The United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America

A Historical Sketch by Prof. I. F. Grose, A. M.

The United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America is the result of the union formed between the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod, the Conference of the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood.

Dates its origin back to the year 1848. During February of that year, in Chicago, a Norwegian Lutheran congregation was organized, which became the nucleus of the Norwegian Angustana Synod. Paul Anderson, its organizer, was not at that time a regularly ordained minister; to become such, he had to go to the state of New York, where in the vicinity of Albany, he was ordained to the ministry the following summer by the Franckean Synod. In order that Mr. Anderson might become ordained, he and his congregation had to join that body. As early as 1851, however, connections with that synod were severed, so that he and his charge, in conjunction with a number of other Norwegian and Swedish ministers and congregations, might properly assist in forming the English Synod of Northern Illinois. The English contingent of this body did not prove loyal orthodox Lutherans. A fight to maintain the Lutheran confession ensued, resulting in the withdrawal of the Norwegians and Swedes, who in 1860 established the Scandinavian Augustana Synod. The two nationalities worked together until 1870; then by mutual consent, the Synod was divided into two distinct bodies: The Norwegian Augustana Synod, and the Swedish Augustana Synod.


The Norwegian Augustana people had already secured the services of Professor A. Weenaas, who had come from Norway. He and a large number of Augustana ministers, however, favored the bringing about of a union with Rev. C. L. Clausen, who had left the Norwegian Synod on account of the stand that many of its clergy had taken on the slavery question. A union was effected, but not all the Augustana ministers and congregations joined in this movement. Those that remained bravely took up the work of rebuilding their Synod. The result of this effort was, that the number of ministers in the synod increased from ten in 1871 to about thirty in 1890, when the organization was dissolved for the purpose of becoming a part of the United Church.

Was formed at St. Ansgar, Iowa, in August, 1870. The organization had fourteen pastors and forty-four congregations to begin with. Thirteen years later it had eighty pastors and three hundred sixty congregations.
Before the formation of the Conference, Professor Weenaas had charge of the school of the Augustana Synod at Marshall, Wisconsin. When he left this body and helped to form the Conference, the bulk of the students cast their lot with their teacher. Thus the Conference had a school from its very beginning, although the accommodations were quite primitive compared with modern buildings equipped with steam-heat, gas fixtures, porcelain baths, and other comforts and conveniences. According to a report of Rev. I. Tharaldsen, now of Madison, Minnesota, the majority of the nineteen students occupied the rooms upstairs in the residence of Professor Weenaas who really needed this room for his own family. A room ten feet wide, eighteen feet long and eight feet high, located near the village of Marshall, served as class room, lecture hall, and chapel.

We infer that no stone-paved or any other kind of sidewalks led to this rural seat of learning. It lacked nearly all things that are now considered indispensable appurtenances of a school. But though bodily comforts did not abound, we are taught the lesson that large buildings and modern conveniences are not always necessary for making good, able men and efficient workers. Men now eminent in the councils of the United Church received no small share of their school training at Marshall.

Augsburg Seminary, as the school was styled, has played a prominent part in the history of the Conference, later, also, as we shall see, in that of the United Church. It was moved to Minneapolis in 1872. The school had a good attendance, and sent out not a few ministers. The course of study was based on the Greek rather than the Latin language; hence the designation, “Greek classes,” — the Latin classics being deemed unimportant in a curriculum leading up to the ministry. Comparatively little attention was in consequence paid to the study of that language. To obviate the necessity of annually collecting money among the congregations to defray the running expenses of the institution, a fund was raised, the interest of which should be sufficient to cover the teachers’ salaries and other current expenses.

The Conference enjoyed a flourishing growth during the twenty years of its existence. At the time of its assimilation with the other two church bodies, it numbered 453 congregations, representing a total membership of over 70,000, and more than 100 pastors.

Was the outgrowth of the predestination and conversion controversy, which showed signs of existence in the 70’s and evinced its most vigorous vitality during the greater part of the 80’s, in the Norwegian Synod. The Anti-Missourians, as those were called who opposed the views of Dr. C. F. W. Walther, of St. Louis, Missouri, on these questions, left the Synod at its annual meeting in Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1887. The Anti- Missourians had already during the fall of the preceding year established a divinity school, which was well attended. The faculty consisted of Professor M. O. Böckman and Dr. F. A. Schmidt. Through the generous offer of the management of St. Olaf’s School, as St. Olaf College was then called, lecture-rooms at that institution were gratuitously tendered the divinity school, which availed itself of the opportunity and stayed there till it was moved to Minneapolis in 1890.

