Columns, Faithful and Reforming

A Forgotten Giant

Johan Arndt Aasgaard (1876-1966)

The mystery: There’s no history. The first item on the agenda, when Johan Arndt Aasgaard’s (JAA) biography finally is written, is to find out why no one has yet written the life story of one who led practically all Norwegian Lutherans in the U.S. for 29 years. There is no obvious reason.

JAA was a kind of Lutheran “Horatio Alger, Jr.,” rising from poverty to prominence. When the biography is written, the author will take up at least four major themes.

Pastor in all that he did

That he had a pastoral heart is illustrated by an oft-told family story: A woman came into “Granper’s” office for confession. She had had an affair and was devastated. She confessed all to her pastor, wept, and prayed.

Meg Madson

Pastor Aasgaard gave his confessor absolution. When she was leaving, she asked: “Pastor Aasgaard, what do I do now?”

“Do, my child? About what?”

“About my sin, Pastor.”

To which her pastor replied: “What sin?”

Although his name echoes Johann Arndt, the famous 17th century pietist, JAA belonged to the United Lutherans, the conservative but centrist branch of Norwegian Lutherans, which incorporated elements of both Haugean pietism and the strict confessionalism of the Norwegian Synod. He was pastor full time at Norway Grove Lutheran Church, De Forest, Wisconsin, from 1901-1911, and part time at Salem Lutheran Church, Salem, North Dakota, during his years as president of Concordia College.

Leader: spectacular but not flamboyant

JAA is remembered as outspoken, yet at the same time as one who was tactful and gentle. These qualities stood him in good stead as he raised money, first of all in his parish, then for Concordia College (1911-1925), as president (1925-1954) for the colleges of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, and for relief work in Europe during and after World War II.

These qualities also stood him in good stead as he helped three differing groups of Norwegian Lutherans grow into one church, helped immigrants and the next generation become Americans, and prepared the way for larger American Lutheran unity and Christian unity that took place soon after he retired. JAA always was a hard worker, yet he also rose to prominence because he was recognized as a natural leader, one who could be trusted to point the way forward.

Educator in small and in large

In the parish, JAA stressed Sunday school and confirmation: “They will have, like the Prodigal Son, something that is essential if they are going to not only stay in their baptismal covenant, but even return if they wander away.”

Johan Arndt Aasgaard

He had done further study at Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Wisconsin, which led to teaching church history at the United Seminary, St. Paul, in 1906-1907. He edited the United Lutheran from 1908-1909 and the Kirkebladet from 1910-1911.

When JAA decided in 1911 to leave his parish in Wisconsin, Concordia College, Moorhead, immediately invited him to become president, and he established a solid future for the college both by fundraising and by raising academic standards.

Citizen of the United States and of the world

Unexpectedly, in 1925, JAA became president of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.

In 1954, when asked at his retirement what had been his greatest professional accomplishment, he stated, “I delivered the Norwegian Lutherans safely to the American shore” — which he had, though at times leading Norwegian Lutherans must have seemed like trying to herd cats. Again, his tact and gentleness, his obvious sense of the way forward, stood him in good stead.

He was committed to helping immigrant Lutherans take on the American way of life: the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, the democratic process.

Much of his energy was spent on “home missions,” starting and shepherding congregations as well as charitable institutions. Yet Norwegians have also had a strong commitment to global missions, and, because of the Norwegian merger in 1917 and the disaster of World War II, JAA was necessarily involved in promoting missions around the world.

Again because of the disaster of World War II, JAA along with other Lutheran leaders in the United States raised millions to provide relief for Lutherans in Europe, and especially in his case for Norway. JAA’s personal friendship with one of the heroes of the Norwegian resistance, Bishop Eivind Berggrav of Oslo, is part of the saga.

As O. G. Malmin wrote in The Lutheran Herald at the time of JAA’s funeral: He was “God’s man for a particular time in a particular place. He fulfilled his ministry with devotion and dedication.”

The Rev. Meg Madson has a PhD on Martin Luther. She and her husband Eric live in Plymouth, Minnesota. Information and quotes were taken from a research paper “Johan Arndt Aasgaard” by Kari Bostrom, Region 3/Luther Seminary Archives Assistant. The photo of Aasgaard above was offered courtesy of Luther Seminary Archives.

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