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Scandinavian Students at Illinois State University
By Henry O. Evjen (Volume XI: Page 17)

Four years ago it was my good fortune to uncover the dusty records of a Lutheran college which bore the illustrious name of Illinois State University. From its birth in 1846 until its demise in 1868 this pioneer institution occupied a significant niche in the educational and religious history of the Middle West. In its twenty-two years of existence it was compelled to run the gantlet of doctrinal controversy and financial difficulties, and this proved too exacting for its continuance. Yet, in spite of its short life, this school exerted a great influence upon individuals and institutions which did much to mold American life. Professor George M. Stephenson has stated that "the history of Illinois State University is an integral part of the first decade of Swedish Lutheranism" in America. {1} Not only was it a vital factor in the establishment of the Lutheran church in the Middle West, but it was also an important factor in the assimilation of Scandinavian and German immigrants in the United States.

From these records emerged the names of such prominent patrons and board members as Abraham Lincoln; Shelby Cullom, four times senator from Illinois; John T. Stuart, Lincoln's first law partner; Francis Springer, William T. Reynolds, Lars P. Esbjörn, Paul Anderson, all prominent clergymen; James C. Conkling, famous lawyer; and a host of other individuals renowned in deed and legend in the Lincoln country of Illinois. Such men as John Hay, his brother Augustus, Clinton Conkling, Abraham Jacobson, Robert T. Lincoln, and George Bowers received part of their education, if not all of it, from this pioneer institution.

To evaluate objectively the influence that a school exerts upon its students is a difficult task, for there are no objective standards by which this can be done. However, if the lifework of its students can be used as a criterion, then one must admit that Illinois State University played a prominent part in the lives of the two thousand students who entered its halls of learning. From all walks of life came these youths, some from the most prominent families of Illinois; others from German and Scandinavian families that had recently migrated to the Middle West; all determined to improve themselves in this newly established school.

The history of this institution has already been written. {2} It is a history of a struggle, a struggle against insurmountable odds which eventually strangled the school. Yet, through all these vexing years, the school was able to weather each punishing storm, largely through the indomitable courage and persistency of its underpaid faculty members, who were unwilling to abandon this worthy institution. These noble men belong to an unheralded group of persons from whom deserving recognition has been withheld too long. The genesis of Illinois State University occurred in 1846 when a group of Lutheran laymen and clergymen, desiring to provide teachers and ministers for the numerous throngs of immigrants who were settling in the Illinois country, established the school in Hillsboro, Illinois. Believing, however, that a more prominent locality would offer greater advantages to the school, its founders moved it in 1852 to Springfield, the capital city of Illinois. Its name was changed from Hillsboro College to the auspicious title of "Illinois State University.'' Unfortunately the change in location did not prove as beneficial as had been anticipated. In spite of an increased enrollment, each succeeding year found the school encumbered with heavier financial burdens. Plea after plea was sent to members of the Lutheran church for aid, and each in turn was unanswered. Had it not been for the aid given by such non-Lutherans as Lincoln, Stuart, and Conkling, the school would have ceased in early infancy. S. W. Harkey, one of the early pioneer Lutherans of Illinois, sounded the call for aid in 1852. "There are in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin," wrote Harkey, "some fifty thousand Swedes and Norwegians . . . . And the swelling tide of emigration is annually adding tens of thousands to their numbers . . . . . We may well ask what is to become of them if we do not provide ministers and the means of education for them." {3} The good Harkey may have been somewhat hyperbolical in his estimate of the number of Scandinavians in the two states, but his intentions were good.

It was apparent to the leaders of the Lutheran church in the West that the real purpose of Illinois State University would not be realized unless more men who could converse in the Scandinavian and German tongues could be persuaded to serve the increasing number of immigrant communities in Illinois and adjacent regions. At once they initiated a plan to encourage young men from Sweden and Norway to enter Illinois State University. The main obstacle, however, to this worthy plan was that of financial support for these immigrant students, the majority of whom would have little or no funds. In order to cope with this problem, the Evangelical synods of Illinois established the Education Society, an organization of laymen who were to collect money, food, and clothing for these indigent students. Reassured by a number of churches in the East which promised to provide necessary tuition, the leaders of the church, such as Lars Esbjörn, Paul Anderson, Francis Springer, and others, essayed to put the plan into operation. Accordingly, each student would be given tuition, board, and room free of charge on the condition that he enter the ministry or the teaching field.

