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Proclaim the Wonders God Has Done: His Enduring Grace

Rev. Peter J. Faugstad

2018 Synod Convention Essay

Who We Are

Over the prairie, making toward the settlement by Spring Creek, rattled an old, dilapidated cart, antique of build, in a state so wretched that it seemed ready to fall apart at the next tussock it might encounter.

The nag in front was in perfect keeping with the vehicle: long-shanked and rawboned, and so lean and lanky that one could have counted every rib. Originally its colour might have been a light grey, but now it was no longer definable: dirty grey, rusty, yellowish-brown—it might have been any one of these, or just as accurately something else. Only a few miserable hanks were left of what probably had once been a flowing mane. Above the shoulders rose a big hump; when the animal stretched out its neck, one was reminded of a dromedary. Undoubtedly it had once been an authentic horse, but that must have been a long time ago.1

This is how O. E. Rölvaag in his epic novel, Giants in the Earth, described the horse and wagon of a traveling preacher. It is a picture not far removed from what the Norwegian Synod looked like at its founding in the mid-1800s.

A New Frontier

Norwegian Vikings were in North America long before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But the first band of Norwegians to make the trip across the Atlantic in modern times was a group that sailed from Stavanger to New York in 1825. The letters sent by these brave settlers to family members in Norway were published and widely distributed. The letters told of good land for the taking and of personal freedoms unavailable in Norway. More and more decided to chance the long trip to this promising place, and by 1850, nearly 18,000 Norwegians had arrived.2 Clergymen trained for service in the State Church of Norway were slower to make the trip. This was at least partly because the Church did not approve of those who were willing to leave behind congregation and family to seek their fortunes in a wild land.3 It was a valid concern that the emigrants themselves came to understand, particularly when babies were born, young adults wished to be married, and the deceased were laid to rest.

Into this void of spiritual care stepped various itinerant preachers with questionable qualifications. Some were pietistic laymen, who had a strong aversion to the Church of Norway. Others concealed their true credentials and coaxed a number of Norwegian Lutherans into Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, and even Mormon churches.4 Claus Lauritz Clausen was the first Lutheran man to serve the settlers in line with the practices of the Church of Norway. He came to America in 1843 to become a schoolteacher, but hardly a month after reaching the Muskego settlement in Wisconsin, the settlers called him to be their pastor. He was examined and ordained by a nearby German Lutheran pastor and took up the charge.

Not long afterward, the first seminary-trained pastor from Norway, J.W.C. Dietrichson, traveled to America to see what could be done to organize the Norwegian people into congregations. He consulted with Clausen and soon helped establish congregations in Koshkonong and the surrounding area. For the next few years, he and Clausen were the only pastors available to serve these flocks. Finally, help began to arrive. H. A. Stub came in 1848, and A. C. Preus replaced Dietrichson in 1850. Three more pastors came in 1851: H.A. Preus, G.F. Dietrichson, and N. Brandt. J.A. Ottesen arrived in 1852 and U.V. Koren a year later, among others.5

These men came to work, but they could not have imagined the amount of work waiting for them. A pastor in Norway might receive a call to serve two or three congregations in America. But upon arrival, he would discover that those needing spiritual care were not so localized. This is how the Rev. Koren describes his experience:

In my letter of call, the congregations were gathered under only three names: ‘Little Iowa,’ ‘Painted Creek,’ and ‘Turkey River.’ In reality the call comprised the following territory, designated by the present congregations: Decorah, Madison, Lincoln, Calmar, Stavanger, Washington Prairie, Glenwood, West Paint Creek, East Paint Creek, Fægre, Lansing, Norway, Marion, and Clermont. All this comprised my regular parish, and a little later Little Turkey River [Saude] and Crane Creek [Jerico] were added to this.6

According to his journal of pastoral acts, Koren conducted at least 234 baptisms from his arrival at Christmas 1853 through the end of 1854, along with a good number of churchings of mothers, weddings, and grave consecrations.7 He commented some fifty years later that the same area he served was now covered by ten pastors. The Rev. B.J. Muus served twenty-eight congregations in Minnesota at one time, and the Rev. Thomas Johnson covered an area of seventeen counties.8 The Rev. Brandt also traveled a great distance, gathering congregations in parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.9

At this time, roads were poor and travel was difficult. The Rev. Ottesen’s extensive travels from congregation to congregation caused damage to the nerves in his legs, which afflicted him throughout his life.10 Koren wrote about staying in the upstairs of parishioners’ cabins where rain and snow might seep in or stars could be seen through the cracks.11 Besides these physical discomforts, the pastors of the Norwegian Synod faced stiff opposition from the pietists (known as “Haugeans”) and others. These heterodox opponents sowed discord among the Norwegian settlers, particularly criticizing the clerical attire and liturgical practice of the Norwegian Synod pastors. They called them “dead formalists without any spirituality.”12 Would the Lutheran pastors be stretched too thin—seemingly unequal to the work—like Rölvaag’s gaunt and haggard horse?

Growth and Controversy

Early on, the Norwegian pastors recognized the need to coordinate their efforts among the settlers. In 1849, J.W.C. Dietrichson prepared a draft for a synodical constitution, and a handful of congregations adopted a constitution in 1851. But when some newly-arrived pastors pointed out the “Grundtvigian error” in one of its paragraphs, that organization was dissolved. After receiving input from interested pastors and congregations, “The Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” was formed in October of 1853.13 This church body is best known by its moniker, the “Norwegian Synod,” and October 2018 marks its 165th anniversary.

At the time of its formation, six pastors and thirty-eight congregations were affiliated with the new synod, an estimate of 11,400 people.14 Due to dedicated home mission work and the continued migration of Norwegians to America, those numbers steadily grew. Pastors were not arriving from Norway quickly enough to fill all the pastoral vacancies. Provision had to be made for the training of men on American soil to carry out this work. In 1855, Pastors Ottesen and Brandt were appointed to visit three seminaries in the Midwest located in St. Louis (Missouri Synod), Columbus (Ohio Synod), and Buffalo (Buffalo Synod). They recommended without reservation that arrangements for seminary training be made with the Missouri Synod. With the Missouri Synod’s approval, the Rev. Laur. Larsen was called as the Norwegian professor at the St. Louis Seminary.15

Larsen served in this capacity for just two years, from 1859–1861. The reason for his short tenure is found in the sad conflict which erupted at this time between the northern and southern states. The American Civil War began in 1861, and the state of Missouri was caught in the middle. Voices inside and outside the Norwegian Synod wanted it to take a definite stand against slavery in America, but the Synod’s leaders were wary of crossing the line from doctrine to politics. The pastors and congregations of the Synod adopted a series of statements in the 1860s, which called slavery an evil but not necessarily a sin.16 The Synod determined to go as far as Scripture did, which was not as far as the Abolitionists of the North or the Secessionists of the South would have liked.17 Koren later stated that he and his friends “were all anti-slavery men,” and that “none of our opponents were more resolute enemies of slavery nor more happy about its abolition than we were.”18 The Norwegian-Americans in general overwhelmingly took the side of the North, and many Norwegian-American men served with distinction on the Union side.19

Other controversies arose in the 1860s and 1870s, most often provoked by opponents of the Norwegian Synod. Doctrinal statements were adopted to answer such questions as the appropriateness of lay preaching (1862), whether Sunday in particular is the new Sabbath (1863), and whether the power of absolution is found inside or outside the sinner (1874).20 In each case, the right understanding depended on a proper distinction between Law and Gospel. This biblical and Lutheran approach was vigorously defended and applied by the Norwegian Synod theologians, just as it was by the leaders of the Missouri Synod.

One of the men who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Norwegian Synod on these issues was the Rev. F.A. Schmidt. He was born in Germany and immigrated to America where he took up studies at the Missouri Synod’s college and seminary. In order to assist with the proofreading of the Norwegian Synod’s Kirketidende (Church Times), Schmidt learned Norwegian while in seminary and also gained proficiency in English. Upon his ordination in 1857, he served congregations in New York and Baltimore. At C.F.W. Walther’s recommendation, H.A. Preus visited him in Baltimore and invited him to consider teaching at the recently opened Luther College.21 This is how the twenty-four-year-old Schmidt began his affiliation with the Norwegian Synod in 1861. He taught at Luther College for nine years until he was called to be the Norwegian Synod’s professor of theology at the St. Louis Seminary in 1872, a post that had been vacant since Laur. Larsen’s departure at the beginning of the Civil War.22 The Rev. Bjug Harstad described the high regard his students had for him:

F.A. Schmidt came as the professor of the Norwegians from Decorah to St. Louis as theological teacher. We Norwegian students who were there then had had him as a teacher in Decorah and thought a great deal of him. In St. Louis he became co-editor of the theological journal Lehre und Wehre [Doctrine and Defense]. In it he provided clear and powerful testimony against the synergistic doctrine about freedom in election, self-determination, the position of election, the middle-state, and similar things which the Iowa Synod defended.23

The same year he was called to St. Louis, Prof. Schmidt was instrumental in organizing the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference, which included the Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Norwegian, Ohio, and Wisconsin Synods. His influence on the American Lutheran scene was growing. In 1876, the Norwegian Synod realized its goal of having its own seminary when Luther Seminary was opened in Madison. Schmidt was called to teach there, along with Prof. O.E. Asperheim who had arrived in America four years earlier. This arrangement lasted just two years. Asperheim began voicing objections about the Missouri Synod, particularly regarding its doctrine of election or predestination. Schmidt opposed these accusations and called for action to be taken against his colleague. Asperheim resigned.24 The Rev. H.G. Stub was called to replace him, and the Rev. Johannes Ylvisaker joined the faculty a year later in 1879.25

The dissension between the two professors of Luther Seminary had been resolved, but Schmidt was far from content. In the late spring of 1878, he was passed over for the English chair of theology at the St. Louis Seminary, a position he had his eye on. Seemingly embittered by this,26 Schmidt began to level charges against his mentor Walther that he was promoting a Calvinistic understanding of the doctrine of election. These charges stemmed from an essay presented by Walther to the Western District of the Missouri Synod in 1877. At the outset of this essay, Walther acknowledged the difficulty of the doctrine. He explained that the question of why some are saved and not others cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of human reason:

It is not to be denied that in our teachings much occurs which is impossible to reconcile. Scripture teaches that whoever is chosen to eternal life is not chosen for having accomplished anything for which God had to or wanted to elect him, but that God had first removed the resistance in him. And it also teaches that those who are rejected are cast away because of their own sin and guilt. Who can reconcile this?… Scripture teaches that God loved all men and desired their salvation. And yet we discover that entire nations did not have God’s Word for hundreds of years, and therefore were unable to reject it. For centuries they sat in darkness and the shadow of death….

The false church indeed blasphemes God and says: “God does not desire to save all men; hence He gives one the false word, the other the true one; the one godless parents, the other pious; the [one] false teachers, the other believing.” Again others say: “It is because certain ones are better than others.” Or they may say: “The heathen did not receive the Word because God foreknew that they would not believe.” Or: “They are saved because they did receive the word.” Yes, one wants to resolve it by teaching that even after death there is a possibility for conversion. These are nothing less than human speculation. Our Lutheran church is not in agreement with this—it does not mingle human speculation with the word of God.27

Walther’s essay was approved by the representatives gathered for the Synodical Conference convention in 1878. But Schmidt did not approve. He was particularly offended that Walther called the intuitu fidei (“in view of faith”) approach to the doctrine of election unclear at best. Walther acknowledged that the great dogmatician Johann Gerhard had spoken of election “in view of faith.” But this must be explained carefully. If it is taken to mean that God elects a person to eternal salvation because he believes, this is incorrect. It gives the impression that there is something within a person that causes the Lord to choose him. On the other hand, said Walther, “If one thereby wishes to say that God has chosen no one who does not come to faith, this is correct. Then it is a description of the elect, except that faith is not the cause of election. The cause is Christ alone.”28

In January of 1879, Schmidt informed Walther that he considered Walther’s teaching on this point to be in error. The men agreed to discuss the matter together privately, but Schmidt broke this agreement when Walther continued his presentation on election at the Western District convention in 1879. Schmidt went public with his charges against Walther in a big way. In January of 1880, he mailed his journal Altes und Neues (Old Things and New) to every pastor and teacher belonging to the member churches of the Synodical Conference. The charge was clearly stated: “In the publications of the Missouri Synod, a doctrine concerning election had been set forth and defended, which to our knowledge, is an anti-Scriptural and anti-Confessional Calvinizing error. In recent reports of the Western District (1877 and 1879) this erroneous doctrine has fully ripened.”29 Schmidt expected that his charges would gain traction among his fellow Germans, but both the Missouri Synod and the church bodies which would later form the Wisconsin Synod refused to go along with him.30 Only the Ohio Synod lent a sympathetic ear to his accusations.

What would the Norwegian Synod do? Prof. Schmidt was a highly-regarded teacher in the Synod, but the Norwegian Synod’s bond with the Missouri Synod was strong also. Schmidt intensified his attacks both in print and in his seminary classroom. The seminary students began to propagate Schmidt’s criticisms and arguments in the congregations in and around Madison. Schmidt’s two seminary colleagues, Ylvisaker and Stub, attempted to quell the controversy, but Schmidt would not be quieted. The pastors of the Norwegian Synod met to discuss this doctrine twice in 1880, and early the next year Koren presented an essay at a conference entitled, “Can and Ought a Christian Be Certain of His Salvation?” The debate raged on. In order to deal with the matter while avoiding the appearance of undue outside influence, the Norwegian Synod removed itself from the Synodical Conference in 1882. The Ohio Synod had departed a year earlier, having taken Schmidt’s side against Walther and the Missouri Synod. In 1883, the Ohio Synod’s Capital University bestowed an honorary doctorate on Schmidt. It had done the same for Walther just five years earlier in 1878. This is how quickly fraternal relations in the Synodical Conference had deteriorated.31

Besides branding Walther and his Norwegian Synod supporters as Calvinists, Schmidt also appealed to the Catechism explanation produced by the Danish bishop Erik Pontoppidan (1698–1764).32 This Catechism was widely-used among Norwegian Lutherans, and it contained the teaching that God elects sinners for salvation “in view of faith.” While this phrase can be properly understood, Schmidt understood it improperly. He attributed conversion in some part to a person’s own disposition, which makes salvation not entirely by God’s grace. In 1882 he declared: “When only one of two ungodly men is converted, there must have been a difference in their resistance; for, if not, they would both have been converted.”33 This idea fits with human reason, but not with the teaching of the Bible.

