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Bjørnson and the Norwegian-Americans, 1880-81
By Arthur C. Paulson (Volume V: Page 84)

It is not the purpose of this paper to give an exhaustive account of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's visit to America in 1880-81. The aim, rather, is to show how Bjørnson was received by the Norwegian-Americans {1} and the general nature of their attitude toward him while he was in the United States. Before this can be done, however, it will be necessary to review briefly the reaction of the Norwegian-Americans to him previous to his visit. From the time the first installment of En glad Gut (A Happy Boy) appeared in Emigranten {2} on January 21, 1861, up to the year 1876, which witnessed the beginning of his attack upon the church, Bjørnson was the popular idol of the Norwegians in America. {3} He was early recognized as the leading poet and author of Norway; his works were widely read, and his letters to Skandinaven {4} in 1873 had made his name a household word even among those who were not familiar with his other works. Not only this, but his political activities, which in Norway were sometimes severely criticized, were eagerly followed and heartily approved of in America. {5}

In 1876, however, a decided change took place. The Norwegian-Americans had applauded Bjørnson when he advanced new ideas with respect to politics, but when he began to advance new ideas with respect to religion and to question the orthodox dogmas of the Lutheran church, it was a different matter. Nor is the reason far to seek. Most of the immigrants were Lutherans, who, because of the great religious revival in Norway during the first half of the nineteenth century, came to America with very conservative and orthodox religious views. {6} Living among strange people, confronted with strange customs and with religious views different from their own, they assumed a defensive attitude and became even more rigid and uncompromising in their religious faith than before. This state of affairs obtained especially among the members of the two strongest church organizations, the Norwegian Synod and the Conference. {7} Therefore, when Bjørnson began to question the dogmas of the Lutheran church, a large part of the Norwegian-Americans felt that he was assaulting one of their most cherished possessions; and the clergy, especially, were not slow to voice their disapproval. The result was a struggle between the great majority of the Norwegian-Americans, who looked askance at his religious views, and the minority, who approved of them or excused them.

Bjørnson's apostasy, in the eyes of the Norwegian-Americans, had begun even before 1876 in his acceptance of the doctrines of the great Danish scholar and theologian, Grundtvig. But this was as nothing compared with the second step, which he took in 1876 when he declared that Christians must interpret the Bible in accordance with the growing power of the human mind and that if Christianity did not heed the dictates of culture and intellect, it would find itself submerged, "a little forsaken homeless waif, frightened, impotent, driven hither and thither." A year later he denied all belief in eternal punishment and in a personal devil. Next followed his denial of the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism, one of the fundamental principles of Lutheran dogma. Finally in 1879 he threw overboard all belief in the divinity of Christ and became, although still professing to be a Christian, an out-and-out freethinker. {8}

These progressive steps in Bjørnson's break with the church alienated him more and more from his countrymen in America. In their eyes, to accept the religious views of Grundtvig was a serious error; to deny all belief in eternal punishment, a personal devil, or the efficacy of the sacraments, was apostasy; and to deny the Bible, especially those parts dealing with the divinity of Christ, was unforgivable sacrilege. The breach was widened still more by Bjørnson's attempt, through his speeches, letters, and books, to force his views upon the Norwegian people both in Norway and in America.

Such was the state of affairs when Bjørnson came to America in 1880. He was no longer the popular idol that he had been in 1875. The Norwegian Synod through its church paper, Kirketidende, had officially branded him as an apostate and a heretic; and the clergy, the real leaders of the people, were most hostile to him. Yet so great had been Bjørnson's popularity, and so great still was the admiration for his peasant stories and his poems, that large numbers of the Norwegian-Americans, although they felt deep pain because of his break with the church, were nevertheless content to forget Bjørnson the apostate, and remember only Bjørnson the author and poet. Furthermore, to offset the opposition of the clergy with their intense antagonism was the loyalty of a small group of intelligentsia, headed by Luther Jæger, editor of Budstikken, who in all things were his ardent admirers. {9}

Bjørnson reached America on September 26, 1880, the guest of Mrs. Ole Bull. {10} Whether he came, as Rasmus B. Anderson states, in order that Mrs. Bull might increase her social prestige, {11} or whether, as his opponents intimated, to bolster up his depleted fortune while escaping temporarily from an uncomfortable situation in Norway, need not concern us here. Bjørnson himself declared that he had come to America to study and to observe American institutions at first hand. With this in view he began his sojourn of two and a half months at the home of Mrs. Ole Bull in Cambridge. From Bjørnson's point of view the time was well spent, He learned to speak English with passable fluency; he came in direct contact with the New England school of writers; he met such celebrities as Governor Long and General Grant and even took an active part in the political campaign then in progress; he visited the great manufacturing centers and caught intimate glimpses of the methods of the various industries; and everywhere he was honored and feted. {12}

Meanwhile his arrival in Boston had been heralded by all the Norwegian-American newspapers. Indication of what sort of welcome he might look for in the Middle West is shown even in these first announcements. Budstikken, -- its editor, Jæger, a devoted admirer of Bjørnson, -- after expressing a hope that Bjørnson would pay the Middle West a visit, concluded its article with the following significant paragraph:

It is vain to hope that Bjørnson himself will meet with general approval, or that all people will be overjoyed at his coming. The Norwegian clergy will undoubtedly give him a lukewarm welcome, and the honorable fathers who preside over the Norwegian Synod will secretly attempt to poison the minds of their parishioners against him. In Norway it is Bjørnson the politician who is a thorn in the flesh; in this country it is Bjørnson the author who is hated and feared. But in spite of everything, we believe that most of the Norwegian-Americans love Bjørnson because he is the author and the politician that he is -- and in the name of these people we bid him a hearty welcome. {13}

