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Name Change and the Church, 1918-1920
    by Carl H. Christlock (Volume 27: Page 194)

On June 7, 1918, the first biennial convention of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, held in Fargo, North Dakota, resolved to drop the word “Norwegian” from its official name. Constitutional proprieties, however, prevented final action at this time. Formally, the name-change resolution was a constitutional amendment requiring affirmative action by two successive conventions. However, distribution of the vote - 533 for the resolution to 61 against - created a presumption in favor of ratification in 1920.

Adverse reaction was widespread and strident. “To judge by the space our papers allocate to the name-change question, the uproar is assuming dimensions that threaten to put both the Nonpartisan League and the war in the shade,” wrote one prominent Norwegian American in September. {1} While it is hazardous to guess which side initially enjoyed majority support within the constituency, the end of the war in Europe, together with a backlash against the excesses of postwar nativism, seems to have tipped the balance in favor of those wishing to return to the old name. In late September, 1919, a full eight months before the second biennial convention was to meet, the church council, which had initiated the name-change proposal in the first place, recommended that it should not be adopted. The 1920 convention ratified this recommendation by a vote of 577 to 296. In other words, the full name was retained; it would survive until 1946. In that year, the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America was officially rechristened the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the synods that coalesced in 1960 to form the present American Lutheran Church.

Few episodes more clearly illuminate the response of Norwegian America to the climate of the World War I period than the so-called name-change controversy. Not that it per se was charged with the significance attributed to it by contemporaries. In the minds of participants, on both sides of the controversy, however, the future of an organization that claimed the allegiance of nearly half a million Norwegian Americans seemed to be at stake. {2} Was this church to retain its Norwegian-American orientation, or was it to become an “unhyphenated” American institution, unswervingly loyal to the Lutheran confessions, to be sure, but nevertheless unambiguously “American” and not “foreign”? The assumption of linkage between this question and the name permeates the entire debate of 1918-1920. History may have invalidated this assumption: in the years following World War I, the NLCA “Americanized” as rapidly while operating under the old name as, for example, the Lutheran Free Church, which never officially designated itself as Norwegian.

Nevertheless, if one understands that participants in the debate accepted the notion of linkage between label and orientation, the significance of the controversy to them becomes comprehensible. The maintenance of ethnic consciousness by Norwegian Americans - which the “Americanizers” were happy to sacrifice in deference to other priorities but which Norse enthusiasts passionately desired to reinforce and strengthen - depended substantially on the church. Such ethnic societies as the Sons of Norway, the Norsemen’s Federation and, above all, the bygdelag had grown impressively since 1900, but thousands of Norwegian Americans had only one point of contact with their ancestral heritage - the local congregation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America.

This church also provided the Norwegian-American community with a number of essential services not readily available elsewhere. Although a growing number of public schools were offering instruction in Scandinavian languages, the upcoming generation’s ability to read Norwegian depended overwhelmingly on the congregational vacation-time and Sunday school. The retention of Norse literature, history, and language as central components in the curricula of church-related colleges and academies was another consideration. Lutheraneren, the NLCA’s journalistic organ which in 1918 had a circulation of about 30,000, reported secular Norwegian-American happenings and reviewed books by Norwegian-American authors, both religious and secular. Augsburg Publishing House, another church enterprise, functioned as a publication and distribution center for fiction as well as devotional literature. Obviously, the possibility that these services might be abruptly terminated seriously menaced the future of Norwegian-American culture.

Before the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the bitter controversy unleashed by the Fargo convention could scarcely have been predicted. Although the so-called language question had long plagued Norwegian Lutheranism’s inner tranquillity - and the anti-hyphenist agitation of 1915 and 1916 had heightened tension - church leaders had anticipated that 1917 would be a festive year. For one thing, the protracted and delicate negotiations to merge three synods into the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America had been completed; formalization was to be consummated in St. Paul in June. For another, October 31, 1917, would mark the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, and this also was to be appropriately commemorated.

An editorial appearing in the May 16, 1917, issue of Lutheraneren interpreted the impact of the war on this euphoric mood: “We are moving into difficult times, not least for the Lutheran church. This was to have been a jubilee year for our church; but, as a pastor recently remarked, Our Lord has given us a sign that we should celebrate with restraint. Everyone knows that the Lutheran church originated in Germany, and this does not enhance its popularity here in America at the present time.

“Hostility against everything foreign is rising. It has been suggested in all seriousness that publication of periodicals and books in foreign languages should be prohibited by law. If such an edict should be issued, would we Norwegian Lutherans be able to comply without grave damage to our church?

“We can comfort ourselves by assuming that our government will never take such extreme action. Let us hope so. However, we have learned that the most unthinkable can happen. . . . Only the fool closes his eyes and refuses to heed the signs of the time.

“Let us come to terms with the thought that our church’s deliverance (redning) depends on its becoming completely American.” {3}

Lutheraneren’s prediction erred slightly on the side of pessimism. Wartime hysteria did not visibly inhibit the ethnically flavored celebrations accompanying the organizing church’s convention in June, 1917 - celebrations characterized by one historian as the “greatest church demonstration ever held by Norwegians anywhere in the world.” {4} Nor did publication of non-English books and periodicals cease, although foreign-language newspapers came under onerous licensing restrictions. In addition, ethnic societies redirected and curtailed their activities to some extent - but most of them survived.

Experience nevertheless validated a number of Lutheraneren’s anxieties. In the summer of 1917, publicity emanating from the Nebraska Council of Defense cast serious doubts on the quality of Lutheran patriotism. {5} Less than a year later, Governor W. L. Harding of Iowa issued a sweeping prohibition against the use of any language but English. Nebraska shortly followed suit. Other states limited their restrictive measures to the German language, and still others took no formal action at all. However, the persistence of hostility against “foreign” cultural institutions, languages, and folkways sustained the possibility that the Harding model might become universal.