The important question that arose among the Anti-Missourians, after leaving the Synod, was: Should they form a permanent church organization of their own, or try to unite as many Norwegian Lutheran bodies as possible into one? Sentiment among the people favored the latter idea. In February, 1888, the Anti-Missourian brethren held a meeting in Minneapolis for the purpose of discussing the advisability and practicability of making an attempt to effect a union between the Conference, the Augustana Synod, the Hauge’s Synod and themselves.

Rev. P. A. Rasmussen was most fittingly chosen the presiding officer of this meeting; for he perhaps more than any other one man had been working up a sentiment favorable for bringing about a union between the various Norwegian Lutheran church bodies in this country. He also now urged the wisdom and pointed out the benefit of such a union. Others of the leading men expressed themselves in much the same way. Rev. B. J. Muus emphasized this thought: God wants Christians to work together as much as they can, Christian love demands such a course. Rev. L. M. Biörn and Rev. N. J. Ellestad spoke of the great advantages that would be derived from a union, in regard to the establishment and maintenance of parochial schools and higher institutions of learning. Rev. Biörn also called attention to the strong desire for union manifesting itself among the Norwegian Lutherans of this country, and to the fact that the Anti-Missourians now had an excellent opportunity of making this desire a reality. Professor O. Lökensgaard said that the object was to have only one Norwegian Lutheran church body in America. Prof. J. N. Kildahl could see no reason why three of the church bodies and the Anti- Missourians should not unite, as they agreed on doctrinal essentials.

The result of the meeting was the unanimous adoption of resolutions to the effect that they would try to do whatever could conscientiously be done to prevent the formation of a new church organization, and to diminish the number of Norwegian Lutheran church bodies in this country, faithfully adhering to the doctrines inherited from the mother-church of Norway. The meeting also chose a committee of seven members to confer with like committees from each of the three mentioned church bodies. These committees were to come together to draw up the preliminaries for the holding of a large joint meeting which should contain representative men from the four bodies.

The three church bodies responded by appointing the committee called for. These met at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, during August of the year of the Minneapolis meeting.

The work of the joint committee consisted of three parts: The settlement of differences, should any exist; the framing of articles of union, and the drafting of a constitution for the new organization that was to grow out of the consolidation of the four original church bodies. The committee decided that the big meeting should be held at Scandinavia, Wisconsin, in November of the same year.

The meeting was held, and a very successful one it was. Pastors and delegates from 688 congregations were present. The congregations represented were located principally in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. The meeting was devoted to the discussion, amendment and adoption of the joint committee’s report.

With reference to the adjustment of differences, the meeting declared that strict adherence to the Scriptures and to the confessional and catechetical writings of the Norwegian Lutheran Church would be an adequate basis for union. The members of the meeting also declared that they were essentially one in their views on the atonement, justification, absolution and the observance of Sunday. Concerning predestination they all subscribed to Pontoppidan’s definition, 548, found in his “Sandhed til Gudfrygtighed.” They also agreed to commend and encourage lay-preaching, if subjected to proper control by the congregations.

The most important provisions in the articles of union were: Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis should be the theological seminary of the United Church; the professors thereof should be salaried by means of a fund; Augustana Synod should contribute $15,000 to this fund, Hauge’s Synod $20,000, the Anti-Missourians $50,000, and the Conference $50,000; the faculty of the seminary should consist of two Anti- Missourians, two from the Conference, one from the Augustana Synod and one from Hauge’s Synod; the preparatory departments of Augsburg Seminary, Augustana College, and Hauge’s Seminary should be conducted as hitherto for at least one year after the union should be accomplished.

The purposes of the United Church as set forth by the constitution adopted at this meeting are: Mutually and brotherly to exhort, instruct, guide, and encourage its members, in accordance with the word of God; to provide for the education of a ministry and parochial school teachers; to distribute and encourage the use of Bibles, orthodox religious text-books, hymnals, and other literature of a religious and devotional character; to work for the advancement and strengthening of the kingdom of God among the people of our nationality in this country by gathering Lutherans and organizing Lutheran congregations, by helping these to get pastors and teachers, and by promoting Christian lay-preaching. To give vigorous aid to mission work, so that God’s word may be proclaimed unto Jews and heathens, is also one of the purposes set forth in the constitution.


