The Lutheran Church in Duluth (Early History)

Next to the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran faith in Duluth probably numbers more members than any other creed.

It is also one of the most cosmopolitan, embracing in its membership Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Finns and Americans.

With the rush of population that came to the city when the first railroad construction work was begun in 1869-70 came a large number of the various races mentioned who were seeking work on the railroads or in the lumbering operations in the woods. A large proportion of these found steady employment in the town and preferred to remain there, and so it came about that in October, 1871, the first Lutheran congregation was organized in Duluth. This was known as the First Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the movement toward its organization was taken by Rev. J. C. Jacobson, of West Brook, Minn., who was then a home missionary of the church and whose attention had been drawn to the lack of church ministration under which his fellow countrymen labored. The nucleus of a congregation was gathered together, and this for a time had its services in a building at the corner of First avenue east and Third street. The same year steps were taken to erect a church structure, and a site was obtained at Fourth street and Tenth avenue east. The records of the church do not tell how much the site and building cost, but the work was pushed and the building was ready for occupancy early in the following year. The first pastor of the church was Rev. A. Weenaas, who is still alive in his native land, Norway.

Rev. Mr. Weenaas served as pastor of the church until 1873, when Rev. G. Hoyme succeeded him. The latter afterward became president of the United Church.

The congregation appears to have been in a flourishing condition at this early stage of its career. Then came the stringent times that followed the collapse of Jay Cooke & Co., when work of all kinds was practically suspended, and as a consequence most of the members of the church had to leave the city in search of a means of living, and the membership dwindled to such small proportions that the pastor also left, and to cap the climax of the misfortunes of the people, the city the same year was visited by a tornado, which blew down the church and reduced it to a mass of kindling wood. The destruction was total. The few remaining members of the church were not disheartened, however, and kept their organization intact. In the four or five years following the church was temporarily served by Rev. M. Shirley, the membership not being sufficiently numerous or affluent to engage a permanent pastor. By 1875, however, it had gathered together sufficient funds to erect a new church on Fourth street and Fourth avenue west, and here for a number of years, or until 1882, services were held with itinerant pastors. Conditions in this year had begun to improve, and the church obtained a permanent pastor, Rev. M. J. IT. Grothein, the congregation consisting then of twenty-three voting members. The church prospered during the five years’ pastorate of Rev. Grothein, and its membership increased to eighty-four voters, with a total membership of 320.

By 1887 the congregation had so prospered that it felt the time had come to procure better church accommodations, and on a site that would be more convenient for its membership. The site chosen was the present location of the church, First avenue east and Third street, and a church was built there the same year.
The Rev. P. Nilson, of La Crosse, was called to the pastorate and served the church until 1892, the membership of the church increasing steadily during his pastorate. In 1893 the Rev. P. Harvol was called, and the affairs of the church were steadily prospering under his charge until February 3, 1895, when the church caught fire and was totally destroyed. This was the second severe setback the congregation had received, but they rallied with indomitable optimism, and by July 7 of the same year a new church edifice, the present one, and far exceeding in beauty and the thoroughness of the appointments, was erected. Rev. P. Harvol was succeeded in the pastorate of the church on September 12, 1897, by Rev. N. R. Thbett, who served the church ably for seven years, and under whose ministrations the membership gained largely. He resigned the pastorate in 1904, and the congregation then called Rev. J. H. Stenberg, who assumed the office of pastor on October 23, 1904. Rev. Mr. Stenberg is the present pastor. The church has had a continued reign of prosperity under his pastorate. Its present membership is about 500. It is out of debt, and is a liberal contributor for missionary work and for benevolent purposes. The value of the church property, including the parsonage adjoining, is placed at $21, 400.

Since the organization of the Norwegian Lutheran Church, which may, in a sense, be considered the -mother church, a number of other parishes have been started, until now there are seventeen churches of the denomination in the city, and all in a flourishing condition. These are: The Bethesda Norwegian Lutheran Church, Rev. Theodore J. Austad, pastor; the Ebenezer Norwegian Lutheran Church, Rev. Halvor L. Westell, pastor; the Elim Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. John A. Krantz, pastor; the English Lutheran Synod Church, Rev. Einar Wulfsberg, pastor; the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Peter Karenen, pastor; the First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Carl Solomonson, pastor; the Fond du Lac Scandinavian Mission; the Norwegian Synod Lutheran Church, Rev. Bergel A. Johnson, pastor; Our Saviour’s Norwegian Lutheran Church, Rev. J. A. Bjerke, pastor; St. John’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Joseph L. Murphy, pastor; St. Matthew ‘s German Lutheran Church, Rev. Herman Drews, pastor; St. Shephen’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Walter Sievers, pastor; the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Bethany Church, Rev. Carl G. Olson, pastor; the Swedish Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Gustaf Oberg, pastor; the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Thorsten T. Roan, pastor, and Zion Norwegian Lutheran Church, Rev. Thoralf Fossum, pastor. According to the last reports made by these churches on membership they had close to 5, 000 members, which is only exceeded by one other denomination, the Roman Catholic.

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The Lutheran Church in Duluth (Early History)

Several of the sturdy settlers of the first period of white settlement on the North Shore were of Northern European origin, or antecedents, and while there were not sufficient to make the organization of a Lutheran Church Society possible, such became a possibility with the influx of the second period, 1869 and on. The record has it that “the first Lutheran congregation was organized in Duluth” in October, 1871, and became known as the First Norwegian Lutheran Church, Rev. J. C. Jacobson, of West Brook, Minnesota, being the man most instrumental in effecting the organization. At the outset, services were held “in a building at the corner of First Avenue East and Third Street,” but in the same year 213″steps were taken to erect a church structure.” Site “was obtained at Fourth Street and Tenth Avenue East,” and the church was “ready for occupancy early in the following year.” The first pastor was Rev. A. Weenaas, who remained until 1873, and was then succeeded by Rev. G. Hoyne, who later became president of the United Church.
The year 1873 was a most disastrous one for the Lutheran Church. The exodus of people from Duluth, before the close of navigation in 1873, because of the cessation of work on all projects in which Jay Cooke was interested, affected the Lutheran Church membership more seriously than perhaps any other Duluth church was called upon to experience. The membership dwindled to insignificant numbers. And to make the state of the weakened little society worse, “the city the same year was visited by a tornado, which blew down the church and reduced it to a mass of kindling wood.” The minister left, but the church organization did not disband.
The members held together courageously, and by 1875 “had gathered together sufficient funds to erect a new church on Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue West,” where until 1882 “itinerant pastors” conducted services with fair regularity. In that year, there were twenty-three voting members, and it was thought that a permanent pastor could be supported, so Rev. M. J. H. Geothein took up the ministerial charge, and during the next five years increased the membership to 320, with “84 voters.” This completes the review of the pioneer churches of Duluth, all of which “weathered the storm” and went forward from small beginnings, humbly but tenaciously, to the great church organizations one finds in the Duluth of today. It has been stated that when the first church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, was decided upon in the spring of 1869, Colonel Culver and his associates, “to set the stakes to indicate the location of the building,” were obliged “to crawl on their hands and knees through the dense underbrush.” It was well worth-while, and the worries, borne bravely by those responsible for the continuance of the several Duluth churches through the dark period, entitle those men and women to high places among worthy Duluthians, the churches undoubtedly being the most potent factors for material advancement, as well as spiritual good, in the magnificent prosperous, well-ordered and brightly-destined Duluth of the present.

Sources:

  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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