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Norwegians in "Zion" Teach Themselves English
    by Helge Seljaas (Volume 26: Page 220)

My mainly intention by writing my Daybook in English in 1905 is: I can hereby rapidly understand the language reading and writing. This book will therefore be very incorrect in language grammar; I hope this book will become better and better from day to day throughout the year." {1}

From 1853 to the present, about 4,500 Mormons have emigrated from Norway to the United States. {2} As part of the total Norwegian migration of almost a million they are numerically insignificant, but their uniqueness makes them an interesting study. They included more children and old people than did other groups of emigrants. Women made up a far greater percentage among them, not only compared with the general Norwegian contingent, but also to the Mormons coming from other countries. They came from cities and settled in the larger communities in Utah, leaving farming to the Danes. Once settled in "Zion," they quickly learned English and were rapidly assimilated into the local society. Indeed, they had often begun to use English long before reaching America. The young learned fastest. Those of mature years seldom became proficient in it, but the situation— quite common among Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest—of never learning English, and of second- and third-generation Americans speaking English with a Norwegian accent, is unheard of among the "Saints." The difference is undoubtedly due in part to their being a minority in Utah, a position unlike that prevailing in many places of the Midwest. However, even in towns like Hyrum and Manti, where Scandinavians made up fifty percent or more of the population, English rapidly became the dominant speech of the community, and the immigrants strove to master it.

The factor which stands out as the major reason for the rapid acquisition of English is the influence of the Mormon Church. Like Lot and his family, the "Saints fleeing from Babylon" were warned not to look back. {3} While the Lutheran churches, to which most Norwegian Americans belonged, tended to preserve the old-country heritage and language, the attitude of the Latter-Day Saints had the opposite effect. The church encouraged assimilation and unity among its multilingual membership. This goal could best be accomplished by encouraging all to use "the language in which it pleased the Almighty to manifest His will in this last dispensation." {4} The results were amazing. In the 1890s one writer expressed the feeling that "the Gospel has been the means of so nearly eradicating the lines of nationality among the Saints that the young people in Zion scarcely know that there are . . . three nations in Scandinavia." {5}

The comparative ease with which immigrants were assimilated into Mormon society was stressed by the Deseret News in 1886. "No one who is familiar with the Scandinavians of Utah can have failed to notice the facility with which they---the younger portion especially—acquire the language and customs of the country." {6}

It might also be added that no one abandoned the culture and language of his homeland as rapidly as these people did. It was fairly common for those who emigrated as children to forget Norwegian completely. There are few second-generation and virtually no third-generation speakers of Norwegian among the Mormons. A study based on the 1940 census reveals that only 16.7 percent of second-generation Norwegian-Americans in Utah had used the old language in their childhood homes. This percentage was the lowest of all the states included in the survey. The average was 52 percent, with North Dakota having the highest (66.8) and New York the next to the lowest (33). The same study showed that Norwegians were the national group in Utah least likely to preserve their language. Their 16.7 percent was lower than the Swedish (24), Danish (23), Dutch (22.5), German (25.6), and Italian (62.6). It is of particular interest that among the predominantly Roman Catholic Italian group, the second generation was almost four times as likely to have spoken their parents’ language as the Mormon Norwegians. {7} The process of learning English began before migrating.

So far as the church leaders were concerned, the foreign converts to the Mormon faith were not "wretched refuse" but gods and goddesses in embryo for whom everything was possible. {8} The missionaries abroad served the Saints not only as spiritual leaders and travel agents, but also as teachers. In Christiania in 1869 two English-language schools were operated by the Mormons. {9} If parents found it difficult to learn the new language, they were encouraged to send their children, "who learn . . . more easily than persons of a ripe age." The missionaries took seriously the admonition: "[Go] after persons who have obeyed the Gospel and made the interests of the Kingdom of God their own. . . . Teach them the importance of quickly gaining a knowledge of the English language, so that they can receive the knowledge and instructions which can only be received through that source." {10} Very few, except for those who associated extensively with the "Zionseldster"—as the missionaries from America were called—actually became fluent in the new language before migration, but they undoubtedly knew more of it than the average emigrant.

