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The Adjustment of a Pioneer Pastor to American Conditions: Laur. Larsen, 1857-1880
By Karen Larsen (Volume IV: Page 1)

It is a truism to say that the Norwegian pioneer pastors, though numerically a small group, were a vitally significant element which the student of the Norwegian movement into the West cannot afford to neglect. How they grappled with the many problems of adjustment to their new life furnishes a subject for study which, though elusive, is fascinating and rich in possibilities. This article is merely an attempt to tell a little of how one young man of this group met some of the many problems that faced him during the years when (1857-1880) he was finding his place in the country of his adoption. While by no means exhaustive, it may serve to throw some light on the life of the man who, as the first president of Luther College (1861-1902), later filled a unique place among Norwegian-Americans, and it may also be of some interest as a slight contribution to the study of the broader topic that has been indicated above.

On November 2, 1857, Laur. Larsen with his wife and little child arrived at the yet unfinished parsonage of Rush River, Wisconsin. Here the city-bred young people had to learn to live under pioneer conditions. Here, too, he and his family had to identify themselves with a rural community consisting of people from a class in the mother country with which they had had no contact. Moreover, the inexperienced young pastor -- only twenty-four years old -- trained in a state church, had to find an answer to the many questions that arose in connection with the development of congregational life and organization among people who had, so to speak, been torn loose from their moorings and who must be trained to use their newly acquired freedom from the. restraints of a state church. On these personal and local problems which Larsen met with the vital interest and fearless audacity characteristic of the youthful pioneer, and also, at times, with a deliberate astuteness that belied his years, we are, however, not going to dwell.

Hardly had he settled before the young newcomer subscribed for the periodicals that he considered most necessary to prepare him for his new life. They are indicative of his future development; and, as his books were stored in Prairie du Chien awaiting the opening of river traffic in the spring, his mental pabulum during the first winter in America was almost exclusively confined to his three periodicals. From Lerhe und Wehre he absorbed the theology of the German Lutheran Missouri Synod and became acquainted with that body, which was later to influence him to a degree which at this time he considered impossible. A meticulous reading of the New York Tribune introduced him to American life and institutions and gave him a fair mastery of the English language. English had not been included among the eight languages of his school curriculum, so his instruction in it had been confined to a few private lessons. Though it always remained a foreign language to him, he soon learned to read it with ease, to write it with remarkable accuracy, and to speak it sufficiently well for all practical every-day purposes. Through the third, Maanedstidende, the official organ of the Norwegian Synod, he learned to know the church body with which he was to identify himself throughout his life.

The key to Larsen's whole life must be found in his devotion to his church. His dominating passion was the spread of the gospel in what he considered its unadulterated purity. His mission and that of his coworkers was, as he saw it, to lead in the establishment of a church which, while perpetuating the liturgy and usages of the mother church, should be organized on the democratic principles of a Lutheran free church. Above all it must preserve the gospel in its purity and spread the blessing of it to as many people as possible.

In this light we can understand his surprisingly liberal attitude toward the problem with which this paper is largely concerned, the much discussed language question. He had emigrated at a time when national enthusiasm ran high in Norway. He had been intensely patriotic in his student days and came from a social class that was not only indifferent to emigration but hostile to it. "To go to America," he said later, "I considered almost treason to my country." Yet less than two years afterwards, as he was trying to persuade other theologians to come to the rescue of the pioneer church, he wrote:

As for me, I have seen so much of conditions here that I would not on any account wish that I had remained in my fatherland; for the fatherland of the theologian is the Church; a disciple of the Lord does not, after the fashion of the Jews, ask about blood and descent; but obedient to Matthew 28: 19, {1} he considers only where he can do the most work, where he is most needed. And besides, the theologians of Norway were not so especially Norwegian when I knew them: How many of them for example had any sympathy for that development of the language on which the best patriots of the country were working?