Church leaders responded to this perilous situation by seizing every opportunity to affirm absolute loyalty to the United States and unconditional support of the war. Lutheraneren opened its columns to liberty bond promotion, and religious gatherings solicited contributions for the Red Cross. Spokesmen for the NLCA emphatically refused to countenance dissent against the war or to resort to conscientious objection by its younger members. As one editorial in Lutheraneren expressed it, any moral responsibility connected with the war rested on the shoulders of government officials; religious obligation compelled the draftee to accept service with the armed forces. {6} The church also established co-operative arrangements with other Lutheran groups to meet the needs of servicemen on duty.

While serving the war effort on these various fronts, the church leaders were reluctant to yield all ecclesiastical functions to Wilson’s Great Crusade. Some Protestants, it should be explained, demonstrated greater flexibility. “Religion and war go hand in hand,” announced one Minneapolis clergyman in October, 1917, adding: “To go into this war and fight for all he is worth is the most religious thing a man can do. There is no difference between religion and war. That idea is all wrong. This is no mere war between Germany and the Allies. A new world is being born in agony, and it is for the world to fight. I say to you that it is the most religious thing a man can do to go to this war. It is to offer himself a living sacrifice on the altar of his faith.”

Lutheran Church Herald, the English-language organ, took sharp issue with this concept of religious obligation. In an editorial titled “Religion and War,” it acknowledged the duty of all to support the war, and of the church to engage in certain war activities. But it added: “The army and navy are directly in the business of directing and managing the war, but the Church has a distinctly different duty. When a pastor turns his church into a recruiting station and even uses the 30 minutes on Sunday especially intended for preaching the Gospel, to talk war measures, he is not rendering the service which his duty calls upon him to perform.” {7}

Such a caveat may seem consistent with the free exercise of religion, but in 1917 it failed to produce universal satisfaction. From time to time, accusations charging the NLCA ministerium with pro-Germanism appeared in the press. An exchange of correspondence between Senator Knute Nelson, the country’s most prestigious Norwegian-American politician, and Pastor Jacob A. O. Stub is also illuminating. Stub, who supervised a number of the church’s war-related activities, sought to assure the strongly pro-war senator that whatever may have been true in the past, the NLCA was now zealously backing the war, a contention he supported by citing the various phases of the church’s program. The young pastor apologized for intruding on Nelson’s time, explaining that he was writing with the “approval of my father, the President of the Norwegian Lutheran Church.” {8}

Nelson read Stub’s letter “with much satisfaction” but was not fully reassured. It was, he affirmed, “time for the Lutheran Church to wake up.” Before American entry into the war, he had noted “a strong pro-German sentiment” among Scandinavian Lutheran ministers, a tendency he attributed primarily to their association with clergymen of the German Lutheran Missouri Synod. Since the declaration of war, the senator continued, “Lutheran Ministers . . . may have been active in eleemosynary work, yet in encouraging enlistments and military service little effort has been made.” Stub’s program was “in the right direction” but “rather mild and academic.” By comparison, other Protestant churches were doing much more. So, in Nelson’s opinion, was the Catholic church. “When the first quota [of draftees] from Stearns county . . . left St. Cloud . . . Bishop [Joseph F.] Busch. . . made a strong patriotic speech to the boys just before they embarked.” He knew of no Lutheran minister “who ever took pains to do this.” The senator concluded his reply to Stub by affirming “the duty of all Christian Ministers to inculcate patriotism and love of country on all occasions in the pulpit and elsewhere.” {9} Nicolay A. Grevstad, a prominent Norwegian-American journalist and director of the Minnesota Public Safety Commission’s Scandinavian publicity division - a post Nelson had helped him secure - believed that the senator’s communication would register an impact. {10} “I assume that Pres. [Hans G.] Stub will make your letter known among [NLCA clergymen],” Grevstad wrote early in 1918, “and [I] cannot doubt that it will make the sluggards sit up and think, and act when they finally get around to it." {11}

Grevstad’s hopes soon materialized. A month later, in February, 1918, the NLCA church council issued a “Patriotic Plea” to its constituency that abandoned any reservations concerning the propriety of integrating worship and war. After recounting what the church was doing to support the war effort, council members addressed this pronunciamento to the clergy: “Every pastor. . . should be an aggressive and constructive leader in patriotic thought and in every form of activity which we are called upon by the government to engage in. The American flag and service flags should be generally displayed in our churches. The future welfare of our country and our Church is at stake, and every pastor is especially urged to adapt his church services to war conditions and not to omit on all occasions of public worship to pray for divine guidance in this tremendous crisis and for speedy victory of our arms, and that such victory may be followed by permanent peace, in which the Christian Church shall be the dominant and controlling force.” {12}

Thus by the spring of 1918 the process of “Americanizing” the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America had proceeded far. Dropping the designation “Norwegian” from the church’s official name would be but another step in the process.

Two weeks before the 1918 convention, a blockbuster exploded in Iowa. On May 23 Governor W. L. Harding issued a proclamation restricting oral (but not written) communication to the English language. To accomplish this end, he laid down four “rules” that were to “obtain in Iowa during the war”:

First. English should and must be the only medium of instruction in public, private and denominational or other similar schools.

Second. Conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in the English language.

Third. All public addresses should be in the English language.

Fourth. Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their homes.