Another issue complicated the Norwegian Synod response to the “Schmidtians.”34 The part of the Lutheran Book of Concord of 1580 which most thoroughly presents the doctrine of election had not been officially adopted by either the Church of Norway or the Norwegian Synod. Both the 1853 constitution and the 1868 revision listed as its confessional writings: the Apostolic Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530, and Luther’s Small Catechism.35 Missing were the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles with the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord. Article XI of the Formula addresses “God’s Eternal Foreknowledge and Election.” If this part of the Book of Concord had never been subscribed to by the Norwegian Synod, how much weight should it be given in the current debate?36 But even though it had not been officially adopted by the Norwegians, neither had it ever been rejected.

When the Synodical Conference was established, the Norwegian Synod (including Schmidt) had no problem subscribing to its confessional statement: “The Synodical Conference acknowledges the canonical writings of the Old and New Testaments as God’s Word, and the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of 1580, called the ‘Concordia,’ as her own.”37 Schmidt claimed that his teaching was in line with Article XI of the Formula of Concord, but he had a hard time proving it. Koren included frequent citations of the Formula in his 1884 doctrinal statement, “En Redegjørelse” (“An Accounting”). When it was presented in the fall of that year, eighty-seven pastors and professors signed on to it, and twenty more added their signatures soon after.38 The line between the official teaching of the Norwegian Synod and the teaching of Schmidt and his adherents had been clearly drawn.

An Accounting

Koren outlined the reason for “An Accounting” in its introduction:

It is well known to you that we now for several years have been attacked and accused of teaching false doctrines regarding election or the election of grace. Our teaching has been called Calvinistic. The teachings with which we have been charged are of two kinds: some, which we have never believed and never taught; these we have publicly repudiated, but we have continued to be accused of them anyway; others, which we actually have taught, because they are expressly taught in God’s Word and confessed by the Lutheran Church in its public confessions. Therefore we cling to these in spite of all attacks. We do not accept as our own a single doctrine which is not clearly based on the Word of God and which cannot be shown to be in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church.

We owe our congregations an accounting for what we teach and confess; and although we dare to believe that our hearers both know our testimony and will judge it by what they hear of us and not by what others say, we have still considered it our duty to present to you now this our common complete accounting, in which we hope no essential question that concerns the disputed doctrines has been unanswered.39

In the statement, Koren clearly rejected the Calvinist teachings of limited atonement (Jesus redeemed only those who would believe), irresistible grace (the Gospel cannot be rejected), and perseverance in the faith (the converted cannot fall away). He also rejected the synergistic understanding that the human will plays a role in conversion. He wrote, “Being dead in sin, the natural man cannot himself change this condition of his heart nor cooperate, either little or much, in effecting this change.”40 He further explained what the will can and cannot do. “The natural man has freedom and power outwardly to hear and consider the Word of God or not to do this, but man cannot cooperate at all in bringing about any inner change in his heart for good.”41 He also addressed “the newer synergistic doctrine,” that before conversion God’s Word frees the will so that it can then choose salvation. Said Koren, “It is the teaching of Scripture that the man who does not become converted, has himself to thank for it; but it does not teach that about those who are converted.”42 God does not free the will to make its own decision; He changes the will by the power of His Word, so that the sinner is brought to repentance and faith. “[I]t is God alone who effects this that a man both wants to do this [repent] and does it.”43

While he wrote in a direct way, Koren did not engage in name calling or take any cheap shots. He was careful to go no further than Scripture, and he was also sensitive toward those who lacked a full understanding of the doctrine. “The doctrine of election is not a chief article in the teaching of God’s Word,” he stated; “for a man can be a believing Christian and be saved, although he has not attained to a knowledge of this doctrine and appropriated it.”44 At the same time, “The doctrine of election stands in close connection with the fundamental chief articles of the Christian faith, such as: That fallen man is completely corrupted and dead in sin; that God desires the salvation of all men; that salvation is by the grace of God alone; and that it therefore is gained through faith alone without the works of the law.”45 As tempting as it is, reason must not be allowed to determine why some are saved and not others, any more than reason can solve the mystery of the Holy Trinity.46

Koren even allowed for doctrinal expressions that he did not personally prefer:

Therefore we acknowledge, not indeed as a complete definition of the concept of election, but still as a correct presentation of the last part of it, the answer given to Q. 548 of Pontoppidan’s Sandhed til Gudfrygtighed [Truth unto Godliness], which reads: “That God has appointed all those to eternal life whom he from eternity has seen would accept the grace proffered them, believe in Jesus and persevere in this faith unto the end. Rom. 8,28–30.” II Tim. 1,13.47

God certainly knew from eternity who would be brought to faith through the means of grace and who would not. If Pontoppidan’s point was that no one could be considered elect unless he was a believer “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10),48 Koren agreed. But the cart must not be put before the horse. Election does not begin with something in mankind; it begins with God’s gracious disposition and purpose in Christ. Romans 8:29–30 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The Rev. Theodore Aaberg summed up the difference between the two sides: “The Synod’s pastors put faith after election, bestowed upon the individual as a result of his election. Prof. Schmidt put faith before election, making it the cause of the individual’s election.”49

The only time Koren quoted Schmidt directly in “An Accounting” is when he wrote, “We reject the synergistic doctrine that the election in Christ has not taken place in accordance with a free purpose of grace by God, and that ‘salvation in a certain sense does not depend on God alone.’ Eph. 1,11.”50 Schmidt wasted no time in firing back, “I believe and teach now as before, that it is not synergistic error, but a clear teaching of God’s Word and our Lutheran Confession, that ‘salvation in a certain sense does not depend on God alone.’”51 In the ensuing years, Schmidt’s doctrinal error became more pronounced. He plainly stated: “All have their free, personal, independent choice between the two usable possibilities: either to follow the drawing of grace or to resist it.”52 But if salvation depends in some way on sinners, then they can never be certain of salvation. Then they will never know if they have prepared themselves in the right way, or if they have given God their whole heart.

Clearly this was no mere power struggle among men. It was not “splitting hairs” or “much ado about nothing.” The Norwegian Synod leaders including Koren, Preus, and Ottesen were convinced that the Gospel itself was at stake. Schmidt for his part operated as though he were the defender of God’s truth. What was clear is that Schmidt’s beliefs had changed from what they were before. A 1903 pamphlet issued by the Church Council of the Norwegian Synod recounts the damage done by Schmidt:

Dr. Schmidt knew us. He knew that we taught the old Lutheran doctrine. He was himself a zealous champion of it. He preferred, indeed the form of doctrine “intuitu fidei” (i.e. election in view of faith) which he stated was used also by several in the Missouri Synod; but otherwise he taught in everything like the rest of us, especially with regard to man’s natural spiritual impotence and God’s exclusive activity and unmerited work of grace in conversion….

Without the slightest justification, he attacked us because we would not take part in his indefensible attacks on the Missourians. Although we had not changed our doctrine in a single point, he “rang the alarm bell,” warning our people that we wanted to introduce a new teaching…. The pastors of the Synod did what they could to keep this unnecessary controversy from being brought into our congregations and confusing them. But he “had to sound the alarm” to wake the people up. No wonder then that the people “woke up”! Had we not always praised Prof. Schmidt? Had we not said he was our ablest theologian? “Surely it could not be without reason that he made all this noise!” And he gained support. As was to be expected in a body as large as ours, there were even before the controversy some pastors and laymen who were disaffected for various reasons. Some of these and a number of others followed him. But his greatest following he gained among the many unstable students who were under his influence (at the Theological Seminary) day after day and year after year.

They did not understand that Dr. Schmidt departed steadily farther away from his earlier teachings and began to sponsor an ever more definitely synergistic teaching, such as he himself had rejected before, even when it appeared in a finer form. His teaching was made more and more to harmonize with reason, and the young men were easily influenced.53

The controversy picked up steam with each passing year of the 1880s. In 1883, Schmidt succeeded in turning Norwegian Synod President H.A. Preus’ own congregation against him. On Good Friday of that year, members of the congregation physically picked up and carried him and his son Christian out of the church.54 Ottesen’s congregation was divided as were so many others. Koren was retained in his congregation only by a narrow vote of confidence.55 This trouble was felt throughout the Norwegian Synod. Not just congregations but families were torn apart. Often a break off group would construct a church building in sight of the former one. It happened on more than one occasion that bodies were exhumed from one cemetery and reburied in another. The Rev. G.O. Lillegard details the bitter effects of the controversy:

[I]n the Norwegian Synod Dr. Schmidt was able to set brother against brother until many a Norwegian community was literally torn to pieces by the controversy, with one party locking the church doors against the other, proceeding even to violence at times, persecuting and deposing faithful pastors, suing one another in the courts of the land, finally settling down to somewhat peaceful relations only when the church had been formally divided into two opposing groups and the quarrel no longer had to be carried on under the same roof.56

By the mid-1880s, the Norwegian Synod had reached its breaking point. Those in agreement with Schmidt’s position, who called themselves the “Anti-Missourians,” opened a new seminary in 1886 at St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota. The following year, the Norwegian Synod delegates to the convention censured them for this action by a vote of 230 to 98. The Anti-Missourians would not change course. In 1887, they withdrew from the Norwegian Synod and officially formed the “Anti-Missourian Brotherhood.”57 Before this division, there were 193 pastors and 143,885 members in 723 congregations. After the break, 138 pastors remained along with 93,891 members in 512 congregations.58 In just three years’ time, 50,000 people had left the Norwegian Synod. The ribs were showing in this once vibrant institution.

A New Direction

The Anti-Missourian Brotherhood soon found allies for its cause. In 1890, it joined with the Norwegian Augustana Synod and the Norwegian-Danish Conference to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church, or the “United Church” for short. What brought about this union? According to Koren, “The bond of union was opposition against the Norwegian Synod.”59 By the turn of the century, the United Church boasted a membership of 242,000 people in 1,140 congregations served by 340 pastors.60 In comparison, the Norwegian Synod in 1903 numbered 140,000 people in 900 congregations served by 280 pastors.61 Two things are evident in this tally: 1) the United Church was decidedly larger than the Norwegian Synod at this time, and 2) the Norwegian Synod had in just fifteen years returned to the size it was before the split. The growth of both these synods is explained by the continued immigration of Norwegians to America through the latter half of the nineteenth century. An estimated half a million Norwegians arrived in America between 1825 and 1900.

Besides the increase of the Norwegian population in America, there were other reasons for the Norwegian Synod to be optimistic about its future. The Norwegian settlers began to see the results of their hard labor. Families were able to move out of grass huts and log cabins into more spacious accommodations. They felt less and less like strangers in a new land and more like its rightful occupants. Why shouldn’t they pursue the avenues open to them in this free country? The children and grandchildren of the original immigrants became fluent in English and probably thought of themselves less as “Norwegians” and more as “Americans.” Some stayed in farming, while others pursued employment in larger towns and cities. Some even ran for political office. One of these, J.A.O. Preus, the grandson of H.A. Preus, earned a law degree and eventually served two terms as the governor of Minnesota in the 1920s.

The pastors and congregations of the Norwegian Synod saw the changes happening around them. As the Church does in every generation, they wrestled with the question of how to meet these cultural changes without compromising doctrine and practice. The most immediate question was whether, or how quickly, a transition should be made from the use of Norwegian to the use of English. To stick with Norwegian only was to isolate the church body from members of the community who did not speak Norwegian. It might also frustrate the youth whose language preference was English. This may seem an easy choice—make the change to English! But consider what it would mean. The large collection of Norwegian books in home and professional libraries would soon be abandoned: hymnbooks, devotional books, and sermon books. Older congregation members would no longer hear God’s Word or the Catechism recited in their native tongue. Concerned Christians were right to wonder what might be lost in the leap from one language to another. Would the younger generation respect the older, or would the past be set aside in the name of progress? These were exciting times for the church which saw the fields “white for harvest” (John 4:35), but they were also dangerous times.

The Norwegian Synod recognized that even if congregations wanted to keep worshipping in Norwegian, worship resources in English should at least be available. An English book containing 130 hymns had already been published in 1879, but it was not widely used. By 1895, both the Norwegian Synod and the United Church established committees to begin work on an English hymnbook. There was even correspondence between these committees to see if some collaboration would be possible. This was understandable considering the huge task of bringing their beloved Scandinavian and German hymns into English. At the same time, these church bodies were not in doctrinal agreement, and not even a decade had passed since the bitter split in the Norwegian Synod. The committees went their separate ways with each church body publishing English hymnbooks in 1898, neither of which enjoyed long-term use.

Believing that they had more in common than not, the district conventions of the Norwegian Synod resolved in 1900 that its officials should meet with the officials of the United Church to discuss doctrinal matters. Dr. Schmidt’s involvement on the United Church side quickly brought these discussions to a close.62 But the year 1905 brought renewed optimism to give the discussions another try. In the summer of this year, Norway gained its independence from Sweden, an event celebrated around the world by people of Norwegian descent. Couldn’t Norwegian Lutherans accomplish more together than apart? The Hauge’s Synod, one of the smaller Norwegian church bodies in America, extended invitations to the Norwegian Synod and United Church to hold joint doctrinal discussions. The invitation was eagerly accepted.

Shortly after this, the Norwegian Synod launched an English-language publication called the Lutheran Herald to go along with its Norwegian-language Kirketidende.63 These journals were each published weekly but with different content. From its first issue on January 4, 1906, Jeremiah 6:16 was printed just below the heading: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” From 1909–1913, the editor of the Herald was the Rev. Theodore Graebner, a pastor trained in the Missouri Synod. His association with the Norwegian Synod began when he was asked to teach at the Synod’s “Lutheran Ladies Seminary” in Red Wing, Minnesota. He was ordained at a Norwegian Synod church in Red Wing and remained there until accepting a call to be a home missionary in the Chicago area. Graebner gained experience as an editor in Chicago by overseeing the production of the Illustrated Home Journal. His work there ended just before he was asked to edit the Herald.64 Graebner was a good pick for the job. He was a learned man and also fair in his approach. As the union cause heated up, he was determined to represent all viewpoints, both those for union and those against.

The first report about discussions on the doctrine of election among the three Norwegian Lutheran church bodies is found toward the end of 1909. Details of the discussion were not given, except that “No agreement was reached.”65 The following year, it was reported that the union negotiations had “come to a stand-still.”66 This was fine with Koren, the standing president of the Norwegian Synod. “The doctrinal discussions which have been carried on with other Norwegian Lutheran church bodies have not, it is my conviction, led to any reliable results,” he said. “If only insignificant things were at stake, then it would not be right to separate; but when the question is raised whether God alone is our Savior, then we cannot be too careful.”67 These words, however, did not receive a hearing. Being unable to attend the district conventions, Koren sent a message to be read by the vice-president, Prof. H.G. Stub. Stub was a proponent of union with the other Norwegian Lutheran church bodies, so he omitted Koren’s words of caution.68 There was nothing more for Koren to do; the Lord called his soul to heaven on December 19, 1910.