The question that seemed uppermost in the minds of the Norwegian-Americans was, "Will Bjørnson visit the West?" Bjørnson himself refused to give a satisfactory answer. Budstikken reported on October 12, 1880, that his answer to its invitation was, "I have come to America to learn, not to teach." Later (October 27) Norden gave two accounts of Bjørnson's plans. {14} The first is a paragraph reprinted from the Western Minnesota Press stating that John W. Arctander has received a letter from Bjørnson saying that if he comes to Minnesota he will be Arctander's guest. The second is a reprint of a private letter from Bjørnson to one of his friends. It contains a typical Bjørnsonian outburst, one not very complimentary to the Lutheran clergy: "No. I shall never come to the West to that hive of preachers. Furthermore, I will not have it said that I have come to America to make money. I have come to America to study, and I can do that here."

In spite of the fact that Bjørnson seemed unwilling to leave the East, the Norwegian-Americans in the West appeared to take it for granted that he would visit them. Committees were appointed in Chicago and in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) to make the necessary arrangements for his coming. Trouble, however, soon developed in Chicago. Hallvard Hande, the editor of Norden, refused to serve on the Chicago committee, and gave his reasons in a public "Declaration." {15}

As may have been seen in the newspapers, I have been asked to serve on committees delegated to prepare a suitable public welcome for Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. I believed that I could take part in publicly honoring Bjørnson as a great author without in any way sanctioning or being held to account for his openly expressed views on the Christian religion; but since I fear that such a course is impossible, I hereby declare that I cannot serve on these committees, and consequently do not wish to be considered a member of them. {16}

Hande's "Declaration" was applauded vigorously by the leaders among the Norwegian-Lutheran clergy. Kirketidende {17} on October 15 comments as follows:

We hope that this Declaration which we have reprinted from Norden will serve as an example to other Christians, especially those who think that in honoring Bjørnson they can honor God's gift to the poet, forgetting that Bjørnson through his agnosticism has misused this gift.

Bjørnson's supporters, on the other hand, were unmerciful in their attacks upon Hande. Jæger, {18} in Budstikken, saw in the "Declaration" one result of the intolerance of the Lutheran clergy:

In the announcement printed above one has an excellent example of the demoralizing influence of the Norwegian Synod. That a weak-kneed farmer in Goodhue County should humble himself to escape the discipline of the church [kirketugt] is to be expected; but that the editor of one of the best Norwegian-American newspapers should forget his manhood to the extent that he declares publicly that he, against his better judgment, bows to the papal authority of the Norwegian Synod is unthinkable.

We have often wondered how the Synod is able to exert such a powerful influence over our people, but when we see that men who should be the cultural leaders of the people allow themselves to be browbeaten so shamefully, we are amazed that conditions are not worse than they are.

The announcement will have one good result. It will make clear to the people who hitherto have not seen or would not see, the moral degeneracy of an organization which requires men to betray their convictions and professions. To Bjørnson the Declaration will give, better than anything else, an understanding of the nature of the Norwegian Synod and of the forces opposing him.

Hande, in the issue of Norden for October 26, declared that both Kirketidende and Budstikken had misinterpreted his "Declaration." To Kirketidende he said:

Not to be mistaken, we must state that we did not think that in honoring Bjørnson we "could honor God's gift to the poet, forgetting that Bjørnson through his agnosticism has misused this gift "; that is, if Kirketidende by God's gift means Bjørnson's gift for writing. What we have thought, and what other Christians and other Synod people have thought, is that we could honor Bjørnson for all the good books he has written without of necessity honoring the misuse he has made of his powers in recent years.

It is well known that in most of Bjørnson's writings there is a strong moral tendency which is in perfect accord with the teachings of Christianity, and in many of his works there is even a strong Christian spirit which until a few years ago made him known as a "Christian" author. The students at Luther College are permitted to read his works, although few of his early works and none of his later ones are read in class. Therefore, the college administration -- which is also the editorial staff of Kirketidende -- must look upon these books as masterpieces. It is natural that other Synod people should look upon them in the same way and should think it proper to honor Bjørnson.

In replying to Budstikken Hande is more cutting. He declares that Budstikken's statements are absolutely false: he was not forced by the "papal authority of the Synod" to make his "Declaration." He had expressed the same opinion the previous December when he declared that Bjørnson was Norway's Ingersoll, and to this statement Budstikken had raised no objections. All in all, he considers Budstikken not only dishonest, but unjust. The conflict between Norden and Budstikken continued for some time longer, but as with so many of the newspaper wars of that period, the fact that the controversy had originally centered about Bjørnson was soon lost to sight, and the whole matter degenerated into a mere quibble.

After the Hande episode Bjørnson's friends proceeded more cautiously in their preparations to welcome him, hoping to avoid the active opposition of those who looked askance at Bjørnson's views on religion. They stressed through articles in Skandinaven and in Budstikken the fact that they did not ask Bjørnson's opponents to assist in any demonstration of welcome for him, but merely to do nothing to oppose his coming or to make his stay in the West unpleasant. They maintained that although Bjørnson might be a freethinker, he was an honorable one -- and for the sake of what he had done and was doing for the Norwegian people, he must be received with due honor.

Such propaganda might have been successful had not the news of Bjørnson's Worcester, Massachusetts, speech reached the West. There may be some question as to what Bjørnson actually said and what the circumstances were, but the report which reached the West and was accepted by everyone there was that Bjørnson, after being introduced by the Reverend Mr. Ericksen, expressed surprise that any Christian minister could introduce a man who was an avowed freethinker, a man who did not believe in the divinity of Christ.

