A group of pioneer pastors, farmers and businessmen in Rice, Dakota and Goodhue counties, under the leadership of the Rev. Bernt Julius Muus, the Rev. N.A. Quammen and Harald Thorson, laid the groundwork for the college’s founding in 1874. The purpose of the school, then as now, was to offer a program of liberal studies to students preparing for careers in business, politics, the clergy and other professions.
In choosing a name for the institution, the founders responded to strong Norwegian national as well as religious symbolism; it grew out of a celebration in the Norwegian immigrant community of the splendor of the Nordic middle ages as a means of defining ethnic merits and identity. They named the school for Olav II Haraldsson (spelled Olaf in the 19th century), king of Norway from 1016 until 1030. His martyrdom on July 29, 1030, at the Battle of Stiklestad, close to Pastor Muus’s own place of birth, made him Norway’s patron saint and eternal king and secured a national monarchy and the position of the Christian church in that country.
St. Olaf’s School was operated as an academy until 1886, when a college department was added. The name was changed to St. Olaf College in 1889. The first college class graduated in 1890. The academy was discontinued in 1917.
Affiliated with the Lutheran Church throughout its history, St. Olaf is a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In 1900 the college department of the United Church Seminary was consolidated with St. Olaf, and in 1917 the college department of Red Wing Seminary was merged with St. Olaf.
Many influences have combined to make St. Olaf what it is today. Dedicated faculty members have contributed to its academic reputation. Originating in the Norwegian immigrant desire for higher learning, the college has made a significant contribution to American liberal arts education while maintaining an academic center with a strong program for the study of Scandinavian culture. The rich St. Olaf tradition in music has gained worldwide renown for the college through its choirs and instrumental organizations.