NAHA Header


Georg Sverdrup and the Augsburg Plan of Education*
    by James S. Hamre (Volume 26: Page 160)

* The author wishes to express thanks to the American Philosophical Society for a grant which assisted in the preparation of this article.

Most immigrant groups in America have sought to make provision for some form of education to serve their members. In higher education, one could point to Harvard College, whose roots go back to 1636, as the first and perhaps most distinguished in a long list of institutions designed to meet the educational needs of Americans.

Norwegian immigrants in America have consistently demonstrated the same concern for education. To be sure, their migration to America came later than that of some ethnic groups. It was not until the nineteenth century that substantial numbers of Norwegians felt moved or compelled to cross the ocean in search of a better life in the New World. Historians give 1825 as the year marking the start of what was to become a stream of people—a movement that saw literally hundreds of thousands migrate to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. {1}

As soon as the number of Norwegians in America became sufficiently large, they began to found schools and colleges. Many of the discussions, promotional efforts, debates, and controversies among them during the latter part of the nineteenth century reflect their desire to establish the kinds of institutions that would serve their people best and enable them to enter more fully into the mainstream of American life. They were also concerned to provide for an educated clergy and to give their young people the necessary tools for useful citizenship. To further these ends, a number of schools of higher education came into being. Usually these were founded by and associated with one of the Norwegian-American church bodies. {2}

One such institution was the school that for many years was known as Augsburg Seminary. This article discusses the general educational philosophy that was articulated quite early in the history of the seminary. It emphasizes the role of one of its leading figures, Georg Sverdrup, in developing and expressing some facets of that philosophy, and indicates some of the results of his views in the history of the seminary down to the time of his death in 1907.

It may be helpful at this point to give a brief historical sketch of Augsburg Seminary. It was founded in 1869 and first located in Marshall, Wisconsin. It was intended primarily to prepare pastors to serve the Conference for the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—commonly known as the "Conference"—a church body established in 1870. Supporters of the school were conscious of the fact that it was "the first Norwegian seminary in America."

Augsburg was moved to Minneapolis in 1872. This early seminary, in the 1870s and 1880s, sought to develop an integrated program that called for a preparatory department, a college curriculum program, and a seminary course. In 1890 the Conference and two other church bodies united to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. For three years Augsburg Seminary served as the divinity school of the new church body. Certain suspicions and seemingly differing conceptions of the nature of theological education, and of the relation of a church body to a seminary and to the local congregations, precipitated a bitter struggle within the new synod. A group known as the "Friends of Augsburg" came into being in 1893. Four years later the Lutheran Free Church was formed, and Augsburg Seminary served as a school of that body until the Free Church became a part of the American Lutheran Church in 1963. At that time the seminary division merged its faculty with that of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul. Augsburg continues as a four-year liberal arts college in Minneapolis. {3}

Georg Sverdrup was a member of one of Norway’s distinguished families. There had been Sverdrups in Norway who had made outstanding contributions in a number of fields, including political and church life. Born in 1848, Georg received most of his education in Norway; he completed his work in theology at the University in Christiania (Oslo) in 1871. He then received a stipend and carried on advanced studies in Paris for half a year. There have been differing opinions as to whether he also studied for a period of time in Germany, but it now seems to be established that he did not do so. {4}

Sverdrup came to America in 1874 to join the faculty of Augsburg Seminary. In 1876 he also became the school’s president, a position that he held until his death. In the history of Augsburg College and Seminary, he is regarded as one of the leaders who helped to shape and direct the institution in the early years of its existence. He was regarded as a man of keen mind and one who was an able teacher, speaker, and writer. In the annals of Norwegian-American Lutheranism, Sverdrup is regarded as one of the influential figures of the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. {5}

Of course Sverdrup is not to be linked with the founding of Augsburg Seminary. That honor belongs to August Weenaas, the school’s first president. In fact, from 1869 until 1873, Weenaas was the only theological professor at the Seminary. Even so, that energetic and hard-working man sought to develop and carry on a respectable program of education. In those earliest years the institution was divided into two parts: a preparatory department (forberedelses afdeling) and a theological department (theologisk afdeling). The preparatory department offered courses in religion, Norwegian, English, Latin, Greek, German, history, geography, and mathematics. Thus it attempted to equip students for undertaking studies in the seminary. This theological department sought to offer basic courses in Old Testament, New Testament, dogmatics, church history, and practical theology.

