Thorbjorn Nelson Mohn

Twenty-Five Years President of St. Olaf College
A Biographical Sketch by Rev. H. B. Kildahl

It has been stated that no proper biography can be written of a man without tracing his ancestry and examining the influences that have contributed to the formation of his character.

By reason of the fact that the above conditions have not been complied with, this sketch will not be properly written, but we may form an opinion of what those influences were by their product, the subject of this sketch.

Another reason why this sketch is not more complete is the lack of space allotted it. In attempting to write a biography of a man like Prof. Mohn the space of a book is necessary, or else it were better to confine oneself to a few remarks to the extent of a page.

The tombstone which marks his last resting place will tell us something like this: “Thorbjörn Nelson Mohn, born July 15th, 1844, died Nov. 18th, 1899.” That is what the stone will tell us in hard, cold characters. Yet between those two dates there is 55 years of life, activity and usefulness such as is rarely found between the birth and death of men. Men may live longer, travel farther, speak louder and longer, be seen on more occasions, and yet when they are dead, their tombstones tell about the best that can be said of them. If measured by years, the life of Prof. Mohn was not long, but if measured by deeds, begun and finished, his life was long, and if measured by the influence and the fruits of his activity the length of his life is beyond all computation.

Thorbjörn Nelson Mohn comes to us from Norway where he was born the 15th day of July, 1844, in Saude parish, Lower Telemarken. His parents, Nils Thorbjörnson Mohn and Ragnhild nee Johanson, are both dead, the father in 1883 and the mother in 1894. Their first home in this country was in Otsego township, Columbia County, Wisconsin. In 1860 the family moved to Dodge County, Minnesota, which became their permanent home. Eight children came to their home, three of whom were girls and five boys, the second of which is the subject of our sketch.
Prof. Mohn, while a boy, was ever a diligent pupil both in the district school and the parochial school. He was confirmed in 1860 by Rev. H. A. Preus. Already at that age he showed such ability that his pastor insisted that he ought to be sent to college, and be finally prevailed on his parents to send him to college to prepare for entering the theological seminary; but many hindrances were in the way. Those districts which now are dotted with prosperous homes, were frontier in those days, and the pioneers had all they could do to provide for their everyday wants and nothing was left for higher education. While these circumstances postponed the boy’s entrance into college, yet they did not postpone his advancement and improvement. In order to help and encourage the studious and energetic youth, Rev. Preus permitted him to attend the confirmation class two terms and helped him in other ways. All these kindnesses were highly appreciated by the boy who tried to make the most of them. Books were scarce on the frontier, but the pioneers had, brought their Bibles with them and that became his tutor, text-book and library during the time previous to his entrance into college. He was not so strict in observing hours for exercise in those days, as be used to sit and read his Bible, while other boys might be playing or hunting, and his mother tells us that after the other members of the family had retired for the night, he alone remained sitting over his Bible, His diligence in the district school is also evidenced by the fact that he had become so proficient in the common English branches that he taught country school before he entered college.

It was not before the 14th day of October, 1865, that his long cherished hope was realized. On that day he was registered as a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. While at college he applied himself to such an extent that he completed the six years’ course in five years. His teachers considered him one of the brightest students at the college, He was so well liked at college that be was wanted as professor by his Alma Mater the year after graduating from the theological seminary. The president of Luther College said at that time that he considered it a great sacrifice to give him up to Northfield, as he had intended to secure him for Luther College.

Prof. Mohn was born a leader of men. This was recognized even while he was at college, as be was elected captain of the state militia, which was at that time organized at Luther College.

Faithful to his intentions of becoming a clergyman, he entered Concordia Theological Seminary at St. Louis, Missouri, in 1870, and was graduated from that institution in 1873.

Being called to the ministry by St. Paul N. E. Lutheran church in Chicago, he was ordained for the ministry the 28th of May, 1873, in Norway Grove church, by his old pastor, Rev. H. A. Preus.

Rev. Mohn remained in Chicago only a few months, as he soon accepted a call to fill the pulpit of Rev. Stub in St. Paul during his vacation trip to Europe.
November 6th St. Olaf’s School was incorporated in Northfield, Minnesota, and Rev. Th. N. Mohn was called to be the principal of the new school. He reluctantly accepted this call, as he had intended to devote his life to the ministry, but he was prevailed upon to accept the call both by his former teachers and those who founded the school. It seems that Luther College, the only Norwegian Lutheran college in this country at that time, was filled beyond its capacity with students, and a number of these students belonged in an academy rather than a college. Luther College even arranged a preparatory class in order to accommodate them and prepare them for admission to the regular course. The president of Luther College therefore urged upon Rev. Mohn the necessity of providing schools for the youth of the church. He says: ” The need of Academies is indeed crying, and, if we do not provide for the youth, all our work will be in vain.” Rev. Mohn saw the truth of this and accepted the call. In December, 1874, he moved to Northfield, and on the 8th day of January, 1875, he began his duties as principal and teacher of the new school. In 1889 the corporate name of the school was changed to St. Olaf College, and Prof. Mohn was appointed president thereof.