The proclamation also waded into the murky waters of constitutional interpretation. Freedom of speech, it conceded, was guaranteed, but the guarantee did not include “the right to use a language other than the language of the country - the English language.” Similarly, freedom of worship was constitutionally grounded: But this guarantee does not protect the person in the use of a foreign language when he can as well express his thoughts in English, nor entitle the person who cannot speak or understand the English language to employ a foreign language, when to do so tends, in times of national peril, to create discord among neighbors and citizens, or to disturb the peace and quiet of the community.” {13}

The impact of Harding’s proclamation contradicted his assumption that enforced English monolingualism would “result in peace and tranquillity at home and greatly strengthen the country in battle.” As might be expected, Scandinavian reaction was generally negative, but there were differences in degree and tone. Danevirke, a Cedar Falls, Iowa, Danish-language weekly whose readership included a large contingent of immigrants from German-controlled South Jutland, typified the more militant response. According to this paper, Jutlanders in particular could not understand the sudden deprivation of the right to use their mother tongue in church and school; even autocratic Prussia had refrained from such an oppressive policy.

Danskeren, another Danish-language journal, agreed that Harding’s action defied rational understanding, but took exception to Danevirke’s “comparison of [Harding’s administration] with the Prussian regime in South Jutland.” Old-world Jutlanders, Danskeren continued, resided in an ancestral land illegally occupied by Prussia; Iowa Jutlanders had voluntarily migrated to the United States, thereby placing themselves under an obligation to accept the policies of the American government. Apparently Danskeren conceived of first-generation immigrants as guests in the land, who would abuse the claims of American hospitality if they complained too bitterly over the loss of fundamental rights. {14}

Norwegian reaction followed a similar pattern of divergence. Like the editor of Danevirke, Kristine Haugen of Sioux City sounded a note of protest rather than compliance. In a letter to several newspapers that had substantial circulation, Mrs. Haugen described the profound shock evoked by the proclamation. Only days before its issuance, Sioux City Norwegians had commemorated the Seventeenth of May in festive style; now suddenly the very use of Norwegian was banned. “We had read of Germany’s coercive language policy in South Jutland, Poland and Alsace,” she wrote, “but we never dreamed that within the proud republic of the West, the very center (arnested) of individual freedom, we would find ourselves in the same situation.” By implication, Mrs. Haugen also rejected the concept that immigrants, as guests in the land, were obligated to accept without protest the abridgment of constitutionally guaranteed rights. On the contrary, she emphasized the obligation of American society to its immigrant population, whose labor and enterprise had contributed substantially to Iowa’s growth and whose support of the national administration’s war policies had been unswerving and consistent. To respond as Harding had done was an unwarranted “slap in the face” which could only diminish immigrant enthusiasm for the war effort. {15}

In marked contrast to Mrs. Haugen, Lutheraneren counseled patience. Undoubtedly the Iowa governor had acted arbitrarily, but the “burden was not too heavy to bear” - Norwegian Americans were by no means being compelled to wear a “martyr’s crown.” Moreover, higher authority - presumably the United States Supreme Court - might reverse or modify the hated policy, but Lutheraneren counseled against any NLCA initiative in bringing about this change. Should reversal result, the paper reasoned, “the taste of re stored freedom will be all the sweeter because we refrained from protest and complaint.” {16}

The brief time separating issuance of the Harding proclamation and the opening of the NLCA convention precluded full crystallization of reaction to the governor’s announcement before the convention met. Nevertheless, it significantly influenced convention proceedings. That it precipitated the resolution regarding the name change, however, is improbable. Although church leaders made no preliminary statement of intent to present the resolution - a procedure that would have been both appropriate and prudent - the likelihood that a change of name would be proposed was frequently voiced prior to the Harding action. {17}

Delivery of President Hans G. Stub’s message on June 6, the convention’s opening day, confirmed this early expectation. Noting the accelerating pace of “Americanization” and affirming his own love of Norse culture, the sixty-nine-year-old churchman presented a case for dropping the word “Norwegian” from the church’s name. He advanced two basic arguments: First and most important, the existing name perpetuated the false impression that the church over which he presided was Norwegian rather than American. Reality, Stub asserted, contradicted this impression. More and more congregations were discarding Norwegian and adopting English as their language. NLCA membership now included a number of non-Norwegians, a trend attributable to intermarriage. Notwithstanding an abiding affection for their ancestral heritage, virtually all members of Norwegian descent also wanted American identity because they were “now first and foremost Americans.” Stub stressed his second argument less vigorously. The unusual circumstances (særegne forhold) confronting the NLCA - obviously a reference to war hysteria and its accompaniments - mandated the change. He added that he hoped the proposal would command unanimous approval at the convention. He concluded discussion of the name-change issue by suggesting a replacement for the old name. The United Lutheran Synod (Den Forenede Lutherske Synode) “would serve very well” since it “merged” the names of the three organizations (Hauge’s Synod, Norwegian Synod, and United Church) whose union had created NLCA a year earlier. {18}

Presentation to the full convention on June 7 of Stub’s recommendation, which also carried the official endorsement of the church council, sparked what Lutheraneren called a “spirited and thoroughgoing” debate. The entire NLCA power structure, it would seem, backed the proposal. Theodor Halvorson Dahl, who had served as president of the United Church prior to the 1917 merger, believed the existing name was no longer appropriate: “We are,” he asserted, “essentially an American, not a Norwegian church body.” President Stub contended the change would help liberate the church for its great mission, that “of gathering people of every nationality into God’s Kingdom.”

Ostensibly speaking for the younger pastors, Lars Wilhelm Boe, who shortly would assume the presidency of St. Olaf College, addressed the assembly in English.

He proudly disclosed that his young daughter was a Norwegian monolingual, a claim he doubted that all opponents of the resolution could make on behalf of their children. Christian Keyser Preus, president of Luther College, revealed that he had preached and lectured more frequently in English during the past four months than in the preceding twenty years. It was now appropriate, Preus continued, for the fellowship to call itself “American Lutheran” rather than “Norwegian Lutheran.” Charles Orrin Solberg, president of NLCA’s English Association, asserted that convention approval of the resolution would do more than anything else to resolve the language issue in Iowa.

