Here’s the text of my talk, given at the Old Stone Church (Hauge Lutheran Church), Kenyon, Minnesota, on Sunday, June 24, 2007
The year was 1846. A boat docked in Muskegon, Michigan, and one of my distant relations—actually the half-brother of my great-great-grandfather—disembarked along with his family and a group of other Norwegians. They looked around them, blinked in the sunlight—and hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next. They wanted to see a man in Lisbon, Illinois, but they’d never imagined that America was so big—or so wild. So they hunkered down in Muskegon for a while, to try to figure out their next step.
One day a wagon rolled up, and a man jumped off and greeted them in Norwegian. He was a preacher, and he said he knew Lisbon, Illinois very well. He invited my relation to get on his wagon, and he’d take him there.
They traveled over open prairie, sleeping under the wagon at night. When they reached Lisbon, they found the man they were looking for, and then the preacher took my relation back to Muskegon to arrange for the whole group to relocate.
The preacher’s name was Elling Eielsen, and what he did for that group was all in a couple weeks’ work for him. Wherever there were Norwegians in America in the mid-nineteenth century, Eielsen would be there sooner or later, to preach the gospel and to help them adjust to the new country.
Elling Eielsen was born in Voss, in Norway, in 1804. He was converted in the Haugean revivals, and soon began to follow in Hauge’s steps, preaching all over Norway, as well as Sweden and Denmark, as a layman. And, like Hauge, he spent time in prison for his preaching activities.
In 1839 he came to America. He came because there was a need. More and more Norwegians were immigrating to this country, and there was not a single Norwegian Lutheran pastor here to minister to them. Many newcomers were converting to the Mormon church.
Eielsen settled first in Fox River, Illinois, where he began a small congregation in his home, a congregation which still exists and is part of our AFLC today. This may have been the first Norwegian Lutheran church in America—though that claim is disputed.
At the request of his congregation, Eielsen went to Chicago and found a German Lutheran pastor there who was willing to ordain him. Thus he may have become the first Norwegian Lutheran pastor ordained in America—though that claim is also disputed.
What is not disputed is that he was the first Norwegian Lutheran publisher in America. Needing teaching material for his confirmation classes, he traveled to New York to get an English translation of Luther’s Small Catechism printed. Later he went back to get a Norwegian book printed—Pontoppidan’s Explanation of the Catechism, the first Norwegian language book ever published in this country. That job involved a side trip to Philadelphia to get the typeface he wanted, and when the books were finished he carried them on his back, back to Illinois, on foot, in the dead of winter.
Elling Eielsen was not afraid of hard work.
He served many congregations over the years, but his chief work was traveling as an evangelist. He preached to Norwegian settlers in Texas. He preached in Kansas. He preached in the Dakotas. And, of course, he preached right here. The origins of Hauge and Immanuel Congregations are obscure, but it seems certain that they began with meetings led by Eielsen in this area.
As Eielsen’s ministry bore fruit, congregations were established, and they looked to him as their leader. So in 1846 a new church body came to be. Its name was—and I’m not joking here—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But it was better known as the Eielsen Synod.
Eielsen was probably not the best choice for a leader. His gifts were for evangelism. He was not a good organizer. He did not work well with people. He had a fiery temper, and he tended to see disagreement as heresy.
There was conflict in the Eielsen Synod. It had already split twice when, in 1876, a majority of the congregations decided they could no longer accept a paragraph in the constitution concerning church membership. Eielsen would not hear of a change. And so the majority of the congregations went on to become the Hauge Synod. A small group continued under the old constitution and Eielsen’s leadership.
The Hauge Synod chose as its first president a man whose name ought to be familiar around here. His name was Arne Boyum. But the second president should be a familiar name too. He was Østen Hanson, and he was pastor of Immanuel and Hauge churches, Kenyon, Minnesota. He served this parish for 37 years, and never took another call. Unlike Eielsen, Hanson knew how to stay put.
Østen Hanson was born in Telemark, Norway. Although his faith was every bit as solid and biblical as Eielsen’s, he had the ability to disagree with people without being disagreeable. He had a gift for organization, and he knew how to choose his battles.
He was not an educated man by the standards of this world. None of the early Haugeans were. But N. N. Rønning, in his book Fifty Years in America, says of him:
Hanson was a brainy man…. He was a converted man…. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and was an assiduous and discerning reader. He sought every occasion to talk with learned men. He had a passion for thinking things through.
The Bible was the book for Hanson. Everything he preached was riveted in the Bible. He wrestled with the Word. He found no peace of mind before he had mastered it, only to find, of course, that it was not fully mastered. He must have known the Letter to the Romans by heart; at least he had the more significant passages at the tip of his tongue.
I’m happy to be able to report that the synodical split did not make Eielsen and Hanson lifelong enemies. Later in his life Eielsen visited Pastor Hanson in the parsonage over in Aspelund, and he held meetings in this parish.
Ole Rølvaag tells us, quoting the Bible, that there were giants in the earth in those days. These stone walls have echoed to the voices of prophets. Hauge and Immanuel congregations have a powerful—even a heroic—spiritual heritage.
It’s not a heritage just for looking back on. I think it’s a heritage that has something to teach us today. Just as our ancestors had to find ways to practice the old, true faith in a strange new environment, so we face a strange new environment today. America was less different from Norway in the 19th Century than it is today from the country many of us grew up in. Once again our task as Christians is to work in new circumstances, speaking the timeless gospel in a new language.
May the same Spirit who worked in Eielsen and Hanson work in all of us here today, pastors and laity alike, as we carry on the ministry of repentance and faith.