In one of Weenaas’s reports to the annual meeting of his church body—a summary he was required to give as president—there is a rather striking passage indicating the manner in which pioneer educators carried on their programs with limited personnel and resources. Weenaas writes: "Instruction in the theological courses has been carried on by the undersigned; instruction in Greek, Latin, and German has been in charge of Cand. phil. Caesar Boeck, and the teaching of the remaining courses has been taken care of by the best qualified among the students." {6}

Several years later, however, the faculty of Augsburg Seminary was expanded. Sven Oftedal arrived in 1873. The next year both Georg Sverdrup and Sven Rud Gunnersen joined the staff as professors of theology. The school now had four young, well-trained, capable instructors. This increase in teaching personnel meant that instead of having all the theological courses taught by one man, a division of labor could be effected in accordance with the specialties and interests of the four professors. {7}

The expansion of the faculty also permitted further development of the program. The year 1874 is important, for it was then that the basic features of the "Augsburg Plan" were established. For the purposes of this discussion, two documents can be noted. One was a proposal from the board of directors of the Seminary, and the other was a statement called "A Program for Augsburg Seminary."

Weenaas, in his report to the annual meeting of the Conference in 1874, spoke of the necessity for expansion of the Seminary. It was felt to be necessary for two reasons: first, to guarantee that the school would be better equipped to attain its goal of preparing students for theological study; and, second, to meet a deeply felt need for "an educational institution that could spread enlightenment and general education among the Norwegian people in America."

To attain these goals, the board of directors of the Seminary submitted a proposal to the annual meeting. Their statement, signed by Weenaas, was concerned with both expansion and an altered plan of instruction. It called for establishment of a complete preparatory school and placed it in close relationship to the theological seminary. The preparatory school was viewed as having a twofold task: preparing students for the seminary and imparting the knowledge and education essential for the practical life of an enlightened society.

The expanded preparatory school was to be organized in the following way: (1) It was to have a one-year common class (fællesklasse) for all entering students who did not have the necessary background for taking up work in the more advanced classes; (2) it was to have two parallel classes or departments of a more advanced nature, described by Professor Carl H. Chrislock as college-level departments. One of these was the Greek department, which later became a four-year course whose primary purpose was to prepare students for theological study. The complete plan for the Greek department envisioned courses in Norwegian, English, history, geography, religion, Greek, Latin, and German. Students who completed this course of study would be academically prepared to undertake the three-year program in the theological department.

The other parallel, college-level class was to be the department of practical studies (realavdeling), "which seeks to impart the knowledge that the practical life demands of an educated man." The intention was that this four-year sequence would offer certain courses of practical value for those students who did not plan to enter the ministry. The program designed for this department included some of the same subjects as those taken In the Greek department (Norwegian, English, history, geography, religion). Instead of Greek, Latin, and German, it called for instruction in mathematics, bookkeeping, Old Norse, physical geography, natural science, and American government. {8}

The most advanced level in the school was the theological department. It was to be a three-year program offering an education that would help to equip a man to serve as a pastor. In addition to the courses they offered in this department, the professors were to do some teaching in the preparatory school.

The other document mentioned earlier was "A Program for Augsburg Seminary and Its College Departments, Adopted by the Board of Directors on August 31, 1874, Together with an Interpretative Statement by the Faculty." This document was the result of the joint efforts of the four theological professors. It sought to interpret the new program that was being proposed for Augsburg Seminary and to indicate the underlying philosophy involved in the proposed plan. Throughout its discussion, the document is marked by a spirit that indicates a desire to develop a system of studies that would avoid spiritual tyranny and the deadening effects of a one-sided emphasis upon "pure doctrine." {9}

This "Program for Augsburg Seminary" contains interpretive comments concerning the Greek department, the practical studies, and the theological courses. The comments about the Greek department, of which Sverdrup may have been the author, reflect a variance from traditional educational patterns and the development of something unique at Augsburg. Stress is placed on the importance of cultivating an appreciation of the Norwegian heritage and of preparing the students to enter into the mainstream of American life. The point is made that the guiding thought in drafting the educational program has been the conviction that the students need both a sound general education and the skill in the languages necessary for further studies.

The statement underscores the presupposition that a true education (aandsdannelse) consists of personal penetration into truth to the extent that it becomes a power decisive in thought and will, speech and action. Thus religion and history are regarded as the proper instruments of education. The selection of languages had been made on the basis of practical considerations—to facilitate the study of theology. "In principle," it is stressed, "we are not humanists." There was no desire to have students appropriate classical culture as an end in itself. And so even the name of the department was to be different: instead of the old term "Latin School" it was to be designated as the "Greek Department" (Græskskole). This was done to indicate the freedom and creative power presented by the study of Greek, instead of the tyranny and divisiveness resulting from Latin. {10}

The interpretive comments concerning practical studies (realavdeling) reflect the desire that Augsburg Seminary might become a cultural focal point for Norwegians in America. To realize this end, the department—built upon the same presuppositions as the seminary itself—is seen to be of vital importance. For the document recognizes that only a few persons would feel called to the ministry and that, if Augsburg’s principles were carried to the people only by pastors, there would be the danger of religious tyranny. It continues: "Our holy task must necessarily concern all who do not consider their Norwegian origin a disgrace and who are not ashamed to contribute their national gifts to the great American development." Reflected here is a desire to reach "the farmer, the laborer, and the businessman," to convey "a liberal cultural outlook," and to educate people so that they will become "genuinely Christian citizens." {11}