After arriving in Utah, the typical young immigrant could see no reason to cling to Norwegian. As Oluf Larson, who arrived in 1862 at the age of twenty-four, wrote in his journal: "There were many Scandinavians in the community [Springtown] but more Americans, so I soon began to learn the language." {11} And as Sondra Sanders put it: "I did not see the importance of that ability [to speak Norwegian] as English was the language to be spoken." {12} Norwegian was only tolerated as a means of communicating with new arrivals and with those too old to learn a second language. This contrasts with the experience of the novelist Rølvaag who, after emigrating to South Dakota in 1896 at the age of twenty, "had picked up only a smattering of English" after three years. {13}

A heavy price was paid for neglecting the old-country language when members of the second generation were called back to Norway as missionaries. Then they had to struggle with a strange tongue, and even after they had learned it, their accents marked them as foreigners. They were never able to duplicate the success of the first European-born missionaries, who still remembered the language and customs of their fatherland. Often even first-generation immigrants who had come to America as children had to relearn Norwegian upon their return. Andrew Amundsen, who had migrated in 1855 when he was nine, wrote in his diary in 1909: "I [am] studying, and trying to learn the language." {14} John A. Hendrickson, who had emigrated from Frederikstad in 1863, wrote, twenty-four years later at the age of twenty-six, that he had first gone to Christiania, where "I remained for some time learning the language I so much needed." {15}

There was obviously considerable social pressure to learn English. "The native American stock were not free from unkindness due to ignorance." {16} Young Americans were especially cruel to immigrants of their own age. They "were inclined to laugh at the foreign looks and behavior . . . and to mock the broken language." {17} Andrew Israelsen, who with his family left from northern Norway in 1864 at the age of eight, did not enjoy school at all the first winter in Hyrum, as he "was picked on by many of the boys because [he] was a long, lanky, white-headed immigrant." {18} Quite naturally, young people among the immigrants shunned the language that was the source of ridicule. Sanders wrote: "I was born on the 8th day of March, in the year 1861, South Cottonwood Ward, Salt Lake County, Utah Territory. I was the third child of my Parents, Sondra and Anna Sanders, My Father is Norwegian and Mother Swedish, hence [I] am of Scandinavian descent.

"My Father was eight years old when he came to America and my Mother about [?] and though they could and often did speak their native language, I never learned it sufficiently to speak it, I however, understood most of what was said, when common objects, and daily occurrences were spoken of.

"There were two causes to account for my not learning the Scandinavian language, viz: 1st the Scandinavian people who came to Utah suffered a great disadvantage in not being able to speak nor understand the English language, thus appearing less intelligent than the people here, and perhaps somewhat awkward, or not ‘at home’ in the new customs and habits of their neighbors. This caused them or their young children rather, a great deal of annoyance, and it was no little source of discumforture to me. My schoolmates did not like a ‘Danishmen’! nor did they care for anything that was Danish-like. Smart boys, I thought, they could judge our Fathers and Mothers, correct them, suggest better customs and much more could they do—how wise! And yet I did not like them for exhibiting their wisdom, but I did grow to dislike things ‘Danish,’ and avoided them as much as possible.

"I even remember it would plague me should any one speak to me in the Scandinavian tongue. My views have certainly undergone a great change since then, and I now [1885] look upon all such subjects like other sensible men—with broad views—though it required many years for the change in fact until I was a man. " {19}

There undoubtedly was ridicule associated with foreign languages. This fact was recognized and pointed out in an 1853 Deseret News article about the Saints "gathered from the four winds.. . ." After all, "How would it sound to Saints to hear a man boasting, I am a Norwegian, and I can talk that language better than you?" {20} Again, in 1886, the same newspaper emphasized the problem in an article entitled "The Scandinavian Element," which stated that "those who have reached maturity before coming to this land, retain an accent that betrays their nationality [and] that often exposes them to undeserved ridicule. They are frequently underrated because of their lack of understanding . . . of our language, and are charged with a dullness which is only attributed to that lack." {21} Even an educated and cultured lady like Anna Widtsoe, who arrived in 1883 at the age of thirty-four and mastered the reading and writing of English, "always felt a certain inward embarrassment when. . . she spoke English in her broken manner." {22}

