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Archiver > NORWAY > 1999-03 > 0922189018

From: Neil A Hofland <>
Subject: Transition - 8 - [250] - [258]
Date: Tue, 23 Mar 1999 11:36:58 +0000


Theodore C. Blegen's "Norwegian Migration to America, The American
Transition" is published with the kind permission of the
Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA), St. Olaf College, 1510
St. Olaf Avenue,
Northfield, MN 55057-1097. (email: ) This book is under
copyright and permission has been granted for educational purposes and is
not to be used in any way for any commercial purpose.

Hitherto there had been no open controversy on the question of
Norwegian-American support of the common school, but the stand taken at
the parochial school conference was promptly challenged. It was a
Danish-born schoolmaster at Scandinavia, Waupaca County, Wisconsin, who
cast down the gauntlet before the clergy in 1858 on the school question.
Rasmus Srensen had been trained in a Danish academy, and before he
became a leader of Danish immigration to America he had been active in
his native land in the fight for popular education and social reform in
the interest of the bender. {14} He now submitted a lengthy article to
Emigranten in which he defended the American public school system and
denounced the Norwegian-American clergy. {15} He praised American
lawmakers, who were advancing "education and enlightenment for the whole
people." Public education in Wisconsin, he said, was in its childhood and
needed to be watched and nurtured. All the immigrant children, in his
opinion, needed to be kept "regularly and diligently in attendance at our
American free schools." Instruction in English was essential to their
advancement in [250] "their real and true fatherland, America." If the
counsels of the Norwegian clergy were followed, the immigrant children
would be shaped and molded as "Norwegian Indians in America" and
ultimately would be treated as "outcasts and trash."
He called on the immigrants to give the Norwegian preachers "the answer
they deserve" for their hostility to the American district school system.
The inevitable result of such a reply, he believed, would be that the
children would become "true Americans, one nation, together with all
other Americans." As to the omission of religion from the American public
school, he pointed out that, while the common school did not bar the
reading of the Bible or the learning of Bible stories, it naturally could
give no place to the creeds and customs of particular sects. The subjects
it did teach were essential to one's lifework and citizenship in America.
He reserved his sharpest words for the clergy's general position on
parochial schools. He declared that the settlements had witnessed a
process of "pastoral Norwegianization." "Can Americanism grow and thrive
in the Norwegian settlements in America," he asked, "before it is planted
in the children and in the young people?" He urged that "God's Word"
should be read and expounded in the "American language," at any rate for
the rising generation, reserving Norwegian for the benefit of the elderly
and of newly arrived immigrants. If each one of the various national
groups established a district school system of its own, looking upon
English as a foreign language, he saw as the outcome nothing but national
and religious wars in America; and he closed by excoriating what he
called a "stupid imagined fear of everything American."
This was a frontal assault, indeed, and it was met by an answer from the
pen of the Reverend A. C. Preus, the president of the Norwegian Synod.
{16} As to the common school, [251] Preus said that he had no objection
to it if it enjoyed the services of a "competent, zealous, and
conscientious teacher," but after much observation of American district
schools in the West he had been forced to the conclusion that they were
"as bad as it is possible for them to be and still deserve the name of
schools." Neither laws nor buildings nor money could assure good schools,
he said, if they lacked good teachers; and in his opinion nine out of ten
teachers in the American common schools were so young, ignorant, and
lacking in experience that they were incapable of conducting a decent
school. To make matters worse, most teachers stayed on for only one term
--- from three to six months --- and hence the school derived no profit
from the experience that the teacher gained during that period. "Such a
thing as discipline in the school, or respect for the teacher," he
declared, "is rarely seen in the West." He had himself sent his own
children to the common schools, but the results had been discouraging.
