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The clash at Koshkonong

Mark Granquist

Given their commitments and their temperaments, it was inevitable that they would quickly come into conflict. Though these two young pastors were from Norway, and ministering to Norwegian immigrants settling in Wisconsin in the 1840s, these two men were as different as could be.

Elling Eielsen was a low-church lay preacher out of the Hauge revival movement in Norway, whereas J.W.C. Dietrichson was a university-trained State Church pastor, committed to the order and ritual of the Church of Norway. When they met, they clashed, but in their conflict they set the parameters for a vibrant Norwegian-American Lutheranism that put down deep roots in North America.

First on the scene was Elling Eielsen. A fiery lay evangelist in Scandinavia, in 1839 he was forced to come to America to continue his work. Following in the mold of the Pietist leader Hans Nielsen Hauge, Eielsen pushed for a strict, moral Christian life and a commitment to a deeply personal Christian faith — attributes he believed were lacking in the congregations and the pastors of the Lutheran Church of Norway.

Though he wished to remain a lay preacher in the United States, he soon saw the need for ordination to serve fully the immigrant communities, and he was ordained in 1843.

Dietrichson arrived at bit later, in 1844. He was an aristocratic young man, university trained and “properly” ordained by a bishop into the ministry of the Church of Norway. He was deeply committed to the formal Lutheran theology and ritual of the State Church, with a high view of theology and ministry. Both men have been described as stubborn, passionate, and tactless, and the clash between them was inevitably explosive.

No love lost

After Dietrichson arrived in America, he soon took over the Lutheran congregation at Koshkonong, Wisconsin. Seeing himself as more than just a pastor, but as carrying the authority of the Church of Norway in this new country, he soon set out to create a “proper” Norwegian Lutheranism in North America, under his guidance.

One of his first targets was Eielsen, who had already gathered together a string of Norwegian congregations and preaching points in Wisconsin and Illinois. A meeting was arranged between these two young pastors, which of course did not go well.

The aristocratic Dietrichson took it upon himself to challenge Eielsen’s lack of education and the validity of his ordination.

The aristocratic Dietrichson took it upon himself to challenge Eielsen’s lack of education and the validity of his ordination. As to the challenge about his training and ministerial examination, Eielsen retorted that he had been called by God and examined as had been the Apostles, by “persecution, wakefulness, nakedness, and hunger.” Eielsen detested almost everything that Dietrichson stood for and, when Dietrichson pronounced that Eielsen’s ordination was invalid, Eielsen hotly lashed out, grabbed Dietrichson by the beard, and exclaimed, “Listen to me, you pope, I intend to plague you as long as I live.” So much for intra-Lutheran cooperation.

Actually, neither of these two pioneer pastors had successful, long-term careers in North America. Dietrichson never achieved the kind of leadership he imagined in America, and returned to Norway around 1850, where he had similar problems with local Norwegian congregations. Eielsen remained in America until his death in 1883, but he alienated many of the Norwegian-American Lutherans, and the church organization that he founded remained a small player within American Lutheranism. This said, it is clear that both Dietrichson and Eielsen were still very important figures in Norwegian-American Lutheranism, as each of them symbolically defined both the parameters and the limits of this movement.

These two pastors represented two wings of Lutheranism in 19th century Norway: the warm lay pietism of the Hauge movement, and the educated, formal Lutheranism of the State Church. But beyond their personal foibles, these two pastors also demonstrated the limits of transplanting these traditions into North America. Hauge pietism was a movement in Norway, but in North America it had to become a church and take on some of the churchly trappings it had always resisted. Similarly, State Church Lutheranism of the Norwegian variety also could not be directly transplanted into North America, but took on both Pietist and American features.

Norwegian-American Lutheranism grew rapidly, and developed a rich series of traditions and structures, all within the limits initially set out by Eielsen and Dietrichson, but also creatively adapting its Norwegian traditions to its North American context. The vitality of this Norwegian-American Lutheranism often verged into conflict, but it also creatively developed a tradition of “Churchly Pietism,” between the two extremes. This Lutheranism drew from both positions in a creative manner that was appropriate to the immigrants and their children, and which was also definitely American.

It was also very successful. By 1960 Norwegian-American Lutherans numbered more than one million members. Not bad, considering its somewhat rocky beginnings!

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

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