Early Family History

In my record-book of dates and events of personal interest, Friday, August 14, 1886, has been put down as a date of more than ordinary significance. For it was on that date that my parents, with some of their children, came to this wonderful state of Minnesota and I had my first glimpse of Northfield and of St. Olaf. Here in this fair city I was later in life to establish my home; and here at this newly-founded institution of learning — then known as “St. Olaf’s School,” later St. Olaf College — my life’s work was to be done.

What were the circumstances that brought our family to Northfield? How did it happen that a German family came to take an active part in the work of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, mostly in the fields of education and theology, when so much of the work was still carried on in the Norwegian language? I have often been asked these questions and, therefore, at the very beginning of my story, I would like to give just a little of our family’s early history and in that way try to answer these questions. The decision to join the Norwegian Lutheran Church, though not an easy one to make at the time, was, I would say, quite typical of what may and does take place here in America.

Both of my parents were born in Germany, mother in Mecklenburg and father in Saxony. Mother’s folks came to America when she was a young girl and settled in Eden congregation near Olean, New York. Father’s mother, a widow, joined one of the Saxon Lutheran migrations and came via New Orleans to St. Louis early in 1842. Father attended parochial school there from 1842 to 1848 and then entered Concordia College, graduating in 1853. He taught Latin at the college one year, enrolled in the theological seminary, and graduated in 1857. He was then only twenty years old.

Because of his youth it was thought best that he continue his studies for a while before accepting a call to active service in the ministry. Further study abroad received favorable consideration, and it was while he was on his way to Germany that an urgent call came to him to serve temporarily the Eden congregation in New York. There he met Caroline Sophie Allwardt, whom he married in 1858. The trip to Germany was of course given up.

I have in my possession an autograph album given to Father in 1857 before the proposed journey to Germany. In this album are twenty-two greetings and signatures from teachers, pastors, and other friends — six written in Greek, twelve in German, three in English and one in Latin. Dr. C. F. W. Walther wrote a line in Greek, from the writings of Gregory the Great, extolling the virtue of “Seeking Truth.” Another interesting greeting was given by Father’s stepfather, Johan F. Scheel, whose son, Herman Scheel, my father’s step-brother, was for many years a teacher of chemistry at Luther College.

Soon after his marriage, father accepted a call from St. Peter’s English Lutheran congregation in Baltimore. He served there as pastor until 1861. Those were very trying years for a pastor in Baltimore, located as it was so near the boundary between the North and the South, where loyalties were violently in conflict. Many stirring experiences were often related by my parents from those war-time days.

In 1861, a new and rather unexpected call came to him, this time from the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, asking him to become one of the first two teachers at Luther College, a newly founded institution at Halfway Creek, about ten miles north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The other teacher was Pastor Laur Larson, who later for many years was President of Luther College.

It must have been quite a surprise to the young German pastor in Baltimore to receive a call to become a teacher in a school maintained by Norwegians where the Norwegian language was used almost exclusively in class room, at church services, and in ordinary conversation. I shall try to explain how this came about.

In those early years, when father studied and taught at Concordia in St. Louis, the Norwegian Lutherans in America were not at all the strong synodical group they now are. They were not yet strong enough to establish and operate colleges and seminaries of their own, and therefore many boys of Norwegian Lutheran parentage who wanted a more advanced education than could be secured in the common schools of the day or who desired to enter the ministry came to Concordia College and Seminary. There Father met some of these boys and became very much attached to them. They told him many things about Norway and about the migrations of their people to various centers of the midwest. Their language fascinated him and with their help and coaching he learned to speak it fairly well. There in St. Louis he also became well acquainted with Pastor P. A. Rasmussen, who frequently came to the city from his parish in Lisbon, Illinois; and whenever these two met conversation was carried on in Norwegian. Pastor Rasmussen was editor of a Norwegian church paper which was published in St. Louis and father was sometimes called upon to help read proof.

In time he became so proficient in his use of the language that he was able to conduct services and preach to the Norwegian boys in their own language. This contact with Norwegian students and with Pastor Rasmussen had much to do with the call that came to him to take up work in the Norwegian Synod, as will be shown by the following incident.

