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Arland O. Fiske: The Scandinavian colleges in America

“How they loved education. How they will plan and how they are ready to sacrifice and to suffer that their children may have an education. I actually saw large families living in sod shacks on the open prairie sending a boy or girl to Concordia College.”  This is how Rev. George H. Gerberding, newly arrived from the East to Fargo, described the Scandinavian passion for education. I was the first of our family to attend and graduate from Concordia in Moorhead.

The Scandinavian immigration to America happened when an awakening to learning was taking place in their homelands. Norway had recently obtained a university. Bishop Grundtvig was leading a movement in Denmark to make education available for the common people. Finland was just reclaiming its own language for literature and government after 600 years of Swedish dominance. Sweden’s new ruling family, the Bernadottes from France, embraced the creed of liberty, equality and fraternity.

It was only natural that education was such a high priority in the minds of so many Scandinavian immigrants. The earliest Scandinavian school, named Augustana, began in Chicago in 1860. Being a joint venture of Swedish and Norwegian Lutheran congregations, its primary concern was to prepare the sons of immigrants for the ministry of the church. Times were tough. In 1862, the school was lured to Paxton, Ill., by an offer of the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1869, the Norwegians set up their own school and parted from the Swedes as friends.

From these humble beginnings came Augustana (Swedish) College in Rock Island, Ill. and Augustana (Norwegian) College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Augsburg (Norwegian) College in Minneapolis. “Augsburg” is the German name for the Latin “Augustana.”  It refers to the “Augsburg Confession” of 1530 named after a city in Germany. It is a statement of faith to which all Lutherans subscribe.

Other Swedish schools include Gustavus Adolphus (1862), St. Peter, Minnesota; Bethany (1881), Lindsboro, Kan. (1893); Uppsala (1893), East Orange, N.J. (recently closed), and Bethel (Baptist) in St. Paul.

The Norwegians founded Luther College in 1861, when the Union Army closed down Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, because the faculty was said to be sympathetic to slavery. Prior to this, the Norwegian Synod leaders had visited several Lutheran schools and were impressed by the educational system of the Missouri Synod with German background.

They arranged for a Norwegian faculty member to be at Concordia Seminary to tutor future Norwegian pastors. While the Norwegian faculty member and students favored the arrangement and even defended its views on slavery, the Norwegian congregations up north would have no part of it. They began a school near LaCrosse, Wisc., in a vacant parsonage. They moved the following year to Decorah, Iowa.

Later Norwegian schools founded in Minnesota were St. Olaf (1874) at Northfield and Concordia (1891) in Moorhead, Pacific Lutheran University (1891) in Tacoma, Wash., Waldorf College (1903) in Forest City, Iowa. In Canada they established Camrose Lutheran College in Camrose, Alberta, and Luther College (1913) in Regina, Sask. There had been a Clifton College in Clifton, Texas that has been merged with Texas Lutheran at Seguin, Texas. Bethany College was started in 1926 in Mankato. Norwegian-Americans were also active in establishing California Lutheran University at Thousand Oaks, near Los Angeles after World War II.

The Danes started two colleges that awere still operating Dana (1884) in Blair, Neb. and Grand View (1896) in Des Moines, Iowa. Both have been sold to othrt organizations. The Finns established Suomi College in Hancock, Mich., in 1896. It has recently been renamed Finlandia University.

Besides the above named schools there were many smaller colleges and academies (high schools) operated by Scandinavians that have either merged into larger schools or were closed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The only academy surviving academy today is Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo where I received my high school diploma.

The Scandinavians also established theological seminaries. The Swedish Augustana Theological Seminary, the Danish seminary in Des Moines and the Finnish seminary in Hancock have been merged into the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. The former Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis and Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul (both Norwegian) have been merged into the present Luther Seminary in St. Paul. The merger also included Northwestern Lutheran Seminary ofMinneapolis. The former Danish Trinity Seminary in Blair was merged with Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa in 1956.

What was the driving force behind this passion for education? The Scandinavians were aliens in a strange and not always hospitable land. Establishing schools helped them to retain their ethnic identity and to keep their religious faith as taught in their homelands. It made it possible for many farm youth to get an education with limited ability in English. Since many communities did not have high schools, the academies with a college department provided dormitories and made an education possible for many immigrant children.

Most of the schools started by Scandinavians have chosen not to become universities. There was a movement in the 1950s to make this change. The decision to remain colleges prevailed because it was thought better to remain colleges of excellence rather than to become second-class universities. The decision has been vindicated. The Scandinavian American colleges now serve people of all ethnic backgrounds, but they have not forgotten their heritage.

Next week: The Norwegians of Lake Wobegon

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.