The settlement of differences, the articles of union, and the proposed constitution were submitted to the annual meetings of the contracting parties. All, save Hauge’s Synod, which finally decided not to enter the union, found the settlement of differences satisfactory for establishing the union; the articles of union were agreed to, and the constitution as proposed by the Scandinavia meeting was adopted. Every congregation that wished to enter this union was given an opportunity to ratify the above named provisions.

In June, 1890, the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood, the Conference, and the Augustana Synod met in Minneapolis; severally at first, to wind up their old organizations. Being satisfied that the conditions imposed upon the three bodies had been complied with,-the Anti-Missourians doing even more than their share, having subscribed $92,000 instead of $50,000-they met in joint assembly June 13, 1890, and organized themselves into what has since been known as the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.

June 13, 1890, is indeed a red-letter day in the history of the Norwegian Lutheran church- of our land! Three church bodies were merged into one!

They met for the first time in the old Trinity Church of the Conference. This body, having adjourned for all time, awaited the coming of the other two bodies. The members of the Conference seated themselves in the rear and along the sides of the church to give the seats of honor to the Anti-Missourians and the Augustana people. “First,” write Rev. T. H. Dahl of Stoughton, Wisconsin, ” came the Brotherhood, then the Augustana Synod, marching into the church. They were received by the Conference in a manner befitting the occasion. The three bodies being finally in the church the immense audience arose and joined in singing the Te Deum. Thereupon the Lord’s prayer and the Apostles’ Creed were said in concert. It was a touching scene. Wherever you looked, tear-dimmed eyes would meet your gaze; lips were slowly moving in prayer; many a face was turned toward the throne on high. It was evident that the hand of the Lord was touching the hearts and joining them together.” Thus the union was brought about.

Since that time the United Church has been making great progress, and yet not as great as it would have made had the Augsburg Seminary corporation complied with the wish of the Conference and with the articles of union and transferred Augsburg Seminary, its fund and property, to the United Church. This it did not do. The trouble lasted for eight long years. The aid of the courts had to be invoked. The district court of Minnesota decided in favor of the United Church. The case was appealed. Owing to irregularities relating to the incorporation of Augsburg Seminary, the supreme court of the State reversed the decision, but suggested that the United Church might seek redress in a court of equity. Steps were taken to push the suit in such a court, when an amicable settlement was reached, whereby the United Church was given the fund, and the board of trustees of Augsburg Seminary retained the real property.

Closely identified with the Augsburg Seminary controversy was the “school question” of the United Church. At its first annual meeting (1890) a resolution was passed, making St. Olaf College the college of the United Church. Friends of the Augsburg Seminary corporation or the “minority,” as they were called, asserted this action to be in violation of the articles of union, which, they claimed, pledged the United Church to conduct Augsburg Seminary as it was before the union. Its preparatory and theological departments should be “one and inseparable, now and forever.” The “majority,” as the opponents were called, referred to the articles of union, which said that the preparatory departments at Augsburg Seminary should continue at least one year after the union had been completed. From this was inferred that the United Church, should it see fit, had a right to make other arrangements for the preparatory department of Augsburg Seminary.

For the sake of peace, however, the United Church severed its relations with St. Olaf College in 1893. This action did not produce the desired effect. Augsburg Seminary was not transferred. The United Church adopted a resolution to the effect that it would not support any school which it did not own or control. As Augsburg Seminary was not transferred, it could consequently get no support from the United Church. It was then found necessary for the professors and students belonging to the majority to withdraw from the Augsburg Seminary buildings. This they did, and the school of the United Church was located in temporary quarters. It has since been known as the United Church Seminary, and has very successfully conducted a preparatory, a collegiate and a theological department.

Meanwhile St. Olaf College was thrown upon its own. resources. Had it not been for the persistent, systematic, and energetic efforts of Professor H. T. Ytterboe, the institution would undoubtedly have succumbed financially. For six weary years did he untiringly devote himself to the soliciting of funds for defraying the current expenses of the college. So well did he succeed and so kindly was he received by members of congregations throughout the country, that the work of the institution could be continued uninterruptedly till no obstacles were found to be in the way of again making St. Olaf College the college of the United Church.

When the Augsburg Seminary controversy had been amicably settled, the situation was greatly simplified; but not all difficulties had been cleared away. There remained a difference of opinion as to what should constitute the make-up of a college. Some wished it to be a component part of the theological seminary, that is, college and seminary should be one institution under one head; others wished the two schools to be one locally but two governmentally; others again urged to have them separate locally as well as governmentally.

