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Colleges and controversies

Lutherans seem to enjoy at least two things: They are very loyal to their church colleges, and they do relish a good controversy.

About 120 years ago, Norwegian Lutherans in the Midwest had the chance to enjoy a great controversy between the supporters of Augsburg College and St. Olaf College. It was such a controversy that it ended up giving birth to an entirely new Lutheran denomination, and the division of their relative supporters into two different denominations. First a bit of background about Lutheran colleges, and then to the squabble between the supporters of Augsburg and St. Olaf.

Mark Granquist

The 19th century saw the birth of literally thousands of small, church-related schools, some of which survive to this day as small, liberal-arts colleges. Many of these schools originally began as academies, which were really private high schools (as much of public education ended at eighth grade). A few of these academies still exist in their original form, such as Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, and Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis.

As public education expanded in the 20th century, some of these academies grew into undergraduate colleges, while others eventually closed their doors. Lutherans founded dozens of such schools in the Midwest, and most of the Lutheran colleges that we have today grew out of those roots. It was a point of pride for Lutheran church bodies that they had “their school,” and Lutherans supported them with great enthusiasm. And that leads to our controversy.

Mergers lead to college confusion

In the late 19th century, there were several distinct Norwegian Lutheran denominations in the United States; as many as five different ones at one time. As the century rolled to an end, great efforts were made to merge these ethnic church bodies together, a difficult task made more so by 30 years of theological dispute, and also by the issue of schools. In the late 1880s, several denominations of Norwegian-American Lutherans were engaged in a merger process that eventually led to the formation of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church (UNLC; 1890-1917).

Mergers are difficult things to arrange, and this one was complicated by the question of “schools,” in this case, Augsburg and St. Olaf. The new denomination had to decide the “school” issue, especially because it was felt that they could only support one such institution.

On the face of it, the problem seemed manageable. Augsburg was primarily an institution for training Lutheran pastors, while St. Olaf was a liberal arts academy and college that trained students for a wide variety of careers. The decision was simple, it would seem: St. Olaf would be the “school” of the new denomination, while Augsburg would be its seminary. But things are never as simple as they seem, and deeply felt opinions about the nature of church-related education soon came to the fore, erupting into fierce controversy.

A long history of competition

Augsburg College had been founded first, in 1869, as an institution for training Lutheran pastors for Norwegian congregations in America. Powered by the educational vision of its two primary leaders, Georg Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal, Augsburg grew into a coordinated, nine-year course of education for young men: academy to college to seminary.

The 19th century saw the birth of literally thousands of small, church-related schools, some of which survive to this day as small, liberal-arts colleges.

St. Olaf was founded in 1874 by B.J. Muus and others, first as an academy, then as a college, which was co-educational from the beginning and sought to prepare young Norwegian-Americans for a variety of positions in the world (including the ministry).

When the UNLC was founded in 1890, many saw the academy and college portions of Augsburg as being superfluous, and long-term support for them was ambiguous, at best. Supporters of Augsburg saw church support for St. Olaf as a threat to their vision of a coordinated theological education, and the battle began.

In good Lutheran fashion, it involved spirited letters and articles in the press, fights in church conventions, secret meetings, and even disputes in the Minnesota legislature and state courts. As Richard Solberg summarized the debate, “Friends of Augsburg assailed St. Olaf for its humanism and rationalism, its ‘luxurious facilities,’ its doctors of philosophy, its masters of art, and [its] deficits. St. Olaf supporters branded Augsburg as a ‘humbug’ institution offering piety as a substitute for intellectual rigor and scholarship” (from Lutheran Higher Education in America, 232).

In 1893 the supporters of Augsburg formed a group of supportive congregations, the “Friends of Augsburg,” which eventually became a separate denomination in 1897, the Lutheran Free Church. As a failed attempt to reconcile the Augsburg supporters, St. Olaf was cut free from the UNLC in 1893, and led a precarious life until it was reclaimed by the United Church in 1899.

Both colleges survive to this day, and their athletic teams compete in the same conference. How many of their fans realize that the roots of rivalry go back to church controversies of the 1890s?

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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