The first Scandinavian students to enter Illinois State University were Canute Knudson and Christian Olsen, both of whom had entered the preparatory department at Hillsboro College in 1850. Among others, these two were followed by Andreas Andreen, Neils Larsen, Lewis H. Norem, Amon Johnson, Abraham Jacobson, and Peter H. Peterson, all of whom later entered the ministry of the Lutheran church.

This contingent was augmented from time to time by new groups, the largest of which, consisting of twelve boys, arrived in 1859. In that year thirty Scandinavians were enrolled in Illinois State University. Unfortunately neither the Education Society nor the Lutheran church synods were able to supply the needs of these young men, many of whom had come penniless to this strange country. Their lot was by no means easy. Scanty rations caused by meager contributions often became the order of the day. "Our institution is flourishing," wrote Professor Lars P. Esbjörn in 1859. "The Scandinavians amount to twenty . . . . but our list of beneficiaries has 22 names. We need something like $2,500 to carry them through the years." {4}

Fortunately, Springfield was buzzing with activity and construction, bidding fair to become the metropolis of the Middle West. As the capital of Illinois, it envisioned a brilliant future. This condition enabled many of the indigent students to secure part-time employment. President Francis Springer, writing in 1856, stated that "they [the students] are worthy, and our means of support is exhausted .... Several of them are sawing wood, kindling fires, or sweeping offices. Some of them are employed as runners in the statehouse for a means of subsistence." {5}

Many of the Scandinavian students belonged to small boarding clubs organized by those who felt that they could live more cheaply by preparing their own meals in this manner. However, the boarding unit plan was very unsatisfactory, working hardships on the poorer students, most of whom were the Scandinavians. Mrs. L. P. Esbjörn relates that she often baked bread for these boys, who had no other means of obtaining it. Lack of proper food often caused students to become ill. On one occasion, a boy who was ill was moved from his room to better quarters in the church basement. He begged Mrs. Esbjörn to take him to a private home where he could get closer attention. Pitying the lad, she moved him to the parlor in her home. After he had returned to his home, he sent her a jar of sausage meat. "He must have been one of our wealthy boys," commented the good lady, "to be able to send us that gift. I imagine that he lived on a small farm near Galesburg." {6}

These boys were not entirely forgotten, however. Occasionally the Olive Branch, a church paper, would carry an item such as this: "We have the pleasure of again acknowledging the receipt of the following article for our beneficiaries. A barrel of flour and a box of meat from the Norwegian Ev. Lutheran church of Leland, Illinois, and meat and butter from the Swedish Lutheran church of Andover. We believe that there were about 30 pounds of butter . . . . and a fine lot [of meat]." {7}

Although life may have been hard for these students, it was by no means dull. Permission was often granted to the students to see the varied attractions that came to Springfield. Political conventions featuring the debating of Stephen A. Douglas, the most brilliant orator of his day, and the keen, logical speeches of Abraham Lincoln; the sessions of the state legislature; the state fair; such lecturers as Horace Greeley, Bayard Taylor, Henry Ward Beecher; Barnum's circus with all its ballyhoo; and a host of other features engaged their attention. When the celebrated Ole Bull played before the elite of Springfield, the Scandinavian students were in their glory.

The social life of the school centered largely in two literary societies, the Philomathean and the Utilior. Every Friday afternoon the members of each society would meet in their respective halls to engage in oratory, debate, and declamations. Approval by the majority of members was necessary for admittance to membership. Rivalry was extremely keen between these two groups, often resulting in bitter repercussions. This was particularly noticeable in the efforts of each to obtain noted men as honorary members. Letters of notification of election to honorary membership were sent to hundreds of men throughout the country. The audacious students even addressed a letter of notification to Napoleon III. It is really surprising to discover how many prominent people accepted membership. James Buchanan, Horace Greeley, Stephen A. Douglas, William C. Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Johnson, Sam Houston were a few of the many who did.

