Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Enriching the mix

Michael L. Sherer

Denmark is a small country and, compared to other immigrant waves, Lutherans arriving in the U.S. from Denmark were a small group. But, like salt and spice that improve the flavor of already-good food, the Danes in America had a salutary effect.

There were lots of Lutherans, European immigrants all, who were already in North America when the Danes began arriving. Their big migration came in the late 1800s. Between 1851-1860, 3,749 Danish Lutherans arrived in North America. In the following decade there were 17,094 who came; in the next ten years, 31,771; then came the flood, between 1881-1890, when 88,132 arrived.

Where did they go? Mostly to the upper Midwest — Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota. And when they came, the Danes brought along two kinds of baggage — cultural and theological.

Like other ethnic Lutheran groups, they were keen to preserve Danish culture as best they could. That led, among other things, to the establishment of a half-dozen very successful “Folk Schools.” Lutheran sensibilities and Danish culture thrived in these residential, non-academic establishments, founded at Grant, Michigan; Elk Horn, Iowa; Nysted, Nebraska; Solvang, California; Dalum, Alberta, Canada; and Tyler, Minnesota.

None of the Folk Schools survive, although the school at Elk Horn, Iowa, contributed to the founding and growth of Dana College, Blair, Nebraska. The demise of the Folk Schools was due to the same dynamic that led to the decline of Norwegian Lutheran academies (once with 50 in Wisconsin alone) and German Lutheran parochial schools in predecessor ELCA church bodies. As Lutheran ethnic groups Americanized themselves, they stopped trying to look like carbon copies of their European forebears.

Happy and Holy eventually made whole

The theological energies that came to North America with the Danes were of two types, and accounted for an early split in the Danish ranks. Some immigrants were enamored of the influence of the great Danish churchman N.S. Grundtvig, a powerful preacher, prolific hymn-writer and, in many ways, a highly unconventional theologian. (He seemed to attribute more authority to the Apostles Creed than to Holy Scripture, which he said was not “the Word of God” but, instead, “contained” God’s Word.)

Like other ethnic Lutheran groups, the Danes were keen to preserve Danish culture as best they could.

Grundtvig’s theology caused consternation for a great many Danes, who identified themselves with the “Inner Mission” movement and were, consequently, more inclined to embrace the impulses of Pietism. This European-born emphasis stressed spiritual change and tended to identify true religion with outward behavior, including purity of life. Pietism sometimes led to revival meetings, the encouraging of conversion experiences, staying off the dance floor, and a lifestyle that demonstrated godly living.

Two groups that championed Inner Mission sensibilities combined to create what became the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC). At Blair, Nebraska, they founded Trinity Lutheran Seminary and, a few years later on the same campus, Dana College. This branch of the American Danish Church came to be known as the “Holy Danes” (for obvious reasons). While Pietism accomplished impressive things among Lutherans both in Europe and North America, it demanded a rigorous lifestyle that for some in the Danish Church was the wrong approach. (Though one historian argues that all U.S. Lutheran groups were founded by pietists.)

Those Danes within the Grundtvigian movement organized themselves into what came to be known as the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC). Their center became Des Moines, Iowa, where both their seminary and Grand View College (now Grand View University) were founded. By choice or by accident, they came to be known as the “Happy Danes.”

The UELC, anticipating a coming merger with Germans and Norwegians into the “new” American Lutheran Church (ALC), closed Trinity Seminary in the late 1950s and sent its faculty, students, and library to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1960, the ALC was created through a merger of the (Norwegian) Evangelical Lutheran Church, the (German) American Lutheran Church, and the UELC. It should be noted that the merger actually began at the prompting of UELC leaders.

A few years later, the AELC merged with the (German) United Lutheran Church in America and the (Swedish) Augustana Synod. Grand View Seminary was merged with Maywood Seminary, as was Augustana Seminary, to create the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. The combining denominations took the name Lutheran Church in America (LCA). In 1988, when The ALC and the LCA ( along with the more recent Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, a breakaway group from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) became the ELCA, the two Danish Lutheran bodies finally ended up in the same church family.

A sad footnote to the Danish Lutheran story in this country is that in the middle of the first decade of this new century, Dana College, seriously short of funds, was forced to close its doors, leaving Grand View University as the institutional reminder of the Danish Lutheran presence in North America. However, in April 2013, another ELCA school, Midland University, announced its intention to procure the former Dana campus.

Michael L. Sherer is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. A retired Lutheran pastor, he lives in Waverly, Iowa.

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