An occasional note of bitterness crept into speeches opposing the resolution. Nils C. Brun, whose pastoral career spanned nearly half a century, complained about the language situation in Iowa; he was reprimanded by the presiding officer for speaking “improperly” (paa en upassende maade) with respect to Harding’s position on this issue. Ole Larson Kirkeberg, one of NLCA’s most vociferous partisans for Norwegian, predicted that the next step would be elimination of the word “Lutheran” from the church’s name; he received a “strong” reprimand. With less apparent emotion (and earlier in the debate), Johannes Bothne had attributed the introduction of the resolution to wartime hysteria and pleaded for its defeat. {19}

Confusion produced by the introduction of several amendments dealing with the question of a new name complicated voting on the resolution; many delegates, it appears, abstained and others were unsure of what specific motion was on the floor. Nevertheless, convention officials ascertained that the resolution had prevailed by a vote of 533 to 61. A small group of vocal dissenters, “3 or 4” according to Lutheraneren, frustrated a move to declare the motion unanimous. {20}

Adoption of the resolution set off a chain reaction; shortly auxiliary and affiliated NLCA organizations followed the lead of the parent body by dropping “Norwegian” from their official names. An editorial appearing in Norrøna (Winnipeg) - and subsequently reprinted by other Norwegian-language papers - interpreted the process as a form of madness precipitated by wartime hysteria facilitated by lack of wisdom and courage on the part of the NLCA’s executives. In the paper’s words: “If our church leaders ever have been guilty of recklessness, it was when they decided to throw the name-change question into the Fargo convention. At the moment a wave of fanaticism was sweeping America. A true war of extermination against everything Norwegian was being waged. Individual states banned the Norwegian language. Those who dared defend the propriety of Norse activity encountered suspicion everywhere. Now more than ever a sensible message, effectively communicated, was needed. But, instead, church leaders resolved to make the name change a cabinet proposal. And then the process of striking the designation ‘Norwegian’ began. The Luther College Association of Decorah, Iowa, played Peter’s role first - it denied its origin. The Deaconess Home of Chicago followed. And men and women committed to Norse activity stood by with the feeling that everything they cherished was collapsing about them.” {21}

As indicated, several speakers on both sides of the name-change debate alluded to the Iowa situation. So did Stub in his presidential message. The convention also took note of the problem resulting from Harding’s action by creating a three-man committee authorized and instructed to negotiate with the Iowa governor - a course of action recommended by Stub. {22} Immediately following the adjournment of the convention, this committee - consisting of H. G. Stub, L. W. Boe, and Hans C. Holm, president of NLCA’s Iowa district - sought a meeting with Harding. Ultimately it succeeded: Harding granted the trio an audience on June 25.

The three churchmen failed to persuade the governor to revoke his offensive proclamation, but he seemed willing to moderate its impact. Specifically, he did not insist that Sunday services be conducted exclusively in English in congregations where a portion of the membership did not understand that language. A sermon could be delivered partly in English and partly in Norwegian, or the Sunday morning service could be in English and the evening service in Norwegian, or the other way around. Where necessary and by arrangement, communion also could be administered in Norwegian. Similar exceptions to the all-English rule could be negotiated for religious instruction. However, any such exceptions, whether relating to worship, communion, or religious instruction, had to be cleared in advance with Harding, a stipulation that virtually established him as an ex-officio member of every NLCA congregational council in Iowa. {23}

The optimism generated by Harding’s apparent concessions soon evaporated. When approached by individual clergymen, the governor usually withheld explicit approval of specific proposals without entirely rejecting them. Holm quoted him as saying: “If I approve your request, then others will come in endless procession, but go ahead, I have confidence in you.” This stance Holm bitterly characterized as a “non-stance” and one not calculated to promote harmony between pro-English and pro-Norwegian factions within individual congregations. {24} Publicly Harding continued to defend his order, arguing that it would command universal acceptance if everyone knew what he knew about pro-German activity. He suggested that God was now more receptive to prayers in English than to petitions in any other language. {25}

Undoubtedly Harding’s style discouraged full compliance with his monolingual edict. Holm, for example, announced his congregation’s intention to resume Norwegian services in September, 1918. But Lutheranism continued its tradition of scrupulous obedience to secular authority, a point stressed by Christian K. Preus in his report on the affairs of Luther College to the 1919 convention of NLCA’s Iowa district.

Preus also disclosed that Luther College had complied with Harding’s edict without suffering undue hardship. English had become the chief language of campus communication long before the governor’s ban. Students seldom addressed either peers or teachers in Norwegian, and faculty meetings “for the most part” had been conducted in English. The proclamation had required two specific adjustments, Preus continued. Morning devotions, formerly conducted in Norwegian, had shifted to English, and his religion classes, taught bilingually before Harding outlawed Norwegian, were now taught exclusively in English. These adjustments had inflicted some pain, Preus confessed, but Christian duty compelled school officials to set their students an edifying example by respecting even “perverse” (vrangvillige) governmental edicts which did not clearly violate God’s Word or the ultimate claims of conscience. Moreover, obedience to an arbitrary proclamation was potentially less damaging to Luther than were complaints of disloyalty. {26}

Statistics reporting NLCA actions indicate that many Norwegian Lutheran congregations in Iowa followed the Preus model. The percentage of “public services by clergy” conducted in English within the Iowa district increased by 12 per cent during the year the proclamation was in effect, that is, from 32 to 44. This figure corresponds roughly to NLCA’s national average (from 27 to 39 per cent). These figures, however, contrast markedly with those in neighboring southern Minnesota, where no perceptible change was registered; the division there was 70 per cent Norwegian and 30 per cent English for both 1917 and 1918. {27}