Larsen came to America imbued also with a deep enthusiasm for Pan-Scandinavianism. With many others, he had believed that with the growing distrust of Germany and the softening of the prejudices between the Scandinavian neighbors, a closer bond between the churches of the three countries might be possible. As he saw that the inflexibility of conditions at home made this highly improbable, he had looked across the waters with the expectation that under the plastic condition of the new world this dream might become a reality. {2} In 1858 he wrote:

A union in church affairs among Scandinavians over here has always stood before me as a beautiful ideal, whereby, among other things, we might raise a potent defense against a too strong influence from the Germans .... The language does not separate them even now and will do so less in the future, as the Scandinavians no doubt will adopt the language of their new country much more rapidly than the far more numerous Germans. {3}

The hope of seeing any general cooperation among the Scandinavian church bodies Larsen regretfully abandoned when he realized that the one union formed between Lutherans of different races {4} had been achieved, as he says, "at the expense, unfortunately, of the old faith of our fathers and our beautiful church ritual." {5} He persisted in believing, however, that it was possible to form Scandinavian Lutheran congregations and that, given the true basis for fellowship, unity in faith, lesser differences might be ironed out:

National hatred and national prejudices must not even be mentioned among us. They are unchristian in themselves and simply ludicrous in this country, as all nationalities here must after all finally be assimilated into the English American. But the pure doctrine shall not be absorbed into any kind of American system. That shall stand though heaven and earth vanish and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. That is an inheritance of which we must not relinquish the smallest iota, even though we forget the language and customs of our fathers. {6

With hopeful optimism, yet with full appreciation of the difficulties involved, the young pioneer made use of every opportunity to build up Scandinavian congregations or at least to further cooperation in church matters between Swedes and Norwegians. His greatest achievement, small though it was, was the congregation in St. Paul; but even this was destined to fail ultimately. Other attempts at cooperation, such as at Carver and Red Wing and later at St. Louis, were also doomed to failure. Another dream vanished. The common people could not be expected to possess his objectivity of mind or to accept unquestioningly the absolute line which he drew between principle and prejudice. Thus influences were at work which were narrowing down the sphere of his activity to the people of his own race.

Yet the youthful pastor had not lost his capacity for visions. As has already been noticed, he, like many others, at this time looked upon the absorption of the Norwegian immigrants into the American people as a matter of course and as an event of the near future. His first contact with the language problem among his own countrymen is connected with an incident in his life which may be worth relating. In 1859 he went to St. Louis as the representative of his church on the faculty of the theological seminary of the Missouri Synod. While here, his attention was called to some isolated Norwegian settlements in Missouri and Kansas near St. Joseph, and his offer to visit them during the Easter holidays of 1860 met with an eager response. Accordingly he boarded a long train of day coaches crowded with "Pike's-Peakers" and set out on a weary journey across the whole breadth of the state. The success of his trip promised much for the future. Congregations were formed, catechetical classes organized, and books of religious instruction ordered, notably nine copies of the catechism in the Norwegian language and twenty-two in English.

"From the relative number of English and Norwegian books," he writes in his official report, "we can see in what language the young people are most at home. For my part, I should of course have preferred to carry on all the instruction in the language with which I am most familiar, namely my mother tongue; but on the other hand it is beautiful that the pure word of God is spread in the language which the great mass of this nation speaks." By thus sharing their spiritual heritage, he thought, the immigrants might repay the debt of gratitude which they owed to this country for the rich temporal blessing it had bestowed upon them. {7} The pioneer church, however, proved unable to follow up the work he had begun. It was inevitable, perhaps, that it had to concentrate on work in the Norwegian language and in the more accessible communities.

From the sixties and seventies we have a surprisingly large number of expressions on the language question and on Americanization in general. In 1859, the pastors in reply to accusations that they opposed Americanization, issued a declaration denying the charge. In commenting on this document, Larsen says that attempts to prevent Americanization would be as useless as unnatural; but, he adds, the Lutheran faith must be kept "uncontaminated by American sects" and "we must not be too quick to imitate everything American before we have tried whether it is better than our own." {8} While his theories remain fundamentally the same throughout the period, there is a change in the tone of his utterances. Perhaps his most characteristic and sober expression on the problem is an editorial written at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the church body to which he belonged. Primarily he emphasizes the mission of the Lutheran church to be a salt in this land so rich in temporal blessings but poor in things of the spirit.