The immigrants with a good knowledge of Norwegian cultural traditions were more likely to pass these on to their children than were those who were unsure of their heritage— and perhaps spoke a dialect of which they were ashamed. Thus the more educated were generally better able to preserve the Norwegian language for their children. Anna Widtsoe, the widow of a scholar, did all she could to make sure that both her boys retained their knowledge of Norwegian. She passed on to them her love of the "expressive and beautiful language. . . so well suited to clothe noble ideas in prose and poetry." {23} Varden, a Norwegian monthly, often expressed the view that "the Norwegian language should be transferred to the younger generation." It took to task those "know-nothings" who felt that it was their duty to give it up. "Shall we throw away that which the poets of the north have made famous in all cultured circles on earth? What stupidness." {24}

The differing attitudes among the immigrants are exemplified in an article written by a journalist representing Stavanger Aftenblad. While in Salt Lake City, he met only two Norwegians. The first, a clerk, refused to speak his native language, even though he had been born in Norway and had visited it twice—probably on missions. When the journalist asked a question in Norwegian, the clerk would answer in English. He "did not care for Norway. . . and he only knew one other Norwegian in the City, Judge [Charles Magnus] Nielsen." When the interviewer then went to see the judge, word had been sent ahead, and he was greeted in a "beautiful Kristiania dialect" with "God dag, min ærede tandsmand [Good day, my honored countryman]. Here I met a man who was not afraid to speak Norwegian. . . . By his voice when he mentioned Norway, I understood that both he and his wife loved the Norwegian people and country." {25}

It took strong-willed parents with a knowledge of their cultural heritage to prevent the flood of Americanization from overwhelming the family—at least in the second generation. Since most of the immigrants were drawn from hard-working but uneducated classes, few were equipped to stem the tide. The diversity of dialects and the Norwegian-language controversy probably also caused some to turn more rapidly to English. Considerable stress has been placed on the use of "correct" Norwegian, and this has led to uncertainty among speakers of the less dominant dialects. {26}

The struggle to retain the native language was an individual and private effort. There were no official or religious movements such as were made by the largely Lutheran Norwegian immigrant groups. Whatever Scandinavian organizations and periodicals the Mormon Church sponsored were considered a necessary evil to keep the old and newly arrived Saints faithful until they could be completely assimilated into the English-speaking organizations. {27} And assimilated they were. In Utah the melting pot really melted.


<1> This statement was written by Christian Johannessen (1882—1969) in his diary, January 1, 1905, two months after his arrival from Christiania. He was one of the tireless workers who did everything possible to preserve the Norwegian heritage in Utah. To this end he wrote numerous articles for local Scandinavian publications and served as editor of the weekly Bikuben and of the monthly Varden, the only entirely Norwegian periodical ever published in Utah. He was always to be seen at Norwegian gatherings. His diaries are in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. Herbert F. Jackstien, Salt Lake City.

<2> This figure is based on emigration records in the Church Historian’s Office, Salt Lake City. Information on persons who left Norway before the Mormon migration started is found in William Mulder, "Norwegian Forerunners among the Early Mormons," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 19: 46—61 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1956).

<3> In early Mormon terminology, the rest of the world, indeed often all but the Rocky Mountain area, was referred to as "Babylon"; Utah was "Zion" and the members were "Saints."

<4> This quotation is from the Danish-Norwegian weekly Utah Posten, December 24, 1873. The only time Norwegian was spoken at a general conference of the church was during the 1856 fall conference, when Heber C. Kimball asked returned missionary Canute Peterson to address the congregation in Norwegian. Perhaps he did so to please his wives, Ellen and Harriet Sanders Kimball, who, as Aagaata and Helga Ystensdatter had emigrated from Telemark in 1837 and had joined the church in Illinois. Ellen was one of the three women in the first company of Mormon pioneers to enter Salt Lake Valley in 1847. This information is taken from Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, 4, 67—69 (Salt Lake City, 1903) and Winefred Bowers, "A Brief History of the Life of Sondra Sanders," a manuscript in the possession of Belle Sanders, Murray, Utah.