While Iowa Norwegians interacted with their ultra-patriotic governor, the broader NLCA constituency - along with Norwegian Americans only nominally affiliated with the church - also reacted both to the Fargo decision and to the Harding proclamation. Initially, the two acts tended to commingle in the consciousness of some partisans of Norwegian. In a letter to Reform Martin Carison of Chetek, Wisconsin, made two points: that sentiment in his area overwhelmingly opposed the name change and that NLCA’s leadership lacked courage. The Harding policy warranted protest rather than accommodation, Carlson wrote. He added that the apostles could have escaped martyrdom if they had responded to Roman tyranny with comparable flexibility. {28} Wisconsin’s Ole A. Buslett, a prominent Norwegian-American author, suspected a conspiratorial link between Harding and certain church leaders who desired the abandonment of Norwegian at Luther College. He went on to suggest that L. W. Boe, who had served in the Iowa legislature, might have persuaded a pliant Harding to issue his offensive proclamation. {29}

Few opponents of the name change went as far as Buslett in charging conspiracy, but several equaled him in the production of strong rhetoric. Amerika, the Madison, Wisconsin, journal edited by Rasmus B. Anderson, characterized the Fargo action as a foul deed. In lurid detail, the editor charged that it clearly violated the fourth commandment and that it called to mind Vandal depredations in the fifth century A. D. {30} Normanden of Grand Forks, North Dakota’s leading Norwegian-language paper, suggested that the convention should have gone the whole way by abolishing NLCA altogether, thereby liberating Norwegian Lutherans for affiliation with “real” American denominations. {31} Reform titled one editorial on the name change “Betrayed by Those Who Should Have Stood Watch.” {32}

The apparent breadth of opposition was as impressive as the intensity of reaction. According to Normanden, Lutheraneren was the only North American paper “published in Norwegian” that supported the Fargo decision. {33} The Grand Forks newspaper exaggerated slightly: Minneapolis Tidende declined to condemn the action, but accurately reported the controversy. {34} Several papers outside the NLCA fellowship nevertheless entered the debate. In June, 1918, Folkebladet, organ of the Lutheran Free Church, interpreted the issue as one of concern to all Norwegian Americans:

“It appears that a general war of extermination was waged against the word ‘Norwegian’ . . .at Fargo . . . It is difficult to understand what one seeks to gain by demeaning one’s own origin. We hope that Norwegian will be spoken and written and the Gospel preached in that language among the Norwegian people in this country for a long time to come. In any case, all who are born to Norwegian parents, either here or in old Norway, will continue to be Norwegian in their total character formation, a reality no vote can abolish or change. Our ethnic heritage (slegtsarven) will mark us for centuries.

“However, this will not and must not inhibit us from being good, loyal, and patriotic citizens of the United States, a country that has so hospitably received us and given us access to all the benefits we are qualified to accept. But we believe that our people in this country and the American nation will profit more from our remaining what we are than from our pretending to be what we are not. We hope the extraordinary circumstances now prevailing will soon change, and then many will perceive these issues differently than now, when all peoples and nations are under the influence of this barbaric world war.” {35}

Reduced to a defensive posture, proponents of the change of name sought to counter the onslaught with a number of arguments. First of all, they reiterated the case initially presented by church leaders at the Fargo convention. Second, they questioned the propriety of non-NLCA intrusion into the controversy. A cryptic Lutheraneren editorial made this point: “The spirited discussion concerning the name change persists - mostly in the secular press. This is not objectionable. The discussion indicates a concern for the church which in many cases is extremely moving, particularly when manifested by people whom no one suspected of entertaining such concern. So far the discussion has borne good fruit. Let us hope that concern is not limited solely to the name and language.” {36}

Name-change advocates also argued that majority opinion within the constituency supported their position. In a Lutheraneren article, John Nathan Kildahl, vice-president of the NLCA and a highly respected churchman, contended that concentration on Norwegian was fading fast, particularly among immigrants residing in ethnically heterogeneous communities. The first generation, an aging and diminishing group, still retained strong attachment to Norse culture, but “not a few” of the second generation spoke no Norwegian. The third generation, Kildahl agreed, was substantially “Americanized” - a fact that he equated with adoption of the English language. He perceived two exceptions to the dominant trend toward rapid assimilation: (1) persons reared in compact, basically rural, neighborhoods where the old language still held sway and (2) a comparatively small group of highly educated second-generation Norwegians committed to the preservation of Norwegian culture in America. {37}

Kildahl accurately assessed the numerical insignificance of the cultural leaders, but he may have underestimated their influence. In co-operation with a considerably larger group of articulate anti-assimilationists drawn from the immigrant generation, they spearheaded opposition to the name change. Passionately committed not only to maintenance of the Norse heritage - but also to the creation of an authentic Norwegian-American culture - representatives of both dissenting elements staffed the editorial offices of Norwegian-language newspapers, published books interpreting the immigrant experience in America, and promoted various forms of cultural expression. Many were church members in good standing - indeed a number were respected clergymen - but others either were unaffiliated with the church or retained only nominal NLCA ties. All were convinced, however, that the future of Norwegian (norskdommen), which they wanted to believe glowed with promise, also depended to a large extent on maintenance of the church’s Norse orientation.

