American Christians Who Could Not Worship In Their Own Language


I’ve never enjoyed reading particularly long biographies myself, so I’m happy to report that my version of Charles Lindbergh’s life – officially in a week from today! – requires a little over 200 pages of your time. Considering this number, you may be surprised to find that I devoted the greater part of two pages to a church that Charles Lindbergh did not attend.

At least one other Lindbergh biographer mistakenly assumed that a Swedish American family would naturally go to the Swedish Lutheran Church in Little Falls, Minnesota, a town whose population of these immigrants was growing rapidly around 1900. But as CA, Evangeline and young Charles Lindbergh participated in the life of any religious community, it was First Congregational, not Bethel Lutheran.

“Of the many possible reasons for this choice,” I write, “the most practical is the most likely”: the people of Bethel Lutheran worshiped in a language the Lindberghs did not understand.

CA, who was a child when his parents left Sweden, had only a rudimentary knowledge of Swedish. (By the way, August and Louisa Lindbergh took CA and her siblings to an episcopal church). Charles, like his mother, spoke only English.

Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church (old building – newest is a few blocks from Little Falls) – CC BY-SA 4.0 Chris Gehrz

To understand how unusual the Lindberghs were in this regard, I thought it would be helpful for readers to know that Swedish

remained the language of worship in Bethel Lutheran throughout Charles’ childhood and youth. It wasn’t until after World War I… that the church finally added services in English two evenings per month. Bethel Lutheran did not complete the transition to English until the beginning of World War II, when the church called its first United States-born pastor. It wasn’t just the Swedes; even the first English Lutheran church in Little Falls did not stop using Norwegian until 1926.

Moreover, my university began life – 150 years ago this fall – as a Swedish Baptist seminary which only made English its language of instruction in the late 1920s. Writing in 1929, Richard Niebuhr pointed out the role of language in transforming “many immigrant churches” into “a more racial and cultural than religious institution in the New World”, where “in many pulpits the duty of loyalty to the ancient language was a theme almost as frequent as the duty of loyalty to the old faith.

So the fact that the Lindberghs chose an English-speaking rather than Swedish church in the first decade of the 20th century underlines how well they had assimilated into English-speaking America.

First Congregational Church in Little Falls, MN as it was just before World War I – used with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society

Still, it seemed like four paragraphs about the Lutheran Church in Bethel was enough to get my point across, so I limited one element of its story to the sentence I replaced with ellipses in the block quote. above. Here it is in full, with the missing clause rendered in italics:

It wasn’t until World War I—When the use of Swedish, like German, seemed suspect to some sort of Minnesota patriot—that the church eventually added services in English two evenings per month.

I didn’t want to dwell on the topic in the book, but it seems like a good topic to flesh out in a blog post …

Cartoon from an 1899 issue of Puck magazine – Wikimedia

Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt disagreed over much during the early years of World War I, but they both scorned and distrusted those “hyphenated Americans” who continued to find their identity in the customs and culture of their home country in the former war-torn country. World. Such immigrants “at heart [felt] more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with other citizens of the American Republic, ”Roosevelt warned the Knights of Columbus on Columbus Day 1915, the same year Wilson used his speech on the State of the Union to denounce those “born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws in the full freedom and opportunities of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.”

When the United States entered the war two years later, it was not just German-Americans whose loyalty was questioned by their xenophobic compatriots. For example, immigrants from neutral Lutheran Sweden were believed to be too sympathetic to the homeland of Martin Luther.

JAA Burnquist – MNopedia

Which may help explain why JAA Burnquist, the Swedish-American governor of Minnesota – where 70% of the population were immigrants or first-generation Americans, and whose congressional delegation split on the vote to declare the war – did everything possible to demonstrate patriotism. Burnquist ruled the state Public security commission, whose legal counsel, Ambrose Tighe, justified his efforts eradicate anti-Americanism by appealing to a public health statute of 1883: for Tighe, the German-Americans were a source of “disease”. The commission investigated suspicious figures such as the leaders of the city of New Ulm (including the president of Martin Luther College) and sent agents to disrupt the rallies of one of Burnquist’s rivals in the 1918 gubernatorial race: CA Lindbergh, who continued to question the reasons for American involvement in the war.

