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The School Controversy among Norwegian Immigrants
    by Frank C. Nelsen (Volume 26: Page 206)

A study of nineteenth-century immigration makes it clear that the more reflective immigrants, particularly the ministers, were concerned about the question of whether or not it would be possible to maintain their language, culture, and religious values in the United States. They were also aware that schools and the educational process had much to do with a culture’s survival or death. The specter of "Americanization" troubled more immigrants than historians have been willing to admit. The popular notion that they came ready and willing to be assimilated into American society is largely a myth. The truth is that the immigrants saw America primarily as a land of great economic opportunity—and the Norwegians were no exception. {1} Many intended to stay for a few years, make a considerable amount of money, and return to Norway to live the rest of their lives as gentlemen.

Although a minority did not accept the American school system, the majority came to support it. {2} Opposition to the schools was found largely within the powerful Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The immigrants referred to it simply as the Synod, and the simplicity of its name indicates something of the size, prestige, and influence of this church body. {3} The Synod is of particular interest because of its hostility to the entire American school system, from kindergarten to college and university education, and for its long and sometimes bitter controversy with key lay leaders who supported the public schools.

The ministers of the Synod had been educated in the theological faculty of the University of Christiania (Oslo), and these elitist, class-conscious pastors considered themselves to be the leaders of a counterpart of the established state church in Norway. Their organization was traditional and formalistic; it stressed above all else the necessity of "pure doctrine."

After the Synod was reorganized in 1853, it established a relationship with the German Missouri Lutheran Synod, an affiliation which was not to prove altogether beneficial to the Norwegians. For some years after its founding, the Norwegian church did not have a seminary to train young men for the ministry. Because it lacked such an institution, the Synod made arrangements just prior to the Civil War to send ministerial candidates to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At this German-speaking seminary, the young Norwegians came under the charismatic influence of the Reverend C. F. W. Walther, founder of the Missouri Synod. He not only had a profound influence on these students at Concordia, but also on the pastors who had received their theological education earlier in Norway—including men like Laur. Larsen, A. C. Freus, H. A. Preus, Bernt J. Muus, J. A. Ottesen, and U. V. Koren.

The vast majority of Norwegian immigrants held antislavery views, but the pastors adopted the proslavery stance of Walther and the Missouri Synod, a position they argued could be justified from the Bible. Along with their acceptance of a proslavery attitude, the pastors also adopted Walther’s theological teaching on the question of election—an interpretation that was more Calvinistic than that of traditional Lutheranism, and which was also different from the one they had been taught in Christiania. It was the controversy over predestination that eventually split the Norwegian Synod when the anti-Missouri faction seceded in 1890. {4} In addition to getting their perspective on the slavery question and a revised theology from Walther, the Norwegian pastors were greatly impressed by the system of parochial schools then being built by the Missouri Synod.

When the first wave of Norwegian immigrants came to the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century, they generally supported the American common school. Even the Reverend J. W. C. Dietrichson, a high-church pastor, in 1844 helped establish a district school for the immigrants of the Koshkonong, Wisconsin, region. As the university-educated clergy began to arrive from Norway, however, they rejected Dietrichson’s "Grundtvigian" theology, which tended to place the baptismal confession and the Apostles’ Creed above the Scriptures. In addition they opposed the American common school that Dietrichson had supported. Two of the earliest critics of the public school prior to the Civil War were the Reverend H. A. Stub and the Reverend Olaus Fredrik Duus. Duus, judging from his letters to relatives in Norway, spent most of his time in land speculation and the rest in making harsh comments about American schools and teachers. {5} If Norwegian children were permitted to attend the common school, Stub and Duus believed that both the Lutheran faith and the Norwegian language would be lost.

After the Norwegian Synod was reorganized and purged of the Grundtvigian section of its constitution, the next issue of concern to the young clergymen from Norway was the school question. Following the Civil War, the Synod was prepared to make its position clear on the matter of the schools. It received a proposal from Professor F. A. Schmidt, at the time a teacher at Concordia Seminary, and U. V. Koren, an influential pastor, suggesting that a study be made of the whole school problem. When the Synod met in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in the early summer of 1866, its leaders stated in unmistakable language their views concerning the common school and unfolded their plans for establishing a parochial educational system of their own.