Prof. Mohn was married to Miss Anna Elizabeth Ringstad, of Decorah, Iowa, July 15th, 1875. Six children were born to them, five boys and one girl.

Besides his school work, Prof. Mohn also served
St. John’s church in Northfield, which had been organized some years previous, until his death.
For several years he was chairman of the ministerial conference of the Norwegian Synod for Minnesota.
In 1888 Prof. Mohn, together with a number of others, severed his connection with the Norwegian Synod and he became one of the chief movers in organizing the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood. He served on the editorial staff of the Lutherske Vidnesbyrd, which was the organ of that body. In this capacity he had a great deal to do with moulding the character of that body, and many a contributor to that organ, is grateful to Prof. Mohn today for refusing to print what he had written in the heat of controversy.
Being a man who had the welfare of his church at heart, he deplored most heartily her weakness in this country by reason of the petty factions and parties within her. He, therefore, was delighted when it appeared that a union between, some of these parties might be effected, and he took an active part in forming the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. In this church he labored as pastor and teacher until he was removed to the church triumphant.

Prof. Mohn suffered for some time from a complication of diseases of the internal organs. When the college opened in the fall of 1899 he still attempted to continue teaching, but he was forced to retire. His strength continued to fail until he had to take to his bed. Nov. 6th, 1899 was the 25th anniversary of the college and on this occasion a great number of old and new friends of the college and its old president flocked there to celebrate, but he whom all wished to see, was confined to his bed not even conscious of the significance of the day, unable to see even the alumni, whom he was wont to call “my boys.” This cast a gloom over the otherwise pleasant celebration. The feeling was general that the end was drawing near.
During his illness he expressed perfect confidence and faith in God even as a child in its father. It was hard for him to give up his classes; it was harder still for him to give up his estimable wife and children, yet he cheerfully and willingly submitted to the will of God with these words: “I would like to live as God would have me live, and I would like to die as God would have me die. I would not like to choose the sickness from which I am to die, or the way in which I am to die.” When he was told that death was near he expressed great pleasure as an exile would on being told that he could go home. He said: “It is a longtime since I became convinced that there is nothing which saves sinners but the atonement of Jesus Christ, and it would be an awful experience to die without that Savior. The Lord knows so well, and I know it, that I can do nothing, but He has shown me so often that He will not cast me off now. Faithful is he that calleth, who also will do it. He will keep all that He has promised, and therefore, I know that if the Lord would take me it were better for me.” The Lord heard him. The patient continued to sink until Nov. 18th when he quietly passed away surrounded by his family. He walked with the Lord, and he was not, for the Lord took him.”

Prof. Mohn’s last speech to the children in Sunday-school was about the beautiful home prepared for them in heaven. His last sermon in the church was on the 10th of September and his text was Matt. 6: 24-34, and one of the hymns on that occasion was “Sörg O kjäre fader du.” This was not only his favorite hymn, but it was also characteristic of the man.
Prof. Mohn tried to teach his students how to live right. He also taught them how to die right.

As a soldier lies dead on the battlefield after the fray, so when the struggle, that has stirred our church for a number of years, and threatened its existence, was over, and men and women of both sides raised their hearts and voices to God in gratitude for the satisfactory settlement and harmony, in the general rejoicing the message was flashed over the wire that one of the foremost in the ranks had been left dead on the battlefield. Not only had one of the strongest personalities of our church passed away, one, who could foresee the wants of our people and church and who tried to supply these wants, but also one who deplored our present divisions and who would be as accommodating as possible in order to bring about reconciliation between the parties. When Prof. Mohn died, the church lost one of her peacemakers. May our church never lack for such.

During his connection with St. Olaf College his life has been constantly before the people, and the people who knew him best know how well he fulfilled the mission he was called to. The president of Luther College told him twenty-five pears ago: “You seem to me to be better qualified for the position of president of St. Olaf’s School than anybody else that is available at the present time.” That was before he accepted the call. Now Rev. B. J. Muus, whose Argus eyes were constantly directed to the man who presided at the school of his making, pays him this beautiful tribute: “He was one of the most faithful co-laborers I have ever had. I asked him once if he would help me educate the young men and women, who might seek a higher education, in the Christian faith? He said ‘Yes,’ and from that day he has never swerved from his promise, either in prosperity or adversity.”