John Hay, writing to his sister Ella, described school life at Illinois State University in these words: "We are studying Latin, Greek, Rhetoric and Algebra . . . .We are busy every night with our studies, except Sunday and Friday nights. On Friday our Society meets for the purpose of debating, reading original essays, and criticising. I manage to come in as often as possible for speaking, which takes up no time in the week."

His brother, Augustus Leonard, also revealed an interesting page in the school life of students of the university, writing in a letter some thirty years later: "I wonder if Lincoln ever studied by a 'tallow dip' as you and I did at Springfield when Phelps and See argufied on metaphysics . . . . while Herodotus, in the original greek, lay waiting and neglected in the corner to reassert himself, and floor us the next morning before the faculty of I. S. U." {8}

Christian Olsen, the first Swede to enter Illinois State University, joined the Utilior Society in the fall of 1851. He was an able debater and an excellent speaker. His fellow members attested to his oratorical ability by selecting him to be the main speaker at the annual anniversary celebration of both societies in December, 1852. Often he and Neils Larsen, another Norwegian student who enrolled in 1852, would debate together on the same teams. Unfortunately ill health forced Olsen to discontinue his schooling in 1854.

In the fall of 1853 four Norwegians, Aslag Eilson, Lewis H. Norem, Abraham Jacobson, and Peter H. Peterson entered Illinois State University. The last two boys, Jacobson and Peterson, at once became leaders among the students. Both joined the Philomathean Society in September, 1853. Their tuition was paid by two Lutheran churches in Martinsburg, Virginia, and Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, both of which owned scholarships. Shortly after the opening of school, Abraham Jacobson and John Hay debated against Peter Peterson and Augustus Hay on the momentous subject," The signs of the times indicate the downfall of the Republic." The judges awarded the decision to the affirmative side, upheld by Jacobson and Hay. On another occasion, Jacobson, defending the proposition that Know-Nothingism was un-American, successfully presented his case against the combined efforts of the Hay brothers. Both Peterson and Jacobson often had Robert Todd Lincoln on their debating teams. However, Robert Todd possessed none of the argumentative skill of his distinguished father, displaying on the contrary a reluctance to participate in public exhibitions. His school record was marred by truancy, for he preferred accompanying his father on the court circuit to attending school. On one occasion Lincoln visited the home of Professor Esbjörn, seeking advice about his son, whose school record displeased him. However, Lincoln, who exercised little control over his children, apparently was unable to alter his son's wayward habits.

Peterson served as editor of the University Star, the newspaper of the Philomathean Society, and three times he was re-elected vice-president of the group. In 1858 he graduated from the theological department, entering at once into a prominent career as a minister in the Lutheran church.

Jacobson, like Peterson, was extremely active in school affairs. He probably was the most popular of all the Scandinavian students at Illinois State University. Often his fellow students came to him for help and advice. In 1859 the Philomathean elected him president by acclamation. As a student he enjoyed fair prestige, although his grades were not especially impressive. Yet he was for the most part far superior as a student to most of his Scandinavian friends, who failed to attain any scholarship honors. Few of them were able to pass English and rhetoric. For this the reason is obvious. Two students, Sven Larson and Edward Ericson, were able to maintain excellent grades in their work. Gustave Esping, another student, was also outstanding in scholastic attainment. Unfortunately a fifty-five average in history marred an otherwise fine record.

In the fall of 1854 Amon Johnson, Andreas Andreen, and Peter Holm entered school. The Education Society of the church gave them financial help, and its investment proved to be a profitable one, for in later life Johnson and Andreen contributed much in service to the Lutheran church. In the summer of 1856 Andreen suffered financial difficulties, and the Philomathean, of which he was a member, generously lent him the remaining money in the treasury in order to relieve his embarrassment. Johnson was prominent in school activities, being elected president of the Philomathean in 1856. Holm, however, displayed little interest in schooling, and less in the literary societies. After the Utilior had expelled him for nonattendance, he dropped out of school.