At this important meeting, the Synod spent considerable time discussing the most appropriate adjective to describe the American school. The pastors debated whether it should be called "heathen" or "religionless." A casual examination of the documents gives the impression that it was simply a matter of semantics, due perhaps to the ignorance of newly arrived immigrants who had not yet mastered the English language. Although there may be a measure of truth in this interpretation, it should be pointed out that the clergy of the Norwegian Synod were university-educated men who knew enough ancient history to assert that the great philosopher Socrates was a "heathen" or a "pagan," who nevertheless had always commanded great respect. They asserted that the native American ought not to be disturbed by being identified with Socrates. Before the Manitowoc meeting concluded, however, the adjective "religionless" was victorious over "heathen." As the debate dragged on, the leaders argued that "religionless" might be less offensive to the native Americans. {6} During the years of the school controversy (1866—1880), "religionless"—and this term they applied to secular education—characterized a kind of schooling they could not understand.

At the Manitowoc meeting in June, 1866, the ministers of the Synod called on the church membership to build parochial schools modeled after those of the Missouri Lutheran Synod. They also discussed a strategy that could be used in Norwegian localities where Lutherans were in the majority. In such communities, persons in sympathy with Synod views should be hired to teach in the public schools. The Synod conceded that this action might not be entirely in accord with the United States Constitution, but if Lutheran teachers were to be employed, "the schools could lose much of their venom." {7}

The Manitowoc Declarations thus became the official position of the Norwegian church, which stubbornly held that the common schools were corrupting their children. Because of danger in American education, the Synod would build a parochial system of such high quality that it would be unnecessary for Norwegian Lutherans to send their children to the district schools.

The pastors at Manitowoc made it clear that they planned to build their own educational system, but their intention was not to go unchallenged. They were to be countervailed in the next two decades by a small number of intelligent immigrant laymen. One of the first to oppose the Synod position was Knud Langeland, editor of Skandinaven, the newly established Norwegian-language weekly in Chicago. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, this newspaper became the most influential of all Norwegian journals in the United States. The elderly Langeland was a former Free Soiler who bad become an ardent Republican. He had opposed the Synod’s proslavery position for years, and now he attacked its leaders for their announced plans for parochial schools. After the Manitowoc Declarations were published, Langeland took issue with the program adopted by the church body, declaring that "the clergy evidently intended salvation to be the reward of ‘ignorance and superstition.'" {8} He called on the common people to speak out on the school question.

After the Synod’s position had become known, Editor Langeland questioned the wisdom of the clergy in labeling the American common school "religionless." The fact of the matter, he said, was that children in the public schools "read a chapter from the New Testament, and with a short prayer they begin the school day each morning." "Do you want the district school," Langeland asked, "to become a Lutheran school?" {9} He admitted candidly that not everything about the country’s schools was ideal, but what was wrong was the result of human failure.

Charges such as Knud Langeland made were challenged by the church leaders. The Reverend A. C. Preus, president of the Synod, declared that what Langeland had written about the Manitowoc meeting was libelous. The Synod’s position was not to eliminate the common school as a state institution, for the Lutheran church acknowledged that it was a necessity for non-Christians. Nor did it favor making the district school into a Lutheran institution. What Preus advocated was the establishment of schools of such excellent quality that it would be unnecessary for the Synod to use the common school. {10}

Langeland was not the only Norwegian immigrant to see evil in the Manitowoc Declarations. He was joined by John A. Johnson, a manufacturer in Wisconsin. Specializing In the production of farm machinery, he was of great help to Norwegian farmers. He was one of the most talented and versatile laymen among the Norwegian Americans. {11}

Although Johnson was a member of the Synod at that time, he opposed its plan to build a system embracing both elementary and secondary schools. He did not, however, object to Luther College at Decorah, Iowa, an institution that provided higher learning and pretheological training. Looking at the plans as outlined in the Manitowoc Declarations, Johnson, an astute businessman, did not favor the program for two reasons. First, the Synod simply did not have funds adequate to build its own school system. The Norwegian farmer, he knew very well, was struggling to remain solvent. Second, the immigrants would be forced into a position of supporting a dual system—the public school by taxes and the church school by donations. The first position, Johnson maintained, had the approval of the laity, the second, the support of the Synod pastors. The solution to the whole question was not to undermine American institutions. What was needed was for Norwegians to work together to make the district school what it ought to be. {12}

