By Torbjørn Greipsland
In 2011, the book “Norwegian Newspapers in America” was published; it was written by St. Olaf College Professor Emeritus Odd S. Lovoll. One year later the Scandinavian Academic Press issued the Norwegian edition, “Norske aviser i Amerika”. It is an impressive work with a plethora of information about the nearly 280 Norwegian-American newspapers established between 1846 and 2010. There is a mass of detailed information about the publications and their employees, which must have taken an exorbitant amount of time to gather and analyze.
I lack the knowledge to evaluate all the material, but the book provides an overview that I think many will appreciate. Plus we learn about the subjects the newspapers found newsworthy and the issues of the day. It gives a non-fiction writer the opportunity to determine what he may wish to discuss and emphasize. At the same time, I would like to point out some omissions, as well as information about which we were told the newspapers wrote.
Sverre Mørkhagen, a Norwegian author and editor, wrote a trilogy about emigration to America. In the third volume, he talks about what is considered the first organized emigration from Norway to the United States. The sloop Restauration set sail from Stavanger to New York on July 4, 1825. One hundred years later he relates how the Norwegian-American community celebrated its centennial in grand style in Minnesota. Even President Calvin Coolidge attended and offered great praise to the Norwegian immigrants. Furthermore, he declared that Leif Erikson had discovered America 500 years before Columbus. The crowd was elated and the cheers were deafening, so we are told. Also during the festivities, scenes and photos from Norwegian history were in full view for the throngs of celebrants.
Mørkhagen also told of celebrations honoring Olav Haraldsson the Holy, also known as St. Olav, as well as Hans Nielsen Hauge after whom the Haugean Movement was named and which movement played an important part in nurturing the democratic folk movement of the time.
Another key player in Norwegian-American Christian life was Elling Eielsen, the first Norwegian Lutheran minister in the United States, who established his church in the Haugean style, emphasizing personal diligence, enterprise and frugality. Many Norwegian-American churches that followed organized with the same beliefs. It was only natural to mark the centenary events with information about Norwegian-American Christian heritage, since religious life was at the heart of most communities.
Lovoll does not mention the church’s 1925 centennial celebration in either his newspaper book or “The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People.” Rather, he emphasizes in the last mentioned book the cheers that called out the names of pagan gods, such as Thor and Odin. This is perplexing since, even today in Minnesota, Norwegian-American churches are alive and well and found throughout the state. As an example, within 15 miles of one another near Fergus Falls, stand the churches of Zion-Sarpsborg, Thordenskjold, Sverdrup, Tingvold and Stavanger.
The question remains: How much ink did the Norwegian-American newspapers give Norwegian and Norwegian-American religious leaders, such as Olav Haraldsson the Holy and Hans Nielsen Hauge or Elling Eielsen? Their images were distinctly visible during celebrations that drew hundreds, if not thousands of people. Or were they merely passed over as in Lovoll’s book? In either case, why is church life downplayed?
Lovoll does mention that nearly one thousand people chose to be reenactors of Colonel Hans Christian Heg and his Civil War Scandinavian15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment during the centennial. Heg was hailed as a “person who embodied all that is best and noblest in a citizen”; his patriotism and heroism were admirable. Colonel Heg deserved attention, but there were other notables as well, just in different roles.
He who meant the most
Among other influential Norwegians was Lars Olsen Skrefsrud. Author Nils Ronning wrote this about him: “Of all the famous people, whether they were bishops, professors, priests, explorers, writers or artists who visited the Norwegians in America, no one had a deeper and more lasting effect than Skrefsrud,” who was a Lutheran missionary and language researcher, who spent years in India.
Skrefsrud visited America for 16 months in 1894 and 1895. He spoke with and listened to thousands of people throughout America in churches, universities and organizations. Norwegian-American newspapers wrote prolifically about Skrefsrud. Lovoll doesn’t mention him or what the newspapers reported about his visit in his newspaper history. However, I know that Skrefsrud was greeted with a photo and poem on Nordic Tidende’s front page, not unlike what “Skandinavia” printed when Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha visited in 1939. Again, it appears that Lovoll downplays church life.
A Man with Presidential Persuasion
In 1953 Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian-born Methodist minister, worked with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish the National Prayer Breakfast, which first took place at the Mayflower Hotel, owned by Norwegian-American Conrad Hilton, and today takes place at the Hilton, Washington, D.C.
With so many influential people involved and up to 3,500 now attending, including each sitting president, the event did and does hit news outlets, including Norwegian-American papers. Again, what did the Norwegian-American newspapers write? The celebrated breakfast and Abraham Vereide are not mentioned in Lovoll’s newspaper book nor in his book “The Promised Fulfilled.”
Abraham Vereide had a great influence on all presidents and invitees from more than 100 countries. The breakfast is now hosted by members of the United States Congress and organized by The Fellowship Foundation. Since the inception of the National Prayer Breakfast, several U.S. states and cities and other countries have established their own annual prayer breakfasts.
A Matter of Numbers
Lovoll writes 381 that in the 2000 U.S. census, 4,477,725 people declared they were of Norwegian descent. I believe the number was actually higher. When I worked on my book, “Norwegian Pioneers in the Seven Regions of the World,” I learned that the census allows each respondent a maximum of two ethnicities from which to choose. See http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/doc/sf3.pdf. It also is confirmed by Danish researcher Torben Grøngaard Jeppesen, author of the book, “Scandinavian Descendants in the USA.” Although a person may select the ethnic background with which he or she most identifies, one could reasonably conclude there are many more Americans who descend from Norwegian ancestry; thus, the number could greatly exceed 4.5 million. I will concede the figure 4.5 million is most often used in newspapers and books and on television and radio.
The Wilderness of Sur and Moses
Lovoll writes about the Sur Desert in Brooklyn where homeless people and unemployed sailors lived. The place was named after the biblical Sur, also written Sjur in Norwegian, which means wall or, perhaps, fortress. But when Lovoll writes that Moses named the place, he is wrong. According to Genesis 16:7, the desert got its name several hundred years before Moses arrived. However, there is no doubt that Brooklyn’s Desert Sur (Norwegian for sour) was, indeed, a sour place to dwell.
I wish to say Lovoll’s “Norwegian Newspapers in America” offers a good overview of the Norwegian newspapers in the USA. However, it is clear that Professor Emeritus Lovoll did not delve into or research sufficiently what the Norwegian-American newspapers wrote about church and Christian life among Norwegian immigrants and their descendants.
— Translated into English by Leslee Lane Hoyum