His daughter, six years old, reported that her teacher addressed her
class as "Ladies and Gentlemen!" Preus said that he by no means opposed
the learning of the English language; in fact, his own children read
English and Norwegian almost equally well; nor did he have any wish that
the immigrant children should not become enlightened American citizens;
but he took the position that "a bad school is worse than no school at
all." As to the problem of parochial schools and the use of Norwegian,
until English actually supplanted Norwegian in the immigrant homes, the
Norwegian language necessarily must be used in the church and the
parochial schools. Religious teaching and preaching should employ the
language of the heart, which he defined as the language in which one
thinks and prays. English, for the Norwegian-speaking immigrants, was
obviously not their mother tongue; hence it must seem a foreign language.
{17} [252]
This exchange of opinion had many echoes in the press, but it did not
open up a controversy in full force. A satirical and humorous letter,
ostensibly supporting Srensen, was couched in the mixed
Norwegian-American, and in its way threw more realistic light upon the
problem of language than all the other contributions combined. {18}
"Peder Paars" offered, in heavy sarcasm, mock praise of Norwegian
teachers and schools. Preus returned to the attack by marshaling American
criticisms of the common schools to prove that the Americans themselves
were not blind to the shortcomings of their system; and Srensen
ventilated his views on the respective merits of American and
Scandinavian literature. {19} But perhaps the most significant outcome of
the discussion was a joint declaration, in the summer of 1859, by eleven
clergymen of the Norwegian Synod setting forth their general position "On
Schools and Language Conditions." This declaration, whose signers
included Professor Larsen, Koren, Ottesen, H. A. Stub, A. C. and H. A.
Preus, and Brandt, took the characteristic form of a series of theses.
The ministers began with a forthright statement that the Norwegians in
America needed a thorough knowledge of English and that it was their duty
to secure it so far as they were able to do so, that they might the
better fulfill their duties as citizens. Such a knowledge was necessary
not only from the point of view of their material well-being, but also in
order to be able to understand American writings and [253] judge the
various religious teachings in America. They went on to praise religious
freedom as one of the greatest advantages of the American system and to
pledge their purpose to retain, under this freedom, their Lutheran faith
and old Norwegian church order, and to bring up their children in this
faith. Since most of the Norwegian-American church members did not yet
sufficiently understand English, it was necessary to conduct church
services and to teach religion in Norwegian, "the language of home prayer
and devotions." They proposed to teach the Norwegian-American children
the Norwegian language and religion not only because of their natural
love for the old fatherland but also because, viewing religion as the
most essential of all knowledge, they looked upon the language in which
it was taught as "more significant to us than anything else." They
regarded it as perfectly possible both to study religion in Norwegian and
to learn English, but issued a warning against the use of the common
schools if they placed children in danger of being cut away from their
Lutheran faith. As to the common schools, they pointed out that they had
little discipline and that children should be sent to them only after
careful investigation, and they urged parents meanwhile to do all in
their power to improve them so that their children would not need to be
denied the important knowledge that such schools offered. If the district
schools were good, they concluded, children might safely be sent to them,
and they recommended an energetic patronage of them. Some attention was
given to the school question in the Synod meeting of the same year and it
was decided, among other things, not necessarily to exclude from the
church those who refused to give active support to the congregational
schools of religion. The local situation was to be the deciding factor.