There emerged in the 1860s among the immigrants the realization that it was almost impossible for Norwegians to get a professional or vocational education. This kind of training could be obtained only in American schools. Concerned laymen like Langeland, Johnson, and Rasmus Bjørn Anderson realized that young people coming directly from Norwegian-speaking communities would have difficulty adjusting to American college and university life. To make the adjustment easier, some three hundred laymen and clergy met in Madison on March 4, 1869, to consider organizing a society whose primary short-term objective would be to place Scandinavian professors in American colleges and universities. {13} Some of the students coming to secular institutions of higher learning would be educated there to become qualified teachers in the American common school. Their training would enable them to teach in both English and Norwegian. In addition to this preparation other students interested in the professions would be conditioned for useful lives. It would be the function of the Norwegian professors to teach immigrant students religion and Norwegian language, literature, and history. It was also thought that these university instructors would be counselors and advisers helping students to adjust to American institutions of higher learning.

The Synod’s leadership, after briefly attending the meeting on March 4, objected to the Reverend C. L. Clausen’s "unparliamentary methods" as chairman. The pastors were already vexed with Clausen because of his antislavery position and his endorsement of the American common school. On March 5, the very next day, the Synod organized a counter meeting in a Madison church. H. A. Preus, long-time president of the Synod, pointed out that the ministers could not approve the plan of having Norwegian professors in American universities. {14} He made it clear that the Synod certainly did not intend to send its young people to secular schools which were "either ‘religionless,’ ‘sectarian’ or administered by atheists." {15} Such institutions were unsuited to students in their formative years. Preus maintained that if Norwegian students attended these schools, they would return to their home settlements with their minds full of liberal ideas. They would thus cause discord and disruption in the local churches. As for the Scandinavian professors on the campuses, they probably would not be orthodox Lutherans; no orthodox Lutheran could teach at such secular institutions. Furthermore, no administrator would permit a Norwegian subculture to weaken the traditional harmony and unity of his college. {16}

As the school debate intensified in the 1870s, Rasmus Bjørn Anderson joined the struggle in earnest. {17} His middle name means "bear" in Norwegian, and his adversaries felt the bear-like quality of his personality, for he was often extremely combative. Anderson, although largely self-educated, had a keen intellect and was known for his devastating wit in debate. He was born in Wisconsin, and his identification throughout a long life was with the Norwegian immigrant community. He was the first professor of Scandinavian at the University of Wisconsin.

With Knud Langeland and John A. Johnson, Anderson opposed the Synod on the slavery question, which, strange as it may seem, was debated after the Civil War was concluded. He also differed with the Synod pastors on their expressed intention of establishing a parochial school system. In 1876, when Anderson heard that the Synod intended to erect their own school building in Decorah, he wrote in Skandinaven: "This can only be taken as a declaration of war against the American common school. It is surprising that the intelligent Norwegians of Decorah would go ahead and make plans that mean war against the Republic. The common school is our country’s cornerstone, and the building of the religious schools is nothing less than ‘treason against this country."

In emotional language, Anderson made his appeal to the immigrants. "Norwegian people in cottages all over America, support the American common school and protect it as if it were your own eyes. If they come to you and ask you to join the Norwegian church school, flee from them as you would flee from priest domination. The common school must be preserved." Later he infuriated the church leaders by criticizing their schools, saying that the American common school was a thousand times better than "these ‘sideshows’ of schools which the Synod has established." {18}

In 1877, the most intense year of the school controversy, John A. Johnson rejoined the debate and, in an article in Skandinaven, called attention to a speech made by F. A. Schmidt, the Synod’s theology professor on the faculty of the newly established seminary in Madison. His remarks appeared in English in the Madison Democrat. Johnson quoted Professor Schmidt as having said, "Schools where the Word of God is not the authority are the ‘Gates of Hell." He believed that Schmidt was referring to the common school. In his reply, he declared he did not think for a moment that the public school had the soul-damning effect on children claimed by Professor Schmidt. {19}

According to R. B. Anderson, Schmidt responded to Johnson in Nordvesten, another Norwegian-language newspaper. Here he cleverly answered: "In my English speech I did not mention either the ‘common school’ or any other educational institution. I will not deny that people who do not listen carefully to what one really says can misunderstand, but one who listens carefully and understands the speaker will remember what he has said and written before." Anderson, after reviewing the controversy, commented, "You should note that the professor in his explanation is very vague about the common school. He does not deny that he used the words ‘Gates of Hell’ in describing the schools. I assume the professor was talking about ‘real’ and not ‘ethereal’ schools." {20}

Anderson asserted that there were extremists in the Synod who in their more radical moments talked about destroying the American common school. {21} Although he felt that these people discredited immigrants in the eyes of native-born Americans, he did not believe that they would allow the Norwegians to destroy their schools. The real issue was whether or not the immigrants should attend American schools from the elementary to the college or university level. There was general agreement among Johnson, Langeland, and others of the laity that the kind of provincial and parochial education advocated by the Synod would only isolate the Norwegian immigrant from the mainstream of American life.