But the plans for union held by Stub and others were no sure thing. Less than a week before Koren’s death, the union committee met to continue its discussions. Stub had previously submitted theses on election for consideration, which the president of the United Church had rejected as un-Biblical and un-Lutheran. The Norwegian Synod men demanded that he point out the errors he saw. He and his colleagues offered no specifics but repeated “the ancient accusations of false, calvinizing doctrine.” Under these circumstances, the Norwegian Synod representatives felt they had no choice but to withdraw from the discussions. In the early part of 1911 they reported, “We must express our profound regrets, that a task which has so long commanded our best efforts, and for the successful consummation of which we entertained such splendid hopes, should terminate here. We had in all sincerity believed that the United Church men had approached more closely to us.”69 The Norwegian Synod representatives followed this up with a resounding, “We shall make no compromise in order to gain a false union. We shall not depart from the word of God in order to win men. We say with Luther: ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me! Amen.’”70

A number of men in the United Church were similarly displeased with the action taken by its union committee. They asked that a new union committee be formed, and their suggestion was adopted. The Norwegian Synod followed suit, which meant there was now a new set of faces around the bargaining table. The first union meeting in November 1911 yielded no change in posture. A subcommittee of two men from each church body was appointed to prepare a set of theses on election to be discussed the following February at a meeting in Madison. The two Norwegian Synod men were surprised to learn that their counterparts from the United Church accepted the teaching of Formula of Concord Article XI as correct (as they interpreted it). Conversely, the Norwegian Synod men could say that they accepted the statement in Pontoppidan’s Catechism (as they understood it).71 The grounds for compromise were established. For the Lutheran Herald subscribers who had read the reports of the previous year, it must have been shocking to stumble across this notice following the Madison meeting in 1912: “The joint committee appointed by the United Church and the Norwegian Synod Feb. 29 agreed on a set of theses dealing with the doctrine of Election.”72

The first thesis was the most controversial:

The Synod and United Church Committees on Union acknowledge unanimously and without reservation the doctrine of Predestination which is stated in the Eleventh Article of the Formula of Concord (the so-called “first form of the doctrine”) and in Pontoppidan’s Explanation (“Sandhed til Gudfrygtighed”), Question 548 (the so-called “second form of the doctrine”).73

The problem was putting both forms of the doctrine on the same level. The doctrinal statement “An Accounting” had allowed Pontoppidan’s Explanation, “not indeed as a complete definition of the concept of election, but still as a correct presentation of the last part of it.” In other words, Pontoppidan’s Explanation was acknowledged with reservation, contrary to the endorsement that seemed to be given by the union committee. The theses had other problems, such as the statement that “we reject every doctrine which either, on the one hand, would rob God of his honor as the only Savior or, on the other hand, would weaken man’s feeling of responsibility for the acceptance or rejection of God’s grace.”74 The theses adopted by the union committee were known from that point on as the Madison “Opgjør,” the Norwegian word for “Agreement” or “Settlement.”

From the perspective of the committee, nothing now stood in the way of union between the two church bodies.75 Their proposal was quickly promoted by the leading officials of the Norwegian Synod. At the 1912 Minnesota district convention, Pres. Stub “expressed his gratitude for the prospect of church union and emphasized the point that absolute harmony in all details of doctrine could not be hoped for, but should not be permitted to stand in the way of union where agreement is reached on all main points.”76 As he visited other district conventions the same year, he confidently stated about the prospect of union, “The cause is God’s and cannot be stopped.”77 Stub wanted church union in the worst way, and used every means at his disposal to bring it about. Satisfied by explanations about the content of the Agreement, the district conventions adopted the theses with little objection. About this time, a joint committee consisting of members of the Norwegian Synod, United Church, and Hauge’s Synod completed its work on a new English-language hymnbook. This book, The Lutheran Hymnary, was published in 1913 and was adopted by congregations in each of the three church bodies. If they were all using the same book of worship, why shouldn’t they officially establish church fellowship?

But as union plans progressed, there were dissenting voices. When questions were raised about the first theses of the Madison Agreement, one of the committee members explained, “The paragraph does not say, that we accept the two forms of the doctrine, but that we recognize the doctrine concerning election which is contained in the two forms.” Another committee member agreed, saying “[h]e could not accept the second form of the doctrine, since in his opinion it is found neither in Scripture nor in the confessions. But he could unreservedly recognize the doctrine which is contained in the second form.”78 Many were willing to go along with the explanations of the committee members, but it soon became clear that the committee members spoke only for themselves and not for the representatives of the United Church. Stub made sure that no contrary opinions were published in Kirketidende.

He did not have the same control over the Lutheran Herald. In the inaugural issue of 1913, Editor Graebner stated that he did not intend to weigh in personally on the union question. However, he invited any and all readers to express their opinions on the matter.79 Not surprisingly, he took some heat for this approach. A prominent pastor in the United Church identified the problem as coming from Graebner’s German background. Graebner replied with humor and some fire: “Quite probably Rev. Rygh pictures this editorial office as containing a full length portrait of Kaiser [Wilhelm], a map of Germany, a Stuttgarter grandfather pipe to our left, and a flag of Germany overhead.”80 For Graebner, it was not “German!” “Norwegian!” or “English!” that mattered, but “DOCTRINE.”81 As the weeks passed, he could not let his views about the Madison Agreement go unpublished. After reporting on a Chicago-Madison special conference at which one of the United Church authors of the Agreement was present, Graebner wrote, “One thing only was clear, if it was not clear before: that the Madison agreement is not a sufficient basis for joint church work, much less for organic union.”82

Whether Graebner would have retained his editorial position for very long is unknown, since he had collected more than a few opponents.83 In May of 1913, he tendered his resignation to Pres. Stub citing the growing demands of the Chicago congregation he served. He also remarked to his readers a change he perceived throughout America “of the racial spirit.” He thought that perhaps the Lutheran Herald would “exert a more powerful influence for good, it if were edited by a native son of the Norwegian Synod, and not an adopted one.”84 In his parting words, he mentioned having received correspondence from people on both sides of the union issue thanking him for his work with the Herald. His hope was that nothing would happen to separate the Norwegian Synod from its close connection with the Synodical Conference.85 Graebner was called the same year to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he continued to voice his concerns about the Madison Agreement in LCMS publications.86

The Rev. G.T. Lee replaced him as the editor of the Lutheran Herald.87 He was a member of the union committee which had prepared the Madison Agreement. Now the pages of the Herald were not as open as they were before. In 1914 Lee wrote, “any opposition that can be raised at present [by the minority] is entirely in vain, and any effort to frustrate the proposed union, whether it be federation or amalgamation, will meet with no success. The laity stands solidly for union, and most of the clergy; so the tide cannot be stemmed any more.”88 This did not stop members of the minority from trying to slow the steps toward church union. At various conferences and conventions, they submitted requests for clarification regarding the Madison Agreement. Their motions were defeated every time.

Meanwhile, plans for combining the three church bodies were in full swing, along with an accompanying pro-union campaign. Members of the minority who voiced public opposition to union were not treated kindly in the Herald.89 Appeals were also made for what positive things would be accomplished by the joining together of so many Norwegian Lutherans.90 Editor Lee called for no more opposition: “Let us desist from bickering and quibbling, which bring nothing but confusion. Let us stand by the agreement and not waste our energies by a new controversy on predestination. Let us think of our schools, our missions, our jubilee fund, our great work for the kingdom of God!”91 Again, “We have reached a definite conclusion on this matter of doctrinal unity and conditions of union, and on those questions discussion must come to a stop. The time for action has come. Let us be loyal to the Synod.”92 From Lee’s perspective, the matter had been settled in 1912 when the district conventions by a strong majority accepted the Madison Agreement. He took offense at the suggestion that the union committee members were intent on compromising doctrine all along. While he did not extend much charity toward those who disagreed with him, it was also true that those claiming to know the committee’s motivations and intentions did not help their own cause. The Madison Agreement should have been judged on its merits alone—not on the supposed intentions of the authors, or how anyone said it must be interpreted.

It was not wrong for members of the minority to insist that a doctrinal statement should be so clear in its theses and antitheses that differing interpretations are impossible. They were not against church union but wanted to be certain that it was based on true doctrinal unity. Some let it be known that with the unreserved acceptance of the two forms of the doctrine of election in the Agreement, they could not in good conscience join the union.93 A special synodical meeting was convened on May 18–25, 1916, to determine whether or not to proceed with the merger. Pres. Stub read the proposed constitution, and its adoption was moved. At that time, the Rev. I.B. Torrison, pastor of the largest Lutheran church in Decorah, presented a substitute motion:

Whereas a large minority in the Synod, of which the undersigned are a part, for their conscience’ sake can not enter into union before “Opgjør” is revised by leaving out paragraph 1, and the words “acceptance of” in paragraph 4, and in paragraph 3 the reference to the Book of Concord be from 1 to 20; Therefore the undersigned, who otherwise consider division unavoidable in the church, submit the following resolution: The Synod urges the United Church and the Hauge Synod to adopt these changes in “Opgjør,” and the corresponding words in the motion, and declare that the adoption of the constitution be postponed until this request is granted.94

This substitute motion was denied, and the motion for union was carried by a vote of 522 to 202. 172 pastors and 350 lay delegates voted for union; 103 pastors and 99 lay delegates voted against.95 Another attempt for reconsideration was made on the next day of business, but this motion also failed.96 In a final attempt, the minority group stated that without changes to “Opgjør,” “it could not enter the new body, but was compelled to maintain the Synod, continue its work, and safeguard its interests.”97 No changes were accepted.

What was the minority to do? Editor Lee even sounded a bit conciliatory,

It is to be regretted that the apparently slight changes in “Opgjør” could not be allowed. As far as we can understand, these changes would not materially effect [sic] the document, but the adoption of the substitute motion would throw everything back to the early part of 1912, before the doctrinal agreement was reached, and thus undo everything which has been done since 1912 towards church union.98

A United Church pastor surmised that members of the minority might try to organize their own synod. “But it will be a very small affair,” and many “will lose their parishes if they persist in opposing union…. We believe that when the time comes, the minority will also join the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.”99

When the union committee met in October of 1916, Torrison and Preus asked that the three changes requested at the Norwegian Synod convention be considered by all three church bodies, so that “great distress and confusion may be avoided and that we may enter the union, as we earnestly desire.”100 The union committee response was that it would not be possible to make these changes. However, “special cognizance of the three reservations” would be taken, and anyone holding such views would be invited “to take part in the formation of the new church body with full equality and mutual fraternal recognition.”101 Believing that its opportunities to get any changes made were now exhausted, the representatives of the minority replied, “The minority hereby accepts said invitation, praying that God may direct this step so as to make it a blessing to his church.”102 Not all in the minority were ready to accept the invitation. These few contended for their cause to the last opportunity.103 Finally, on June 9, 1917, the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America was officially formed numbering more than 495,000 people belonging to 3,000 congregations.104 Dr. F.A. Schmidt was one of the participants in the merger.105

What was to become of the once vibrant body, which now, as ever before, was “so lean and lanky that one could have counted every rib”? What should the pastors and laypeople do, who could not in good conscience enter into the church merger?

Discussion Questions

  1. Some argue that controversy, as opposed to times of peace and unity, is always detrimental to the life of the church. Considering our history, how should we respond? When is controversy necessary and when is it harmful?
  2. In light of how Lutheran Herald editor G.T. Lee framed the issue, to what extent should practical concerns—like missions and operating schools—dictate efforts on unity? Are there temptations we should especially be aware of?
  3. The concerns for pure doctrine and dedicated mission work are sometimes pitted against each other. What happens when one is emphasized over the other? What is the Lutheran response to this issue?
  4. The congregations of the old Norwegian Synod were formed through mission work, which is true of all Christian congregations. What similarities and differences are there between home mission work in the old Norwegian Synod and home mission work today?

What We Have

The man in the seat was of even more uncertain age than either horse or vehicle. He might be forty-five, or he might just as likely be sixty-five. But for his beard and stoutness, one would be inclined to guess the former figure, for the expression of his face was still youthful, the eyes bright and sparkling with something boyish in their gleam. But the beard clearly suggested a more advanced age; it stretched from ear to ear, forming a thick fringe around the chin; it was perhaps an inch long, heavy and stiff, originally blond in colour, but now streaked with grey. The clothes, too, testified to the man’s advanced age; especially the coat, which seemed to be neither coat nor jacket, but something out of the ordinary—a garment of thin black cloth, loosely fitting, too long to be called a jacket, yet not long enough for a topcoat.106

Was this pioneer pastor described by O.E. Rölvaag young or old? He bore characteristics of both. Were the pastors who would not take part in the Norwegian Lutheran church merger stubborn relics of the past or sturdy defenders of unchanging truths? The answer depended on who was asked.

By Right or Might

The few who refused to enter the merger saw themselves as defenders of God’s truth. They believed that many Norwegian Lutherans in America fell under the indictment of 2 Timothy 4:3–4: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Those who did enter the merger viewed the remnant of the minority in 1 Timothy 6:4 terms. They said that this recalcitrant bunch was “puffed up with conceit and understands nothing,” and that these men have “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words.” Which side was correct?

To try to understand the motivations of all involved, we must look more closely at what prompted the merger movement in the first place. It is fair to say that the controversy in the early 1900s was not the same as the controversy in the 1880s, even though both dealt with the doctrine of election. In the 1880s, the chief question was whether or not a person contributes “in a certain sense” to his salvation. F. A. Schmidt said that he does, while the leaders of the Norwegian Synod and their brothers in the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods said he does not. What divided the Norwegian Synod at that time was disagreement about doctrine. In the 1900s, doctrine was not the primary concern, but rather a desire for synodical union. The doctrine of election was discussed by the three participating church bodies, but it was not thoroughly fleshed out like it had been by Koren and others in the 1880s. The greatest emphasis at the beginning of the twentieth century was on what the church bodies had in common, more than what might still separate them.

Why this approach? The Norwegians who had immigrated to America toward the end of the nineteenth century had not been a part of the election controversy and did not understand the differences. A new generation of pastors was also now serving in the Norwegian Synod, many of whom did not take part in the battles of the 1880s. They were not interested in rehashing the points of the old controversy. Why waste energy on the past, when the church faced so many challenges in the present? the Lutheran Herald editor, G.T. Lee, published a list of these challenges in 1916, given here in summary:

  1. Americans of Norwegian ancestry no longer feel compelled to attend a Norwegian church.
  2. Many recent arrivals from Norway are as content to join social organizations (like the Sons and Daughters of Norway) as the church.
  3. The anti-Christian influences of the times draw many away from the church.
  4. Many Norwegian youth are lost to large cities where Norwegian Lutheran church bodies do not have a strong presence.
  5. The Norwegian people are continually drifting instead of putting down roots (“distinctly a Viking trait”).
  6. Poor record keeping has resulted in an inaccurate accounting of active members.
  7. The reluctance to use English in the divine service is alienating the English-speaking youth.107

Lee argued that these problems required the combined effort of the Norwegian Lutheran churches:

It is high time that we plan to combine our small and scattered congregations and cooperate with those of the same faith and confession and at least try to hold our own. We must try to overcome petty jealousies and prejudices, quit bathing ourselves in the bitterness of bygone controversies, and look forward to what we have been called to do as a Norwegian Lutheran church in this country….

