11 questions with Ottesen Museum Director Rebecca DeGarmeaux
When did you ﬁrst become interested in church history? What piqued your interest?
My interest in church History began when I was in grade school, probably around 5th grade. Our church had a good library that had a short biography of Martin Luther. I read it because I thought it would be a good idea to learn something about the man that our church was named after. I also had Reformation History and Church History classes in grade school and high school.
You work in the ELS’ Ottesen Museum. Can you tell us about the museum and your work there?
My work in the Museum is quite varied. Everything revolves around teaching the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and its congregations. In order to do that, I give tours of the Museum, give presentations about Synod history, and work with pastors and congregations to help them preserve their own history. I also put together displays about specific topics in Synod history. Every year there is a Christmas Open House that I spend a lot of time planning. All of these things take a lot of research to get right. The other thing I’m always working on is cataloging and properly storing the Museum’s artifacts so that future generations will also be able to learn from them.
Why is it important that the ELS has a museum?
Learning from a book and with pictures can work really well, but being able to see objects in person reinforces that knowledge. I see the Museum as a teaching tool, not just for young people, but for everyone who visits it.
In your view, have there been things in our history that speak to issues facing our church today?
100 years ago the pressure was very strong to join a new church that tried to unite all Norwegian-American Lutherans. But there was no Biblical basis for that merger. The ELS exists today because a few pastors and congregations were determined to remain faithful to God’s Word. As a result of that, they stayed out of that merger and formed what we now call the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Later, our Synod realized that it had to break its formal ties with the Missouri Synod when that church body started to take positions that were against the Bible. Today we have to watch for false doctrines all around us. Learning that the church has had to do this in the past as well can be encouraging when we have to face them in our current lives.
History seems to be something that is especially important for pastors and leaders to know, but is it just for them? Why is history important for even the youth of our Synod to know?
I think that it’s important for everyone to learn church history because church doctrine and church history are so closely connected. Think of it this way: God gave us the Bible as a history book, not a list of doctrines. Learning church history shows us about the struggles the church has had in the past and how God has graciously preserved the church through those struggles. This knowledge is especially important for young people. They are the future of the church! If they start learning at an early age, hopefully they will continue to grow in their faith and understanding. Then they can be strong leaders in their homes and congregations.
Youth sometimes struggle to ﬁnd their identity during their high school years. Baptism ultimately gives someone their identity in Christ, but can history help shape their identity?
I think church history shapes our identity in a similar way to how family history shapes our identity. Just like family history shows us where we come from genetically, church history shows us where we come from doctrinally. It shows us that we believe the same things that Bjug Harstad, U. V. Koren, Luther, Augustine, St. Paul taught, and it ultimately leads us back to Christ himself. What a blessing that legacy is for us.
Can you give an example of something in our history that may be especially meaningful to our youth?
Whether they attend the school or not, the purchase of Bethany College in 1927 affects almost everyone in the Synod. For a Church body of our size, the school has helped to give us an identity that shows the world our doctrinal and educational priorities. Even for those of our youth who do not attend Bethany, it shows them that they and their education are important to the Synod.
What can our youth do to learn church history?
If their congregation has a church library, they can see if there are church history books in it. Their pastor may have some books as well. Over the years, the ELS has published several books documenting Synod history. One in particular, Growing in His Mercy, is a workbook created specifically for Confirmation and Youth Group classes. They can also ask their pastor to teach them about their own congregation’s history. Even though we all belong to the same church body, the history of each congregation is unique and significant in its own right.
What are ways individuals can help preserve history in their local congregations?
They can create a congregational history committee. These groups help to collect and protect historically significant items from the church’s history. Some of them even create and maintain historical displays with some of the congregation’s artifacts.
What’s the oddest artifact you’ve come across in any congregation or in the Ottesen museum?
There is a bag in the Museum’s storage room that contains a group of bones from an animal. I’m not sure what animal it was or why the bones are in the Museum collection.
What would be one thing for succeeding generations to know about our current era/generation? (What from our time would make it in the history books/museum?)
I think that the current talks that Synod officials are having with the Church of the Lutheran Confession and the informal meetings with the Missouri Synod are important. The breakup of the Synodical Conference 60 years ago was hard on all of Confessional Lutheranism and left bad feelings in many places. We don’t know where these talks will lead, but it’s significant that we are at a point where we can discuss the things that unite us as well as those issues which may still keep us apart.
11 questions with Ottesen Museum Director Rebecca DeGarmeaux