When Father had been pastor of St. Peters Church in Baltimore about two years, he received a caller one day from the Middle West. It was Pastor H. A. Preus, then president of the Norwegian Synod. Pastor Preus had come to Baltimore to confer with a certain Lutheran clergyman. When he was unable to locate him, he looked up my father to ask him if, perchance, he knew where this clergyman could be found. Pastor Preus began the conversation in English and once when he faltered for the right word, father supplied it in Norwegian. Pastor Preus was astonished to find that this young German clergyman could speak Norwegian so well. As the synod had just decided to begin school work in its own newly established college and as qualified teachers were not so easily found, he recommended that Father be called to become one of the first teachers at this new college, and the synod acted favorably on his recommendation. So the family moved to Halfway Creek, Wisconsin, for an eleven years’ stay at Luther College, where Norwegian was practically the only language used. Not all of these years were lived at Halfway Creek, however, for the college was moved to Decorah, Iowa, in 1862.

No doubt there are those who will be interested to learn how my mother got along during these eleven years. Of course she tried her best to learn the language as quickly as possible, and she thought she was doing quite well until one day she attended a ladies’ aid. All afternoon she had been engaged in conversation, doing her best to speak Norwegian correctly. When the meeting broke up she overheard one of the women say to another: ” I never knew German was so much like Norwegian.” In due time she did learn to speak the language very fluently and was perfectly at home in either German, English, or Norwegian.

Another change for the family came in 1872 when Father was asked to accept a professorship in theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Dr. C. F. W. Walther was the president at that time. This meant another move for the family, this time to a community where German was the language almost everyone spoke. The stay there was from 1872 to 1876. I was born in St. Louis in May, 1876, and was baptized in Holy Cross Church where the German language was used exclusively. Frau Dr. Walther carried me to the baptismal font. I still have — and prize very highly — a beautiful silver spoon she gave me on that day, on which both her and my initials are engraved.

In 1876, the Norwegian Synod had a college in Decorah, Iowa, fifteen years old and an academy in Northfield, Minnesota, two years old; but it had no theological seminary. It was therefore decided to establish one and the place selected for it was Madison, Wisconsin, where some large buildings originally erected as an Old Soldiers Home were available. The synod called my father to a professorship in this new seminary and the family moved in the summer of 1876 when I was only a few months old. Again a change of language for daily use became a necessity. From that time on until his retirement from active service, father used the Norwegian language almost exclusively in his teaching and preaching, though German continued to be the language of our home in our daily conversation and devotions.

The Old Soldiers Home in Madison consisted of two buildings, one to be used by the seminary as a class room building, the other as a residence for professors and students. The buildings were located on the north shore of Lake Monona, not far from the East Madison depot. They have long since disappeared. The main part of the residence building was of stone construction, octagonal in shape, and about four stories high. Attached to it were two frame wings with dormitory rooms where most of the theological students lived. Our family occupied rooms on the first floor of the stone building and one of the other teachers, Professor H. G. Stub, lived on the next floor above. I have many happy memories of those years in Madison, the first ten years of my life. Jacob Stub, who later in life was pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, was about my age and in our boyhood we played much together. Hans Stub, lifelong pastor in Seattle, Washington, was somewhat younger, but he too was one of my early playmates. It would perhaps be interesting to relate some of our adventures and escapades of those early years, but it probably is best to forego that.

After the lapse of nearly seventy years, I still have a very vivid recollection of the visitors who often came to our home in Madison. They were the pioneer pastors who now are remembered and revered for the very important and very difficult church work they succeeded in doing in those early days. I remember well Muus, Preus, Otteson, Rasmussen, Koren, Jacobson, and others. On one occasion, Pastor Preus came into the room where I happened to be and suddenly blew a horn which he had hid under his coat. He came a step nearer and gave another toot. I was then four or five years old and, not knowing where the toot came from, was completely baffled until he opened up his coat and handed the horn to me.

During the latter part of our stay in Madison, an unusually large number of meetings were held in the school building. There were many visiting pastors, and I understood that a very important discussion was taking place but I was not old enough to grasp the meaning of it all. Those meetings and discussions led to a division in the synod. One group of the church people decided to transfer their theological seminary to St. Olaf’s School in Northfield, Minnesota, and the other to continue to operate theirs in Madison. As my father was a member of the former group, our family again moved to new surroundings. And this brings me to where I was at the end of my first paragraph — to the little town of Northfield and to St. Olaf’s School on a summer afternoon in 1886.

My Years at St. Olaf

Chapters:

Foreword
Early Family History
My Years at St. Olaf’s School
Interim Days at the University of Minnesota
Teaching and Administrative Assignments at St. Olaf College
New Interest in Music at St. Olaf
The 1906 Band Tour to Norway
Band Trips — 1907 on…
The Founding of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir Tours of 1912 and 1913
The First Choir Tour to Metropolitan Centers in America
The 1930 European Tour
Some Interesting Experiences
Other College Interests
The Choir Workshop
Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, A Brief Biography
A Notable Achievement