A torn and disrupted church is not equal to this problem. We must get together. Even then the problem will tax all of our powers.108

An even more compelling argument for union was given by a Mr. Grindeland at the decisive 1916 Synod Convention. Grindeland was a judge and a gifted orator. He implored the laymen of Norwegian Synod congregations to reject the “mania” of “church strife and doctrinal controversies,” with its attendant “[q]uibbling over technical distinctions too fine to be seen.”109 Instead they should focus on the great unity that exists among Norwegian Lutherans in America.

We, the Hauge Synod, the United Church, and the Synod people, have the same “barnelærdom,” the same hymn books, the same sacraments, and the same understanding of sin and grace; we come from the same mother church, have the same ancestry, and have so much in common,—why in God’s name should we not form the proposed union and live and work together as brothers according to the precepts of Christianity?110

This was a strong point. How, when all Norwegians were united in one church in Norway, could they be so divided in America? Judge Grindeland laid the blame at the feet of the theologians. They, and not the laymen, “are directly responsible for the present controversy, a controversy based upon mere technicalities.”111 But the laymen could take control of the situation; they could right the wrongs. Grindeland continued,

We have heard the prayers for union for years. The critical time is finally at hand; the lines are drawn, the battle [is] on, upon one banner we see the foreboding words “Delay or Secession,” upon the other banner we see emblazoned the letters of life, “Union and Brotherhood.”

Brother delegates, under what banner will you rally? Where will the interest of your family and your congregation be?…

With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us here and now face this issue fairly and squarely, and go on record as opposed to useless controversy; let us acquit ourselves like men, men who stand for peace and union.112

It was quite a speech! If you were for union, you would have wanted this powerful speech distributed far and wide (which it was in the Lutheran Herald). If you were a pastor or layman opposed to the merger, the speech would have affected you in one of two ways. It would have either made you feel very small, or it would have made you feel very angry. You would have felt at that time how you might feel now when someone calls you hateful and bigoted for believing what the Bible says. The characterization is inaccurate and unkind, but it finds acceptance with a sympathetic audience.

So the merger went through. It was not the only church merger to take place at this time. The Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin Synods officially merged in 1917, taking the name, “the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States.”113 The General Council, General Synod, and United Synod of the South merged in 1918.114 What prompted these synodical realignments? One cause was the significant anniversary observed worldwide in 1917—the 400th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. What better time to promote the rich heritage of Lutheranism through united effort? This was also the era of World War I, which began in 1914, and which America entered in 1917. American Lutherans from various denominations were fighting for the same cause in Europe. Why couldn’t they work for a common cause at home? The sentiment among the Norwegian Lutherans and eastern Lutherans was that this was no time for divisiveness and doctrinal hair-splitting. Lutherans must unite, so that they might carry out the mission of the Gospel on a broader scale and more effectively serve their neighbors.

The Norwegian Synod pastors and laymen who resisted the union movement were not blind to the times. They understood the good that could be accomplished by a united Norwegian Lutheran church. They were not against such a union, but only on the right basis. A union with an unclear biblical and confessional foundation was no real spiritual union. A little over a month after the Norwegian merger was carried out, this small Norwegian Synod group started a new church paper called Luthersk Tidende (Lutheran Times). A church paper, however, was not enough to unite the remnant of the Synod. Some suggested that application should be made to the Missouri Synod to enter that body as a Norwegian district. But the greater number felt strongly that they should continue on “the old paths” of the Norwegian Synod. In the April 1, 1918 issue of Luthersk Tidende, this invitation was published: “Pastors and members of congregations who desire to continue in the old doctrine and practice of the Norwegian Synod will, God willing, hold their annual meeting in the Lime Creek congregation, Pastor H. Ingebritson’s charge, June 14 and following days.”115

Between thirteen and sixteen Norwegian Synod pastors attended the meeting at Lime Creek, along with four Missouri Synod pastors and at least 175 laypeople.116 The Rev. Bjug Harstad delivered the opening sermon, which included a looking back and a looking forward:

We have, dear friends, gathered here by the liberty which we enjoy in Christ Jesus. We are, as it were, clustering around the old building site which is storm swept and waste. A destructive hurricane has swept away the dear old mansion, even taking with it most of them that dwelt there. Discouraged, looking around, we discover only the bare ground with wreckage and dangerous crossroads. Yet let us not be too much alarmed nor discouraged. Worse things have repeatedly happened to the church before this, without its being destroyed. Let us remember and follow these words of Jeremiah, the prophet “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)117

Following several days of study and discussion, the pastors and congregational representatives in attendance unanimously adopted this resolution: “We, members present of the Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ministers, delegates of congregations and members of congregations, join together for the purpose of continuing the work of the Synod on the old basis and according to the old principles.”118

These steps were not taken lightly. Those who met at Lime Creek faced the ire of their Norwegian neighbors. Much like the strife of the 1880s, the controversial merger of 1917 divided families, congregations, and communities. Close relatives stopped speaking to one another. Pastors were dismissed from their call and evicted from the parsonage, and those who defended them were likewise ushered out the door. Even in small towns, merger and non-merger people would sooner cross to the other side of the street than pass each other on the sidewalk. A number of our ELS congregations formed as a result of these divisions.

This small group that was determined to reorganize the Norwegian Synod in 1918 was attacked from all sides. “They were branded as unreasonable and narrow-minded, as fanatics and cranks, who did not understand what was for their own good.”119 Officials at every level of the merger church did what they could to turn congregations against the pastors who had opposed union. Even H.G. Stub, the newly-elected president of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, willingly participated in this work. When a dispute between the Rev. A.J. Torgerson and members of his congregation reached the courts, Stub took the witness stand against Torgerson. Unfortunately, Torgerson lost the case.120 Why endure all this hardship? How could they be so certain that they were on the side of right and not just on the side of stubborn?

Truth Unchanged, Unchanging?

St. Paul exhorted the congregation in Corinth: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). That is difficult to do. Our general approach according to the old Adam is to imagine that we are in the right—that we think in the right way, that we make the most sensible decisions. This self-centeredness makes it hard for us to recognize when and where we veer off path. It is like the child who thinks he can walk a straight line through the snow by staring down at his feet. We are also easily distracted. We see “the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8), both in the ecclesiastical and civil realms, which seem to shine so brightly compared with our humble congregations. For the sake of the Gospel, would it be so bad to loosen up a little in doctrine and practice so that we might reach more of the lost? This was the mentality of the pastors and congregations of the Norwegian Synod in the early part of the twentieth century. It was a new era. The prevailing sentiment was that synodical leaders of the past had been overly engaged in doctrinal controversy. It was time to set aside those old differences with other church bodies and see what might be done together.

Those old synodical leaders were no longer around to defend their teaching, but their confession lived on in their published writings. One of these leaders was the Rev. H.A. Preus, who served as president of the Norwegian Synod from 1862–1894. In 1867, he traveled to Norway and delivered “Seven Lectures on the Religious Situation Among Norwegians in America.” In these lectures, he acknowledged that some considered the Norwegian Synod to be too quarrelsome and separatistic. But while the Synod was saddened by the divisions among Norwegians in America, it would not compromise God’s Word to repair them:

In heartfelt earnest we seek to prevent this party division, sinful and displeasing to God, from continuing, and our synod’s history will testify that we earnestly wish not to bear responsibility for it. But a union without unity of faith, a union in the Prussian mold in which God’s Word and human propositions are tolerated side by side and have equal validity, this kind of union we will not promote. This is an abomination to God and more dangerous to souls than open disunity and faction.121

The Norwegian Synod did not seek unity by ignoring differences but by meeting them head on, as Preus explained:

Where we have seen error among our opponents we have not tried to cover its shame with the veil of false charity, but have openly and honorably drawn their attention to it, running the danger of seeming uncharitable. And if our opponents were to show us errors in our doctrine or practice, we would thank them for it and consider it a demonstration of Christian love on their part rather than of hatred or lack of love.122

To illustrate this, Preus gave an account of doctrinal discussions between the Norwegian Synod and the Augustana Synod. The pastors from each body were studying a set of theses prepared by the Norwegian Synod on the doctrine of absolution. There seemed to be mutual agreement until thesis number four: “Absolution does not consist in this, that the confessor sits as judge and returns a verdict over the inner state of the penitent, nor in an empty announcement or wish for the forgiveness of sins, but in a powerful communication of it.”123 The majority of the Augustana pastors did not agree that the word of absolution powerfully imparts the forgiveness of sins whether the hearer believes it or not. They said forgiveness is “given, granted, and imparted only to those who receive it in faith.”124 The Norwegian Synod pastors countered that this makes faith—and not the Word of Christ—the active element in absolution. In other words, where faith is not present, the Gospel is not powerful. But if the Gospel is not powerful, how is faith strengthened? How is a person converted?

As the discussion continued, the Augustana pastors tempered their position somewhat, but the Norwegian Synod pastors were not convinced their beliefs in the matter had changed. Therefore, said Preus,

we considered ourselves forced, if we were not to be entrapped in ambiguous expressions, to put a very sharp point on the issue and use expressions upon which it was impossible to put a Reformed construction, expressions to which no one could assent without actually agreeing that the Lutheran doctrine is not merely declarative [explanatory], but also collative [imparting], that the gospel always has the forgiveness of sins as its full content, and that God in the gospel, wherever it is heard, always proffers the forgiveness of sins as a gift on his part to all who hear the gospel whether they believe it or not at the time.125

All the pastors agreed that “faith is absolutely necessary to accept forgiveness and be saved.”126 This was a question not about how the Gospel is apprehended, but about what the Gospel is and what it imparts. The Norwegian Synod pastors were careful “not to be entrapped in ambiguous expressions.” They resolved “to put a very sharp point on the issue” and use expressions that could not be understood in different ways.

This was not the approach taken with the Madison Agreement (“Opgjør”). In that statement, “ambiguous expressions” were certainly used to allow room for different understandings of the doctrine of election. When the small group of Norwegian Synod pastors and laymen resolved “to put a very sharp point on the issue,” they were assured by the members of the union committee that nothing in the Agreement contradicted the historic teaching of the Synod. When members of the minority insisted that changes be made, they were rebuffed and marginalized. The Madison Agreement was not the result of a rigorous study of Scripture and the Confessions. It was an exercise of saying only as much as needed to be said to satisfy the majority.

The Norwegian Synod had changed. The changes may have been small and subtle, but they added up. The Rev. Christian Anderson was one who tried to sound the alarm. Already in 1916, he resigned his call from a prominent Norwegian Synod congregation in Minneapolis when the majority of its members favored union.127 He was present at the meeting in Lime Creek, and he served in the reorganized synod the rest of his life. At the 1953 ELS General Pastoral Conference, he outlined the “Underlying Causes of the Deterioration and Breakdown of the Old Norwegian Synod.” He noted that the overarching cause was “the spirit of the times, which is shrewdly directed by the Prince of this world, who will not leave one stone unturned, to rob us of our salvation.” This spirit is seen most clearly in “indifference, liberalism and unionism.”128 More specifically, Anderson offered four major reasons for the collapse of the Norwegian Synod, summarized here:

  1. The siren call for the church union of all Norwegian immigrants was constantly sounded. Appeals were made to the unity all Norwegian Americans once had in the state church of Norway. But the state church “was divided into definitely dissenting factions, which were held together by the strong hand of the law.” In America where the law no longer enforced the religion, it was obvious that Norwegian Lutherans were not all of the same spirit. The push for unity overshadowed the differences that existed.
  2. The Norwegian Synod played defense but not enough offense. The Synod defended its doctrinal position from regular attacks but failed to point out the false doctrine of those who opposed it. When the attacks subsided due to a desire for union, the Synod assumed its opponents had moved in its direction and were now in agreement with it. This assumed agreement was the basis of discussions for union, even though agreement on all doctrinal points had not been clearly articulated.
  3. The clergy and laity relied too much on the leaders of the Synod. When the election controversy of the 1880s subsided, strong leaders stepped forward to promote the work of the Synod. With these men at the rudder, the clergy and laity happily pulled on the oars without caring overly much about where the Synod had come from or exactly where it was going. When the original leaders of the Synod died, the next generation of leaders steered the Synod in a unionistic direction.
  4. Lack of turnover in leadership positions centralized power and influence. The Church Council (Kirkeraad) of the Norwegian Synod was made up of the president of the synod, the president and one layman from each district, and a layman “at large.” This Council oversaw the work of the Synod between conventions. There was a great deal of turnover among the lay members but very little among the presidents.129 Koren held a seat on this Council for forty-nine years from 1861–1910. When the “older conservatives” were gone, “the liberal element” used the influence of the Church Council for the union cause.130

Unity, Union, and Unionism

Some who had questions about the Madison Agreement went into the merger with the express intention of contending for the truth as they had all along. But they found no platform to voice their concerns. They became painfully aware that the Norwegian Synod had left “the old paths” to go in a new direction. Already in 1918, just a year after the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America had formed, it joined the newly established National Lutheran Council. H.G. Stub was elected its first president. It was intended to be a way for the Lutheran synods of America to cooperate in externals. For this reason, doctrinal unity among the participating church bodies was not required. But inevitably the lines of church fellowship were crossed.131

This caused some pastors, including Professor S.C. Ylvisaker, to leave the merger church and join the reorganized Norwegian Synod. At its constituting convention in 1919, nearly thirty pastors were in attendance. The pastors and congregations who formed the Synod were small in number, but they enjoyed more than an external unity. Theirs was “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Ylvisaker described the fruits of this unity:

The pastors are on terms of intimate friendship, as well as connected by ties of a common faith. The laity is not as yet a vast number where the individual cannot be heard. We are, as it were, one family and still of the first generation; and though it is readily granted that large numbers can accomplish vastly greater things, we do well in enjoying, while we have it, the intimacy, the direct contact, the fervor and zeal which so often manifests itself in a body where plans and aims and hopes still largely take the place of accomplishments and past success.132

Here it may be said that as it is true that a person’s greatest strengths are often his greatest weaknesses, so it is true of synods. A larger synod can reach more people with the Gospel. It can support a greater number of missions and charitable endeavors at home and abroad. It has congregations in more locations for those who relocate. On the other hand, unity in doctrine and practice is often lacking in a larger synod. Pastors and congregations decide to walk their own way instead of “walking together” and deviate from the practices of their brothers. Church bureaucracy makes it difficult to carry out synodical discipline. Factions develop. Once a larger synod starts to steer in the wrong direction, like the Norwegian Synod did, it is hard to turn the ship back around.