By virtue of easy access to the Norwegian-American communications network, opponents of the name change were in a position to encourage a backlash against the apparent “slur” upon the Norse heritage implicit in the Fargo decision. Norrøna analyzed the developing reaction against the name change in military terms: “When the commanders [church leaders] ordered retreat, the common soldiers took up arms.” This Winnipeg paper derived further satisfaction from the virtually unanimous support of a more zealous Norwegian-ness in the press and from the positive response of the Norwegian-American community to its cause. {38}

Norrøna may have exaggerated, but the post-Armistice milieu - after the end of the war on November 11, 1918 - unquestionably strengthened the opposition to the name change. To be sure, the nativist crusade continued. Although Harding withdrew his proclamation soon after the cessation of hostilities, legislators in Iowa and other states launched an assault on all foreign-language instruction in the schools and in the non-English press. Their effort was more successful in some states than in others. Nebraska, for example, passed a law, subsequently invalidated by the United States Supreme Court, forbidding foreign-language instruction to any student prior to graduation from the eighth grade. {39} On a less drastic level, the Minnesota legislature in 1919 enacted a statute requiring elementary and secondary schools, both private and public, to employ English as the medium of instruction in so-called secular subjects. Actually this law was a limitation that affected relatively few educational institutions, as most of them had already adopted this policy. {40}

While patriotic activists pushed at least as hard in 1919 as during the war, they also encountered stronger opposition than in 1917-1918, at least from Scandinavians in the Midwest. Undoubtedly victory over Germany reduced pressures for conformity. Although the famous “Red Scare” menaced persons suspected of radicalism, Scandinavian Lutherans had less to fear from association with Lenin than from identification with the Protestant Kaiser. However (except possibly in Iowa), vital Scandinavian-American interests were more directly threatened than earlier. The flood of nativist bills introduced by Minnesota lawmakers during the 1919 session - including one that would have compelled theological seminaries to conduct instruction in English - virtually obliged Stub and Kildahl to become lobbyists, an unfamiliar role that they carried off creditably and successfully. {41} Lutheraneren also adopted a militant line in opposition to the campaign for monolingualism, and at least one bygdelag gathering (stevne) provided the occasion for spirited protest against the “New Knownothingism.” {42} So did a celebration of the fiftieth birthday of Waldemar Ager, editor of Reform, held at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on March 23, 1919. {43}

The general postwar situation soon exerted a bracing effect on the campaign to defeat the name change. Lutheraneren moved perceptibly from decided advocacy of the Fargo resolution to a more neutral position. In February, 1919, it began a pro-and-con “summing up,” which the editors hoped would diminish the flow of letters arriving with every mail delivery. {44} At the same time, such newspapers as Reform and Normanden continued to agitate against the change with unabated vigor. New recruits also joined the ranks; these included two men who substantially strengthened their cause - Peer Strømme and Ole Edvart Rølvaag.

Strømme, a peripatetic journalist, lecturer, novelist, ex-clergyman and world traveler, had remained in comparative obscurity during the war, ostensibly for reasons of health, but possibly in part because his pro-German leanings prior to April 6, 1917, had clouded his reputation. In any case, he emerged from seclusion in January, 1919, when Normanden resumed publication of his temporarily suspended feature column. Strømme’s writing soon bristled with effective barbs against the name change, monolingualism, the nativist crusade generally, and Scandinavian-American participation in that crusade in particular. He also returned to the lecture circuit.

Rølvaag, whose fame was to come some years in the future, entered the controversy shortly before Strømme resurfaced. On December 11, 1918, Lutheraneren published the first of several Rølvaag articles opposing the name change. Since this contribution basically prefigured the main thrust of subsequent Rølvaag essays, a summary of its high points may throw some light on an important phase of the career of this novelist.

According to Rølvaag, advocates of the name change based their case on two arguments. The first held that, as the NLCA was in rapid transition from Norwegian to English, the designation “Norwegian” was becoming increasingly inappropriate and soon would be entirely so. The second maintained that “the little word” deterred people of other nationalities from affiliating with the NLCA, thereby perpetuating its “foreign church” image. Both arguments, Rølvaag contended, were specious.

The first proceeded from a false premise. The function of a synodical name was not to define a church’s contemporary character, but to identify its origin. One could conceive of a time when Norwegian would no longer be spoken within the church, when membership would include persons of every nationality, or even when a majority of NLCA’s membership would be non-Norwegian. Even then, the existing name would be entirely appropriate because the NLCA would still be a synod “founded and built by Lutherans of Norwegian origin.”

In commenting on the second argument, Rølvaag reacted skeptically to the assumption that dropping the adjective “Norwegian” would encourage a host of non-Norwegians to affiliate with the NLCA. Moreover, such a decision would cast the church in the role of a stranger to its own ethnic group, thereby reducing its ability to serve its constituency. As no other church was as well qualified as the NLCA to provide Norwegian Americans with spiritual nurture, such an impairment would be serious.

At this point, Rølvaag shifted from rebuttal of the name-change case to an explanation of why he opposed the move. First of all, he equated the proposal with an abject surrender to the hysteria then sweeping the land. “In recent years, and particularly since our country entered the World War,” he wrote, “everything that is not Anglo-American in origin has come under heavy suspicion.” The spotlight of hostile inquiry had focused even on such institutions and traditions as “our Norwegian congregational schools, our Norwegian songs, our Norwegian sermons, not to speak of our effort to promote Norwegian cultural activity (vort folkelige norskhets stræv).” Most people had reacted to the madness silently and patiently; no one wanted to be accused of treason. And since many facets of Lutheranism were incomprehensible to the Anglo-American mind, the church also was suspect. To alleviate this suspicion, many delegates to the Fargo convention had voted for the change of name “even though they were entirely convinced that the suspicion was groundless.”