The comments about the three-year theological course indicate an attempt to project and develop a program that would educate pastors to be mature, authoritative, and independent spokesmen for the truth. Repeatedly, the dangers of a formalistic, rationalistic approach to theology are stressed. The goal of theological education must not be to clutter the minds of students with citations, glosses, interpretations, or hairsplitting distinctions. Rather it must be to lead them to a greater understanding of Jesus Christ, the heart and center of God’s Word. To that end the courses offered in the theological department were to be arranged in a series of three cycles, each having a definite point of departure and a goal— and together forming an organic whole. A focus on Scripture, rather than on an orthodox dogmatic system, was to be the heart of the program. {12}

The proposals of 1874 were adopted, and an attempt was made in the following years to implement them. The Augsburg Seminary envisioned in the plan was to be an organic unity. It was to be one school with several departments. It was to be developed in such a way that it could take a student with a limited common-school education and in eight years send him out as a fully trained, well-equipped pastor to serve in the free Norwegian and Danish congregations. To expand its influence and better serve the needs of the immigrants, the practical department was also regarded as an integral part of the school.

It is this concept that Weenaas stresses in 1876 in his last report to the Conference as president of the seminary: "The task our school has undertaken is not that of giving the students a little taste of everything—which all too often seems to be the situation with the American schools—but of educating, by means of a coherent, principled plan of instruction, mature and independent-minded men who will be an asset to church and state." {13} In 1875 Georg Sverdrup, who was then secretary of the Augsburg faculty, spoke of its role as that of striving to become "organs for an interaction between the congregation and scientific knowledge (videnskaben), which we regard as a fundamental condition for a churchly development and to which only the free church gives opportunity in full measure." {14}

Mention has been made of the fact that the Augsburg faculty thought it had developed something quite unique in the field of theological education. It can be noted, however, that several features of the Augsburg program were not without precedent. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing for a number of decades, there had been heated discussion and debate in Norway concerning its state-sponsored educational program. There were sharp differences of opinion between those who advocated the necessity for the centuries-old Latin School pattern, with its stress on the languages and culture of Greece and Rome, and those who argued for an educational plan making room for the newly developing emphasis in natural sciences and practical education.

In Denmark leaders like N. F. S. Grundtvig had spoken out strongly in opposition to the old Latin School and had sought to develop folk schools that would awaken and emancipate the people by stressing the national language, literature, and traditions. His ideas influenced many in Norway, including a man by the name of Hartvig Nissen, who in the 1840s organized a school in Christiania unique in seeking to develop parallel programs that would enable it to be both a Latin School and a practical school (realskole). Georg Sverdrup and his older brother Jakob attended that school, and their father served as a teacher there for two years. Jakob Sverdrup later spent a year in Denmark studying the folk high school movement. {15}

Yet the Augsburg Plan needs to be seen in the context of the American free-church system. The program of theological education did possess some unique features when compared with the pattern that the professors had known in Norway. There the general practice had been for the student to attend a Latin School—with its stress on classical culture as the proper vehicle of education—and then to proceed to the theological department of the university. This attempt to develop a seminary with interrelated departments resulted in a school that consciously sought to move away from a classical orientation (which they referred to as "humanism") to a pattern by which the school could serve as the mediator between the congregations and the technical study of theology. Hence the professors and their program did contain some innovative features. The Augsburg Plan is an interesting product of an immigrant group that was seeking to find and to develop a proper form of religious expression in the New World—where every religious group was in a real sense a "free" church.

What was the fate of the Augsburg Plan? How was it implemented? Professor Chrislock has indicated the general outlines of an answer when he writes: "Although the broad frame of reference running through the 1874 program would guide Augsburg’s educational policy for many decades, only part of the blueprint became operative. Development of the beginning preparatory and Greek departments followed the program’s specifications, but the department of practical studies never got underway, nor was Old Norse introduced. Augsburg also failed to become a major Norwegian-American cultural center guiding a moderately paced immigrant assimilation into American life. Instead, for more than four decades the institution remained essentially what it set out to be in 1869: a divinity school serving a minority wing of Norwegian-American Lutheranism." {16}

August Weenaas’s service as president of Augsburg Seminary continued for two years after the 1874 plan was projected. In reports to the annual conventions of the Conference in 1875 and 1876, he discussed the program of instruction at Augsburg. In both of these reports he noted that the Seminary’s preparatory departments had been functioning during the school year for which each report was made. The divisions that he included were the common preparatory class (fællesklasse), the Greek department, and the practical course. He indicated that an initial attempt had been made to implement the plan as completely as possible. {17}

Weenaas left Augsburg Seminary in 1876. Georg Sverdrup was then elected president of the institution, a position he occupied for the next thirty-three years. The period of his leadership covered much of the span of time during which Augsburg remained basically a divinity school.