During his long and stormy career, Anderson contended that Norwegians had something to offer the American people and a developing nation. Although he had numerous enemies in both the American and Norwegian communities, few ever questioned the sincerity of his lifelong promotion of Scandinavian culture. He admonished his people not to hang their heads in shame. Norwegians, he said, should take pride in the contributions of their musicians and writers. By his books and articles—and later as a newspaper editor—he repeatedly informed these transplanted people of their rich cultural heritage.

It was Anderson’s firm belief that Norwegians ought to make an impact on the society of the New World. Therefore, they must not withdraw from the American school system at any level. "The doors to this country’s schools," he wrote, "are open to us. The American does not distinguish in his high schools, academies, and universities, but invites the immigrant child to the school desk, to sit together with his own. Why not accept this generous invitation?" {22}

Although it would seem at times that there was little agreement between the laymen and the Norwegian Synod, the two groups did, however, share one conviction: the necessity of preserving Norwegian culture, language, and the Lutheran faith among the immigrants. The basic disagreement was over method. The Synod held that this goal could only be accomplished by controlling the school, the principal agent of socialization. The dissenting laity believed that Norwegian culture could still be maintained and the Lutheran faith preserved without preventing the children of immigrants from attending American schools. This could be done if the youth had available what we call today "Scandinavian Studies" at the college or university they planned to attend.

Men like Johnson and Anderson agreed that cultural pluralism in American society was not only possible but desirable. The public school ought to be an institution where immigrants could become familiar with American culture and the English language without giving up their Norwegian heritage. The laity regretfully acknowledged that there were Yankee teachers in immigrant settlements who cared little about Norway or its culture, and that children were sometimes punished for speaking Norwegian—not only in the classroom but on the school playground as well.

The debate over the schools continued throughout the 1870s. As the decade came to a close, however, the leaders of the Synod were dissatisfied with the slow progress they were making in building a parochial school system, the program that they had so courageously proposed at Manitowoc some sixteen years before. They became aware of the fact that Norwegians would not support a separate school system like that of the Germans in the Missouri Synod. An anonymous writer, a member of a Synod congregation, wrote on one occasion complaining that the common school took the best months of the year, leaving the Norwegians only two or three months during which to conduct their school. In addition, immigrant parents frequently neglected to send their children to the religious school. Furthermore, the parochial teacher, unlike the minister of the church, was often "looked upon as a day laborer." He points out that salaries were extremely low in the church schools and added that "when the teacher finishes teaching, he takes his hat and goes; often he has gotten only half of the salary that the common school teacher receives. Under these conditions, one need not wonder that a teacher gets discouraged, nervous, and careless; it is a weary kind of life." {23} The turnover of instructors in these schools was great; one writer commented that the teacher would leave just as he came to know the ability of the children. {24}

The school controversy came to an end by 1880. The conclusion of the issue was due in part to a bitter debate over the theological question of election, which was to occupy the full attention of the Synod in the new decade. Unlike the school quarrel, which was a struggle between the clergy and the laity, the election controversy split the ministers of the Norwegian Synod.

Although the dispute over education ended at an early date, there were still residual elements of hostility toward the public school as late as the mid-1920s. O. M. Norlie, then a professor at Luther College, wrote in 1925: "The secular schools by their very secular nature, not to speak of their anti-Christian spirit in many places, are de-Christianizing the land, no matter how much some of them try not to do so." One can hear the voice of a Preus, an Ottesen, a Muus, and a Koren, leaders of the Norwegian Synod, echoing these words. But Professor Norlie was not to be any more effective than the old "Decorah-ring" in preventing the immigrants from sending their children to the common school. By 1880, the majority of the Norwegians in America had made their decision. Not only was America to be the land of their choice, but its schools were to be their schools. {25}


<1> See A. Lewenhaupt, "An Official Report on Norwegian and Swedish Immigration, 1870," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 13:59 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1943), and J. Magnus Rohne, Norwegian-American Lutheranism Up to 1872, 18 (New York, 1926). The immigrants made numerous references to the economic factor. See the "America letters’ in Theodore C. Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice (Minneapolis, 1955).