It is not necessary to laud him. His works do follow him. As it can be said of the builder of St. Paul’s in London, “If you wish to see his monument, look around,” so it can be said of Prof. Mohn. If you want to see his monument look at Manitou Heights. Look at the building which like a beacon towers above the city of Northfield. But that is not his monument. Go up the hill, climb the stair cases so often climbed by him. Ascend the narrow stair way to the tower. Look to the north and south, east and west. There is his monument. Men and women in every walk of life, who learned to live by his teaching, and whose character he molded by his teaching and example. Stand there a moment and let these facts revolve in your mind, and then answer the question, Was he faithful? Then look across the river to where the Congregational church stands. There he began St. Olaf’s School in narrow quarters with one assistant teacher, relying on God and the good will of the people, and the tuition money of the students. Compare that with present conditions. The school has developed under his management to a full-fledged college with a faculty of ten teachers, numerous alumni, ex-students by the thousands, and all debts paid. There is his monument. There is the result of his life.

Prof. Mohn was a forcible character, as is attested by those who met him in debate and the students who were called before him for offenses, yet he was so tender-hearted that he could not endure to hear a child cry. He was very fond of children and could play as a child with children. Even when loaded down with the cares of his calling, he could throw it all aside and appear in his home as the very spirit of cheerfulness and sunshine, deriving rest from his work by amusing the children. He was a most tender husband and kind father, and never permitted his public` duties to hinder him from training his children.

Patience and perseverance were prominent traits in his character: They were perhaps never so exemplified as on that memorable occasion in 1893 when St. Olaf was again left to its own resources. At this time Prof. Mohn stood by the institution as no one else. When others lost hope and would have, permitted it to go back to an academy, Prof. Mohn, patient and hopeful as ever, could not abandon the college, but clung to it as a loving father to his almost lost son, hoping that some way would -be found by which it could be continued. The way was found. During all these years, with the faithful assistance of Prof. Ytterboe, he struggled along; bearing the burden that he had taken upon himself, and although often discouraged and disappointed, yet he was always true to the motto of the school.” Fram, Fram, Cristmenn, Crossmenn,” and faithfully steered St. Olaf among the breakers into, harbor.

He was a man who was upright and honest in all his dealings, and hated all kinds of sham and deceit. Even his bitterest opponents on different questions agree that he was always fair in his dealing with them. The following extract from a speech delivered by him in the fall of 1874 at the dedication of an addition to Luther College is an index to the man. He said: “We must aim at being able to speak the language of the land as perfectly as any American; so that when we are among Americans they shall take us for such, and at the same time keep our mother tongue perfect so that we can speak it as pure as any well educated man from Christiania. In short, let us be Norwegians when we are Norwegians, and Americans when we are Americans. Our people can do this, for they are made of good stuff and are strong of character.”

His magnanimity and nobleness of character are evidenced by the fact that he would not allow any of his friends to congratulate him after the school question was settled in 1899, out of consideration for the feelings of those who had been on the other side of the question. For this same reason he would not let his friends in Northfield know what time he would return, but be answered their telegrams with these modest words: ” Let us have no demonstrations, please, let us rejoice quietly.”

No man has been so generally loved and respected in Northfield as Prof. Mohn. When he retired from the presidency his friends in Northfield presented him and Mrs. Mohn with a silver tea set costing over $300 and to Prof. Mohn a gold headed cane. On the twenty-fifth anniversary present and ex-students presented him with a purse of $200. At the news of his death the alumni association decided to raise funds for building a home in Northfield for Mrs. Mohn and the children. This building is soon to be begun. We select a few of the many tributes printed at his death in the Northfield News as a token of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow townsmen. Carleton College Faculty attended in a body and on their behalf Prof. Huntington read the following extract from the minutes of their record:

Minute from the records of the faculty of Carleton College: “In view of the death of Rev. Th. N. Mohn, lately president of St. Olaf College, we, the faculty of Carleton College, desire to express our appreciation of the worth of one who has labored faithfully in this community and state for twenty-five years in the interests of the higher education of our youth. We bear witness to his simplicity of spirit, to his nobility of aim and to his large manhood that enabled him to give himself whole-heartedly to the institution committed to his care, to this community and to this his adopted country, we would therefore pay tribute to his loyalty as an American citizen, to his broad intelligence, to his courage and patience, to his sympathetic courtesy, as an educator; and we rejoice in the success that has crowned his labors. We extend our Christian sympathy to his wife and family, to the institution to which he gave his life, and to the church of which he was pastor. And we express the hope that the memory of his zeal and self-sacrificing devotion may promote the harmonious growth in our midst of those institutions whose welfare he so earnestly sought.”