A smaller synod benefits from the things mentioned by Ylvisaker: the pastors and people know each other, they have a voice in the synod, the participation of each one is integral to the synod’s mission and work. There tends to be greater unity in a smaller synod and greater accountability. The sufferings and the joys of one are shared by all (1 Corinthians 12:26). Such a spirit of brotherhood is what the Norwegian Synod enjoyed in the first decades after its founding—a bond that was strengthened by synodical collaboration. The Rev. H.A. Preus described the blessing of meeting together:

Representatives elected by the congregations—generally from among their finest, most devout, best informed men—gather here from the farthest reaches of the church body. During fourteen days together they learn to know and love one another as brethren in faith; they tell each other of their experiences, struggles, sorrows, and joys; they are instructed and strengthened in the faith they share; they are cheered on and strengthened to zeal in a shared task, to courage in a shared struggle, to patience in shared suffering. That is why pastors and laity alike meet with tears of joy at these assemblies of the Synod and part with pain, although they give thanks to God and to the brethren for encouragement, strengthening, and fortification in the truth.133

But while the closeness of pastors and laymen in a synod brings many blessings, it can also result in insular thinking and a sectarian spirit. A smaller synod can think it has itself to thank for its unity and accomplishments, and it can judge other synods too harshly for their disunity. It can fall into the thinking that everything it proposes is right since it has its doctrine and practice in order.134

One of the ways larger and smaller synods keep their worst impulses in check is to seek and cultivate fellowship with other orthodox Lutheran church bodies. The Norwegian Synod recognized this and helped to form the Synodical Conference in 1872. It withdrew from the Conference during the election controversy and did not rejoin it once the controversy subsided. However, fraternal relations with the member churches of the Synodical Conference continued until the merger of 1917. Those who stayed out of the merger continued to value this fellowship, and the reorganized Norwegian Synod applied for membership in the Synodical Conference in 1920.

The church body which the reorganized Norwegian Synod counted as its closest friend and ally was the Missouri Synod. This close bond developed shortly after the founding of the Norwegian Synod. Following a visit to Ft. Wayne in 1857, Koren wrote to Professor Crämer, “We learned nothing new from you, but what we had already learned in Norway theoretically—the two great Lutheran fundamental principles—here for the first time we saw this appear alive plainly and victoriously throughout the whole church body.” Later expanding on this thought, Koren said, “We saw the glory of the Lutheran Confession, already well known to us in words, actually carried out as we had never seen it before.”135 In his 1938 Synod Convention essay, the Rev. Justin A. Petersen echoed the same appreciation for this fellowship: “How great is our accumulated debt, our personal debt, our debt as pastors, teachers, and lay-people, our debt as congregations, and as a Synod to our dear brethren of the Missouri Synod!”136

That bond of fellowship was about to be severely tested. In 1935, the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) and the American Lutheran Church (ALC) invited other synods to participate in doctrinal discussions. The ULCA and the ALC had formed from mergers of older synods which were not united in doctrine and practice with the Norwegian and Missouri Synods. The reorganized Norwegian Synod declined the invitation, but the Missouri Synod accepted. To explain its reservations, the Norwegian Synod at its 1936 Convention adopted six theses on “Unity, Union, and Unionism.” The fourth and fifth theses were born out of the painful experience of those who watched the old Norwegian Synod enter into discussions and then a merger without clear doctrinal agreement:

Thesis IV. We hold that inter-synodical committees are useful in promoting Christian fellowship only: (a) when the various groups or synods have, through their public ministry of the Word, given each other evidence of an existing unity in spirit, and it remains merely to establish the fact of such unity and to arrange for some public recognition and confession of that fact; (b) or where it is clear that those in error sincerely desire to be taught “the way of God more perfectly,” Acts 18:26.

Thesis V. Where such evidence of unity is lacking, or where it is clear that those in error do not sincerely desire to be “taught the way of God more perfectly,” but such committees nevertheless are elected to confer with them with the view to church fellowship, there is grave danger that the work of these committees will result in indifferentism and in compromise of Scriptural doctrine and practice. (For examples of this, consider the mergers and unions of recent years among Lutherans.) The duty of testifying to the truth of God’s Word and thus promoting unity, rests at all times upon all Christians. Cf. I Peter 3:15.137

The Missouri Synod did not listen to these warnings, but pursued doctrinal discussions chiefly with the ALC. Over the next twenty years, the Norwegian and Wisconsin Synods attempted to call the Missouri Synod back to its historic doctrine and practice.138 But the Missouri Synod was on a different trajectory. It was convinced that “the old paths” were not sufficient for the times. With much pain, the reorganized Norwegian Synod at its 1955 Convention declared a suspension of fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The Wisconsin Synod followed suit in 1961. The Synodical Conference was dissolved soon afterward. Koren’s questions posed in 1895, “Where will we be then [in 1950 or 1960]? In what circumstances? In what company?” had now been definitely answered.139

The reorganized Norwegian Synod (renamed the “Evangelical Lutheran Synod” in 1957) and the WELS now faced an uncertain future. The Missouri Synod had long been “big brother” to both of them, but that unity was no more. In 1967, the ELS and WELS resolved to form the Evangelical Lutheran Confessional Forum, as a way to both encourage and test one another. But the desire was also expressed to form an alliance like the Synodical Conference, which would include like-minded Lutherans from around the world. This desire was realized in 1993 when the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC) was established. To date, this Conference includes thirty-two member churches numbering about half a million people.140

Forward on the Old Paths

What does the future hold for our small church body? What place will it have on the modern landscape in coming years? After the ELS suspended fellowship with the Missouri Synod, the Norwegian merger church—now called the Evangelical Lutheran Church—declared it to be “the most reactionary splinter group of Lutherans in America.”141 Considering the periods of intense strife over the 165 years of its history, it is perhaps surprising that the ELS is still in operation. There are many who wish it would cease to exist, primarily because of the unpopular positions it takes on issues like the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; God’s creation of all things in six twenty-four-hour days; the clear biological distinction of the sexes; the definition of marriage and the union of husband and wife as the only God-pleasing sphere for sexual activity; the promotion and protection of life from conception to a natural death; the roles of men and women in the church, including the restriction of the pastoral office to men only; the practice of church discipline against the unrepentant and erring; the practice of closed Communion; and last but not least, the doctrine of justification (objective and subjective).

The gap appears to be widening between the Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church and secular society. This has an isolating effect on pastors and congregations. We wonder whether we will continue to survive if we maintain our doctrinal position. We worry that our desire to reach the lost will be compromised if we don’t temper our approach. We wish we did not have to face these challenges. But what we face today is no more severe than the troubles our spiritual forefathers faced. The strategy and angle of attack changes from generation to generation, but the enemy is the same—“the old evil foe.” Our defense is to put on “the whole armor of God,” which is the truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation of Jesus, and to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11–17).

The church body that casts aside the Word of God for the approval of the unbelieving world is a church body not of Christ but of the devil. This was the belief of the founders of the old Norwegian Synod, and it is still our belief. Preus described such erring church bodies in this way: “We consider a church body held together in what seems to be the bond of peace but without unity of spirit, without a common faith, to be a nonentity, a falsehood, a Babel bearing within it the germ of its own disintegration and fostering not the edification but the destruction of God’s congregation and the Christian faith.”142 Koren wrote that even a “seemingly small aberration in matters of faith can have incalculable effects,” and that “Satan most often has found his best calculation by adding some drops of truth into his deceitful poison by which he intoxicates people.”143 Each individual Christian, congregation, and church body must constantly contend for the truth.

For in the Kingdom of Christ there is never peace in the sense that its citizens can take it easy and comfort themselves that they have the truth. Scripture, in the first place, teaches us that God will not let us retain it unless we bear its fruits and “lead holy lives according to God’s Word.” In the second place, we will not be able to preserve the truth without struggling against everything in us that opposes it. In the third place, we will not be able to retain it without interference from others, if we are in dead earnest about holding it in honor.144

Koren noted that the struggles which the Norwegian Synod had to endure throughout its history were a “well-deserved chastisement” from God, “because we have not used the truth to better advantage and have not borne better fruits from it.”145 The men who gathered at Lime Creek in 1918 also recognized that “[a] destructive hurricane has swept away the dear old mansion” because the members of the old Synod had taken the truth for granted. Likewise in 1961, when the ELS moved to sever its ties with the Synodical Conference, the Doctrine Committee report contained these sober words,

We have nothing of which to be proud. How much of the evil that has come to pass in the Synodical Conference is due to our lack of faithfulness, lack of prayer, and lack of Christian love? We would warn against a false sense of security. If any think that now we are free from all danger of error, let him remember that there will always be the devil, the world and the Old Adam to contend with, and we are fair game. That which plagues other church bodies today may well come to plague us tomorrow.146

As we gather together to celebrate the centennial of our synod’s reorganization, we must admit, too, that there is much in us and in our work that has been lacking. We have too often approached our task in the world with reluctance and trepidation rather than with the confidence of the psalmist, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6). Where we have not succeeded, we hang our heads. Where we have succeeded, we hold our heads too high. We do not “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) as the Lord invites us. We do not treasure and meditate upon the holy Word of God as we should. We do not trust that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully through the means of grace as He promises to do. We imagine that any good accomplished in our congregations and synod is due to our efforts, and any bad must be the fault of others. If we would honor the legacy of those who have “fought the good fight” before us, and if we would give all glory to God, then we will repent.

The Lord will not despise “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). He forgives our sins, every single one. Jesus atoned for them all by the shedding of His precious blood. Everything God has demanded of us, Jesus fulfilled for us. And everything we need for eternal life in heaven, the Holy Spirit distributes to us. This was God’s plan for us even before we were born, even “before the foundation of the world,” as St. Paul stated. He chose us in Christ “that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:3). God saw nothing good in us that would cause Him to choose us—no better disposition, no greater potential, no weaker resistance. He chose us from eternity entirely by His grace. And then in time, He converted our stubborn, contrary hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. Through the same means of grace, the Lord visits us and abides with us still. He continues to cleanse, comfort, and strengthen us and to motivate us to do the good works, “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

God uses our weak hands to carry out His work in our congregations and synod. But He has not left it to us to figure out and acquire the right tools needed for the job. Koren named the “two fundamental principles,” also called the “formal” and “material” principles, which anchor and animate Christ’s Church. If we would carry out His mission, we will treasure, defend, and promote them. If we would go the way of the world, we will compromise or ignore them. The two fundamental principles are that “Holy Scripture is the only sure and perfect rule of our faith and life” (formal principle), and that “Jesus Christ is the way to salvation for all believing souls” (material principle).147

These were the truths which founded the Lutheran Reformation; and where the Lutheran Church has remained true to its calling, it was by faithful adherence to these principles. For it is these principles which keep us from becoming like reeds swayed hither and thither by the many changing winds of doctrine. These alone lay the true and firm foundation for a right conversion and a sincere repentance. These alone preserve us from every temptation to labor for the Kingdom of God by new inventions, self-chosen worship,148 and ecclesiastical-political schemes. These truths alone establish the heart and make the conscience clear and at the same time teach a man to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling and to have the assurance of faith regarding eternal salvation. These were the truths which were our light in the days when zeal and activity were most noticeable in the Norwegian Synod…. [W]e have discovered nothing new. We continue to contend for those things for which we contended then: the two principles mentioned above.149

The official seal of the Norwegian Synod contained the Greek word, “GEGRAPTAI,” which means, “It is written.”150 This phrase has been retained as the motto of the Lutheran Sentinel and is also reflected in the “One Thing Needful” motto of Bethany Lutheran College. Any teaching formulated by human reason is not a Bible teaching and therefore is not Lutheran. Lutheran teaching is Bible teaching. A church body does not deserve the name “Lutheran” if it does not teach the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible, clear, sufficient, and powerful Word of God.

He who really believes that the Bible is God’s Word, that which ‘God has spoken,’ cannot want to deny any part of this Word. He will realize that if he sits in judgment upon a part of God’s Word, he has rejected all of it; for he has then made himself lord over the Word. If he has a right to judge and reject one part of ‘what God has spoken,’ why should he not have a right to reject another part?151

But there are so many different interpretations of God’s Word, even among those who say the Bible is true in every part. How can any individual or church body claim to have the truth over against another? We do not doubt that our Lutheran doctrine is the true Bible doctrine, because only true Lutheran doctrine maintains the two principles mentioned above while giving all glory to God. The pure doctrine of Scripture is correctly summarized in our Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord. We should study them more. As Koren candidly said, “we do not become Calvinists by holding to the Lutheran Confessions.”152 Nor, we might add, do we become Roman Catholics, Baptists, or Methodists. These all depart in some way from the clear teaching of Scripture and the pure Gospel of salvation in Christ.

Our sole claim on the truth may sound arrogant, especially to ears conditioned by modern relativism (“what you believe is just as valid as what I believe”). We are tempted to be arrogant about this and to pat ourselves on the back for maintaining the truth. If this attitude is not checked, we will lose what we have. Koren rightly said, “We do not want to be ‘puffed up’ because we have the pure doctrine. If we were, then we would not have the pure doctrine; for we know from God’s Word that if things had gone as we deserved, we would have erred in all points.”153 Instead we humbly cling to the truth, knowing that we do not deserve it. We freely admit that “it is to be attributed not to our insight or cleverness or faithfulness, but only to God’s mercy when we are preserved in the truth.”154 By God’s power, we will continue to believe, teach, and confess His truth. To give in to the pressures of the world, and to give up what we have inherited from faithful confessors before us, is to give up the eternal blessings Jesus won for us, which He wants us to have.