Under Burnquist, Minnesota also became one of twenty states restricting the public use of languages ​​other than English. Newspapers written in other languages ​​were subject to CPS review, German textbooks were censored, and public schools were required to teach in English. (The enemy, a University of Minnesota professor told the National Education Association, planned to undermine the war effort through “German teachers teaching German ideals through the German language . ”) Such actions, concluded Nils Hasselmo,“ have probably had a chilling effect on many who had previously used the languages ​​of immigrants both in private and in public ”- those of German descent (25% of the population of the state in 1910), but also the Swedes (12%) and other groups.

The PSC has refrained from closing the more than 200 parish schools that teach in German, Polish, Norwegian and other languages, and its regulations on teaching only in English have never applied to religious education. In Minnesota, churches like Bethel Lutheran began to switch to English under pressure, but not under duress.

But in other central states, state regulation of hyphenated languages ​​directly affected religious communities. Few municipalities have gone as far as Oklahoma County, whose version of the Public Safety Commission has decided that since “Almighty God understands the American language, address Him only in that language.” But the Nebraska State Defense Board first limited instruction in non-English in denominational schools, then extended the ban to include sermons and Sunday schools. The council’s efforts did not have the force of law, notes the historian Frédéric Luebke, but “very few clergymen were willing to risk the wrath of unfavorable public opinion, which had been so effectively mobilized by the council.”

William L. Harding – Library of Congress / Wikimedia

As in Minnesota, Swedish (as well as Danish and Czech) communities in Nebraska have been targeted, not just German enclaves. Likewise in Iowa, where in May 1918, Governor William L. Harding issued the so-called Proclamation of Babel, making the use of English compulsory in all schools (public and private), all public conversations (including those conducted by telephone) and all public speeches. This included sermons, for while Harding admitted that

Each person is guaranteed the freedom to worship God according to the precepts of his own conscience … this guarantee does not protect him in the use of a foreign language when he can as well express his thoughts in English, nor authorize the person who cannot speak or understand the English language to use a foreign language, when this tends, in times of national peril, to create discord between neighbors and citizens, or to disturb the peace and tranquility of the community.

These bans included accommodations for nearly 25% of adult Americans born abroad who could not speak English; in Nebraska, sermons could be summarized briefly in the other language, while Harding allowed these Iowans to worship privately in their homes. But it was devastating for Christians and missionaries alike who cried “because the Word of God has been taken away from them and we are not able to communicate the gospel in English. “

Again, the Germans are not the only affected population. In Peoria, where James D. Bratt reports As some Iowa patriots struggled to distinguish between “Dutch” and “Deutsch,” Reformed Christian minister JJ Weersing was forced to leave town and vigilantes torched his church and school. In Cedar Rapids, a Czech-speaking Catholic priest staged a protest against the Proclamation of Babel a week after its release. And Reverend CJM Grönlid, the pastor of a Lutheran church near Paint Creek, petitioned Harding through a plaintive letter:

I preached the gospel in the Norwegian language exclusively for about 40 years, and now, in my old age (63), immediately switching to English will break my ministry and exclude about half of the parish from public worship. I therefore humbly ask you to be allowed to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments in Norwegian, as this will not create any conflict, mistrust or controversy in the community…. Sir, I have been a Pro-ally since the day the Kaiser declared war and invaded Belgium…. I could challenge any community in the state to be more patriotic in spirit and deed than our Norwegians here, and we’re pretty American in language, except for worship.

West Paint Creek Evangelical Lutheran Church – Wikimedia

Danish Americans, whose homeland Prussia had invaded in 1864, were particularly offended by measures like Harding’s. “A person can be born in Denmark and still be a good American citizen, and a dog can be born in America and still be a dog,” wrote Lutheran Minister Peder Sørensen Vig, who served as chairman of the Trinity Seminary of the across the border at Blair, NE. “No language in and of itself is fair or unfair, but it’s the use that is made of it that matters.”

Unresponsive to such calls, Harding left his proclamation in effect until a few weeks after the November 1918 armistice. The following year, Nebraska extended its ban on non-English education (for grades 1 through 8 ) in peacetime… and has now extended it to cover religious education. German Lutherans and Polish Catholics filed a lawsuit, and in 1923 the case was brought to the docket of the United States Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 quash the conviction of a Missouri Synod teacher and declare such legislation unconstitutional.


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