The moderate tone of this ministerial declaration of 1859, coupled with
the Civil War, seems to have been responsible [254] for a postponement of
a thoroughgoing discussion and controversy on the school question, but
the Synod leaders were not inclined to let them rest permanently. After
the Civil War, in 1865, Pastor Koren and Professor Schmidt of Luther
College proposed to the Synod that a committee should undertake a study
of the religious schools and particularly of the prospects of including
additional subjects in their curricula so that the common schools could
be made superfluous for the Norwegian immigrants or at any rate that some
of the main difficulties in the way of the parochial schools might be
removed. This proposal led to an elaborate report by Pastor Brandt and
Professors Schmidt and Larsen, and this, in turn, placed before the Synod
for action at its meeting in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 1866, set off the
larger controversy that had been brewing ever since the clergy began to
challenge the public school system. {22} The report and the Synod action
that followed it definitely steered the church in the direction of the
Missouri Synod system of parochial schools, not to supplement, but to
supplant the American public schools; and this tendency came into
conflict with the views of Norwegian-American laymen throughout the
The committee conceded that the common schools deserved praise and
support as a state institution, and it accepted without cavil the fact
that the state schools could not permit instruction in Christianity, that
an attempt to introduce such instruction would have the character of an
assault upon religious freedom. But it put forward the view that
Christian instruction would produce good citizens and that the state had
no cause for complaint if the church chose to send its children to its
own schools. In a word, it said that the state should not compel children
to go to the public schools. All this served as a preface to a series of
twenty-seven theses [255] that were placed before the Synod for
consideration and action. Of these only eight were acted upon, most of
them after changes of one kind or another, but these touched the heart of
the question.
The Synod began by accepting the dictum that" For Christians it must be
regarded as natural to employ only Christian schools for their
instruction." It then went on to declare that "In this country it must
therefore as a general rule be looked upon as desirable for Christians to
set up parochial schools that will permit the teaching of approximately
the same things which are taught in the so-called 'Common Schools' and
that the latter therefore will not need to be used." It recognized a
civic responsibility, however: "As citizens it is our duty to support
these common schools even if we do not utilize them for our own
children." But it asserted that the "greatest service of these
religionless schools" was for the non-Christian portion of the population
which "does not desire Christian instruction." The fifth thesis, modified
in the course of debate, finally read: "That religion is not taught in
these schools is a necessary result of the religious freedom which we
consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy under the present constitution of
the state." The question arose, however, whether Christian parents should
in all eases keep their children away from the public schools, and the
Synod was not prepared to take this position. It recognized that an
adequate system of parochial schools to supplant the common school could
not be attained in any near future, and it therefore urged its church
members to attempt to secure a large degree of influence in the
management of the district schools, particularly in the matter of the
appointment of teachers and the determination of the length of the school
terms. But where such influence cannot be gained "and the district school
is so conducted that it is a serious danger to the Christian faith or the
morality of the children, then it is the definite duty of Christian
parents to [256] keep their children away and to work so much more
actively for the development of the parochial school." The final thesis,
upon which no formal action seems to be recorded but which represented
the generally accepted view of the clergy, was a counsel to send the
children --- in the event that other arrangements were not practicable
--- to the public schools for instruction in English only after they had
been confirmed, that is, at about the age of thirteen. {23}
In a series of lectures held in Norway in 1867, President H. A. Preus of
the Synod explained that the central point in the opposition to the
American common schools was that they were "religionless." He declared
himself unwilling to turn over Norwegian Lutheran children to the
guidance of teachers who were, for example, Catholics, Methodists, or
atheists. He spoke of the lack of discipline in the district schools, the
steady shift of teachers, and, though conceding that pupils did learn to
read and write, he had little to say for the efficiency of the schools.