Jesus tells us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6). The Apostle Peter, an eye-witness of Jesus’ saving work, declared that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This salvation does not require any decision on our part to come to Him, or that we somehow prove ourselves worthy of Him. Rather, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are saved by faith in Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection for our salvation. But even this faith is not our work; it is a gift that God works in us to receive His grace. “Faith is the hand of the heart which apprehends what God by His hands, the Means of Grace, lovingly presents to us…. Justification is gained by Christ totally and completely; it is brought, offered, and given to us in God’s Word and Sacraments. Faith merely accepts. Faith does not give anything, but it receives.”155 How could human effort or human works win spiritual blessings? The two are not compatible. The blessings of Christ distributed in and through God’s Word can be acquired and appropriated only by the spiritual life of faith that He supplies.156

God gives us all things that we need for salvation, and He gives them in abundance. We can trust that He will continue to give them because He promises that He will. This is why we can with confidence go forward on “the old paths.”157 We have what we need for our mission. We have the pure Word of God with its powerful Gospel message, which alone can convert and comfort sinners. This is what is needed in high-population urban areas and in low-population rural areas. Whether you serve or belong to a congregation of ten active members or a thousand, God’s work is done among you and as a witness to your community by the pure preaching of the Gospel and the proper administration of the Sacraments. To many, this approach sounds too simplistic and also insufficient to meet the demands of our day. Koren’s answer in 1902 to such criticisms still applies today:

But further objection is made that we cannot be as strict in our time as Luther and the theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries were; that this doesn’t fit our time. What will the result be? You will be standing there at your lecterns or in your pulpits and have no listeners.

But for us, the question is not about the results. We must let God take care of that. God says to us as He said to the Prophet Ezekiel: “You shall speak My words to them, whether they hear or whether they refuse, for they are rebellious” (2:7; 3:2, 7). In the 20th century God’s Word is not something different from what it was in the 16th.158

A healthy congregation in God’s sight is not primarily identified by its attendance totals, but by the Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace to encourage, strengthen, and equip believers. Such healthy congregations make for a healthy synod. We are part of a synod—and this one in particular—because we want to remain on “the old paths,” and we want others to join us on them. This is done in the ELS just as it was in the old Norwegian Synod by supporting and maintaining Lutheran schools.159 These schools are important both for training our congregational youth and for exposing others in the community to the Gospel. There are eighteen preschools and elementary schools currently in operation in the ELS.160 We also support Lutheran higher education for our members and others through Bethany Lutheran College. What H.A. Preus said about Decorah’s Luther College in 1867 applies to our purposes at Bethany:

[W]e specifically desire that through a few years’ residence at the school they can be subjected to the Christian discipline enforced there and acquire a clearer and more thorough knowledge of Christian truths. They can be fitted not only to be good citizens, but also to take a fruitful and blessed part in the responsibilities of our church body, which, just as it bestows great privileges on its members, makes great demands on their aptitudes and efforts.161

Besides supporting our synod’s educational institutions, we also work together to maintain missions in America and abroad. None of this would be possible if God did not bless us with the means and the resolve to carry out the work.

Rölvaag’s pioneer pastor described earlier was neither definitively young nor old. He bore characteristics of both: “the expression of his face was still youthful, the eyes bright and sparkling with something boyish in their gleam. But the beard clearly suggested a more advanced age…. The clothes, too, testified to the man’s advanced age.” We in the ELS are also young and old at the same time. Our eyes sparkle brightly with the message of salvation for sinners. We know what the world needs, and by the grace of God we have it! We are eager to broadcast this Gospel around the world. But we are not the first to carry out this work. We do not forget our roots. We walk “the old paths” that our spiritual fathers did. We remember our leaders who spoke to us the Word of God, and we imitate their godly confession and life (Hebrews 13:7). In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the old Norwegian Synod, Christian Anderson wrote of the importance of remembering in particular the faithful confessors who founded the Synod:

We certainly do not want to accept their teachings just because they have said so, or to walk in their paths just because they are old. But if our fathers were thoroughly faithful to the teachings of the divine Word, both as to doctrine and life, it becomes our duty to follow their example, and it would be a sin if we were to despise the heritage which has come to us from them.162

In short, we at the same time look back along “the old paths” where we came from, and we look ahead to where those blessed paths lead by the power and promise of God. This is exactly the purpose and plan Koren outlined in his 1890 article, “What the Norwegian Synod Has Wanted and Still Wants.”163 In conclusion he said,

Our heart’s desire is to preserve the old doctrine in which our fathers found their peace, for we have learned to see that this doctrine and this alone is founded on God’s Word…. If we are to be enabled to retain [the Biblical truths], we must in the first place let it become a matter of holy earnestness to preserve God’s Word pure and unadulterated as the only clear light in this world’s darkness, and we must be willing to endure being scoffed at and mocked because of this firm adherence to the Word. Furthermore, we must let it become a matter of just as great concern to lead holy lives according to God’s Word. If we fail to do this, then God Himself has said, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it’ (Matt. 21:43). This we will try to remember every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.164

What the Norwegian Synod has wanted, the ELS still wants. God grant it by His enduring grace.

Discussion Questions

  1. Judge Grindeland showered a wrongful type of praise on the laity while blaming the pastors and theologians for the controversy in the Norwegian Synod. How are the efforts of both laypeople and pastors necessary to carry out the work of a synod? In what ways can laypeople and pastors be strengthened together for this work?
  2. In 1917, some suggested that the Norwegian Synod remnant should join an existing church body. Why was it important for the Norwegian Synod remnant to form its own body in 1918, and why is it important for the ELS to remain autonomous today?
  3. In 1957, the “reorganized Norwegian Synod” changed its name to the ELS, and in 1959, the “Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States” changed its name to the WELS. What events at the time may have prompted these changes?
  4. The founders of the Norwegian Synod questioned the wisdom of using public schools and promoted the formation of Lutheran schools. In congregations where it is not possible to have a Lutheran school, what can be done to promote the biblical worldview among our youth?

These books about the history and teaching of the Norwegian Synod/ELS would be excellent additions to the home libraries of all pastors and laymen:

  1. Grace for Grace: Brief History of the Norwegian Synod, 1853–1943
  2. Proclaim His Wonders: A Pictorial History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod
  3. U. V. Koren’s Works, 4 volumes including Koren’s Sermons (Vol. 1), Addresses (Vol. 2), Articles (Vol. 3), and Memoirs, Poems, Letters, Etc. (Vol. 4)

Appendix I

Lutheran Herald References to Church Union


1–4 Intro to Lutheran Herald
236 Hymnary done
404 Committees meet
1114 No Cmte. agreement
101–102 Norw. Synod & Synodical Conf.
362 Union stand-still
1222–1228 Koren remembrance
2–4 Koren death
4–8 Union Cmte. report
50–51 Larsen comments on Union Cmte.
55–56 LC-MS address at Koren funeral
88–90 Koren memorial service
103–105 Kittilsby address at Koren service
127–128 Hektoen address at Koren service
579–580 Koren memorial volumes
242–243 Church Union agreement on theses
272–275 Joint Cmte. report with theses
578–580 Church Union approached
602–606 Church Union
2–3 Notice on Church Union questions
48–49 Editorial
118 Convene extra Convention
312–313 Madison Agreement questions
341–346 Stub article
410–412 Opgjør
432–441 Union?
456–460 Unity/Unionism
478–479 Anti-merger
483–486 Critique, I. G. Momson
502–506 Wittenberg Opgjør
508–509 Faith and Election
509–512 Momson article continued
526–527 LC-MS editor Graebner steps down
527–528 Opgjør
598–601 New editor, Union talk
641–642 New, old editors
645–648 Synod actions
666–667 Pre-Union
694–696 Unity and Union
837–838 Stub and Pieper
881 Convention about Union
908–911 (Women’s Suffrage, United Church)
1914 [no index]
146–147 Union Cmte.
284–285 Stub honored by all
315–316 Hymnary and Union
338–339 Union Cmte.
444–447 Union Cmte.
484–486 History of division
531–535 Unionism
603–604 Hauge Synod
627 United Church
690–691 Division in Hauge Synod
1011–1016 Synod Mtg.
1035–1043 Synod Mtg.
1059–1064 Synod Mtg.
1121 Union expected
1155 Lutheran Herald
1915 [no index]
10–11 Hauge Synod for Union
217–236 (Dr. Laur. Larsen memorial)
311 Union Mtg. for Constitution
361–362 Wiese attacks Opgjør
409–410 Union Cmte. mtg.
431 Former editor attacks Union
435–437 Union Cmte. and pushback
437–439 (Rasmus B. Anderson excommun.)
505–510 Union Cmte., Constitution
601–611 Convention minutes from 3 bodies
817–821 Church Union, Graebner pushback
841–844 C. K. Preus opposes Opgjør
889–891 Why revisit old controversy?
1103 Joint services held pre-Union
1105–1108 Union already!
1125 (Norman A. Madson ordained)
1131–1133 Be loyal to Synod – Unite!
1196–1197 Joint pastors’ mtg.
1227–1230 The Minority agitates, Dec. 30
66–69 Stub presentation
89–95 Graebner attacks; peace cmte.
114–119 More unrest
186–192 Statistics of 3 synods
261–263 Opgjør questions
282–284 Union or not?
295–296 (Lillegard leaves China Mission)
307–309 Minority should go along
325 Special Synod mtg.
330–333 Paragraph 1 of Opgjør
344–345 Union inevitable; stop fighting
375 Delegates regarding Union
378–379 Representatives to Synod mtg.
398 (Individual cups introduced)
402–407 Opgjør retranslation
407–415 Conditions for Union
426–429 History of Union, Minority
431–432 Questions of conscience
475–477 Synod mtg. in Minneapolis
498–507 Synod mtg. and Union speech
528–534 Synod mtg.; more debate
550–552 Synod mtg. conclusion
566 Stub surgery
573–574 Amendments rejected; Union here
577–578 What will Minority do?
578–579 United Church & Hauge for Union
594–595 Union done
618–624 Union history, United Church
630–631 (Hartland Church divided)
639 Stub operation successful
667–669 Norw. Luth. Church in America
758 Stub recovering
759 Report on Minority
789–790 Defense of Stub
811 Church Council on Union
836–841 Opgjør & Intersynodical Agreement
884–885 New Constitution
906 Synod mtg. report
910–913 Union movement criticism
979–981 Union Cmte. mtg.
1002–1003 1st mtg. of Norw. Lutheran Church
1023 (Chr. Anders. resigns; Tjernagel call)
1173 Representatives to Synod mtg.
1189 Union Cmte.
1200 Union mtg. in St. Paul
1201 Union Cmte.
1238 Union spirit growing
2–4 Review of 1916
22–25 Union Cmte. report
159 (Rev. Nils Brandt 93rd birthday)
169–170 Joint Union Cmte. report
264 Union Cmte. mtg.
303 Dissenters in Hauge Synod
379 Synod mtg. set
383–387 Union Cmte.
429–434 Union program plans
451–452 Hotels for Convention
453–454 Devotion by Rev. M. K. Bleken
455–458 Consolidation plans
520 (Justin Petersen to Linn Grove, IA)
526–527 Union on June 9
549–551 Union done [June 14 ed.]
551–554 Synod mtg.; Minority
572 Seminaries consolidated
574–579 Union done
579–582 Synod mtg. concluded [last one]
597–601 Union done
605 Last issue of Lutheran Herald

(Items in parentheses may be of special interest for Evangelical Lutheran Synod history.)

Appendix II

An initial translation of the “Madison Agreement” appeared in the 1912 Lutheran Herald, pp. 272–275. The first paragraph of this agreement stated:

The Synod and United Church Committees on Union acknowledge unanimously and without reservation the doctrine of Predestination which is stated in the Eleventh Article of the Formula of Concord (the so-called ‘first form of the doctrine’) and in Pontoppidan’s Explanation (‘Sandhed til Gudfrygtighed’), Question 548 (the so-called ‘second form of the doctrine’).

Later, the Norwegian Synod and the United Church agreed to strike out the words in parentheses, “(the so-called ‘first form of the doctrine’)” and “(the so-called ‘second form of the doctrine’).” The Norwegian Synod vote on this resolution was 394 in favor of striking the words and 106 against.165

Four years later, a new English translation was prepared for publication in the 1916 Lutheran Herald. The Herald’s editor, G. T. Lee, gave the reason that “We are not satisfied with the translation of “Opgjør” found in Lutheran Herald No. 12, 1912, or the one found in Dr. Pieper’s book, “Election and Conversion.”… We have not been authorized to furnish any official translation, but we believe our translation is more accurate than the earlier translations.” The later translation is the one given here.166/p

The Madison Agreement

Joint Report of the Union Committees of the Synod and the United Church.

Regarding the doctrine of Election the union committees subscribe to the following:

Agreement (Opgjør).

1. The union committees of the Synod and the United Church acknowledge unanimously and without reservation that doctrine of Election which is presented in Article XI of the Formula of Concord and in Pontoppidan’s “Sandhed til gudfrygtighed,” question 548.

2. Since both the negotiating church bodies recognize that the Formula of Concord presents the pure and correct doctrine of the word of God and the Lutheran Confession concerning the election of the children of God to salvation, it is deemed unnecessary to church unity to draw up new and more extensive theses regarding this article of faith.

3. Since, however, it is generally known that concerning the doctrine of Election two forms of presentation have been used, both of which have gained prescriptive right and recognition within the orthodox Lutheran church,

while some in agreement with the Formula of Concord make the doctrine of Election comprehend the entire salvation of the elect from the calling to the glorification (Formula of Concord, Art. XI, 13–24, Jacobs)167 and teach an election “to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth,”

others, like Pontoppidan, in conformity with John Gerhard, Scriver, and other acknowledged teachers in the church define election rather as the decree of final glorification with faith and perseverance wrought by the Spirit as its necessary presupposition, and teach that “God has predestinated all those to eternal life who from eternity he has seen would accept the proffered grace, believe on Jesus Christ, and remain steadfast in this faith unto the end”; and since neither of these two forms of doctrine presented in this manner contradicts any doctrine revealed in the word of God, but does full justice to the order of salvation as elsewhere presented in the word of God and the Confession of the church—we hold that this fact ought not to cause any division in the church, nor disturb that unity of Spirit in the bond of peace which God desires should prevail among us.

4. Since, however, during the doctrinal controversy among us, words and expressions have been used—rightly or wrongly attributed to the one party or the other—which seemed to the other side a denial of the confession of the church, or lead to such denial,

Therefore we have agreed to reject all erroneous doctrines which seek to explain away the mystery of Election (Formula of Concord, Art. XI, 51–64) either in a synergistic or Calvinizing manner; in other words, we reject every doctrine which either on the one hand would deprive God of his honor as the only Savior, or on the other hand weaken man’s feeling of responsibility when face to face with the acceptance or rejection of grace.

5. On the one hand we reject:

a. The doctrine, that the mercy of God and the most holy merit of Christ is not the only cause of our election, but that there also in us is a cause, on account of which God has elected us to eternal life,—

b. The doctrine that in the election God has been determined by, or has taken into account, or has been directed by the good conduct of man, or by anything which man is, or may do, or omit to do, “as of himself, or from his own natural powers.”

c. The doctrine that the faith in Christ, which is indissolubly connected with Election, is wholly or in part a product of, or dependent upon, man’s own choosing, power, or ability. (Compare, however, Formula of Concord, Art. XI, 70–72, 82–85.)

d. Or, that this faith is the result of a power and ability imparted to man by the call of grace, a power now dwelling in and belonging to the unregenerate heart, to come to a determination to accept grace.

