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church {5} to keep the following official records: 1. A ministerial record of births, confirmations, communions, marriages, and burials in the congregation, together with a daily record of all clerical acts that he has performed; 2. a protocol of all the churchly proceedings of the congregation; 3. a copy-book of all the official letters that have been received or sent, which protocols are presented by the pastor and revised by the Synod.

4. It devolves upon every congregation belonging to the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America through the secretary for its trustees in conjunction with its parochial school teacher to keep the following protocols: 1. A protocol of proceedings touching all the congregation's outward economic affairs, which protocol is kept by the secretary; 2. a protocol of the school system, which protocol is kept by the school teacher under the direction of the pastor. These protocols are authorized by the pastor.

One sees immediately what possibilities these records present both for the local and the general historian. Just as the church records in Norway furnished valuable information to the emigrant at his departure and to the student of emigration today, so these records supply material for the history of the most important events in the life of the individual church member. Here are authentic records of his birth, of his baptism, of his religious schooling, of his confirmation, of his marriage, of his communions, and finally of his death and burial. His name may appear in these records in many connections -- as a sponsor, or witness, or church official, or contributor. The records reflect the physical as well as the spiritual well-being of the members, for the pastor makes entries about visits in cases of illness. Furthermore, entries in the church records may often serve as focal points by which other events can be properly identified in point of time and place. {6}

It may not be amiss to illustrate by specific instances chosen at random how the church records are used by the historian. The Reverend H. Halvorsen in Festskrift til den norske Synodes Jubilaeum 1853-1903 wishes, in chapter 2, to establish the date for the founding of the former Norwegian Synod. In the course of his researches he cites Kirkelig Maanedstidende, Emigranten, Spring Prairie "Ministerialbog," the congregational protocols of Koshkonong, a letter from the Reverend H. A. Stub referring to the congregational protocols at Muskego, a letter from the Reverend N. Brandt from the Rock River congregation, the Protocol of the Synod regarding the Pine Lake congregation, the Synodical Report of 1878, and the "Correspondence Protocol for the Superintendent." The latter document is repeatedly quoted by Halvorsen in the Festskrift. The Reverend J. A. Bergh in Den norsk lutherske Kirkes Historie i Amerika, on page 17, quotes the "Ministerialbog" of the Muskego congregation to describe the terrible rate of mortality at Muskego in 1843 and the early part of 1844. He quotes the same source to illustrate certain other ministerial functions that are interesting because they are the first performed in America according to the ritual of the church of Denmark and Norway. Dr. Knut Gjerset and Dr. Ludvig Hektoen, in a study of health conditions among the early Norwegians, draw upon Clausen's "Ministerialbog" at Muskego. {7}

Many of the church records have been destroyed by fire or have been lost, albeit a few of them are locked in vaults either at the church or at the parsonage. In one case a church was afire, and when the pastor arrived upon the scene, he wished to dash into the burning structure at the risk of his life to rescue the records. Some of the members held the venerable clergyman by main force, but he struggled with might and main until some others of his members, who knew the old pastor's solicitude for the valuable church records, appeared on the scene and triumphantly handed him the records that they had rescued before the fire had made very much headway. The pastor is said to have embraced the records and to have gone contentedly home muttering something to the effect that they could always restore the old church but they could never have restored the old records. Wisdom is only slowly acquired, however. The records referred to are still in imminent peril of fire, and no amount of persuasion has been able to convince the congregation that they ought to be placed in a fireproof repository for archives. Another congregation owns very valuable documents relating to certain early settlements, but these documents are not given even the ordinary protection of being deposited in a vault!

Even vaults fail to afford absolutely safe protection, as many unpleasant things can happen to the records in a vault, especially if they have not been properly cared for before being filed away. The best method of preserving these records is to deposit them in one of the recognized Norwegian-American historical collections, where they will receive expert care from trained attendants.

Beyond a certain stage these records are perforce of relatively little local value; in the hands of a trained historian, however, they can furnish important information on certain phases not only of local but also of general history. Since in the very nature of the case not every community is fortunate enough to have persons with this special training, and since those who are interested in the particular history covered in the records might never think of combing the fields for this material until they find it, it would be a great step forward if the communities would turn these records over to some competent association or institution for safe keeping. The records would then be available not only to the communities whence they came but also to that special group of students who have the talents and the interests to put them to a greater use. In this way the history of the community would be read into the larger record of events, the local records being always at hand to reflect honor upon the home community when any searcher after historical facts arrives upon the scene. The privilege of being represented is jealously guarded in other realms; why not in the most lasting realm -- the realm of history? Let these local records represent the communities at the centers where historical research is made, rather than lie idle, relatively useless, and almost wholly unknown.

We have only begun to write our history. After the more obvious topics of Norwegian-American historical research have been exhausted, a more detailed study will begin and it is against that day that we must prepare. Almost every year graduate students from Iowa University come to the Luther College Library in Decorah for research in some aspect of Scandinavian-American culture. The college library has also had visits from graduate students at the University of Minnesota and it supplies material to students far and wide through the mails. This is indicative of the widespread interest that is shown in the collections at Luther College. Probably similar use is being made of the records preserved in the official archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota, and in the manuscript division and library of the Minnesota Historical Society at St. Paul. With such excellent service to be had should not all who have materials at their disposal gladly relieve themselves of the responsibility of keeping this property, which really pertains to the Norwegian-Americans as a group, and turn it over to some institution that can preserve it properly and also put it to use?

<1> For this venerable document, the first church constitution among Norwegians in America, see J. Magnus Rohne, Norwegian American Lutheranism up 1872, p. 105 ff. (New York, 1926)

<2> This Report covers the proceedings of the annual meeting of Elllng Elelsen's group. There are sufficient contemporary references to prove that a report of 1854 or 1855 (possibly both) exists, though it is to be feared that only a very few copies of this extremely interesting document are in existence.

<3> The Luther College Library has a file of Rasmussen's Kirkelig Tidende, though it lacks several Issues. Other libraries are possibly similarly situated.

<4> Reis, blandt de norske Emigranter i "De forenede Nordamerikanske Fristater" (Stavanger). This is being translated by the author of the present article and will be published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<5> This body took the official name "The Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America," and was generally referred to as "The Norwegian Synod," or even as "The Synod."

<6> A suggestive article on "Church Records in Migration Studies" by Dr. Joseph Schafer is published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 10: 328-337 (March, 1927).

<7> "Health Conditions and the Practice of Medicine among the Early Norwegian Settlers, 1825-1865," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, STUDIES AND RECORDS, 1: 1-59 (Minneapolis 1926).

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