Sverdrup’s first report to the annual convention as president of the Seminary was made in 1877. In it he spoke of the unique nature of the school as precisely that which distinguishes the Conference from other Norwegian Lutheran church bodies in this country. The Conference, he said, was recognized as the group that had "the national seminary." The motto of the school—"the Word became flesh"—he stated, reflected the conviction of the Conference that what would truly gather the Norwegian people together was not an emphasis on "pure doctrine" or "the holy life" but the preaching of God’s Word in its truth and purity in the language of the people. {18}

In the same report, Sverdrup called attention to some of the problems encountered in trying to sustain the many classes in Augsburg’s plan—problems such as financial difficulties and lack of space. To help alleviate the troublesome conditions, he urged the congregations to consider setting up "folk high schools" (folke høiskoler) in their settlements. These institutions should be patterned after the Norwegian folk high schools, and their course of study ought to be two years in duration. He felt that they could facilitate the transition from common school to the Greek department, and thus make possible the elimination of the preparatory class (fællesklasse).

Sverdrup believed that they could be staffed by those who had completed the Greek department and wished to teach several years before undertaking the study of theology—or by theological graduates who might do this type of work for a time before entering the ministry. He argued that such schools, if properly established and led by able men, would represent a step forward for both popular enlightenment and freedom. He also had in mind that they would enable the Norwegians to have a powerful influence upon American development. Although this suggestion concerning folk high schools was accepted by the Conference and was recommended at its next annual meeting, the plan never materialized. {19}

Sverdrup’s 1877 report also contained a brief review of the courses taught during that school year. One of the striking facts about his statement is that there is no reference in it to the practical department. The same is true of the reports made in following years. They reviewed the work of the school’s three departments: the theological, the Greek, and the common preparatory. By the time of the 1879 report, Sverdrup could observe that, after much difficulty and many disappointments, the Greek department finally had all four classes in operation. He added that the school had thus passed through the time of transition which had begun in 1874. But this time seemed also to have involved abandoning a part of the earlier plan that called for a broader scope through its practical department. In 1884 Sverdrup’s statements underscored these changes. He maintained that the future course of the institution should be in the direction of becoming exclusively a divinity school. The church body concurred with this opinion. {20}

The reports by Sverdrup from 1880 onward and the developments at Augsburg Seminary during those years reflect a desire to consolidate and reinforce the trend to become a seminary that would be governed by one basic ideal—commitment to the pattern of ministerial education that was being developed. Two related points can be noted. The first had to do with the development of a staff of theological professors who were fully committed to the school’s program and who would strive together for the fulfillment of its goals. B. B. Gjeldaker, who was elected by the Conference to replace Professor Weenaas—in spite of Sverdrup’s recommendations against the choice—remained only two years.

After Gjeldaker’s departure, Augsburg functioned for several years with three theological professors. This number was reduced to two in 1883, when Sven Gunnersen resigned, stating that the teachers did not work well together. From that time until 1890, the school functioned with two professors, Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal. These two did function harmoniously, promoting and defending the educational program of the institution.

The second point that illustrated the consolidating tendencies operative at Augsburg concerned the teachers in the preparatory departments. Prior to 1885, classes in the common preparatory and Greek departments had been taught by the theological professors and by various instructors generally employed for a year or two. They had had the occasional assistance of some of the more able students. In 1885 Sverdrup proposed to the Conference that two men, John Blegen and Theodor Reimestad, be elected as college professors. Sverdrup referred in his recommendation to the decision of the previous year to carry on exclusively as a divinity school. Both men were to become permanent members of the staff. They were graduates of Augsburg Seminary. Sverdrup’s intention was clear: to build a school staffed by like-minded people who were committed to its goals. His proposal was adopted by the church body and the two men joined the faculty in 1885. {21}

The year 1890 was important in the history of Norwegian-American Lutheranism. It was also significant in the development of Augsburg Seminary. It marked the culmination of efforts toward church union, with three church bodies coming together to form a new synod. Augsburg Seminary was to be the divinity school of the new United Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. The resulting pooling of faculties meant that the institution would once again have an expanded staff of theological professors, with Georg Sverdrup continuing as president. These developments brought new challenges to the Augsburg plan of education. {22}