6. On the other hand, we reject:

a. The doctrine that in the election God acts arbitrarily and without motive, and points out and counts indiscriminately a certain arbitrary number of individuals, and ordains them to conversion and salvation, while the others are passed by.

b. The doctrine that the will of God regarding our salvation is of two different kinds, one revealed in the Scriptures in the general order of salvation, and another different from this one and unknown to us, which concerns only the elect, and imparts to these a deeper love, a more effective calling from God, and a larger measure of grace than are brought to those who remain in unbelief and condemnation.

c. The doctrine that when the resistance which God in conversion removes from those who are saved is not removed from the others, who finally are lost, this difference in result has its cause in God and in a different will regarding salvation in his act of election.

d. The doctrine that a believer can and ought to have an absolute certainty of his election and salvation, instead of an assurance of faith, built upon the promises of God, and joined with fear and trembling and with the possibility of falling from grace, which, however, by the grace of God he believes will not become a reality in his case.

e. To summarize, all views and doctrines concerning Election which directly or indirectly would conflict with the order of salvation, or which in any manner would violate that word of God which says that “God will have all men to be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth”—from which gracious and merciful will of God all election to eternal life has its origin.

On the basis of the above agreement the union committees submit to their respective church bodies to adopt the following


Whereas, our Confession establishes that “for the true unity of the church it is sufficient that there be agreement in the doctrine of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments; and

Whereas, our former committees by the grace of God have attained unity in the doctrines concerning the calling, conversion, and the order of salvation in general, and we all confess as our sincere faith that we are saved by grace alone without any cooperation on our part; and

Whereas, the negotiations of our new committees have led to a satisfactory agreement concerning the doctrine of Election, and to an unreserved and unanimous acknowledgement of the doctrine of Election which is presented in the Formula of Concord, Art. XI, and in Pontoppidan’s “Sandhed til gudfrygtighed,” question 548,

Therefore we hereby declare that the essential unity now attained concerning these doctrines is sufficient for church union.

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant us the grace of his Holy Spirit, that we all may be one in him and ever remain steadfast in such Christian and God-pleasing union! Amen.

(Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. XI, is to be printed together with this report for the annual meetings.)168

Madison, Wis., Feb. 22, 1912.

Peder Tangjerd. J. Nordby.
Gerhard Rasmussen. R. Malmin.
S. Gunderson. J. E. Jørgenson.
H. Engh. G. T. Lee.
M. H. Hegge. I. D. Ylvisaker


Aaberg, Theodore A. A City Set on a Hill: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (Norwegian Synod), 1918–1968. Mankato: ELS Board of Publications, 1968.

Anderson, Christian. “Ask For the Old Paths,” Report of the Thirty-Fifth Regular Convention of The Norwegian Synod of the American Ev. Lutheran Church. Mankato: Bethany Lutheran College, June 24–29, 1952.

———. “Underlying Causes of the Deterioration and Breakdown of the Old Norwegian Synod,” The Clergy Bulletin XIII, no. 1 (1953): 3–6.

Baepler, Walter A. A Century of Grace: A History of the Missouri Synod, 1847–1947. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1947.

Berg, Donald, trans. “Pastoral Journal of the Rev. U. V. Koren.” Decorah, IA: Unpublished.

Brenner, John M., “The Election Controversy Among Lutherans in the Twentieth Century: An Examination of the Underlying Problems.” PhD diss., Paper 204, Marquette University, 2012. Accessed May 4, 2018.

DeGarmeaux, Mark, ed. and trans. U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 2: Addresses. Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2014.

———, ed. and trans. U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 3: Articles. Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2015.

———, ed. and trans. U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 4: Memoirs, Poems, Miscellaneous. Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2016.

———. “Revisiting Pontoppidan,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology XXI, no. 1 (2012): 21–24.

Dommersnaes, M. P. “We Wish to See Jesus.” In Crane Creek Lutheran Church Centennial Book, 1867–1967, edited by David Stewart.

Drevland, Petter Strøm. “Norwegian Immigrants in the American Civil War: Reasons for Enlistment according to the America Letters.” Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2013. Accessed May 4, 2018.

Ferkenstad, Craig. Proclaim His Wonders: A Pictorial History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Mankato: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2017.

Graebner, Theodore, and G. T. Lee, eds. Lutheran Herald. Decorah: Lutheran Publishing House, 1906–1917.

Harstad, Bjug A. “1921 Presidential Address” Accessed May 4, 2018.

———. “Sermon on Genesis 12:1–4,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 43, nos. 2–3 (2003): 189–199.

Harstad, Peter Tjernagel. Store Per: Norwegian-American “Paul Bunyan” of the Prairie. Lakeville, MN: Jackpine Press, 2011.

Larsen, P. Lauritz. Jacob Aal Ottesen: A Biography from the Norwegian. Translated by G. A. R. Gullixson. Wenatchee, WA: Webpco, Inc., 1987.

Lillegard, George, ed. Faith of Our Fathers. Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1953.

Lueker, Erwin L., ed. Lutheran Cyclopedia. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1954.

Malmin, Rasmus, O. M. Norlie, and O. A. Tingelstad, eds. Who’s Who Among Pastors in All the Norwegian Lutheran Synods of America, 1843–1927. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1928.

Petersen, Justin A. “Address in Commemoration of the Saxon Immigration.” 1938 Synod Convention Essay. Accessed May 30, 2018.

Preus, Herman Amberg. Vivacious Daughter: Seven Lectures on the Religious Situation Among Norwegians in America. Edited and translated by Todd W. Nichol. Northfield, MN: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1990.

Preus, J. C. K. Widening the Frontier: Sketches and Incidents from the Home Mission Field. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1929.

Rölvaag, O. E. Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Scottston, Barbara. Are These Our Roots? 150 Years of Lutherans in Lansing, Iowa. Accessed March 4, 2018.

Seehuus, Knut, ed. The Old Paths: Sermons on the Second Gospel Series according to the Church of Norway. Decorah: Lutheran Publishing House, 1914.

Teigen, Erling, ed. “Happenings at Lime Creek, June 14–19, 1918,” Oak Leaves: Newsletter of the ELS Historical Society 22, no. 1 (2018): 1, 4–8.

Wolf, Richard C. Documents of Lutheran Unity in America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Ylvisaker, S. C., Chr. Anderson, and G. O. Lillegard, eds. Grace for Grace: Brief History of the Norwegian Synod. Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1943.


1 O. E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999), 404.

2 S. C. Ylvisaker, Chr. Anderson, and G. O. Lillegard, eds., Grace for Grace: Brief History of the Norwegian Synod (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1943), 11.

3 Peter Tjernagel Harstad, Store Per: Norwegian-American “Paul Bunyan” of the Prairie (Lakeville, MN: Jackpine Press, 2011), 60.

4 Chr. Anderson reports in Grace for Grace: “In the Fox River settlement alone, out of a population of about 450 souls there were said to be about one hundred Mormons.” 17–18.

5 Ibid., 16–46. Herman Amberg Preus noted that only fourteen theological candidates from Norway accepted calls to serve in America from 1848 to 1858. By 1867, three of these had returned to Norway, while just six more had arrived. Vivacious Daughter: Seven Lectures on the Religious Situation Among Norwegians in America, ed. and trans. Todd W. Nichol (Northfield, MN: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1990), 75–76.

6 Mark DeGarmeaux, ed. and trans., U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 4: Memoirs, Poems, Miscellaneous (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2016), 27–28.

7 Donald Berg, trans., “Pastoral Journal of the Rev. U. V. Koren” (Decorah, IA: Unpublished).

8 H. A. Preus, 42 with footnote 14 on 207.

9 Grace for Grace, 50. More information about the early mission work of the Norwegian Synod can be found in J. C. K. Preus’ Widening the Frontier: Sketches and Incidents from the Home Mission Field (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1929).

10 P. Lauritz Larsen, Jacob Aal Ottesen: A Biography from the Norwegian, trans. G. A. R. Gullixson (Wenatchee, WA: Webpco, Inc., 1987), 21. The text of this book is available online:

11 Koren, Vol. 4, 31.

12 Grace for Grace, 48 (see also 16–17, 47–49). One of the chief instigators against confessional Lutheranism in the Norwegian settlements was Elling Eielsen (1804–1883). “Especially during the cholera years, 1849–1854, the loss of loved ones, loneliness, and depression left settlers vulnerable to his histrionics. Unbridled emotionalism in his sermons and prayers at unstructured ‘meetings’ (as opposed to worship services), and invective against devil-inspired, gowned clergymen who chanted and followed set liturgies in steepled churches with pulpits and altars, attracted followers.” Store Per, 109. See also H. A. Preus, 119–136.

13 Grace for Grace, 32–46.

14 Ibid., 52–53.

15 Ibid., 69–70.

16 Its initial statement in 1861 read: “Although according to the Word of God it is not in itself sin to have slaves, yet slavery is an evil and a punishment from God, and we condemn all the abuses and sins which are connected with it, just as we, when our call requires it and Christian charity and wisdom demand it, will work for its abolition.” Ibid., 149. How something can be an evil but “not in itself sin” is explained by Koren: “When we call this relationship ‘an evil,’ then this is not said with the understanding that it was an absolute evil, that is, as if it were an evil in and of itself in all situations. For we believed that Christian people knew that there is only one absolute evil, namely sin. We certainly call poverty an evil, and sickness likewise…. The same is true with slavery.” Mark DeGarmeaux, U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 3: Articles (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2015), 38.

17 For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Grace for Grace, 148–155, H. A. Preus, 161–173, and Koren, Vol. 3, 5–53. Koren said the Norwegian Synod learned later that the Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians had all discussed the same question around that time and “had declared themselves in the same manner as the pastors of the Norwegian Synod.” Koren, Vol. 3, 502.

18 Koren, Vol. 3, 478; also 501.

19 For more on this, see Petter Strøm Drevland, “Norwegian Immigrants in the American Civil War: Reasons for Enlistment according to the America Letters” (Master’s Th., University of Oslo, 2013),

20 Grace for Grace, 137–147, 156–165.

21 John M. Brenner, “The Election Controversy Among Lutherans in the Twentieth Century: An Examination of the Underlying Problems,” (PhD diss., Paper 204, Marquette University, 2012), 78. Preus remarked in 1867, “It was a great gift of grace that the Lord supplied us with this competent Christian character.” H. A. Preus, 77.

22 Rasmus Malmin, O. M. Norlie, and O. A. Tingelstad, eds., Who’s Who Among Pastors in All the Norwegian Lutheran Synods of America, 1843–1927 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1928), 517.

23 Bjug A. Harstad, “1921 Presidential Address,”

24 Brenner, 79.

25 Grace for Grace, 74–75.

26 This is the cause and effect indicated by B. Harstad in his 1921 address. For a further examination of this point, see Brenner, 79, footnotes 296, 297.

27 Quoted in Brenner, 77.

28 Ibid., 76.

29 Ibid., 86.

30 Koren, Vol. 3, 240–241. The leading theologian in the Wisconsin Synod at this time was Prof. Adolf Hoenecke, whose contributions on the doctrine of election brought greater clarity to the discussion. Brenner, 95–99.

31 Walter A. Baepler, A Century of Grace: A History of the Missouri Synod, 1847–1947 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1947), 198, 202.

32 Prof. Mark DeGarmeaux writes that Pontoppidan’s Catechism, “Truth unto Godliness, consisting of seven hundred fifty-nine questions and answers, was published in 1737, coinciding with the two-hundredth anniversary of the coming of the Lutheran Reformation to Denmark in 1536.” In the same writing, DeGarmeaux cautions against judging Pontoppidan by how his Catechism was later (mis)used. Mark DeGarmeaux, “Revisiting Pontoppidan,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology XXI, no. 1 (2012): 21–24.

33 Grace for Grace, 172. This was initially printed in Schmidt’s own publication Lutherske Vidnesbyrd (Lutheran Testimonies), 1882, p. 60.

34 This was a term Koren used in his writings during the controversy. Koren, Vol. 3, 242, 305.

35 Grace for Grace, 35–36; H. A. Preus, 182. A note appended to the 1868 constitution explained, “The only reason why the other symbols of the Lutheran Church are not yet mentioned among the symbolical books of our Synod is the fact that they have hitherto been little known to our congregations.” H. A. Preus, 182.

36 For an examination of this issue and the significance of the Book of Concord, see Koren, Vol. 4, 311–317.

37 Richard C. Wolf, Documents of Lutheran Unity in America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 196. Those organizing the Synodical Conference did add this caveat to its confessional subscription: “We prefer a confession of faith which accepts the whole Book of Concord… and we shall officially found our Synodical Conference on such a confession. But we would not deny neither [sic] recognition of orthodoxy or organizational membership because of a confession which is direct only with regard to the Augustana.” Wolf, 193.

38 The names of the initial eighty-seven signees are given in Koren, Vol. 4, 310.

39 Grace for Grace, 173–174. The full text of “An Accounting” can be accessed at

40 Ibid., 177.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., 179.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., 181.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., 182

47 Ibid., 183. Then Koren cites Johann Gerhard’s correct understanding of intuitu fidei.

48 All Bible passages are given from the English Standard Version.

49 Theodore A. Aaberg, A City Set on a Hill: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (Norwegian Synod), 1918–1968 (Mankato: ELS Board of Publications, 1968), 27.

50 Grace for Grace, 185.

51 Ibid., 172. About this statement Koren wrote, “The one who first used this expression among us, at that time actually stated that he well knew that it had a ‘synergistic ring.’ According to my conviction, both the ‘ring’ and the meaning are synergistic and contrary to the Word of God.” Koren, Vol. 3, 268.

52 Grace for Grace, 172. Schmidt’s associate, the Rev. B. J. Muus, made even more radical statements than these. Koren, Vol. 3, 237–239, 333–336. For a collection of statements by Schmidt and Muus, see Koren, Vol. 3, 482–483.

53 Grace for Grace, 166–167. This pamphlet, “Features of Dr. Schmidt’s Conduct,” was published by the Synod’s Church Council (of which Koren was a member) in consultation with the Theological Faculty at Luther Seminary. Koren, Vol. 3, 527.

54 Grace for Grace, 167, 171.

55 Barbara Scottston, Are These Our Roots? 150 Years of Lutherans in Lansing, Iowa, 119,

56 Grace for Grace, 169–170.

57 Ibid., 189–190.

58 Ibid., 53.

59 Koren, Vol. 3, 525.

60 M. P. Dommersnaes, “We Wish to See Jesus,” in Crane Creek Lutheran Church Centennial Book, 1867–1967, ed. David Stewart, 9.