Professor Th. N. Mohn was an ardent advocate of the last plan. He maintained that if the various departments were at one place under one head as one institution, it would become a school chiefly for educating the ministry, while the rest of the Lutheran youth would seek their education elsewhere. The United Church should give all its young men and women an opportunity to get a liberal education based on Christian principles, in Lutheran schools, where the saving of souls is made the prime aim; but the academic standard of these schools should, nevertheless, be as high as that of any schools of the kind in the land. Professor Mohn advocated this principle in private, in the meetings of the teachers’ association, in committee consultations, and at the annual gatherings of the United Church. Being ably seconded by others, the majority in the United Church was finally made to see this question in the same light.
On June 27, 1899, a final decision was reached. After the question had been thoroughly discussed in both the press and the councils of the Church, it was decided to make the college and seminary two distinct institutions. 354 voted for such an arrangement; 153, against. The vote was thereupon made unanimous.
On the next day a resolution was passed to locate the college in the buildings and on the grounds of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, and to erect the seminary buildings in or near one of the twin cities. The value of the property thus placed under the control of the United Church was estimated to be $40,000. The annual meeting voted an appropriation of $100,000 for erecting the new seminary buildings as well as additional buildings for St. Olaf College.

The Normal School, located at Madison, Minnesota, is under the direct control of the United Church. A new dormitory has recently been built, and the school is enjoying a steady and healthy growth.

The Augustana College at Canton, South Dakota, was the school of the Augustana Synod before the union had been effected. It is now partly supported by the United Church. Efforts are being made to put up a new building.

Other schools are in operation, which have no official connection with the United Church, but are counted as institutions of that body, for the reason that they are managed and supported by people who belong to the United Church. On the list of such schools are: Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota; St. Ansgar Seminary and Institute, St. Ansgar, Iowa; Scandinavia Academy, Scandinavia, Wisconsin; and Pleasant View Luther College, Ottawa, Illinois.

The United Church owns and operates an orphan asylum at Beloit, Iowa. The buildings and real estate are listed at $25,290. About one hundred orphans are there housed and cared for.

Rev. E. J. Homme has for years conducted an orphan asylum as well as a home for aged people at Wittenberg, Wisconsin.

The Lake Park Orphan Home at Lake Park, Minnesota, is indirectly conducted under the auspices of the United Church.

A deaconess home and hospital at Chicago, Illinois, is doing deeds of charity largely through the financial and moral aid given it by people who belong to the United Church.

Hospitals at Austin, Crookston, and Zumbrota, all in Minnesota, have been established and are managed chiefly by United Church people.

The United Church maintains a foreign mission of its own in Madagascar. It has three mission stations and four missionaries. Two more are soon to be added to this corps of devoted workers. The work is progressing in spite of obstacles placed in its way, chiefly by influences emanating from the French Jesuits.

The official statistics submitted in June, 1899, show the numerical strength and value of the property belonging to the United Church. It numbers 1083 congregations, 225,605 souls, 126,872 communicants, and 661 parochial school teachers. It has a fund aggregating $108,805.77, not counting what was got in the settlement with the Augsburg Seminary corporation; the publishing house of the Church is inventoried at $54,516.41. The total assets of the United Church are $220,104.47. According to the list of addresses in the Church almanac, 347 is the number of pastors, missionaries and professors.

The future of the United Church does indeed look bright and promising. It maintains a strict adherence to the Scriptures and the Norwegian Lutheran confession of faith. It preaches the word of God in its truth and purity, and urges its members to lead pure and holy lives in accordance therewith. It is laying the foundation of a fine educational system. It endeavors, as far as it can, to take care of the father- and motherless and others who stand in need of help. It seems be to destined by the grace of God to become the great means of bestowing rich, spiritual blessings upon the sons and daughters of this country whose ancestry is the same as that of the sturdy people dwelling amid the snow-capped mountains, along the forest-fringed fiords, and in the immediate neighborhood of the dashing waterfalls and swift-rushing streams of the wonderful Land of the Midnight Sun.

Quarter Centennial Souvenir 1874-1899


Thorbjorn Nelson Mohn:
Twenty-Five Years President of St. Olaf College
History of St. Olaf College
St. Olaf College Alumni Association
College Organizations
The United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America
United Church Seminary
The City of Northfield
Rev. B.J. Muus