Bjørnson's remark caused considerable stir in the West. For Hjemmet, a periodical which expressed the views of the Norwegian Synod, saw in it further proof that it never pays to honor an infidel. Verdens Gang was amazed, and expressed a hope that Bjørnson would never repeat such an act of folly. Budstikken did its best to defend his action, but found the task rather difficult, and declared that it would have been better had Bjørnson never made the remark. From this time on, no one dared to hope that the Lutheran clergy would adopt a passive attitude. {19}

In spite of the preparations made for his coming, Bjørnson remained in the East, undecided whether or not to visit the West. Finally, in answer to a number of invitations, he wrote a letter to Budstikken expressing his views. The following paragraphs are taken from this letter: {20}

When I left Norway, I had no thought of visiting the West. I planned to live in Boston because I looked upon it as the literary and cultural center of America, and because I had but six months in which to study and to gain impressions of representative American men and women. A visit to the West did not fit into such a plan.

In other circumstances I naturally would have been glad to visit the West. I should like to see its scenery, its activities, its people -- especially my countrymen there. But if I make such a journey, I must make other arrangements here, and either give up many things or lay them aside to be taken up later with greater vigor.

If this is to take place, however, there must be among my countrymen in the West a real need [trang] of my coming. This need must show itself, not in desiring to hold festivals in my honor, but in opposing those who at the very thought of my coming began to work against it.

If they will take such a program in hand with life and vigor, I will make arrangements to visit them. Scattered letters, be they ever so many, will never induce me to come. Neither will I come merely to be honored with torchlight processions, for I have already forbidden such demonstrations in my honor, both in Boston and in New York.

To keep my countrymen and other Scandinavians from meeting me, someone has stated that I have been a very ungovernable person -- in literature as well as in other fields. Very true. I have never chosen the easy, enjoyable course, which doubtless I could have followed. Neither have I chosen to work for money or for fame. My activities have already drawn me from literature into other fields -- into controversies with church and state -- and in everything I have been an ungovernable person, to say the least.

But should this -- so long as my course is honorable -- be a source of offense to the Christians in the West? Who taught them to act thus? Certainly, our great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, did not, for he was, as we know, not always in perfect accord with his time.

And the Norwegians and other Scandinavians in this great American republic -- were they always satisfied with conditions in Norway? Did they find everything there so splendid, so free, so noble, that they cannot meet a countryman who because of his struggle against those same conditions [those which caused them to emigrate] has become an ungovernable person?

Can they really hold anything against him because he has done what they did not do -- and probably could not have done -- namely, remain at his post struggling to free the people from all the inherited falsehood and wrong which yet encumbers their lives.

We have a word in Norwegian to express such a procedure -- we call it forræderi [treason or treachery].

Editorials in Budstikken and in Folkebladet show how Bjørnson's letter was received by the two factions. {21} Budstikken urges that all Norwegian-Americans demonstrate their eagerness to meet Bjørnson, and suggests the means by which this eagerness may be expressed. {22} Folkebladet takes the opposite point of view. {23} It feels that Bjørnson has been acting very strangely for a guest. His first act upon coming to America had been to declare that under no circumstances would he visit "that hive of preachers" in the Mississippi Valley. His next act had been to insult a Christian clergyman in Worcester who had been kind enough to introduce him there. His third act had been to tell Budstikken that he would come to the West if there was a real need for it, and that the Lutheran clergy had no grounds for opposing his coming. The same editorial then ridicules Bjørnson's ideas about coming west. It asks whether Bjørnson, who is a nationalist and a freethinker, can actually suppose that the Norwegian-Americans are panting with eagerness to hear him; or whether he thinks that he can accomplish in a single visit what forty years of effort on the part of the clergy have failed to do. It admits that if Bjørnson comes the people will stream to hear him, just as they would stream to see Barnum's circus. The editorial ends by saying that Bjørnson should come to the West -- to see how the Norwegian people there have conquered a wilderness, have mastered a strange tongue, and have built themselves homes -- but that he should come as he came to America, without waiting for an invitation.

The first definite announcement that Bjørnson would visit the West appeared in Skandinaven, November 16, 1880. The article stated that Bjørnson would leave the East shortly before Christmas. The next statement to appear in Skandinaven carried the information that he would reach Chicago shortly before Christmas. That he planned to make an extended lecture tour is shown by the announcement of Rasmus B. Anderson which appeared in Norden, December 15.

All those living outside of Chicago who wish to engage Bjørnson to deliver an address should communicate with me as soon as possible. Bjørnson has asked me to arrange his itinerary, to close contracts, and so forth. He will not be able to lecture in many places; therefore, those who desire to engage him should write me soon.

From the above statement it is evident that Bjørnson made definite plans for his tour sometime during the latter part of November, 1880. Rasmus B. Anderson in his autobiography, written thirty-five years later, gives us the impression that it was not planned at all, but that it was the outcome of a quarrel between Bjørnson and Mrs. Ole Bull. {24} According to Anderson's version, Bjørnson grew heartily tired of his life at the home of Mrs. Bull, resented dancing to the dictates of his hostess, and finally fled to New York and thence to Chicago after a terrible scene between the two. Anderson's account is most interesting, but highly questionable.