61 Grace for Grace, 53.

62 Koren, Vol. 3, 526–527; Grace for Grace, 93–94.

63 Theodore Graebner and G. T. Lee, eds., Lutheran Herald (Decorah: Lutheran Publishing House, 1906–1917). The first English-language journal of the Norwegian Synod, The Lutheran Watchman, was edited by F. A. Schmidt for the short duration of its existence from 1866–1867.

64 Erwin L. Lueker, ed., Lutheran Cyclopedia (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1954), 430–431.

65 The Lutheran Herald was bound in volumes by year. This reference is on page 1114 of the 1909 volume. See Appendix I for a list of references from the Lutheran Herald regarding the church union issue.

66 Herald (1910), 362.

67 Grace for Grace, 98–99.

68 Ibid., 98. Associates of Stub later denied that he omitted any of Koren’s words. See Herald (1916), 789–790.

69 Herald (1911), 4–8.

70 Ibid., 51.

71 Grace for Grace, 99–101.

72 Herald (1912), 242. For the full text of the theses, see Appendix II.

73 Ibid., 272.

74 Ibid., 273. Emphasis mine.

75 Ibid., 274.

76 Ibid., 579. Comparing Stub’s comments at this point with what he said during the first round of the election controversy shows how much his doctrinal approach had changed. He wrote in 1881, “The Second Form [Pontoppidan] is an attempt at finding a solution; it is an attempt to explain a great difficulty, an attempt to render intelligible and explicable that which in our opinion must be recognized as inexplicable…. The First Form is very inconvenient for Semi-pelagians and Synergists. Behind the Second Form they can hide; behind the First they cannot.” Herald (1913), 478.

77 Grace for Grace, 104.

78 Herald (1912), 604.

79 Herald (1913), 2–3. He repeated this invitation a few months later and challenged Kirketidende to allow both sides to be heard.

80 Ibid., 48. Graebner continued, “The fact that the editor of this paper, and his parents as well, are American born, will not interest Rev. Rygh.” The name “Kaiser Willem” is given in the original.

81 Ibid., 49. “Doctrine” is printed in all caps in the original.

82 Ibid., 313.

83 Graebner revealed some personal frustrations when he wrote, “This charge (‘not a friend of union’), as our readers need hardly be told, is, under present circumstances, one of the more serious which can be lodged against any Norwegian Lutheran. The clergy and lay membership of the Synod as well as of the United Church earnestly desire the reestablishment of brotherly relations. To charge a man with ‘not being a friend of union’ is, therefore, a most damaging blow against any man’s popularity. It is like branding him with a red-hot iron.” Ibid., 456.

84 Ibid., 527.

85 Ibid., 598–599.

86 Graebner’s views moderated somewhat after this. He participated in giving uncertain advice to the minority opposed to the merger (Aaberg, 274–282), and he later leveled some criticisms against the reorganized Norwegian Synod (Aaberg, 151–154).

87 Of his predecessor, Lee said, “Although we have not shared his views regarding “opgjør” and the union movement, we have always admired Rev. Graebner’s clear and spirited style, his extensive knowledge and appreciated the work he has done for the Synod as editor of the Lutheran Herald.” Ibid., 642.

88 Herald (1914), 316.

89 Examples are the pushback in the 1915 Herald against the Rev. F. W. Wiese (361–362, 409–410), former editor, Prof. Graebner (431, 819–821), Prof. C. K. Preus (842–844), and the Rev. Chr. Anderson (1227–1229).

90 Herald (1915), 818–819 and Herald (1916), 68, 430–431.

91 Herald (1915), 844. Koren warned about this sort of propaganda in 1902. Koren, Vol. 2, 110, 112.

92 Ibid., 1133.

93 Editor Lee acknowledged hearing this claim: “There may be a few who are not ready to enter the union. If it is against their conscience they ought not to do it. The Synod has no right or intention to force any man to act against conscience. The only thing for them to do would be to wait until they can join with a good conscience. But it is an absurdity to try to hold up the action of a church body in a matter of this kind by a claim that it is a matter of conscience to certain individuals. We must learn to distinguish between self-conceit and stubbornness and a tender conscience.” Herald (1916), 429, also 431–432.

94 Ibid., 499. The Rev. J. A. Thorsen spoke in favor of this motion before it was tabled. These men then spoke against the motion for union: the Rev. John Halvorson, Prof. C. K. Preus, the Rev. Paul Koren, the Rev. Findahl, the Rev. Chr. Anderson, Mr. R. M. Nelson, the Rev. J. A. Thorsen, the Rev. G. A. Gullixson, and the Rev. M. K. Bleken.

95 Ibid., 500.

96 Ibid., 504. The Rev. H. M. Tjernagel made this motion, and the Rev. Thorsen, the Rev. Blækkan, Prof. Preus, and the Rev. Torrison spoke in favor of it.

97 Ibid., 532. Members of the minority who spoke at this point include the Rev. Torrison, the Rev. Thorsen, the Rev. N. M. Ylvisaker, the Rev. J. Levorson, Prof. Preus, Rep. A. Storvik, and Rep. Buslee. The Rev. Torrison said there were 150 men who had signed on to this statement. 533.

98 Ibid., 573.

99 Ibid., 577–578.

100 Ibid., 980.

101 Ibid., 981. The union committee later revisited its answer and added further clarifications. Herald (1917), 22–25.

102 Herald (1917), 169.

103 Ibid., 553. This included the Rev. O. T. Lee, the Rev. Holden M. Olson, the Rev. Bjug Harstad, and the Rev. J. A. Moldstad. Prof. Preus stated at this time that he believed there was unity in doctrine and did not want to “assume the responsibility of causing a division in the church.” 554. The next day, “Rev. E. Hansen stated that he would not now join the new church, but would wait for some time. Revs. A. J. Torgerson and H. Ingebritson stated that they could not join the new church.” 580.

104 Ibid., 549–551. With this merger, the Lutheran Herald consolidated with The United Lutheran and was renamed the Lutheran Church Herald. 605.

105 If not alone for weaknesses in the Madison Agreement, we do not believe U. V. Koren would have entered this merger without a formal retraction by Schmidt of his doctrinal errors. That such a retraction was not made gave legitimacy to Schmidt’s errors and sent the message that the controversy had really been over words and not substance. Neither Koren nor Schmidt would have agreed with that characterization.

106 Rölvaag, 405.

107 Herald (1916), 189–191.

108 Ibid., 187, 191.

109 Ibid., 504–505.

110 Ibid., 506.

111 Ibid.

112 Ibid., 507. “With malice toward none, with charity for all” is quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. “Let us acquit ourselves like men” is loosely based on 1 Corinthians 16:13 and was popular in the political discourse of the time.

113 The Herald (1917) noted, “These synods have 625 congregations, 550 pastors, 175,000 communicant members.” 435. It also published the potential name of the organization, “The Northwest Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” In 1959, this church body was renamed the “Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.”

114 Ibid., 435, 457–458.

115 Grace for Grace, 118.

116 The Rev. Chr. Anderson, who was present at the meeting, reports that thirteen Norwegian Synod pastors were in attendance. See Grace for Grace, 118. The reporter of the publication Amerika, also present at the meeting, counted sixteen Norwegian Synod pastors. See Craig Ferkenstad, Proclaim His Wonders: A Pictorial History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (Mankato: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2017), 27. Those Norwegian pastors whose attendance can be verified are: Chr. Anderson, Lauritz Guttebø, Emil Hansen, Bjug Harstad, Henry Ingebritson, Lars Jensen, George Lillegard, John Moldstad, Guttorm Nesseth, Holden Olsen, Christian Peterson, Jacob Thoen, and Augustinus Torgerson. The same Amerika article reported that M. K. Bleken was elected to the Constitution Committee, which means he was in favor of the proceedings even if not present. The Missouri Synod pastors were: H. Steger, George/Henry Koenig, George Koch, and Gerhardt Schmidt. For a list of most of the pastors and laypeople present, see Erling Teigen, ed., “Happenings at Lime Creek, June 14–19, 1918,” Oak Leaves: Newsletter of the ELS Historical Society 22, no. 1 (2018): 4–5.

117 Bjug A. Harstad, “Sermon on Genesis 12:1–4,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 43, nos. 2–3 (2003): 192–193.

118 Grace for Grace, 120.

119 Ibid., 117.

120 The ELS Historical Society produced a play on this episode from a script by Michael Lilienthal, The Oak Trees Still Stand. Copies of the 2013 script and video can be obtained through the ELS Ottesen Museum.

121 H. A. Preus, 93.

122 Ibid., 94.

123 Ibid., 157.

124 Ibid., 158.

125 Ibid., 159. For more on this debate, see Koren, Vol. 3, 54–66, 83–91.

126 Ibid., 160.

127 Herald (1916), 1023.

128 Christian Anderson, “Underlying Causes of the Deterioration and Breakdown of the Old Norwegian Synod,” The Clergy Bulletin XIII, no. 1 (1953): 3.

129 On the duration of time in synodical office, Anderson notes, “It is no doubt an advantage to let those who have proven their ability continue at the head of the organization, rather than have frequent changes. Experience surely counts for much in carrying out the duties of the office. But on the other hand there is the grave danger that the prestige connected with holding office a long time may be abused when a crisis arises. After all, even the best among us are only human. Because of the experience we had in the formation of the late merger, there was a gentlemen’s agreement among us, when we re-organized the Synod, that the term of office of the President was to be only two years, and that no one was to be re-elected more than once. We have hereby no doubt lost some of the valuable service of experienced men, but this loss has been offset by the safeguard against anyone wrongfully usurping power which this arrangement has given us.” Ibid., 5.

130 Ibid., 3–6.

131 Koren warned about this very danger in 1902. Koren, Vol. 2, 113.

132 Ferkenstad, 39.

133 H. A. Preus, 50.

134 Koren notes that both the Norwegian and Missouri Synods were accused of “orthodoxism” or “doctrinal purism”: “This consists in making pure doctrine the goal, though it should be only the means to attaining the right goal. The goal should be a true, real, living faith. For this is life in God. As a person believes, so does he live—When people who do not strive to live according to the Word of God still boast of ‘having the pure doctrine,’ the danger and offense is so much the greater…. [H]e who lives an ungodly life, and who lives for the world alone, has no true faith, even if he considers himself ever so orthodox.” Koren, Vol. 3, 471 footnote.

135 Koren, Vol. 3, 516. For similar statements about the Missouri Synod, see Koren, Vol. 2, 379–385.

136 Justin A. Petersen, “Address in Commemoration of the Saxon Immigration” 1938 Synod Convention Essay,

137 Grace for Grace, 133–134. Online at

138 For a thorough treatment of this time period from the ELS perspective, see Aaberg, 134–242.

139 Mark DeGarmeaux, U. V. Koren’s Works: Volume 2: Addresses (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2014), 16.

140 This estimate was provided by the Rev. Gaylin Schmeling, the current president of the CELC. For more information, see

141 Aaberg, 195.

142 H. A. Preus, 50.

143 Koren, Vol. 3, 66, 96.

144 Ibid., 404.

145 Ibid., 405.

146 Aaberg, 237.

147 Koren, Vol. 3, 407.

148 Regarding “self-chosen worship,” H. A. Preus wrote: “Uniformity in ceremonies and liturgical customs is not, to be sure, necessary to preserve unity in faith, but it is indeed edifying, while diversity in ceremonies often fosters deplorable antagonisms and the cooling of love. On the other hand, the inward bond and collaboration between congregations can be promoted by the greatest possible uniformity in liturgical customs and church order.” H. A. Preus, 49.

149 Koren, Vol. 3, 407–408.

150 Ibid., 201, 412. It was Koren who proposed this inscription. Koren, Vol. 2, 121.

151 Koren, Vol. 3, 414. Koren likewise said in another place, “For if I give up my confidence in the Holy Scriptures, then I do not know what sense there is in calling myself a Christian.” Koren, Vol. 2, 98.

152 Koren, Vol. 3, 153. For what happens to one “who usually and regularly turns to the Reformed writers,” see Koren, Vol. 2, 8.

153 Koren, Vol. 3, 418. Luther expressed the same thing in his “sacristy prayer.”

154 Ibid., 66.

155 Ibid., 447, 448.

156 Ibid., 448–449.

157 This emphasis on “the old paths” in our synod did not originate with Bjug Harstad’s sermon in 1918 where he quoted Jeremiah 6:16. Koren referred to “the old paths” in 1882 (Koren, Vol. 2, 230), 1886 (Koren, Vol. 3, 305, and 1890 (Ibid., 481); the front page of each copy of the Lutheran Herald quoted Jeremiah 6:16; and a book of English sermons called The Old Paths was published by the Norwegian Synod in 1914. In the forward of this book, the Rev. Knut Seehuus writes, “One claim the book does make. It is this: that its contents adhere to the Old Paths. They are always the safest, bring the best results in church-work, and lead safely to the mansions above.” Knut Seehuus, ed., The Old Paths: Sermons on the Second Gospel Series according to the Church of Norway (Decorah: Lutheran Publishing House, 1914). There are no doubt other references to “the old paths” in the old Norwegian Synod besides these.

158 Koren, Vol. 2, 107–108.

159 Regarding Lutheran schools in the Norwegian Synod, see H. A. Preus, 63–68. There he says in part that the public school is not an ideal place for the education of Christian children, because “the school is religionless and that on principle neither Christian instruction nor Christian discipline can find a place in it.” 64. It was not that the Norwegian Synod pastors were in favor of getting religion into the public schools. To the contrary, Koren wrote, “we acknowledge the necessity of their being without religion; but for that very reason we do not regard them as the right schools for our children; for we believe that there ought to be Christian schools for Christian children.” Koren, Vol. 3, 571–572.

160 For a history of Lutheran schools in the ELS, see Ferkenstad, 193–205.

161 H. A. Preus, 79.

162 Christian Anderson, “Ask For the Old Paths,” Report of the Thirty-Fifth Regular Convention of The Norwegian Synod of the American Ev. Lutheran Church (Mankato: Bethany Lutheran College, June 24–29, 1952), 21.

163 Koren, Vol. 3, 403–489. This article is also printed in Faith of Our Fathers (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1953), 47–112.

164 Koren, Vol. 3, 488–489.

165 Herald (1913), 599.

166 Herald (1916), 404–407.

167 The English translation seems to have been less precise than the Norwegian original. Members of the minority asked that the Formula of Concord reference be amended from “Art. XI, 10–20” in the original (not “Art. XI, 13–24” found here) to “Art. XI, 1–20.”

168 The text of the Formula of Concord can be accessed online at

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