He realized that many Norwegians would be dissatisfied not to derive
advantage from an institution that they supported through taxation and
that they would have difficulties of their own in building and conducting
schools, but these considerations, to his mind, did not make the goal any
less desirable --- that of broadening the parochial schools and of making
the district schools unnecessary for the Norwegian church group. He
further was aware that the parochial schools themselves lacked good
teachers and were not too advanced --- a general point that the critics
of the Synod position were soon to hammer home relentlessly --- and that
the people in the congregations needed to be aroused to the general need
of good schools. {24}
Meanwhile, a storm of opposition to the Synod's stand on [257] the
school question was rising in the
Middle West. It found one of its most pertinacious spokesmen in Knud
Langeland, the doughty editor of the Chicago Skandinaven, launched in the
very year of the Synod's meeting at Manitowoc. He took sharp issue with
the theses adopted by the church body, declared that the clergy evidently
intended salvation to be the reward of "ignorance and superstition," and
called upon the common people to speak out on the issue. They had been
largely occupied with their pioneering and, in his opinion, were being
led into paths that would be genuinely injurious to their future. The
choice was between being overrun by the Missouri Synod spirit and
arousing the "free, patriotic Scandinavian element." The common school
was the road to enlightened participation by Norwegian Americans in the
life of their times, and the times demanded efficient and fruitful
teaching of the young. He saw no hope in parochial schools as a
substitute for public education, for they would surely be handicapped by
financial difficulties, a dearth of teachers who could handle the English
side in adequate fashion, and general inefficiency. As he warmed to his
theme he even hinted that it might be treasonable to reject the American
common school. {25}
As the controversy began to resound in the Norwegian-American press,
Langeland found himself emphatically supported by the young and
aggressive Rasmus B. Anderson, recently expelled from Luther College in
Decorah, Iowa, for leading a student revolt, and just launching his long
career as a teacher, writer, and public figure. {26} Anderson appeared as
a delegate at the Synod meeting of 1868 and called for a reconsideration
of the school question. He proposed that the congregations be asked to
take an active interest in their American common schools and, among other
things, to secure [258] the appointment of teachers who were competent in
both the English and the Norwegian languages. He believed that it might
prove possible to find a place, in the Norwegian communities, for the
study of Norwegian in the common schools, and he suggested the
advisability of petitioning the Wisconsin legislature to permit the
introduction of this language in its schools. He also was prepared to
point the way to reforms in teaching, and in particular he recommended
that students should study at Luther College in order to perfect their
Norwegian and at American institutions of higher learning to improve
their English. He believed too that some effort should be made to bring
about the appointment of Norwegian professors at certain American
colleges and universities. But he was unable to bring about a general
discussion in the Synod assembly, and his resolutions were quietly
referred to the synodical pastoral conference. {27}

<14> An interesting account of this remarkable Danish-American pioneer is
in Danske i Amerika, 1:337-346. In 1859-60 Srensen himself edited a
periodical entitled Organ for religion, landkonomie og politik.
<15> Emigranten, November 1 and 8, 1858.
<16> Emigranten, November 27, 1858.
<17> The documents of this debate appear with an excellent introduction
by Professors Paulson and Bjrk, in Studies and Records, 10:76-106. It is
of interest to note that Preus issued a Norwegian spelling book in 1857.
Emigranten, August 26, 1857.
<18> Emigranten, December 27, 1859; Studies and Records, 10: 100-106.
<19> The "Peder Paars," Preus, and Srensen items are in Emigranten,
February 1, 8, April 18, 1859. See also a sharp criticism of Srensen by
Aslak Halvorsen Houchum, in Emigranten, December 13, 1858; a contribution
on the other side by Joseph Larson of Goodyears Bar, California, April 4,
1859; and a general discussion entitled "Lidt om skolen," November 21,
<20> Kirkelig maanedstidende, 4:156, 157 (October, 1859). The document,
reported by Ottesen as secretary, also appeared in Emigranten, October
31, 1859. The signers included, in addition to those named above, P. M.
Brodahl, C. F. Clausen, N. E. Jensen, and C. F. Magelsen.
<21> Emigranten, October 22, 1859; Larson, Changing West, 121, 122.
<22> Kirkelig maanedstidende, 11:210-223 (May, 1866); Synodalberetning,
1866, p. 19--40.
<23> See the report of the Synod discussion and action in
Sunodalberetning, 1866, p. 32-40.
<24> Herman A. Preus, Syv foredrag over de kirkelige forholde blandt de
Norske i Amerika, 32-36 (Christiania, 1867).
<25> A general survey of the controversy is published as an editorial in
Skandihaven, May 26, 1869.
See also Larson, Changing West, 123-126.
<26> Anderson, Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 47 ff., 71, 72, 98, 99
(Madison, Wisconsin, 1915).
<27> Synodalberetning, 1868, p. 51, 52; Skandinaven, July 22, 1868.

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