Bjørnson arrived in Chicago on the Tuesday before Christmas, and delivered his first lecture the following Sunday. This was the speech which he regularly gave on his tour. He began by reciting his own poem "Olav Trygvason," and with this as a background spoke of the Scandinavian peoples and of their problems. It was a good address. Both friend and foe admitted it. According to Rasmus B. Anderson:

He chose for his subject "The Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes." In his address he gave a rapid historical sketch of these peoples, and then pointed out the chief characteristics of each of these nationalities. He did this with such consummate skill that the Norwegians in his audience thanked God they were Norwegians; the Swedes were delighted that they were from Sweden, and the Danes would rather be Danes than anything else in the world.

Had Bjørnson confined himself to this one speech, or to speeches of a similar nature, the opposition toward him would have vanished, and his friends would have been vindicated. But Bjørnson could not refrain from airing his religious views, and in a second speech, which he called "The Prophets," he attacked the orthodox view of the Bible, stating that the Bible could not be taken literally, that patriarchs were nothing but heathen gods with Hebrew names, and that the prophets were unable to foretell events to come. From this background he developed his arguments for an idealistic outlook upon life, and he ended with a passionate plea for truth. As was to be expected, this speech aroused great indignation among the church people, and even incurred the censure of his friends. Budstikken remarked rather cynically that to understand Bjørnson's religious views one would find it cheaper to buy a copy of Bob Ingersoll than to attend the lecture. {25} At Madison, Wisconsin, when Bjørnson insisted on speaking about the prophets, Anderson, his best friend in America, refused to introduce him or to occupy the stage with him.

The church was especially indignant, and the clergy ordered their parishioners to absent themselves when Bjørnson lectured. Nothing, perhaps, portrays better the horror with which the church regarded Bjørnson than an article by the Reverend H. Halvorsen which appeared in Kirketidende, February 11, { 1881. } {26} Halvorsen first directs his attacks against Bjørnson's apostasy.

As it seems, Bjørnson began his lecture by saying that he has never attacked Christianity as such. But anyone who has attended his lecture and who has a little conception of what constitutes Christianity can understand that his lecture is a direct attack on our beliefs. . . .

Therefore, when Bjørnson comes with statements that in modern times such and such discoveries and such and such progress and research, especially in the fields of philology and biology, have proved the teachings of the Bible false, he is attacking the Christian religion. And when he tells us that there is no revelation from God, that there are no devils, that Jesus Christ is only a great teacher and not God, I do not know what to think of his statement that he is not opposing Christianity as such. It is brazen beyond all conception, to say the least, for he is insulting the people he is attempting to cajole.

Had he himself been truthful he would have severed his relations with the Norwegian State Church and would have said both in Norway and in America: "I am no longer a Christian; I believe in neither God nor Devil; I believe only in the progress and the evolution of the race; I am an out and out Darwinist."

In the same article, however, Halvorsen's keenest thrusts are directed against the church members who insist on attending Bjørnson's lectures.

What are we to think of it [the fact that church members have been present when Bjørnson lectured]? Is it not pitiable evidence of the lack of responsibility with which many so-called Christians regard their faith? What does it signify that they call themselves Christians and belong to a Christian congregation when a mocker can make them laugh and clap their hands at his sneers because he knows how to sneer in a humorous way and in poetic form?

And later:

But to you, my countrymen and fellow Christians, who have listened to this man and have applauded when he lampooned the Bible and the Church; to you I would put this question. Do you know what you have done? Do you realize that the God of Heaven and earth saw you at that moment? You call yourselves Christians! Yet was it in such a way that the early Christians showed their belief in Christ? No. They would have preferred being flayed alive rather than do anything unseemly in the eyes of God. But you -- in frivolity you sit and applaud and laugh at a most bitter and shameless attack on our Christian faith. There is no name for such an act. It is the profoundest treason, the most debasing betrayal of Christ. It is only the mercy of God that the jaws of hell did not open and seize you in the midst of your applause and laughter.

In a later issue of Kirketidende the Reverend H. A. Stub, one of the most popular ministers in the Norwegian Synod, goes even further than Halvorsen in denouncing those church members who have been present at a Bjørnson address. He denounces both speeches -- the political as well as the religious -- as equally pernicious.

Bjørnson has given one or both of two lectures, the one on politics and the other on The Prophets. In both he attempts to break down Christianity. In the first he denies all portions of the Bible which treat of governmental authority, and when he speaks of the prophets, he strikes Christ directly in the face and says, "Tvi dig" ["Faugh !"] {27}

The following paragraph taken from the same article by Stub illustrates the almost foolish lengths to which otherwise level-headed Lutheran clergymen went in their attack on Bjørnson. Stub had evidently never attended any of Bjørnson's lectures, yet he gives an account of one as he imagines it to be.

Let us imagine what takes place. There is a large theater or hall. A mass of freethinkers, agnostics, Freemasons, Oddfellows, saloonkeepers, and others of a similar type are gathered together, and in their midst are a few church members. All have come to hear Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who has announced that he will speak either on politics or on religion; and it is obvious to all that he will speak against God's Word -- for it is the ancient truths of the Bible that stand between him and his work as a freethinker. . . . Now Bjørnson comes forward and is greeted with a burst of applause. If the church members do not applaud, no one takes note of it, for in such a great gathering one cannot be distinguished from the other. Moreover, the rule here is Silence gives consent.

Perhaps the most amusing part of Stub's article is the plan which he proposes that Christian congregations follow when Bjørnson is lecturing in their community. The congregation as a whole is to remain away, but if the members wish a report of the lecture they are to elect a committee of two or three who shall attend the address and bring a report back to the congregation.