The Augsburg Seminary catalogue for the school year 1890—1891 spoke of the changes at the college brought about by the church union. This bulletin stressed the aim of the church leaders to build a divinity school based on sound Lutheran principles—one that would meet the demands of changed conditions in this country. Such an institution could not adopt the position of the Norwegian state church or that of America’s Reformed church institutions. Rather, it must try to adopt the best features of both of these patterns and then to seek to develop its own form in accordance with the needs and demands of a free church, Many years of experience had produced a division of classes and also a plan of instruction that operated within the three major divisions— the common preparatory, the Greek, and the theological departments. The concept of one school with several levels was here being reaffirmed. {23}

The articles of union agreed upon in the formation of the United Church addressed themselves to the question of all preparatory courses. They stated: "So far as possible the college department at Augsburg Seminary is to be carried on in the same manner as before in the coming year." This rather general statement did not, in and of itself, present a direct challenge to the Augsburg pattern. It did seem to represent a commitment on the part of the new church body to the idea that the effects of the transition should be given a period of time to work themselves out. No dramatic changes would be made immediately. At the same time, the statement seems to imply that the new church did desire freedom to give future consideration to a pattern of education most fitting for its own purposes. {24}

Augsburg Seminary, however, was not the only institution of higher learning that was to be a part of the United Church. The new synod, at its initial meeting, adopted a resolution stating that "St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., is to be the college of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church." It also stated that the church body pledged its support of St. Olaf. {25}

St. Olaf College had been established by men who had been associated with the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood during its brief existence. The school was not legally a part of the Brotherhood, and for that reason that body could not transfer the college to the new church union. But when St. Olaf was offered to the United Church, the majority of those present at the first convention accepted the Northfield institution as the college of the United Church and pledged their support. {26}

Leaders of Augsburg Seminary saw in this move to adopt St. Olaf as the college of the church a threat to Augsburg’s preparatory departments and to the concept of theological education that had been developed there. As a result, the United Church in the early 1890s experienced a brief struggle over "the school question." The church body felt that it had the right to gain legal control over Augsburg Seminary, and repeatedly requested its board of trustees to make the proper transfer to this new status.

However, the Augsburg board, with Professor Oftedal as chairman, refused to make this transfer before Augsburg’s status and rights were carefully protected. Plans were developed and discussed; professional counsel was sought; legal proceedings were embarked upon. The church that had come into being in 1890 with much rejoicing was now torn asunder on this issue. A reading of the annual reports of the United Church from the early 1890s indicates the extent to which this issue dominated the proceedings of the church in the first years of its existence. {27}

Both Sverdrup and Oftedal resigned in 1893 as theological professors of the United Church. They continued, however, as professors in Augsburg Seminary. The result was that the church organization moved to develop another divinity school, and several Augsburg professors and some students went over to the new institution. Champions of Augsburg rallied to its support, requesting that Sverdrup and Oftedal remain as professors at their school. The two men agreed to do this, and once again Augsburg Seminary operated with only two theological professors. For several years, Augsburg supporters called themselves "Friends of Augsburg." Initially the group conceived of itself as a minority within the United Church, stating that it would remain within the synod and work for its well-being. But in 1897 they organized themselves as the Lutheran Free Church, and Augsburg Seminary became a school associated with that body. It is clear that, in terms of its outreach among Norwegian Lutherans in America, Augsburg’s sphere of influence was appreciably reduced by these developments. {28}

Georg Sverdrup was not in the forefront of the legal battles and proceedings that centered around Augsburg Seminary in the 1890s. But he was a leader in setting the tone and in articulating the underlying educational philosophy that he felt was involved in this struggle. In establishing his position, Sverdrup published a series of important articles in Folkebladet, a newspaper closely identified with Augsburg. In them he sought to champion what he calls a "Menighedsmæssig presteuddannelse"—a ministerial education in conformity with the origin, being, and goals of the free and vital congregation in America. It was to be an education producing a type of pastor who truly understood the free church and who would work for its well-being. Sverdrup argued that such an education would remove old divisions of class and caste that tended to separate the pastor from the members of his congregation.

Sverdrup contrasted the type of ministerial education that he advocated with what he called "humanism." In the state-church system, he maintained, the clergy and other members of the official class received a humanistic training in what were known as Latin Schools. There the students were encouraged to absorb classical culture as the means by which they might become truly educated. The result of such training, Sverdrup argued, was that the clergy were removed from the people in the congregations. This division was almost impossible to overcome, and it greatly hindered the work of the congregation. Sometimes it is maintained, he said, that the humanistic pattern is best for the study of theology. His conclusion was in direct opposition. He stressed that humanism leads to aristocracy of spirit and to rationalism. Therefore it should be avoided wherever possible.

