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In perspective: Anti-slavery sentiments behind Luther’s founding

Archived+photo+of+early+Luther+students.
Archived photo of early Luther students.

Archived photo of early Luther students.

Photo courtesy of Luther College Archives

Photo courtesy of Luther College Archives

Archived photo of early Luther students.

Emma Busch, Staff Writer

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It is commonly said that Luther College was founded by Norwegians opposed to slavery in the United States following the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861. While this is true, the history of Luther’s founding is more complex than many on campus may know.

In October of 1857, the Norwegian Synod agreed to establish a Norwegian higher-learning institution in America. While they raised funds to build Luther, students were sent to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Reverend, scholar, and future Luther president Laur Larsen was appointed to the seminary’s Norwegian professorship. According to College Archivist Hayley Jackson, this arrangement was called into question when congregations became aware of the seminary’s position on slavery.

“There was a letter written to an editor in one of the Norwegian [newspapers] talking about this rumor that in Missouri, they were pro-succession and pro-slavery down there,” Jackson said. “There was [another] letter to the editor asking Dr. Larsen if this was true. He didn’t answer. Larsen looked [at it as] just a letter to the editor. ‘I’m busy trying to run a school, I’m trying to run churches; I don’t have time.’ But they interpreted his silence as a yes, so it kind of blew up from there.”

While the issue of slavery in the United States was a topic many Norwegians felt strongly about, members of the Norwegian Synod like Larsen held a view of slavery that differed from the laity of their congregations. Assistant Professor of History Anna Peterson said members of the synod in the United States were also at odds with their counterparts in Norway on the issue.

“[The Synod] came out and said that there’s no way that you can use the Bible to condemn slavery,” Peterson said. “That’s in contrast to what the faculty in Oslo, Norway said and they got into a fight. They found it morally reprehensible but they said that they can’t read that into the scriptures. It’s complicated in that sense because it is a theological discussion as well as a moral discussion.”

According to Professor of History Jacqueline Wilkie, shortly before the founding of Luther, Larsen returned to Norway to try to convince Norwegian pastors to come to America. Many Norwegians who heard him speak took issue with his theological stance on slavery. 

Photo courtesy of Luther College Archives
Founding president of Luther College Laur Larsen.

“He had previously written that there was no biblical reason for opposing slavery, even though it was morally repugnant,” Wilkie said. “He was actually not speaking on that topic [while] in Norway. He was speaking in Norway on the topic of the need for a continuation of Norwegian institutions in America, the need to have more pastors, [and] the need to establish institutions of higher learning. But he was actually challenged in Norway regarding his stance on the question of slavery.”

Missouri was split between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. Even though St. Louis was under Union control, it was contested because of its location near the junction of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers. Due to safety concerns in this precarious location, Concordia closed.

In response, in June of 1861, the Norwegian Lutheran Synod assembled in Rock Prairie, Wisconsin to discuss plans for the future college. Synod leadership and the laity differed in opinion on whether Luther’s opening should be halted indefinitely or if they should send students to another seminary in Indiana, similar to the previous arrangement with the St. Louis seminary.

“There was this debate about whether they should wait two years or whether it should happen immediately because they could send people to the other German Lutheran seminary in Indiana,” Wilkie said. “They had some people in Indiana. That’s where the laity said, ‘No, we’re dividing from them now and we’re doing it immediately.’ So the notion of the immediate opening of a college happened in that meeting. And the issue of slavery is central to that demand that, ‘No, we’re separating from those people because even the one in Indiana is still associated with this position we oppose.’”

While the Norwegian Synod’s opposition to slavery was a factor in this decision, Peterson says that their motive for founding Luther was also based on their desire to create Norwegian institutions in America.

“Having their own school that they could have control over that was going to have instruction in Norwegian was [part of this goal],” Peterson said. “It was going to be located to mass settlement for Norwegians to attend. So that was part of their motivation. Slavery was part of the discussion, but it’s never the sole motivator for why it shouldn’t have been in Missouri.”

College Pastor Mike Blair says that Luther’s founding story reminds us that we can look to our institutions history for guidance with current issues.

“It tells us that Luther College in its founding was concerned about questions about racial justice and these questions still matter today,” Blair said. “We have much to learn from our [founding] ancestors and that legacy, but we also have a significant legacy to live up to. It’s a legacy that’s needed in our world today that seems to be polarized around questions of justice and racism, so to me, it offers a story that is something of a compass for Luther College.”

Blair points to the Decolonizing Lutheranism movement as a way in which members of the Luther community can engage with the past and present in order to cultivate an engaged community.

“The core message [of Decolonizing Lutheranism] is about grace and that everyone is a beloved, worthy, gifted child of God, so the question is then how we create a community where people experience that,” Blair said. “So some of that has to do with stepping back from some of our assumptions and beginning to unlearn some things. For instance, it’s good to celebrate that there’s a Norwegian heritage at Luther College, but if you get to know the stories in depth, then you find out it’s not a quaint story about Ole and Lena making lefse.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “In perspective: Anti-slavery sentiments behind Luther’s founding”

  1. Don on March 8th, 2018 12:39 pm

    I do not think Wilke’s statement “No, we’re separating from those people because even the one in Indiana is still associated with this position we oppose” correctly captures the sentiment of the Lutheran churches at the time. (I fault neither her nor Ms. Busch. This is a messy era of history to cover in a brief article for a college paper.) Both German-American and Norwegian-American Lutherans were internally divided over the issue of slavery; the Lutheran church was very much a reflection of the general populous in this regard. Certainly, the Germans were more deeply divided than the Norwegians, but the Norwegians hadn’t settled as southward as the Germans. Geography was a bigger participant than we give credit.

    There was no clean break of the Norwegians from the Germans. Both groups remained essentially in fellowship. The smaller Norwegian bodies still looked to the more established German bodies for theological leadership. Visiting professors and preachers from the German seminaries were not uncommon. In fact, when a controversy over predestination cropped up in the 1870s, the majority of Norwegian Lutherans –including their flagship university, Luther College– sided with Missouri. A minority of Norwegians broke off from their compatriots and founded the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood and St. Olaf College. Theological differences, and not social views, would form the basis of subsequent Lutheran mergers and divisions.

    Lutheran history has never been tidy, and we should take care not to reduce truth to narratives that fit a particular worldview — no matter how much we prefer to think of ourselves as having been on the right side of history. $.02.

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