But if the clergy were extreme and in many ways unreasonable, there were other people equally extreme and unreasonable in their praise of Bjørnson. Nothing, perhaps, makes this fact more obvious than the mass of complimentary poems which every enthusiastic admirer of Bjørnson with some ability at versification felt inspired to write. Judging from the quality of these "poems," one has serious doubts whether Bjørnson felt highly honored, for the majority have little to commend them except enthusiasm. {28} Closely allied to the poetical effusions of Bjørnson's friends were the prose extravaganzas with which they greeted him on his arrival in the West. The following, printed in Skandinaven, December 28, 1881, appeared at the time Bjørnson was in Chicago.

We welcome you to the metropolis of the Northwest, as our countryman, as the celebrated poet of Europe, as the steadfast champion of popular liberty, as the fearless spokesman of truth, and as the true interpreter of the modern spirit of progress -- light and the sane rule of reason instead of darkness, and the recognition of the rights of man given body and life in Church and State. Welcome, thou King of Poets from the land of our fathers! {29}

Another way by which the friends of Bjørnson showed their enthusiasm for him was by attacking his opponents most bitterly. The Lutheran clergy, of course, received their full share of abuse. Stub was especially ridiculed for his article in Kirketidende. In a clever editorial Budstikken makes sport of his plan for having committees appointed by the various congregations to attend Bjørnson's lectures. {30} It suggests to the Norwegian Synod that it appoint two of its strongest "Missourians" {31} to accompany Bjørnson on his tour to take notes on his speeches and at the same time to attempt bring him back to the Christian fold. It warns the Synod, however, that if they adopt this plan they will never find it convenient to print the report, as it will give Bjørnson too much publicity.

The attack of Bjørnson's friends, however, was centered primarily on the Reverend Sven Oftedal, one of the leading clergymen of the Conference and the editor of Folkebladet. The attack had really begun as early as December 2, when Oftedal declared that Bjørnson's motive in coming west was for the most part mercenary. But the utterance which caused the greatest furor was one printed in Folkebladet in the latter part of January.

Bjørnson lectured last Thursday at the Pence Opera House, giving the same address he delivered in Chicago. The house was packed. The anticipation had been keen, but the general feeling after the lecture was that of disappointment. Many received the impression that Bjørnson has little respect for his countrymen in America; but this is not surprising considering the associations he has made while in this country. He would scarcely deliver such an address in the smallest seaport town in Norway. . . . At the circus one looks for the clown. Is it not the same with Bjørnson?

Needless to say, the friends of Bjørnson were furious. Budstikken raved at Oftedal, declaring that he could never open his mouth without having a toad jump out. It goes on to state that at no time has a great and honored guest received such treatment as Bjørnson at the hands of Oftedal. If there is a particle of honor in the Conference, of which he is one of the pastors, it will demand that he make an explanation of what he means by" Bjørnson's associations" and by the statement "At the circus one looks for the clown."

From this time on, almost every issue of Budstikken contains some letter or some editorial flaying Oftedal for his attitude toward Bjørnson. For the most part the editorials are keen and cutting, but the letters and special articles sent in by the subscribers are usually dull -- sometimes absurd. There is considerable evidence in many of the articles that the attacks are directed not so much by love of Bjørnson as by animosity toward Oftedal.

Strange as it may seem, there appeared to be but one leader among the Norwegian-Americans able to preserve a somewhat unbiased attitude toward Bjørnson. This man was Hallvard Hande, the editor of Norden. As a Lutheran minister he was unflinching in his condemnation of Bjørnson's apostasy. On the other hand, he was liberal enough and broad-minded enough not to condemn everything that Bjørnson had done or was doing. Hande showed this attitude clearly in his advice to the Norwegian-Americans to attend Bjørnson's political speech, declaring there was nothing antichristian about it. He ridiculed Stub's point of view and maintained that much of what Stub had said about Bjørnson had more place in Holberg's comedies than in the official organ of the Norwegian Synod. Such tolerance as was expressed by Hande was extremely rare during Bjørnson's visit to the West. {32}

About Bjørnson's tour itself there is little to say that is pertinent to this study. In many of the larger cities and towns receptions were held in his honor; and wherever he lectured, the Norwegian-Americans thronged to hear him, sometimes coming from distances as great as twenty or thirty miles -- a long trip in those days for the purpose of attending a single lecture. The number of people who were present when he lectured may be judged from Anderson's statement that with an average admission price of fifty cents, Bjørnson cleared over ten thousand dollars. That his audiences were drawn more by his great name than by his message is obvious from the fact that his return engagements were usually unsuccessful. {33} Throughout his whole tour there was but one audience that made any serious demonstration against him. This was at Albert Lea, Minnesota, where the people in the audience openly mocked him, and are even reported to have come prepared to shower him with rotten eggs and cabbages. {34}

The attitude of the church may have kept many people from attending the two lectures -- especially the second -- but there is evidence that it sometimes had a contrary effect. As to the oft-repeated statement that the church would discipline its members (put them under kirketugt), nothing came of it. Two members of the congregation at Forest City, Iowa, were reported to have been disciplined, but from the older inhabitants of the town the writer has been unable to find anything to substantiate this report.

About the middle of February, 1881, one senses a new antagonism toward Bjørnson, an antagonism and an opposition quite different from that of the clergy. One senses it in the indifferent, almost hostile, attitude of Skandinaven, which hitherto had been one of his staunchest supporters; in the letters of the subscribers printed in the Norwegian-American press; and finally in Bjørnson's last speech in Chicago --he speech of an angry, disgusted, disillusioned man.

Skandinaven showed its change of attitude toward Bjørnson in the constantly diminishing amount of space devoted to his praise, and in the constantly increasing number of unfavorable articles it printed about him. Finally, in answer to the following letter, the editor voices his own ideas concerning Bjørnson. {35}

Why is it that when Norway's greatest authors lecture in a Norwegian community, their first address draws a large audience, but their second address, if given, is poorly attended? Recently when Bjørnson spoke a second time in the large City Hall in Madison, he had but thirty people in the audience.