<5> Edward H. Anderson, "Scandinavia," in the Contributor, 12:108 (December, 1890).

<6> "The Scandinavian Element," in Deseret News, June 25, 1886.

<7> This information is from Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior, 284—85 (Philadelphia, 1953). Kenneth O. Bjork’s "A Covenant Folk, with Scandinavian Colorings," in Norwegian-American Studies, 21:212—51 (1962), emphasizes the fact that Scandinavians in Zion could never "wholly escape the implications of their origin.

<8> Mormon doctrine includes the belief that, through continual improvement, man may one day become a god.

<9> Skandinaviens Stjerne, 19:43—44 (November 1, 1869). This magazine has been published regularly in Copenhagen since it was founded in 1850 by Erastus Snow. It served the Norwegian Saints until Lys over Norge was

started in 1937.

<10> "Det engelske sprog," in Skandinaviens Stjerne, 6:126 (January 15, 1856).

<11> Oluf Larson Journal, 36. This manuscript is in the Church Historian’s Office, Salt Lake City.

<12> Sondra Sanders Journal, 1:6. A microfilm copy is deposited in the Church Historian’s Office. The original is in the possession of his son, 0. Leroy Sanders, Salt Lake City.

<13> O. E. Rølvaag, Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie, xvi—xvii (New York, 1927).

<14> Andrew Amundsen Diary, April 7, 1909, in the Church Historians Office.

<15> John A. Hendrickson, "Autobiography," 13. This is an unpublished manuscript in the Church Historian’s Office.

<16> John A. Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net: The Story of Anna Karine Widtsoe, 122 (Salt Lake City, 1966). Anna Widtsoe and her two young Sons, Johan and Asbjørn, emigrated from Trondhjem in 1883.

<17> Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net, 84.

<18> Andrew M. Israelsen, Utah Pioneering: An Autobiography, 23 (Salt Lake City, 1938).

<19> Sondra Sanders Journal, 1:5. Sondra Sanders, Sr., had emigrated with his parents and six brothers and sisters from Tinn in 1837. Within a year of the family’s arrival both parents died and the children were scattered. Sondra came to Illinois, where he joined the Mormon Church; in 1850 he moved to Utah. It is interesting that the author refers to "Danishmen" and things "Danish" despite the fact that his parents were Swedish and Norwegian. This seems to corroborate Edward H. Anderson’s contention that the Scandinavian countries were not differentiated in Zion. It also emphasizes the fact that most Scandinavian Mormon immigrants were from Denmark.

<20> "To the Saints," in Deseret News, February 5, 1853.

<21> "The Scandinavian Element," in Deseret News, June 25, 1886.

<22> Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net, 122.

<23> Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net, 83.

<24> John Flittie, "Vort folks aandsliv," in Varden, 2:6 (February, 1911).

<25> Bertel L. Bellesen, Stavanger Aftenblad, quoted in "Et besøk i Saltsjøstaten," in Morgenstjernen (Oslo), 2:22, 347 (November, 1923).

<26> An article by Andrew Jenson stressing the need to use correct language is found in Morgenstjernen (Salt Lake City), 1:8 (January, 1883). Just a few years ago, I heard a speaker in the Norwegian branch of the Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City comment on the inappropriateness of using "vulgar" dialects in church services.

<27> This policy has been reversed in recent years. At the present time, the emphasis is on the international character of the church. Emigration is discouraged; in 1963 a Norwegian branch was organized for the first time in Salt Lake City. The membership is drawn mainly from the approximately 800 who emigrated after World War II. Scores of books and manuals are now translated into Norwegian every year by the Church Translation Department, and Norwegian is taught at two church institutions: Ricks College in Idaho and Brigham Young University in Utah.

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