Let not indolence or false modesty [he continues] bring us to bury our talent in the earth. The Americanization of our people is bringing many dangers in its wake and will not be accomplished without spiritual losses and perhaps much injury to the soul life of the many. It is, however, inevitable and it would be unwise to work against it. And on the other hand, "if rightly guided, it can bring with it a blessing which it is for us to grasp and hold fast before the acceptable time, which will soon vanish, is gone. Through this, good may come to us ourselves and we can do good, --- especially by means of that most costly of all jewels, the Word of God which is intrusted to us. {9}

In 1861, Larsen became the president of the embryo college that was being started by the Norwegian Synod, but not till four years later, when Luther College had moved into its permanent home, was he able even to begin to work out any educational policy of his own. That he felt the need of some knowledge of American institutions is shown by the fact that in 1866 he made a visit to several universities and colleges, going as far east as Ann Arbor. While keenly observant and not unwilling to learn, especially in things of a practical nature, his letters and reports indicate that he was almost distrustful of the foreign ways and methods with which he for the first time came into close contact. At one college which had been pointed out to him as very "radical" he was particularly ill at ease. Here he found embodied the very "pinnacle of Yankee humbug and conceit." During his nine years in America, he had been so closely confined to the little circle of his own countrymen that he felt like a complete stranger among the "Yankees," -- and this word, as he used it, always had a slightly derogatory connotation. Yet the trip was not without significance. It may be taken as the first step in the slow evolution of Luther College from a European Latin school into an American college.

With regard to the whole process of adapting the college to the needs of its constituency and at the same time giving it a standing among the institutions of the land, the first president followed a course which was subject to attacks from both sides. Especially from the laity came not a few demands for a more rapid introduction of the English language than the head of the college found advisable or even possible. In 1866, the college added to the faculty its first member who had been trained in America and whose chief duty was to teach English. Far from satisfying the demand, this appointment of Knut E. Berg probably stimulated the interest in English, for his sound scholarship, his enthusiasm, and his winning personality made the subjects he taught extremely popular. More than once the president found it necessary to defend his conservatism with regard to the expansion of the study of English. Financial difficulties always made any increased expense almost impossible, and the course was already so crowded that new subjects could be added only at the expense of thoroughness, a virtue highly prized by the first president of Luther College. His chief argument, however, was that the main purpose of the college, to which all other interests must be subordinated, was to prepare pastors for work among the Norwegian immigrants. It is interesting to notice that while in 1858 he believed that the assimilation of the Norwegian immigrants into the English speaking population would be a matter of but a few years, ten years later he was convinced that Norwegian would for many years continue to be the language of church services. In 1868 he wrote:

Only a few of our countrymen as yet understand an English sermon or an English article of a more serious content, and although they show a praiseworthy eagerness to learn the language of this country, still it seems as though the Norwegian nationality and the Norwegian language have lately been more honored and respected than they were a few years ago, when everyone who wanted to be a little above the ordinary among the Norwegians here thought it necessary to be ashamed of everything that suggested his old fatherland. {10

This change, I believe, cannot be laid to any general growth in conservatism, but rather to a recognition of conditions as they were. In fact, though he was never fanatic in his devotion to his mother tongue, he came more and more to believe that the spiritual and cultural heritage of the immigrants must for a long time be preserved through the medium of their mother tongue and that efforts were necessary to keep fresh the interest in Norwegian.

While he was criticized, as we have noticed, for being too conservative in his attitude towards the use of the English language, every step in Americanizing the college, however moderate, met with some opposition from the older pastors, who were, so far as the writer knows, without exception more conservative than the president of the college. His most serious bout with them came at the close of the period under consideration. He proposed that the curriculum be divided into a preparatory and a collegiate department and that the college course proper be lengthened to four years in order to comply with American standards. With tenacity and some show of feeling, he finally put through the plan with the aid of the younger element in the church. When one of his friends tried to smooth his ruffled feelings by commending the persistence of his opponents as a quality which after all was very admirable, he replied sententiously, "Det er godt at være stø, men ikke sta." (It is good to be steadfast, but not stubborn.)