To which the editor replied:

We agree with the correspondent that neither Bjørnson nor Janson, were they to tour the West again, could draw large audiences, but this does not mean that a good lecturer should not win popular approval, provided he choose a suitable topic and deliver his address in a way that is easily understood. As far as Bjørnson is concerned, he has attained high rank among the writers of the North, and few can equal him in his own field. Unfortunately both for himself and for his audiences, he has not kept to that field, but has plunged recklessly into questions of politics and religion -- fields where he, to the sorrow of his friends and the joy of his enemies, presents a truly pitiable figure. Unless he soon comes to his senses, we fear that the highly respected and dearly loved Bjørnson will degenerate into a wild visionary, entirely without stability, rushing from one vagary to another.

Even more characteristic of the new opposition is a letter published in Skandinaven,, March 8, 1881, which includes the following:

Recently there has been too much fuss made in the papers about Kristofer Janson, Ole Bull, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. That may be all right for some people, but here where I live, not one in ten gives a continental about such stuff. . . . And now Bjørnson, the noble and true friend of the people, comes here to deliver lectures, but will not give a single one unless he receives a hundred dollars for it. In spite of this fact, he maintains that he is doing it for the good of the people and not for his own benefit. {36}

But it is Bjørnson's last speech in the West, delivered in Chicago, April 9, 1881, which reflects most clearly the opposition against him. Bjørnson had expected the Norwegian-Americans to receive his message kindly, and was deeply chagrined when he found that they took it more or less as a joke.

In his speech Bjørnson first discusses the religious situation. {37} After telling a tale of Magnus Olavsson and Einar Tambarsjælver, he states that this story illustrates the fact that Norway had reached a level of culture enabling it to understand the need of an organized society and of the "higher laws of love " -- consequently the people were ready to accept Christianity. To reach this state, however, had taken a long time in Norway, and so it has among other peoples. Millions of years of evolution have been necessary to bring the people to a point where they can understand the teachings of the Bible. The idea that man degenerated from a perfect state to the worship of stocks and stones is an inane fable which, if it persists, will show that wisdom is no longer a force in the world.

Bjørnson then goes on to say that the "materialists" who, the "believers" say, are wallowing in sensuality after having thrown aside the ten commandments, are in reality wise men who, although they have lost their belief in God for lack of material evidence, live honorable and upright lives. Carl Vogt, for example, has more knowledge about life than all the preachers in the West put together. Yet the "believers" maintain that such people are the scum of the earth. It makes him angry to talk to "believers" of this type.

When I, after much research and reading, declare that the Patriarchs are old heathen gods, they retort with mocking laughter. Yet tell me why the Jews did not name their children after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob until after the Captivity. It perhaps makes no difference whether they were gods or not, but that those who are the leaders of the people [the clergy] should strive to keep the people ignorant and should aid them in their opposition to me is ignoble. But my work is not yet finished. When I return to Norway, a new periodical shall be published and its editor shall print an American edition. This will continue my work.

Why is this such a vital question with me? Because I have been on the other side and know the difference. . . . When I had passed the period of doubt, I determined to devote my life to the work of enlightenment. Children still sit in schools learning fables instead of science. . . . The ideals of the people are crushed under Christianity.

Bjørnson then states that freedom is the ideal of the time. Yet the clergy say that this ideal is the work of the devil. Another ideal is nationalism: the clergy say this is the worship of strange gods. People should progress with these ideals in the van. But Christians cannot do this until they get rid of their dogmas. They are afraid to know the truth because they have not enough faith in themselves.

Toward the end of his address, Bjørnson gives his own impressions of the Norwegian-Americans. Among other things he says:

The people of the West are a hardy people. At Fargo the farmers [husmænd] drove into town in sleds, and I had hundreds of such "sled men" in my audience. They were somewhat drunk, all of them, but whether I looked at them or spoke to them, they appeared strong. But the moment they heard that I was an agnostic, they became frightened as little children. They can go filthy and unwashed, drink themselves full as pigs, swear and carouse: and yet in spite of all this, they can take the sacrament the following Sunday, for they are "Christians." At one place I heard a man swear a fearful oath that he would never listen to a man who was not a believer. At another place I listened to the conversation of a large assembly of Norwegians, and there was swearing and uproar. The clergy should work against all this filth and drinking. They have done much, it is true, and have established schools; but what do I care for schools which do not dare to give instruction in the natural sciences and in which the sturdy farmer boys are driven as if in harness! Had the Norwegian-Americans sought knowledge and enlightenment in the public schools, the second and third generations might have become outstanding men in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. But the clergy have set themselves decidedly against this.

In closing Bjørnson says that there has been much misinterpretation of his statements. He has learned much in the West, however, and wishes to express his thanks for this.

I wish to express my thanks for the honorable welcome that I have received -- it has been most striking here in Chicago. In closing I wish to say: Stand up as men, you who are free. Although there may be but one here and there at first, soon there will be thousands. Be upright; be truthful; nothing can conquer you then. And now again I wish to thank you. I have never exchanged a hostile word with anyone in America. I wish you well, all of you. Farewell.

No speech could have brought more "sorrow to Bjørnson's friends or joy to his enemies." All felt that it was a complete vindication of the attitude of the clergy and of Bjørnson's other enemies. Not even his friends tried to defend his statements with any vigor, for friend and foe alike seemed to feel that he had shamefully abused his countrymen, and that he, like Janson, had enjoyed their hospitality only to repay them with insults.