During the period 1858 to1860 twenty new Scandinavian students enrolled at Illinois State University. This large influx was caused by the establishment of a Scandinavian professorship which was filled by L. P. Esbjörn, a prominent leader among the Swedes. Most prominent among these new students were Gustave Esping, George Olson, John Pehrson, Isaac Jenson, Staale Berntzen, Bengt Holland, and John and Joseph Esbjörn. Unfortunately the arrival of this group was received with disdain by the American-born students, who began to feel that the large foreign student element in the school seriously threatened to dominate the school at the expense of the American students. This agitation marked the beginning of ill will between the American-born and foreign-born students --- a feeling which was to contribute much to the Scandinavian schism that occurred two years later.

Although Springfield was a cosmopolitan city, many of its native-born inhabitants had succumbed to the intolerant tenets of Know-Nothingism. This nativistic sentiment, so strong in the 1850's, found ready expression in the young American students who, too often, made the slow-speaking Scandinavians targets for their invective and contempt. In the minutes of one of the literary societies a statement reads, "The society then proceeded to missellanious business. Whereupon a few anti-Scandinavian speeches were made." On another occasion a blunt nativistic-minded student made a motion to the effect that thereafter no members should be admitted who could not converse well enough in the English language to be understood by all.

It is little wonder that the Scandinavians felt incensed at this undeserved treatment. Its immediate result was to band the Scandinavians, and particularly the Swedes, into their own groups, a development which, in turn, gradually widened the rift between the two elements.

This ill feeling among the students reached a climax in October, 1859, when the Philomathean Society rejected the petition of C. Anderson for membership. Anderson, who later achieved some distinction as a Lutheran clergyman, felt the rejection keenly, and sought solace from his fellow students. So incensed were his Scandinavian friends that they at once requested permission from the faculty to organize a new society, insisting that they could no longer expect fair treatment from the two existing societies. The faculty denied this request, believing that it would only serve to increase the agitation among the students. The faculty promised to investigate the matter, however, and the next day asked the Philomathean to explain its action. The Philomathean denied the charge of unfair treatment, but gave no reason for rejecting the petition of Anderson. Later, upon the advice of Abraham Jacobson, the Philomathean stated that "the rejection proceeded not from any prejudice against foreigners or from any dissatisfaction with Anderson personally, but it was only as a policy against the corrupt electioneering of the Utilior Society, and therefor no indignity was intended against foreigners." The "corrupt electioneering" charge arose from an attempt of the Utilior to enroll one Edwin Alsop as a member, although he had previously signified his intention to join the Philomathean. Since a faculty ruling forbade one society from having one less than twice as many members as the other, the acceptance of Anderson's petition would have filled their quota and thus made it impossible to add Alsop to their membership.

This resolution failed to heal the wounds, which were reopened when the Philomathean passed another resolution stating that it was to the best interests of the club to receive no Scandinavians at that time. The ten Scandinavian members in the club requested that the resolution be withdrawn, but no further action was taken.

The winter of 1859-60 found the Scandinavians bitter and dissatisfied. Their leader, Professor Esbjörn, had for some time expressed in letters to his friends his complaints against Illinois State University. He believed that the Americanizing influences which permeated the school were threatening to engulf the Scandinavian students, the accomplishment of which might spell doom to his dream of a Scandinavian synod in the Middle West. Fortunately, at this time the Synod of Illinois and the Synod of Northern Illinois, the two supporting synods of Illinois State University, were being threatened with dissolution by a fight between Symbolists and anti-Symbolists. Sensing the advantage of the situation, Esbjörn and all but two of the Scandinavian students abruptly left the school, offering as a reason the belief that the faculty was attempting to inculcate into the students new Lutheran ideas, at the same time divesting Esbjörn of his supervision over the young men. President Reynolds, writing in the Lutheran Standard, denied the accusations, at the same time censuring Esbjörn for his unprecedented action. A bitter exchange of accusations followed in such church papers as the Observer, the Olive Branch, Hemlandet, and the Lutheran Standard, all of which resulted in nothing. Efforts to entice the Scandinavians back into the fold failed. In a Chicago convention, called by the Scandinavians to consider the matter, the delegates, after hearing Dr. Reynolds and Dr. S. W. Harkey present the case for the school, voted unanimously to sustain the action of Esbjörn. On June 10, 1860, the Swedish members of the Synod of Illinois organized, at Clinton, Wisconsin, the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America.