To Rølvaag such a course of action was highly objectionable. For one thing, it courted the moral hazards generally arising from a triumph of expediency over inner conviction. For another, it could be interpreted as an admission of Norwegian-American guilt over failure to fulfill the obligations of American citizenship. Ever since their founding, most Norwegian-American ecclesiastical societies had carried the adjective “Norwegian” in their official names; indeed, only a year earlier the NLCA’s organizing convention had ratified this tradition by approving the existing name. Now suddenly the tradition was being repudiated, ostensibly in obediency to the imperatives of patriotic duty. The Fargo decision thus stood as “a vote of no confidence by ourselves in ourselves and in most of the activities we have promoted up to now.” {45}

In the spring of 1919, Lutheraneren commissioned Rølvaag to “sum up” the case against the name change, a responsibility which Kildahl assumed on behalf of the Fargo resolution. {46} At about the same time, Rølvaag also participated in the tentative establishment of a society committed to the premise that Norwegian Lutheranism and the Norse cultural heritage needed each other to remain viable. Identified initially as “a society for church and culture (En Forening for Kirke og Kultur),” the new organization soon adopted the name For Fædrearven (For the Ancestral Heritage). A statement issued in early September by Rølvaag and other sponsors of the projected society outlined a program which included affirmation of the Norwegian heritage, opposition to the change of name, and more explicit recognition of congregational autonomy than was evident in the history of the Fargo resolution. {47}

Publication of this statement, which included a call for an organizational meeting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on October 19-21, aroused anxiety at the NLCA headquarters. {48} Apparently church leaders feared that the emergence of the new society reflected a ground swell of protest within the constituency. Other signs pointed in the same direction. For the time being, more congregations were shifting from English to Norwegian rather than the other way around. This was a temporary trend that soon would be reversed; earlier in the summer, several NLCA district conventions had called for revocation of the name change. Following a midsummer tour through “Norwegian America,” Peer Strømme reported a “remarkable shift” in opinion on the issue, opposition to the Fargo decision being considerably stronger than a few months earlier. {49}

Decisive action was soon forthcoming. On October 1, Lutheraneren carried an official church council statement recommending to the 1920 convention of the NLCA that it quash the constitutional amendment calling for the change that the 1918 convention had formally proposed. Support of the name change, the statement asserted, had not been based on lack of veneration for “our dear ancestral heritage,” but on a conviction that the action would facilitate the church’s mission “in our country.” Unfortunately, the proposal had generated so much conflict that rational deliberation was impossible; hence, the recommended reversal. {50}

As might be expected, strong advocates of Norwegianism were delighted. {51} Proponents of rapid Americanization were less enthusiastic. Lutheran Church Herald accused opponents of the name change of “befogging the issue” and creating the false impression that “a tremendous sentiment against this change” prevailed within the NLCA. {52} However, fears that the bitterness felt by the supporters of change might disrupt the NLCA proved groundless: perceptive members of this faction no doubt sensed that time was on their side. From the vantage point of an observer, Strømme found the 1920 convention in Minneapolis basically a “tame affair.” A degree of animation enlivened debate on the issue of the change, he reported, but the outcome was never in doubt and most of the speeches were undistinguished. {53} When the council recommendation opposing change came up for a vote, it carried by a margin of 577 to 296. {54}

Strømme also noted convention approval of NLCA affiliation with the National Lutheran Council. He might have interpreted this action as a more significant harbinger of the future than the decision to retain the old name. Formation of the council marked an important stage in the promotion of interethnic Lutheran unity, a development which did not encourage maintenance of NLCA’s Norwegian orientation.

In any case, enthusiasts for norskdom soon realized that they had won an insubstantial victory. History, it appeared, was on the side of assimilation. To be sure, there were a few flashes of encouragement for them in the postwar years. The bygdelag continued to flourish, Norwegian-American fiction achieved a high level of productivity, and thousands of Norwegian Americans participated zestfully in the centennial festivities of 1925. Nevertheless, assimilation continued inexorably. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than within the NLCA. The temporary resurgence of Norwegian as the language of worship in 1919 gave way in 1920 to an unmistakable trend toward English. By 1925 the proportion of Norwegian services had dropped to below 50 per cent as compared to nearly 66 percent in 1919. {55} From the Norwegian point of view, the trend with respect to the education of youth was even grimmer. As Einar Haugen points out: “By 1928 religious instruction of the young in Norwegian had practically ceased.” {56}

Thus participants on both sides of the controversy clearly exaggerated the ultimate significance of the battle over changing the name. Nevertheless, the episode is of considerable interest to the student of history. Above all, it provided the occasion for Norwegian Americans to react to the powerful assimilationist pressures of the World War I period. A variety of responses was forthcoming.

Obviously, NLCA’s leaders did not emerge as particularly strong defenders of Norwegian ethnicity. A combination of motives encouraged them to support the name change: an aspiration to facilitate Lutheran entry into the mainstream of American church life, a genuine worry that ethnic entanglement hampered the church’s evangelical mission, and a traditional Lutheran reluctance to court confrontation with secular authority.

The so-called person in the street, one suspects, reacted ambivalently. On the one hand, most Norwegian Americans had always tended to assign higher priority to “making it” in the New Land than to perpetuating “Norway in America” - a tendency encouraging amenability to the gentler forms of assimilationist pressure. On the other hand, a sufficiently strong sense of Norwegian identity persisted among them to generate a backlash against the excesses of Governor Harding and the nativist crusaders of 1918-1919 - one that undoubtedly contributed to the reversal of the name-change decision.

The controversy also underscored the existence of a vocal, determined anti-assimilationist party within Norwegian America. This group, it can be argued, merits re-evaluation and perhaps a measure of rehabilitation. Except for Rølvaag - whose fiction failed to win universal approval among Norwegian Americans but whose fame at least commanded respect - most members of the group are relatively unknown today. They deserve a kinder fate. Some of them may have resorted to outrageous overstatement and grossly unfair attack, possibly because they sensed the hopelessness of their cause. Nevertheless, their assessment of the debilitating effect of high-pressure assimilation and their occasionally convincing arguments on behalf of a pluralistic America appear more persuasive today than was the case a few years ago, when most people who gave the matter any thought assumed that ethnicity was dead and only awaited a decent burial.