Sverdrup argued in his articles that St. Olaf’s educational program was "humanistic." He maintained that the plan developed at Augsburg was the right one if the purpose was to develop pastors who would truly understand and work for the congregation. Thus he saw the preparatory departments at Augsburg as absolutely essential; he thought that they formed the proper connecting link between the congregation and the Seminary. If the preparatory courses were replaced by what he termed a "humanistic college," the strength of the free congregations in America would suffer. The old tendencies toward class division would reappear. In Sverdrup’s thinking the plan outlined in the 1874 Program for Augsburg Seminary—minus its proposals for a practical department—had proved to be best for the training of pastors, who thus would be free of the old state-church mentality and truly equipped to serve the congregations in the new American setting. {29}

From Sverdrup’s perspective, the controversy within the United Church was essentially a conflict over principles concerning the education of pastors. He viewed the age in which he lived as "the era of the congregation." He maintained that the entire church development of the nineteenth century was in the direction of the free congregation. For hundreds of years, this unit had been "buried" and suppressed either by the papacy or by the state church. But now in his century, a new opportunity had presented itself: a chance to rebuild the congregation in its correct apostolic form. Ministerial education must seek to further that goal. But such an attempt would inevitably provoke opposition as it clashed with older forms and methods. Sverdrup maintained that in a very real sense the struggle within the United Church had bad a beneficial effect: Augsburg Seminary had come to function with a greater inner harmony, and discussions and debates had made its principles widely known. "The Seminary has prospered more than ever," according to the Augsburg catalogue for 1896—1897. {30}

The tendency to view the conflict of the 1890s in terms of a humanistic versus the Augsburg educational philosophy led to a certain anti-intellectual stress and the temptation to identify the Seminary further with the "awakening" impulses that had come from Norway. A catalogue from the mid1890s describes the theological department as offering "a thorough and scientific course in theology." But it adds that "the end constantly kept in mind is to develop the spiritual side of the student and make him an earnest and consecrated as well as a well trained worker in the vineyard of our Lord." This emphasis was further underscored in a statement in the 1899—1900 catalogue: "Spiritual life and Christian character are considered of infinitely higher importance than mere knowledge. No amount of reading, no memorizing of facts, no mental or intellectual ability are of any real value to the Christian minister without personal experience of saving grace and firm and manly conviction of the truth as it is in Jesus." {31}

Yet the point can also be stressed that whatever anti-intellectual tendencies did exist at Augsburg were certainly not the result of any deficiencies on the part of Sverdrup. He had a distinguished academic background and in his day was one of the better educated men among Norwegians in America. He was, as Professor Chrislock has written, "an acknowledged member of the Norwegian-American community’s intellectual elite who chose to champion an anti-elitist position." {32}

Thus it was within the framework of a divinity school committed to the principles propounded by Sverdrup and championed by Oftedal—and serving primarily the Lutheran Free Church—that Augsburg Seminary entered the twentieth century. Its program included a commitment to the concept of one institution with several levels or departments. Such was its status at the time of Sverdrup’s death.

It is now many years since the "Augsburg Plan" was formulated and vigorously defended in the Augsburg-St. Olaf controversy. And certainly we are past the time of "taking sides" in that strife. It is no longer necessary to try to defend or condemn one faction or the other. A person without direct emotional involvement in the issue feels a certain sense of dismay—even disbelief—as he reads the records and transcripts of the discussions and notes the expressions of suspicion and mistrust on both sides.

But while we no longer need to judge, it is important to try to understand. Why, for example, did a man like Sverdrup defend an anti-elitist position? Why did he reject so vigorously what he felt to be "humanism"?

To answer questions such as these, there are two related concepts of special importance in understanding Sverdrup’s position as it relates to his philosophy of education. One is his desire to restore what he felt was the biblical congregation. John O. Evjen has written that all of Sverdrup’s activities in church affairs can be related to his desire to restore and rebuild the New-Testament congregation as he understood it. He often spoke of it as a "free and living" reality, a fellowship of believers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in whose midst the gifts of grace were freely given and exercised. He argued that the reality had been stifled for many centuries. Now things were changing. He believed that the present moment offered a chance to rebuild the ruins. {33}

Related to this idea is a second concept: Sverdrup’s conviction that America provided the setting in which the restoration of the congregation could best be achieved. He viewed America as a land of free people and thought that its separation of church and state offered an unparalleled opportunity. He believed that God had led the revival impulses from Norway into this democratic environment in order that the immigrants might achieve what is desired for God’s congregation. Thus they would set an example for earnest Christians in Norway. {34}

Taken on its own terms, this is a breathtaking, even staggering, concept. It involves nothing less than the idea that America offers Christians a chance to make a "new beginning," to return to the New-Testament pattern of Christianity. From Sverdrup’s point of view, this was a unique period in the history of God’s people. But it was a moment that must be grasped. In the light of what this time offered, he felt, it would be futile to import and cling to the older patterns from Europe that had fostered an aristocratic clergy and thwarted the development of the congregation. This was the time to break out of the old ways and to try to create something new.

