It happened in Holden

I heard an interesting piece of gossip at my class reunion last Saturday.

I don’t think anyone will be hurt by it. The news was more than a hundred years old.

The reunion took place at the farm of one of my classmates (we lived in a small town, and it was a small class. Smaller now). The town is Kenyon, Minnesota, not a famous place, but once a center of Norwegian-American settlement, made conspicuous once upon a time by the story I shall now relate.

Our host told us, “This farm once belonged to the first doctor in Goodhue County, Dr. Grønvold.” That was interesting.

Later another classmate, who knows I’m interested in history, told me, “You know, there was a big scandal here in the 1800s. That farm over there” (he pointed to a brick house about a thousand feet away) “is the Holden church parsonage. The pastor there was gone a lot, and his wife had an affair with the doctor who lived here.”

“B. J. Muus?” I asked. Yes, he said, that was the pastor’s name.

I’d read about the story, but never gave it close study. Now I’d stumbled across the living oral tradition, on the very spot, and it piqued my interest. So I read up about it.

Bernt Julius Muus (1832-1900) came to America from Norway in 1859, and settled at Holden, northeast of Kenyon in southeastern Minnesota. He seems to have been a man born for the frontier, an A-type personality who was all about the job, first, last, and Sunday. He spent much of his time on the road, performing pastoral acts for pioneer communities and promoting the Norwegian Synod’s school, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

His wife seems to have been a different sort of person.

Oline Christine Kathrine Muus came from a comfortable home in Norway where she’d been somewhat pampered. She had decided that she wasn’t serious enough about spiritual matters, and so had married a seminarian. She doesn’t seem to have been prepared for life on the rolling prairie, where winter blizzards drove snow through chinks in the walls and Native Americans still pitched their teepees. She was a pretty, cultured woman who loved music and had learned some medicine. In Holden she found herself alone for long stretches with a growing family, hungry for intelligent conversation.

Dr. Grønvald was an educated man, a musician himself, and he lived about the length of a city block away.

There was talk.

We don’t know that there actually was an affair. Holden folklore says there was, but Holden folklore also justifies her a little. B. J. Muus was a hard man, they say.

In 1880 Oline sued her husband, not for divorce at that point, but for her inheritance from her parents, which he had taken into his keeping. It was an interesting legal question, since they both remained Norwegian citizens. The lawyers had to argue whether Norwegian or American law applied in the case (in the end she was awarded that portion of the money received within the statute of limitations). Then began the series of meetings of Holden congregation, which would extend through her divorce suit in 1881 (denied by the courts) and her appeal for a legal separation, which was granted in 1883. Her accusations against her husband included neglect, years of literal silence, and parsimony to the point where their children’s health suffered through lack of heat and decent clothes. In particular she claimed that when she’d broken her leg, her husband had delayed getting her medical attention. (She later admitted he’d done the best he could under the circumstances. The doctor who finally cared for her, as it happened, was Dr. Grønvold.)

The Muus family was not only the talk of Holden, but of Norwegians across America, and back in the old country. Their conflict crystallized political and religious arguments that were on everyone’s minds. Pastor Muus was a leader of the Norwegian Synod, the “conservative” Norwegian Lutheran group. The Norwegian Synod saw it as its mission to transfer the Norwegian state church, as far as possible, into the American environment. Their focus was sacramental, and they looked with dismay on the shenanigans of the Hauge Synod (my own people) and the Lutheran Free Church (predecessor to my present employer). Those radicals allowed laymen to preach, and subjected their congregations to the chaos of emotionalism and revivalism.

When Oline moved out of her home (she would see very little of her children for the rest of her life) she moved to Minneapolis, where the Free Church leaders helped her maintain herself until she could establish herself as a piano teacher. In their view, she was just another victim of the authoritarianism of Synod pastors, who fancied themselves kings on earth.

Earlier, during her inheritance lawsuit, she’d been visited by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsen, the famous Norwegian poet and novelist, who was touring America. Bjørnsen, as a liberal freethinker who’d come to hate the state church, arrived positively disposed to her case. However, on closer acquaintance he declared her “a real mountain troll…. God almighty, how he [Pastor Muus] must have struggled with that female.”

The Norwegian radical immigrant Marcus Thrane (once a friend of Ibsen’s), on the other hand, saw her as a heroine. He wrote an operetta entitled “Holden,” which was performed in Chicago, as well as a satire on the case called “The Old Wisconsin Bible.”

Oline eventually settled in the Norwegian colony of Fruithurst, Alabama, where she operated a hotel. She died in 1922. Pastor Muus continued as a leader of the Norwegian Synod until being expelled for doctrinal noncomformity in 1888. He returned to Norway, where he died. But he is best remembered today as the father of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

The tragedy of the Muus family seems from today’s perspective something like a cultural hurricane, the confluence of low-pressure areas emptied out by the dissolution of centuries of certainty. Pastor B. J. Muus believed that the man was the head of the wife. If he surrendered himself wholly to a mission, it would be unnatural for her not share in his sacrifices. The idea that she had a life and interests and needs of her own barely occurred to him, even when he left her on her own for weeks on end.

Draw what lessons you like. Certainly missionaries need to be taught to be flexible, to distinguish between the essential and the dispensible in order to adapt to unfamiliar situations. Certainly men need to care for their wives as for their own bodies (with the caveat that willingness to neglect the second doesn’t excuse neglect of the first). Some will say it proves marriage is slavery, or that Christianity is itself an oppression.

Myself, I’d say that life is dangerous and full of pain, and that it is not good for a man to be alone. That if we want to follow Christ we must lay down our own lives, giving more to others and expecting less for ourselves.

Oddly enough (seen from a modern point of view) neither B. J. nor Oline Muus allowed their pain and loss of reputation to turn them against Jesus Christ or His church.

(Source: Bernt Julius Muus, published 1999 by The Norwegian-American Historical Association.)

3 thoughts on “It happened in Holden”

  1. Ah! I love reading this kind of stuff!! Thanks Lars.

    It reminds me of S. Oregon stories of love gone wrong and killings of spouses and train “flights” of the suspect couple with the local sheriff in “hot” pursuit in his own train, etc…etc…

    All back in the “good old days”….

    Missionaries today still have to watch how much time and energy they give to the nationals vs how much they allow for their wife and children.

    While I was in Japan as a missionary. One family almost broke up because of the husband’s neglect.

    Its an interesting story about how the best of plans and ideals can go wrong… as well as such testing of one’s faith…. as usual, however, it was not just the hubby who fouled up, but also the wife when she felt neglected.

    Leave it to the kids to be the ones who really end up suffering!!!

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