G. M. Phillips of the First National bank of Northfield says: “There seems a striking parallel in the lives of Moses, Abraham Lincoln and President Mohn. Each had his appointed mission for which he seemed especially fitted. Each, after long years of patient and self-forgetful devotion, was permitted to see the successful accomplishment of that for which he had toiled. But to neither of them was given the full enjoyment of the result of that toil. All were taken away at the very moment when the well-earned ease, which sometimes follows honored and successful service, seemed just at hand. Moses, after successfully leading the children of Israel to the promised land, was taken to the mountain top to look over upon it, and was gathered to his fathers. Lincoln saved his country, restored peace, and, in the very hour of victory, fell by the assassin’s bullet. After many long years of sublime endeavor, during which hope deferred gave only increased earnestness of purpose, President Mohn was permitted to surrender to his Church the College he had built, and he too is called to rest. In appointed mission, successful accomplishment, and sudden death without participation in any of the fruits of success, President Mohn’s life seems a counterpart of those other immortal leaders. Without following the parallel further, the character of the good man who has just gone is a most profitable study and example. Though called because of his abilities to preside over an institution of learning, he was conspicuously modest and retiring, but without morbid tendency. His gracious bearing, and considerate manner constantly won friends which were never lost. His patience through long years of discouragement developed into that heroic courage which won success at last. His loyalty to his church, his college and his people was always without bigotry or narrowness. His interest in the city of his adoption made him active and influential in every movement for its highest good. He was the first to suggest that the Nutting woods be preserved as a public park, and his funeral procession wound its slow way around that spot which is even now being transformed as he desired. His life and death are an example and an inspiration. His monument will ever be the institution he gave his life to establish.”

M. W. Skinner, mayor of Northfield, says: “I feel I but voice the sentiment of this community in saying that in the death of Pres. Mohn the city has met with a great loss. For the last twenty-five years he labored faithfully in the upbuilding of St. Olaf College, and brought it to its present high standard. He also took a deep interest in the affairs of the city, and was ever ready to assist in any movement for its highest moral improvement. He was a fine type of the Christian gentleman, a man of the people, loved and respected by all. We feel that a good and useful man has left us, but his influence will live not only in this community, but in all the surrounding country for many- years to come, and his memory will be fondly cherished by all.”

A. W. Norton of the Citizen’s bank of Northfield, expresses himself thus: ” It was not my good fortune to have an intimate acquaintance with President Mohn and yet I had come to know him quite well and to appreciate his sterling qualities. He impressed me as a mar, of very sweet, kindly disposition and of untiring activity and energy. The amount of work which he did was prodigious, and yet he always found time to greet his friends with a warm, hearty hand clasp and a few pleasant words. The occasional interviews that I had with him were always a delight to me. He was earnest and loyal, not only to St. Olaf and the principles which she represents, but loyal to Northfield, his home, and always took a deep interest in the upbuilding of this city. He was very appreciative, never asking anything for himself, but anything done for the cause which he represented drew from him the most kindly expressions of gratitude. He gave his life for the upbuilding of St. Olaf College and of Christian education. He lived long enough to see St. Olaf firmly established and then quietly and peacefully entered into rest. His genial, courtly presence will be missed by us all, but he has left an enduring monument. It seems to me that the words written by Whittier of his friend may well be applied to President Mohn:

“The work laid on his three score years
Is done and well done. If we drop our tears
Who loved him as few men were ever loved,
We mourn no blighted hope nor broken plan
With him whose life stands rounded and approved
In the full growth and stature of a man.”

H. A. Boe: When the doctor had given his opinion of Professor Mohn’s fatal sickness and the news came to my notice, my heart was sadly touched. When the news of his death was announced to me I was pleased-pleased to learn that his pains and sufferings were ended. I have known Professor T b. N. Mohn since he first came to Northfield, have been a member of his congregation from the time he accepted a call as pastor of St. Johannes Evangelical Lutheran church of this place. I have had the honor of being one of Prof. Mohn’s intimate friends here for years and have thus learned to know him as a man of character, a man who unflinchingly spoke of your errors to your face. A true counselor in our church, a man who with untiring efforts labored for St. Olaf College to bring that institution up to the highest standard of education and culture. He was in perfect touch with his students and in conversation where his students were mentioned he would always say, “my boys.” He repeated to me time and again, his full appreciation of what the citizens of Northfield had done for him and St. Olaf College in extending favors and accommodations to him. Prof. Mohn did not strive for fame, honor or position; his whole soul and body were wrapped up in his good works on Manitou Heights and his congregation in this city. His whole life here from the time I have known him appears like an open book that I can read page by page. “The life of a true Christian is like a beautiful river. The storms of life may ruffle its beautiful surface, but the deep under current flows on undisturbed.” This applies beautifully, I think, to Professor Th. N. Mohn’s whole life.

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