<1> A. H. Lindelie, in Normanden (Grand Forks, North Dakota), September 12, 1918.

<2> Membership in the NLCA in 1918 totaled 443,563; Beretning om Den norsk lutherske kirkes første extraordinære fællesmøte avholdt i Fargo, North Dakota fra 6te til 12te juni 1918, 515 (Minneapolis, 1918). Although some allowance has to be made for non-Norwegian members, the NLCA unquestionably ranked as by far the largest Norwegian-American “ethnic” society. An estimate of the membership of so-called secular societies made in 1914 placed their total at about 60,000; Carl G. O. Hansen, “Det norske foreningsliv i Amerika,” in Johs. B. Wist, ed., Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift 1914, 290 (Decorah, Iowa, 1914).

<3> Lutheraneren, May 16, 1917. This publication at the time was not yet technically the official organ of the NLCA. It became so on July 1, 1917. Until the merger of 1917, it was the organ of the United Church, one of the synods involved.

<4> Abdel Ross Wentz, quoted in E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2:222 (Minneapolis, 1960).

<5> For information on these accusations and an angry response to them, see Lutheraneren’s editorial, “Lutherdom - loyalitet,” August 1, 1917.

<6> Lutheraneren, July 25, 1917.

<7> Lutheran Church Herald, November 2, 1917. See also Lutheraneren, October 17, 1917.

<8> J. A. O. Stub to Knute Nelson, December 14, 1917, in Knute Nelson Papers, in the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

<9> Knute Nelson to J. A. O. Stub, December 17, 1917.

<10> Nelson informed Postmaster General A. S. Burleson: “It was upon my recommendation that the Minnesota Public Safety Commission appointed Mr. Grevstad to look after the Scandinavian newspapers in the Northwest, and I have been co-operating and corresponding with him, and we have both tried to see that these newspapers do their bit in promoting a spirit of patriotism and loyalty.” Nelson also enclosed a list of Scandinavian newspapers for Burleson, indicating which were “reliable” and hence should receive a permit that would render unnecessary the filing of a translation of the paper’s political articles with the federal Post Office. Nelson to Burleson, January 7, 1918.

<11> Grevstad to Nelson, January 2, 1918.

<12> Lutheraneren, February 20, 1918. The document is in English.

<13> The full text of the proclamation was printed in Lutheraneren, June 12, 1918.

<14> The Daoskeren article, which quotes the cited excerpts from Danevirke, was reprinted in Lutheraneren, July 3, 1918.

<15> Reform (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), June 18, 1918.

<16> Lutheraneren, June 12, 1918.

<17> On May 17, 1918, Lutheran Church Herald commented: “The sentiment in favor of changing the name of our Church seems to be quite general, and when a resolution to that effect is introduced at the Fargo meeting, we hope it can be passed without any opposition.” In a letter to Lutheraneren, May 22, 1918, Johannes Bothne pleaded for postponement of the issue.

<18> Beretning . . . Den norsk lutherske kirke . . . 1918, 20-21.

<19> No full stenographic report of proceedings was apparently made. The writer used the account originally published in Decorah-Posten and quoted in Reform, June 18, 1918.

<20> Lutheraneren, June 19, 1918. See also Johannes Granskou letter in the same paper, January 15, 1919.

<21> Quoted in Normanden, August 27, 1918, and in Reform, September 3, 1918.

<22> Beretning . . . Den norsk lutherske kirke . . . 1918, 23, 305.

<23> Lutheraneren, July 3, 1918.

<24> Letter in Lutheraneren, September 4, 1918.

<25> A Danskeren article reprinted in Lutheraneren, July 3, 1918; letter by B. L. Wick in Minneapolis Tidende (weekly edition), August 15, 1918.

<26> Beretning om Den norsk lutherske kirkes første ordinære distriktmøter, 35-36.

<27> Computations are based on statistics in Beretning . . . Den norsk lutherske kirke . . . 1918, 515; Beretning. . . første ordinære distriktmøter, 23; Beretning . . . Den norsk lutherske kirke ... 1920, 592.

<28> Reform, August 6, 1918.

<29> Letter in Reform, July 30, 1918.

<30> Quoted in Reform, July 9, 1918.

<31> Normanden, June 21, 1918.

<32> Reform, June 18, 1918.

<33> Normanden, July 16, 1918.

<34> Minneapolis Tidende, July 25, 1918.

<35> Folkebladet, June 26, 1918.

<36> Lutheraneren, September 25, 1918.

<37> Lutheraneren, August 21, 1918.

<38> Quoted in Normanden, August 27, 1918.

<39> Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U. S. 390 (1923).

<40> State Representative Nels T. Moen gave Minneapolis Tidende an informative interview at the close of the session; see the issue of May 1, 1919.

<41> Minneapolis Tidende, March 6, 1919.

<42> Lutheraneren, July 30, 1919.

<43> Normanden, April 4, 1919.

<44> Lutheraneren, February 19, 1919.

<45> Lutheraneren, December 11, 1918.

<46> The contributions of Kildahl and Rølvaag were carried simultaneously in the following issues of Lutheraneren: April 30, May 7, May 14, 1919. Rølvaag subsequently included a revised version of his contributions in his Omkring fædrearven, 169-200 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1922).

<47> Normanden, July 29, 1919; Lutheraneren, July 2, September 10, 1919.

<48> Lutheraneren, September 10, October 15, 1919.

<49> Normanden, August 22, 1919.

<50> Lutheraneren, October 1, 1919.

<51> Normanden, October 3, 1919.

<52> Quoted in Nelson, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 2:250.

<53> Normanden, July 2, 1920.

<54> Lutheraneren, June 23, 1920.

<55> Nelson, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 2:251; Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior, 263 (Bloomington, Indiana, 1969).

<56> Haugen, The Norwegian Language, 262.

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