<2> The first comprehensive study of the school controversy is Laurence M. Larson’s chapter, Professor Anderson and the Yankee School," in The Changing West and Other Essays (Northfield, 1936); see also Theodore C. Blegen, "The Common School," in Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition (Northfield, 1940).

<3> The Lutheran synod to which the immigrant belonged tended to shape his thinking on the school question. The Elling Eielsen people supported the American common school, and the Conference of the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Synod of Northern Illinois also defended it. For an analysis of the Norwegian-American Lutheran synods during the period of the school controversy, see E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among the Norwegian-Americans, Vol. I (Minneapolis, 1960).

<4> For a thorough study of the Norwegian Synod at that time, see Lee Cerhard Belgum, The Old Norwegian Synod in America," an unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1957.

<5> Theodore C. Blegen, ed., Frontier Parsonage: The Letters of Olaus Fredrik Duus, Norwegian Pastor in Wisconsin, 1855—1858 (Northfield, 1947).

<6> Synodalberetning (1866).

<7> Synodalberetning, 39 (1866).

<8> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 257 (Northfield, 1940).

<9> Knud Langeland, in Skandinaven, September 6, 1866.

<10> A. C. Preus, "The Norwegian Synod and the American Common School," in Skandinaven, September 27, 1866.

<11> For a biography of Johnson, see Agnes M. Larson, John A. Johnson: An Uncommon American (Northfield, 1969).

<12> John A. Johnson, "The School Issue" in Skandinaven November 22, 1866.

<13> The organization was called the Scandinavian Lutheran Educational Society. After the organizational meeting on March 4, a second gathering was held on March 17, 1869, at McGregor, Iowa. There the objectives of the Society were outlined in greater detail. Its leaders stated that one of their long-term aims was the establishment of an independent Scandinavian university. They also were interested in "popular education" (folkeoplysning) for the immigrants. They planned to distribute useful and instructive literature and to establish "good libraries in different sections of the country." See the "Constitution of the Scandinavian Lutheran Educational Society," adopted on March 17, 1869; a copy is in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield. There is no evidence that the Society reached its objectives; it apparently met for the last time in June, 1870, at Decorah, Iowa.

<14> Whether one agrees or disagrees with H. A. Preus in his position, there can be little question that he possessed one of the most analytical minds among Synod leaders. The Reverend Bernt J. Muus, long-time pastor in Holden, Minnesota, is considered by some to have been an important figure in the school controversy. Although he was a recognized leader in the Synod, his criticism of the American public school seemed at times to be querulous and petty. A good example of his attitude can be seen in "Schools and Good Schools," in Fædrelandet og Emigranten, March 10, 1870. See also a criticism of Pastor Muus by H. B. Wilson, county superintendent of schools, in Skandinaven, May 25, 1870. Although the tone of Wilson’s article is colored by nativism, there is validity in what he had to say about Muus.

<15> Beretning om et møde til fremmelse of folke-oplysning blant Skandinaverne i Amerika avholdt i Madison norske lutherske kirke i Madison den Ste Marts, 1869, 8 (Northfield).

<16> Ibid., 9, 10.

<17> For a biography of R. B. Anderson, see Lloyd Hustvedt, Rasmus Bjørn Anderson: Pioneer Scholar (Northfield, 1966).

<18> R. B. Anderson, "Against the Common School," in Skandinaven, October 17, 1876. .

<19> John A. Johnson, "The Tree Is Known by Its Fruit, in Skandinaven, January 9, 1877.

<20> R. B. Anderson, "Loose Screws in the Schools," in Skandinaven, January 2, 1877.

<21> For an extremist view, see "Also an Idea," by an anonymous writer in Skandinaven, July 3, 1877.

<22> R. B. Anderson, in Skandinaven, August 15, 1877.

<23> See "Again a Word about the Schools," by an anonymous writer in Fædrelandet og Emigranten, October 24, 1877. This newspaper tended to be pro-Synod during the years of the school controversy.

<24> For another treatment of the same problem, see O. S. Stoutland s article, "Again a Word about Our Religious Schools," in Fædrelandet og Emigranten, January 16, 1876. Stoutland calls attention to the heavy load the teachers had to carry and to their unpleasant working conditions. For the number of students in the church schools, see the May 16, 1879, issue of Kirkelig Maanedstidende, the official organ of the Norwegian Synod.

<25> O. M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America, 377 (Minneapolis, 1925).

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