It is interesting to note the first reaction of the students and the faculty to Esbjörn's action. A petition, signed by the following students, A. O. Lindstrom, B. M. Holland, A. W. Dahlsten, O. Suneson, C. O. Holtgren, S. G. Larsen, and J. F. O. Duvell, requested honorable dismission from school "Whereas, Rev. Prof. L. P. Esbjörn . . . . has resigned," stated the petition, "and whereas many of us have assurance from our pastors and congregations that we ought to leave and withdraw from the institution immediately; Therefore, Resolved, That we, the undersigned students of Illinois University would respectfully request that the Faculty grant us leave to withdraw honorably and with consent and goodwill of all concerned." {9}

The faculty made no objection to their departure, but protested vigorously against Esbjörn's action, stating that none of the reasons for his action could be logically sustained.

The departure of the Scandinavians was a serious blow to the hopes of Illinois State University, for now it was deprived of a source of income, as well as the spiritual support so necessary to a young institution. Strangely enough, one of the two Scandinavian members who remained was Charles Anderson, who had received such hostile treatment from the Philomathean Society. Anderson graduated from the theological department in 1863. His scholastic record reveals that he had an average of 85 in all his subjects.

If an honor roll for scholastic work had been maintained at Illinois State University, there would have been few Scandinavians on it. The handicap of language alone was sufficient to keep them from realizing any high grades. George L. Bergen, Olef Suneson, Edwin Peterson, Staale Berntzen, Thomas Hollegne, John Nasse, and Halver Strand achieved the unusual distinction of failing in all subjects except Scandinavian. On the other hand, such stalwarts as Abraham Jacobson, John Peterson, Sven Larsen, Christian Olsen, John Pehrson, the Esbjörn boys, Edward Ericson, and Gustave Esping made up for the poor showing of the others by achieving acceptable, and in most cases, excellent records.

One must keep in mind that many of these boys were burdened with part-time jobs that demanded much of their energy. It is interesting to note that Amon Johnson, later a minister and trustee of Augsburg Seminary, worked as a painter in Janesville, Wisconsin, before entering Illinois State University. During his school career he was able often to utilize this skill in performing odd tasks around the school.

As one scans the records of Illinois State University, one finds many interesting comments about the Scandinavian students. After the name of Abraham Jacobson, there appears the notation, "no bills." In light of the many unpaid bills of other students this was significant. Jacobson graduated from the theological department in 1860, and immediately entered the ministry, where he had a distinguished career as a pastor and writer. The signatures of all the Scandinavian students are attached to a pledge which reads:

I solemnly promise, on my truth and honor, to observe and obey all laws, rules, and regulations of the Illinois State University, and especially that I will abstain from the profanation of the Lord's Day, from the use of profane language, from all kinds of gambling, from all indecent behavior, and from disrespectful conduct towards my instructors, and from all combinations to resist authority.

One may note that nothing was said regarding smoking, which has so often been considered one of the cardinal sins.

Few of the Scandinavian students had to be disciplined or reprimanded by the faculty. They represented a quiet, sensible group of young men who tried to make the best of their opportunities. Their part in the Scandinavian settlement of the United States lay ahead of them. They were the answer to a plea voiced by W. Thomsen, a minister in Minnesota, who wrote in 1860, "We look with much anxiety to the Illinois State University for a supply of earnest and well qualified young men who shall . . . . lead the people in the way of life." {10}


<1> Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration, 182 (Minneapolis, 1932).

<2> See an article by the present writer, "Illinois State University, 1852-1858," in Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 31:54-71 (March, 1938); and his master's thesis, "History of Illinois State University," which was submitted at Ohio State University in 1938.

<3> S. W. Harkey, A Plan to Raise $30,000, 2 (Springfield, Illinois, 1852).

<4> The Missionary, November 24, 1859.

<5> Journal of Francis Springer, p. 1, in the possession of the author.

<6> Illinois Historical Society, Transactions, 1912, p. 75.

<7> March, 1860. This file is in the possession of the author.

<8> Tyler Dennett, John Hay; from Poetry to Politics, 16 (New York, 1933).

<9> Minutes of Faculty, April 2, 1860, in the possession of the author.

<10> The Missionary, April, 1860.

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