In spite of this and other changes that were in conformity with American institutions, in the usually accepted sense of the word, Luther College in the sixties and seventies was certainly not an American college. The language of instruction and even of the playground was Norwegian and the little community was isolated -- one might almost say insulated -- from direct contact with the greater currents of American life. The reading of newspapers was not encouraged, for the authorities held the now obsolete theory that the attention of college boys should be concentrated on their lessons. On the other hand, to speak of it as a "little Norway," as has so often been done, is also quite far from the absolute truth, for it was unlike anything that could be found in the Old World. The students, coming as a rule from the pioneer farms, belonged to a social group whose cousins in Norway were not yet thronging the halls of the institutions of higher learning, and they were intensely American in loyalty. The cultural life of the majority of the faculty on the other hand had its roots in the land across the sea. The little college family was a very self-conscious group which felt that it was a "peculiar people" with a special mission to perform and with a character all its own. It was Norwegian-American. As far as any one man can be said to have put his stamp on the community it was the president of the college. Though he found it necessary to "find a balance between the ideal and the practical" it embodied as nearly as could be done, his ideas of the proper relations of the immigrant to the land of his fathers and to the country of his adoption. To what extent a man like Professor Larsen could feel that he was really an American is an interesting question which is not easily answered. In all probability, he had, at the time of his emigration, no definite idea of remaining in America for life; but very soon he became so thoroughly convinced of the importance of his work here that every thought of giving it up vanished. An expression to that effect from 1858 has already been quoted. He shared the opinion of the Synod pastors who in 1862 passed a resolution of censure of a colleague who was resigning to return to Norway and branded his decision as a "great sin." I have found only one expression to the effect that he wished himself "home" in Norway, and that is in a letter to his wife written under the spell of a period of abnormal depression. He appreciated keenly the opportunities that the West especially offered to the immigrants: the economic openings, the social democracy which obliterated the class distinctions of the Old World and dignified the most "menial" labor, and above all, the liberty to develop unhampered their own institutions, their own church. He dreamed of glorious possibilities for the future. He was a strong individualist and, in his political predilections, a Jeffersonian.

Nevertheless he might have had difficulty in qualifying as a "hundred percent American." We must remember that his development during this period took place against the background of the Civil War and the critical years immediately before and after it. The great events that shook the nation seemed in a way remote to him, in spite of their tremendous influence on his life and work. The jingoistic patriotism that was rather expected of a loyal citizen found no response in him. With his pronounced individualism he naturally had a great deal of sympathy for the principle of states rights and doubted the justifiability of the appeal to force; his attitude on the slavery question drove him, against his better judgment, into a bitter controversy, which, as he knew best, was hampering his work and plans; and while the rank and file of the Norwegian-Americans were vigorous, sometimes even rabid, Republicans, he was a Democrat. In spite of his severe condemnation of any opposition to legally constituted authorities, as expressed for example in his speech on the occasion of Lincoln's assassination, and in spite of a scrupulous fulfilment of his duties as a citizen, it is not strange that at this time he was never able to free himself entirely from the suspicion of disloyalty. Probably the experiences of these days, which, the writer believes, always remained with him as a bitter memory, tended to dampen any patriotic ardor that he might have developed. Thus he did not take out his naturalization papers till the eighties.

On the other hand, it was not long before Professor Larsen began to feel that he was becoming estranged from Norway. In 1860 he was sent to Norway to win ministers for the cause of the American church. When his mission did not meet with the enthusiasm that he felt it merited, his boundless zeal led him to express himself with an impatient vigor that roused sharp criticism and even antagonism. He dogmatically condemned the latitudinarianism of the Norwegian theologians, while they found in his positive orthodoxy youthful cocksureness and danger of intellectual tyranny. He departed feeling that in a sense he had lost his mother country and that the pioneers were thrown back wholly upon their own resources. Larsen's experience is by no means unique. Ottesen, for example, regretted that on his visit to Norway he found no one but his own father who was in sympathy with him, and Koren longed to be back at the arduous work on the frontier: "I don't especially thrive on this ' Schlaraffen life,' and in spite of all the courtesy which we meet everywhere, I feel that I am a stranger." And so the women too, as one of them expressed it, longed for "the very life and atmosphere over there." The reader may perhaps wish to discount a little the quotation which follows, when told that it is derived from a letter to Larsen from his wife, who was in Norway on account of serious illness, yet it is not without significance:

It is useless to try to tell you how much I long for you, foe my home, to go to church, to associate with like-minded friends, in short for everything over there . . . .
Not for anything would I be forced to live in Norway, least of all . . . in Bergen . . . No, it is tiresome here, dead and dull and petty, -- desperately petty. . . . It is beautiful here in Norway, but I have never felt so much as I do now how little one can live, spiritually speaking, on the beauties of nature. Even though I may be together with people who appreciate the beauty of nature, we look at it so differently; few think of God's almighty power and grace as they look at nature. Yes, the pride which so-called cultured people here feel in their beautiful country is almost laughable. It is as though they had created it or at least had some of the credit for it.

In a sense, Larsen like many another pioneer, was a stranger both here and in the land of his birth. Yet it cannot be said that he felt like "the man without a country." He believed that in building up their own communities and institutions on the virgin soil of the frontier, the new Americans were able to combine the best from both countries. Thus also in the family life.