Two statements, the first by Rasmus B. Anderson, Bjørnson's best friend in America at that time, and the second by the Reverend Erik L. Petersen, one of his most consistent opponents, will illustrate how the Norwegian-Americans felt after the Chicago speech. Anderson's view is found in his autobiography.

In his farewell address in Chicago, he [Bjørnson] went out of his way to ridicule and speak ill of his countrymen in America. He described them as ignorant, uncouth, and as unfit for cultured people to associate with. He spoke of how the atmosphere became unbearable in the halls where they were assembled, more or less intoxicated and their clothing reeking with all sorts of bad odors. His complaints were vastly exaggerated and came with little grace from one who had been received with so much hospitality and honor. {38}

Petersen is more outspoken in his denunciation. {39} Speaking first with respect to religion, he laments the spiritual loss which Bjørnson's visit has entailed. Then turning from the religious to the ethical, he maintains that Bjørnson's actions have been rather questionable, to say the least. Bjørnson first came to America to "study." He next decided that he might come to the Middle West, and mass meetings were immediately called in Chicago and in the Twin Cities to prepare a suitable welcome for him. Then Rasmus B. Anderson was appointed "manager" of his trip west, and the whole thing degenerated into an ordinary lecture tour. It is an honorable thing to earn money, but if this was Bjørnson's object, what was the purpose of all his "acting," his circumlocution, and all his false pretenses? "Both Bjørnson and Janson came here to make money. One of Bjørnson's best friends in Chicago told me that the whole trip was the result of a well laid plan of Bjørnson's friends to aid him in bettering his financial condition."

Petersen next discusses Bjørnson's attitude toward his countrymen in America. This attitude, he believes, can scarcely be called decent. Bjørnson is really an aristocrat, and the word people to him is but a poetic term, or else is applied to the raw vulgus to whom a person in need of money extends a helping hand. There is little love of the people in such a person. Once he has their money he is not careful of what he says. In Chicago he scolded his countrymen for being dirty pigs, reeking with whisky and filthiness. One would have to search far to find greater insolence than this. Especially shameful was his treatment of the people of Fargo. They had received him especially well, and yet he characterized them as the worst of the lot. On the other hand he said nothing about the people of Albert Lea, who openly mocked him, a fact which the Albert Lea Skandinaven [sic] deplores, but which in reality is a credit to the people of that town. The trouble with Bjørnson is that he knows nothing of the actual life of the Norwegians in America. All he has seen of the Northwest has been through car windows or from lecture platforms. Most of what he has heard has been from the lips of snobs. But even had his statements been true, he, as a "man of the people," should have shown them how to better their condition instead of calling them dirty pigs and telling their pastors to teach them how to wash. And yet he wishes to make these swine agnostics, unbelievers, and renegades to their Christian faith. "We can scarcely imagine a worse treatment of the people, a more thankless person, or a meaner 'guest.' Were it not for the fact that his speech has been published in the newspapers, one could scarcely believe him capable of delivering such an address."

Petersen then goes on to say that the Norwegians in America, though they may be crude and somewhat uncultured, are not pigs; that their homes often compare favorably with those of the "Yankees." He states further that he has been in America for eight years -- Bjørnson but six months. The reader may believe whom he will. Finally after discussing and refuting as best he can Bjørnson's attacks on the Bible, Petersen ends his article with the following paragraph:

The experience of the past two years should teach the Norwegian-Americans to guard against these expensive visits -- visits which begin with such promise and end with such disappointment and vexation. If Norway has nothing better to offer us than her freethinkers, she had better keep them to herself. We in America can get along very well without them.

Nothing can better characterize Bjørnson's visit to America from the point of view of the Norwegian-American than Petersen's declaration that it began with promise and ended in disappointment and vexation. Bjørnson, in spite of his break with the church, had been popular when he arrived in America in September. Had he used a little diplomacy, his popularity would have increased. But Bjørnson never was diplomatic or tactful and in America he failed utterly to take into consideration the intense conservatism of the Norwegian-Americans or their fiercely intolerant attitude toward any form of apostasy. As a result he left America in April hated and maligned. {40}

So far as the Norwegian-Americans were concerned, nothing could have been more unfortunate for Bjørnson's reputation as a man and as an author than his trip to America. The Norwegian-Americans continued to read his works and seem to have taken as keen delight in his early works as ever before; but they could not forget the fact that the author himself was now an agnostic, and although they continued to praise his bondenoveller, his historical dramas and his poems, they regretted that the Bjørnson whom they had loved so well had deserted his calling and had disappointed them.


<1> In this article the term Norwegian-American is used to designate all people of Norwegian descent, regardless of place of birth.

<2> A Norwegian-American newspaper established in 1852. It was published at Immansville, Wisconsin, 1852-1857, and at Madison, Wisconsin, 1857-1867.

<3> Much of Bjørnson's popularity among the Norwegian-Americans was due to a peculiar immigrant conservatism. In America, where everything was new and strange, many an immigrant began to look back upon Norway as representing an almost unapproachable perfection. He forgot its many deficiencies, which had perhaps caused him to emigrate, and remembered only that which was good in its life, its religion and its literature. This Norway, however, was the country he had known before coming to America, not Norway as it had progressed during his absence. The result of this semi-illusion was that with everything pertaining to Norway the immigrant held tenaciously to the "old" and was suspicious of the "new." Consequently, in Bjørnson's bondenoveller and early poems the immigrant saw Norway pictured with just enough idealism to fit in with his rose-colored recollections of the land of his birth.