Sverdrup believed that Augsburg’s program for training ministers had proved to be best suited to a democratic society. A statement in Augsburg catalogues over a number of years expressed it thus: "It is also an essential principle of Augsburg Seminary, that no so-called higher education, which tends to develop aristocratical or hierarchical tendencies among the students, is Christian in character or in accordance with the highest interests of a free people and its institutions." {35}

It is interesting to note some of the other developments in American education that claimed a measure of democratic orientation. Such figures as John Dewey and Charles W. Eliot sought to bring about reforms in the elementary and higher educational systems that they believed best suited for a democracy. Sverdrup, it can be argued, thought that Augsburg Seminary had developed a program of theological education that would meet effectively the needs of a free people by producing pastors without the class consciousness that had hindered their work in earlier settings. For him, no compromise of that position was possible. {36}

One other factor that helps us to understand Sverdrup’s stance—especially in the 1890s—is the fact that during the latter part of the century new thought currents were making a strong impact on the intellectuals of many lands. These new ideas were felt in both America and Norway. Many of them proceeded from naturalistic or anti-Christian premises and seemed to threaten the very foundations of the Christian faith. Several prominent Norwegian thinkers and writers who had been influenced by the new movements made trips to America and propounded their advanced views in speeches to the immigrants.

Perhaps in one sense Christian leaders such as Sverdrup were not prepared to deal with such a phenomenon. Professor Einar Molland has noted that Norwegian theology had not developed what he calls the "Christian humanistic tradition," an outlook which he says existed in many countries which enabled their leaders to respond to the new thought in a more positive manner. Theology in Norway lacked this perspective and so the threat seemed especially acute in that country. The tendency of its churchmen was to withdraw as completely as possible from what seemed to smack of humanism. Sverdrup was, of course, one who had been shaped by the Norwegian theological tradition. {37}

The passing of time may have indicated that Sverdrup’s ideas about the education of pastors were not as unique as he and his colleagues thought; it may also have made clear that the theological education which he championed was not necessarily the best to meet the challenges of an industrialized, urbanized society buffeted by the currents of thought in our modern age. Yet not even the passing of time can take from him the recognition due to one who propounded with clarity and conviction a concept that influenced the actions of many of his fellow Norwegians in America.


<1> Works containing useful statistical information on Norwegian immigrants in America include: Canton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938); O. M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America (Minneapolis, 1925).

<2> A helpful sketch describing these efforts is included in Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 517—42 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940).

<3> For more complete discussions, see Andreas Helland, Augsburg Seminar gjennem femti aar: 1869—1919 (Minneapolis, 1920), and Carl H. Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway: 100 Years—Augsburg College (Minneapolis, 1969).

<4> See John O. Evjen, "Georg Sverdrup," in Albert Hauck, ed., Real Encyclopadie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 24:538 (Leipzig, 1913).

<5> A useful biographical sketch of Sverdrup is Andreas Helland’s Georg Sverdrup: The Man and His Message (Minneapolis, 1947). Sverdrup s writings were collected, edited, and published in six volumes after his death by Andreas Helland under the title Professor Georg Sverdrups samlede skrifter i udvalg (Minneapolis, 1909—1912). Selections from Sverdrup s writings have been translated into English by Melvin A. Helland and published in a book entitled The Heritage of Faith (Minneapolis, 1969). The prominent role of Sverdrup among Norwegian-American Lutherans is documented in such works as E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, 1960), and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Free Church (Minneapolis, 1969).

<6> August Weenaas (1835—1924) was born and educated in Norway and served as a pastor there for several years prior to coming to America in 1868. He was president and professor at Augsburg Seminary from 1869 to1876. He returned to Norway in 1876, was in America again from 1882 to1885 as a theological professor at Red Wing Seminary in Red Wing, Minnesota, and then went back to Norway, where he engaged in pastoral work. See Andreas Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 55—56, 361. The quotation is from Beretning om 2det aarlige konferentsmøde af Konferentsen for den norsk-dansk ev. lutherske kirke i Amerika, 1871, 42.

<7> Sven Oftedal (1844—1911) was born and educated in Norway. He came to America in 1873 and served as professor at Augsburg Seminary from 1873 to 1904. He was regarded as a gifted linguist. He and Georg Sverdrup emerged as leading figures at Augsburg during their years of association with that institution. Sven Rud Gunnersen (1844—1904) was also born and educated in Norway. He was a professor at Augsburg Seminary from 1874 to 1883, served a year at Red Wing Seminary, and returned to Norway in 1884, where he was a pastor until his death. See Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 362—63.

<8> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1874, 59—64; Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 347—5 1. A helpful discussion of these developments is included in Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, 20—23.