In spite of a certain estrangement from their mother country which has been mentioned and which Larsen and his wife felt very keenly, it is but natural that an aura of romance should gradually envelop the home of their youth and the land to which they owed all their spiritual and cultural possessions. Letters -- and this generation were past masters in the gentle art of letter writing -- a little stream, hardly more than a trickle, of new arrivals, and visits to Norway, kept the contacts fresh. Every one who made a trip across the ocean went laden with parcels, commissions and greetings. Anyone who needed a complete rest from the strenuous life in America or who was in search of more medical aid than the frontier could offer had no recourse but a trip to Norway. In the sixties or early seventies, most of the ministers' families braved the difficulties and hardships of a trip back "home." Thus when Larsen's wife became ill, the last tragic effort to win her back to health was such a journey. A few years later, as daughters grew up in the frontier parsonages, if it was possible, if for example a kindly fortune bestowed upon them a little sum of money in the shape of an inheritance,' they were sent "home," as there was no other "finishing school" at their disposal. As the gulf between the old and the new communities widened, however, these ventures became less frequent.

The life in the frontier parsonages, and in Larsen's home as well, was necessarily largely Norwegian. They were little centers of culture and refinement in the midst of the crudities of the frontier, maintained through the brave efforts of the women. The language in these homes was Norwegian, of course. The cultural interests of these home-makers, their music, the arrangement of their houses, their needlework and their cooking, all bore the stamp of the little country across the seas. As time went on, it seems, the instinct for preserving and guarding their heritage grew strong and articulate. In this there was at first, at least, no intentional rejection of things American. With the best that America might have offered they had no contact. It was entirely unknown to them. The finer things in life had to be nourished from the springs in the home of their birth or disappear entirely. The pioneer ministers' families simply continued the only kind of "higher life" that was possible for them.

Yet their life was far from a copy of anything found in the old country. The conditions of the frontier with its privations, its isolation, and its taxing demands on the physical strength of people unaccustomed to hard manual labor left its stamp. There was also something new in the spirit that imbued the Norwegian-American parsonages. They, too, were influenced by the pulsating life and the vigorous optimism of a new country. Here, too, was felt the democratic spirit of the frontier. They were closely bound to and identified with the little immigrant communities in which they lived. Moreover their missionary spirit gave tone to their whole life. "It must be beautiful," wrote a relative in Norway wistfully, "to live with God all the time as you do over in America." These homes made a unique contribution to Norwegian-American life and civilization.

By 1880 the generation to which Professor Larsen belongs had not only become thoroughly rooted in the soil of the Middle West, but had built up a community life with institutions all its own, expressing very definite ideals and principles. Larsen's contribution to this achievement had been by no means insignificant, and perhaps this was the time of his life when he took the greatest satisfaction in his own work and the accomplishments of his countrymen. In the effort to build institutions to conserve old spiritual and cultural values, his life had been closely identified with his own little racial group. There had been neither time nor opportunity nor perhaps even inclination to broaden his own intellectual interests. While he had not entirely lost sight of the assimilation that would take place in the future, the consummation of this process still seemed as distant as ever and he had no desire to hasten its approach.

<1> "Go ye therefore and teach all nations."

<2> Laurentius Larsen, "Skandinavisk~lutherske Menigheder," in Kirkelig Maanedstidende. 4:47 (March and April, 1859).

<3> Larsen, "Prestekald i Amerika," in Norsk Kirketidende, 1858, p. 610. 

<4> That is, the Illinois Synod. This experiment Jailed. In 1860 the Scandinavians withdrew, forming the Augustana Synod, and in 1870 the Norwegians separated from the Swedes, though not for doctrinal reasons.

<5> Larsen, "Skandinavisk-lutherske Menigheder," in Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 4: 47.

<6> Larsen, "Skandinavisk-lutherske Menigheder," in Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 4: 54.

<7> Larsen, "Menigheder i Missouri og Kansas," in Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 5: 172 (June, 1860).

<8> Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 5: 50-51 (February, 1860).

<9> Kirketidende, 5:23 (January 11, 1875). In addition to his many other duties, Larsen was entrusted with those of editor-in-chief of the church organ from 1868 to 1889, and again after his resignation as college president in 1902.

<10> Larsen, "Det Norske Luther College i Decorah," in Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 13: 104 (April, 1868).

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