Our Connection with the Past
The Evangelical Lutheran Synod had its beginnings among Norwegian immigrants to the United States of America in the nineteenth century. One of these early immigrant pastors held a memorable service outdoors under an oak tree in September of 1844 at a place with the Indian name of Koshkonong, near Madison, Wisconsin. Soon afterward, two congregations bearing that name were organized in the area. In 1853 a church body composed of several congregations was organized at nearby Luther Valley Church under the official name of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For a long time this church body was to be commonly known as the Norwegian Synod.
In the late 1800s a doctrinal controversy rocked the Norwegian Synod. One-third of the churches and pastors left the synod at that time. The issue involved the teaching on election or predestination. Scripture clearly teaches that every aspect of a sinner’s salvation depends on God’s grace alone and not on any merit in sinful man. Some theologians taught erroneously that God’s election of souls to heaven was “in view of faith,” meaning he chose certain people for heaven because he foresaw from eternity a persevering quality of faith in them. But that teaching destroys grace alone as the sole reason for any sinner having salvation. We are saved entirely by God’s grace and mercy on account of Christ.
In 1917 a merger of Norwegian church bodies occurred. The old Norwegian Synod, overlooking what had happened in the 1880s, unfortunately went along into the merger with churches who had opposed the scriptural position on predestination. The merger came about on the basis of a 1912 compromise document known as “Opgjør” or the “Madison Settlement.”
Our Synod’s Formation
A remnant of thirteen pastors and their congregations refused to enter the 1917 merger. They could not in good conscience yield to a compromise that would allow any quality or effort on man’s part in the plan of salvation (e.g., concerning the teachings on election and conversion). At Lime Creek Lutheran, rural Lake Mills, Iowa, the new synod was organized. More precisely, this was a reorganization. The new synod was contending for the same confessional doctrine of the old synod of 1853. The date is given as June 17, 1918. The name taken was “The Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church.” In 1957 the name was changed to Evangelical Lutheran Synod, reflecting a broader membership and an emphasis on gospel outreach. The Rev. Bjug Harstad, the first president of the newly formed church body, encouraged the small gathering. He referenced words from the book of Jeremiah: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls” (6:16).
Our Institutions of Higher Learning
Since the synod from its beginning already was in fellowship with the Wisconsin Synod and the Missouri Synod, the training of pastors and teachers in its early years occurred through these sister synods. In particular, the pastors often were educated at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1926 a women’s college in Mankato, Minnesota, became available for purchase. The price was $90,000, and carried with it an immediate payment of $20,000. An association was formed first to acquire the college. At the 1927 convention the synod took over the college, following a 33–21 vote by the delegates. A notable remark was made at the time: “Once we have discovered that the school is a necessity, we will discover we can afford it. We can do a lot of things that we think are absolutely necessary once they have become a matter of life or death to us.” For many decades Bethany Lutheran College existed as a co-ed junior college. In 1996 the synod decided to make the college a four-year baccalaureate-degree granting institution.
The ELS opened a seminary on the college campus in 1946. The Rev. Norman Madson served as the first dean of the seminary, and professors often taught both in the college and the seminary—a practice still in existence today. Over the years, two separate and newly erected buildings (one in 1978; the other in 1997) have housed the seminary. Major assistance from the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation enabled the construction of the current facility without the synod incurring any debt. The location of the seminary is at 6 Browns Court, Mankato, Minnesota.
Our Efforts to Spread the Gospel of Christ
Mission work always has received much attention in our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Already at the 1918 convention a Home Mission Board was established. Many of the early home missions were established congregations receiving needed assistance. In the 1980s the focus for home missions shifted from offering aid to established churches to that of supporting exploratory missions.
In 1968, following years of cooperating jointly in world missions through the Synodical Conference, the ELS decided to establish its own foreign mission in Lima, Peru. Besides the ongoing work in Peru, including work along the Amazon River, our synod conducts mission work in Chile, India, and South Korea. In 2009, through the acquisition of Thoughts of Faith, Inc., a church-related organization founded in 1979, the synod helps promote gospel outreach in Latvia and in the Czech Republic (Czechia), and also supports the Gift of Life and Medical Clinic on Wheels projects in Ukraine.
The Synodical Conference came to a close in 1963, after the ELS (in 1955) and the WELS separated from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod over the doctrine of church fellowship. In 1993 efforts by the ELS and the WELS to form a new international organization of fellowship came to fruition in what today is known as the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC). The CELC is comprised of a membership or associate membership of thirty two churches serving about 500,000 souls.
1825 Beginning of Norwegian emigration to America.
1844 The Rev. J.W.C. Dietrichson preaches at Koshkonong, Wisconsin.
1851 First meeting regarding synodical organization.
1853 Organization of the Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
1861 Luther College established.
1872 The synod takes part in organizing the Synodical Conference.
1876 Luther Seminary established.
1912 Madison Settlement (Opgjør) written.
1917 Temporary organization of those who for conscience’ sake could not join the merger of Norwegian Lutheran church bodies.
1918 The synod reorganizes at Lime Creek, Iowa as The Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church.
1920 The synod is received into membership in the Synodical Conference.
1927 Bethany Lutheran College comes under the ownership and operation of the synod.
1946 First foreign missionary sent to Synodical Conference mission field in Nigeria.
1946 Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary begins classes.
1957 The synod’s name is changed to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
1963 The synod withdraws from the Synodical Conference.
1968 Mission field established in Peru
1993 Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference organized.
2001 Bethany Lutheran College graduates first students with baccalaureate degrees.