<9> "Program for Augsburg Seminarium med collegeavdelinger, vedtat i direktionsmøte 31te aug. 1874, tillikemed forklarende bemerkninger av fakultetet" is included in Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 442—52. I have adopted Professor Chrislock’s rendering of this title into English; see From Fjord to Freeway, 20. In another of his writings, Andreas Helland comments: "Just by whom the ‘Remarks’ which form the largest and in some ways most important part of the Program were drafted, it is impossible to determine with absolute certainty, but it is more than likely that Sverdrup was the author. That all the three younger men had discussed the ideas which are contained in them is quite certain." See Helland, Georg Sverdrup: The Man and His Message, 49.

<10> Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 442—45.

<11> Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 450—52.

<12> Helland, Augsburg Seminar, 445—50. I have discussed these views in a somewhat different context in the article "Georg Sverdrup’s Concept of Theological Education in the Context of a Free Church," in the Lutheran Quarterly, 199—209 (May, 1970).

<13> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1876, 39.

<14> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1875, 64.

<15> Discussions of these movements can be found in such works as Otto Anderssen, Realisme eller klassicisme: Et kapitel av 1830-aarenes kultur-kamp (Kristiania, 1921), Einar Boyesen, Hartvig Nissen 1815—1874 og det norske skolevesens reform, 2 vols. (Oslo, 1947), and Ernst J. Borup and Frederik Schrøder, eds., Haandbog i N. F. S. Grundtvigs skrifter, Vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1929).

<16> Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, 27.

<17> Beretning . . af Konferentsen . . . 1875, 59—63; Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1876, 39—41.

<18> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1877, 53; Sverdrup, Samlede skrifter i udvaig, 3:31, 32. Among the Norwegian Lutheran synods in America, the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the Norwegian Synod) was known for its stress on correct doctrine, while such bodies as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Eielsen’s Synod) and Hauge’s Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America (Hauge’s Synod) tended to accent an experienced Christianity and a separated Christian life. See Nelson and Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 1:126—90,

<19> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1877, 55.

<20> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1877, 59—60; Beretning . . . af Konferentsen.. . . 1879, 32; Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1884, 40, 77.

<21> Beretning . . . af Konferentsen . . . 1885, 28—29; Sverdrup, Samlede skrifter i udvalg, 3:41; Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, 31—35, 37—39.

<22> The three merging synods were the Norwegian Augustana Synod, the Conference, and the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood (a church body resulting from a split within the Norwegian Synod during the 1880s in the course of a controversy over predestination).

<23> Katalog for Augsburg Seminarium, 5—10 (Minneapolis, 1891).

<24> Beretning om det iste aarsmøde for den forenede norsk-lutherske kirke i Amerika, 1890, 117.

<25> Beretning . . . forenede kirke . . . 1890, 117—18.

<26> A helpful account of the institution is William C. Benson’s High on Manitou: A History of St. Olaf College (1874—1949) (Northfield, Minnesota, 1949).

<27> This was especially true of the annual meeting held at Dawson, Minnesota, in 1892. See Beretning . . . forenede kirke . . . 1892.

<28> A recent study of the Lutheran Free Church that traces these developments in some detail is Eugene L. Fevold’s The Lutheran Free Church. See also Nelson and Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 2:38—81.

<29> Andreas Helland has gathered these Folkebladet articles together under two general headings in Sverdrup’s Samlede skrifter i udvalg, 3:214—40. The first heading is "Humanismen og presteuddannelsen" and the second, "Menighedsmæssig presteuddannelse."

<30> Referat fra mødet af Augsburgs venner af holdt i Mpls., nov. 21—23, 1893, 50—64 (Minneapolis, 1894); Beretning . . . Augsburgs venner . . . 1894, 65; Catalogue of Augsburg Seminary, 1896—97, 3.

<31> Catalogue of Augsburg Seminary, 1894—95, 3—4; Catalogue of Augsburg Seminary, 1899—1900, 3.

<32> Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, 62.

<33> Evjen, "Georg Sverdrup," in Real-Encyclopädie, 545—46. ,

<34> See Sverdrup’s essay, "Augsburg Seminarium og vort folk i Amerika, in his Samlede skrifter i udvalg, 3:7—14.

<35> Catalogue of Augsburg Seminary, 1899—1900, 3—4. Scholars have pointed out that the theme of a "new beginning" was a prominent one among Protestants in America during the nineteenth century. See Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America, 110—11 (New York, 1963).

<36> Sverdrup, Samlede skrifter i udvalg, 3:214—40. I am indebted to Stow Persons, professor in American intellectual history, University of Iowa, for an understanding of the views of persons such as John Dewey and Charles W. Eliot.

<37> Einar Molland, "Endringer i det religiøse liv," in Johan T. Ruud, Arnold Eskeland, Gunnar Randers, and Magne Skodvin, eds., Dette er Norge, 1:502 (Oslo, 1963).

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page