<4> One of the most important Norwegian-American newspapers at the time of Bjørnson's visit. Skandinaven was established in 1866 in Chicago.

<5> The general principle of immigrant conservatism did not apply to Bjørnson's politics (mainly because of his tendencies toward republicanism) to the extent that it applied to his religion and his literature.

<6> At the time of Bjørnson's visit the Norwegian Lutherans in America had separated into five synods, differing among themselves in ceremony, church government, and to a certain extent in doctrine. All five synods, however, were as one in opposing the heresies of Bjørnson.

<7> The Norwegian Synod was officially known as the Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but usually called the Norwegian Synod or merely the Synod. The Conference was officially known as the Norwegian-Danish Conference, but usually called the Conference.

<8> Bjørnson's progressive heresies, as the Norwegian-Americans saw them, are reviewed in "Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons Forhold til Kristendommen," in Evangelisk Luthersk Kirketidende (Decorah, Iowa), September 19 and 26, 1879.

<9> Budstikken was one of the important Norwegian-American newspapers at the time of Bjørnson's visit. It was established in 1873 in Minneapolis.

<10> Mrs. Ole Bull was the daughter of J. C. Thorpe, a wealthy lumber dealer of Madison, Wisconsin. After the death of Ole Bull in the late summer of 1880, she returned to America and lived with her parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

<11> See the Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 231 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1915).

<12> For details concerning Bjørnson's sojourn in Cambridge, see H. Eitrem, "Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons Amerikaferd i 1880-81," in Edda, vol. 29, part 2 (1929). Parts of Professor Eitrem's article are misleading, for he sees Bjørnson's visit to America largely through Bjørnson's eyes. Consequently he errs where Bjørnson erred, and he, like Bjørnson, fails utterly to understand the attitude of the Norwegian-Americans of that period.

<13> Budstikken, October 6, 1880.

<14> Norden, an important Norwegian-American newspaper, was established in Chicago in 1874.

<15> Hallvard Hande was an unusual man. Well educated, a deep thinker, a gifted writer, a clever disputant, he was a giant among the editors of the Norwegian-American press. His outstanding characteristic as an editor was his independence, his refusal to compromise with anything contrary to his own convictions.

<16> Norden, October 6, 1880, reprinted in Evangelisk Luthersk Kirketidende, October 15, 1880. Professor Eitrem, in "Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons Amerikaferd," on page 187, says, "We can realize what great power the Synod had in the West and how that power was used from the pitiful [ynkelig] Declaration which the editor of Norden, H. Hande, printed in his newspaper October 18 [sic]." Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that Hande was overawed by the Norwegian Synod. Hande was not the type of man to be overawed by anyone. And to call his "Declaration" pitiful becomes almost amusing when one considers the double controversy into which it thrust him -- with the Synod on the one hand and with Budstikken on the other.

<17> Evangelisk Luthersk Kirketidende was the official organ of the Norwegian Synod. In 1880 it was edited by the faculty of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

<18> Luther Jæger was also a giant among the editors of the Norwegian-American press. Like Hande he was a well educated man, an independent thinker, and an expert disputant. He was more practical than Hande and a much keener satirist.

<19> For Hjemmet was published at Decorah, Iowa. Although not under the control of the Norwegian Synod, it expressed the views of that church body. Verdens Gang was published by the John Anderson Publishing Company (the publishers of Skandinaven) for those who wished a less expensive paper than Skandinaven.

<20> November 3, 1880.

<21> Folkebladet, edited by Professor Sven Oftedal, was published in Minneapolis. It came out as a weekly newspaper in October, 1880. From the very first it took a leading part in opposing Bjørnson.

<22> November 3, 1880.

<23> Reprinted in Norden, November 17, 1880.

<24> Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 338-339.

<25> January 11, 1881.

<26> Halvorsen was a Norwegian Synod clergyman at Coon Prairie, Wisconsin; one of the stout champions of the conservative wing of the church. From 1882 to 1886 he was one of the leaders in the famous Naadevalg-striden.

<27> Evangelisk Luthersk Kirketidende, February 25, 1881.

<28> A poem of this type, by Erik Hago of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, appears in Skandinaven, November 30, 1880.

<29> Professor Eitrem, in Edda, vol. 29, part 2, quotes the first part of this article as an example of the enthusiastic reception accorded Bjørnson upon his arrival in Chicago. It is entitled "Welcome, thou skald, dear to the people of the far North."

<30> March 15, 1881.

<31> The name given the conservatives of the Norwegian Synod, so called because of their close adherence to the tenets of the German Missouri Synod.

<32> For a warning against fanaticism and a plea for justice, see Norden, March 2, 1881.

<33> Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 343; Skandinaven, April 19, 1881.

<34> See articles by Erik L. Petersen in Budstikken, April 26, 1881, and in Skandinaven, May 10, 1881.

<35> Skandinaven, April 19, 1881. Svein Nilsson was the editor of Skandinaven at the time of Bjørnson's visit.

<36> The letter was written by "N. N." of Benson, Minnesota.

<37> The report of this speech is taken from Norden, April 13, 1881.

<38> Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 342.

<39> Skandinaven, May 10, 1881. Petersen was an Episcopal clergyman with headquarters at Faribault, Minnesota. He had known Bjørnson in Norway, where he had been connected with the theater. For several years after his arrival in America he was one of the leading literary critics among the Norwegian-Americans.

<40> Since this study was written, Mr. Carl Hansen has published a series of articles in Minneapolis Tidende about Bjørnson's visit to America. His detailed account of the controversy between Budstikken and the Reverend Sven Oftedal is especially interesting.

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