Chapter I: Before the Beginning

On a May evening in 1899, a small group of Danes gathered at the home of Pastor R.R. Vestergaard, the president of Grand View College in Des Moines, and formally organized a congregation. That organizational meeting was hardly a new experience for some of the participants. At the time the city, as such, had already existed for more than forty years, and there had been Danish immigrants in Des Moines for over thirty years. Therefore, to shed some light on the years prior to 1899 and to place the beginning of the Luther Memorial congregation in proper context it is necessary to take a brief look at the Danish community as it existed in Des Moines during those years.

A City is Born

During the latter years of the presidency of Andres Jackson a government official proposed that a chain of military posts to be established in some areas of the West to protect the Indians who were considered to be “untutored children.” One of these posts was to be at the point where the Raccoon River flows into the Des Moines River. In 1843 such a military garrison was established. Two years later, the territory was opened to white settlers. During the next year, 1846, Iowa was to attain statehood, and westward expansion was rapidly increasing. In that year a ferry was operating across the Des Moines River, and within a short time, the river was spanned by a pontoon bridge at the same point. That point is where Grand Avenue crosses the river today.

The river, from which the city takes its name, was called Des Moines by early French explorers. Opinions differ as to the meaning of the name. One interpretation is that Des Moines may be translated as “the middle” and that it therefore refers to the stream as being the principal one between the Mississippi and the Missouri. Another view is that Des Moines may also mean “the less” or “the smaller.” Thus it is said to have described a small Indian thriving living along the banks of the river. In any case, the river played a significant role in the life of the early community beyond giving it a name. Much of the activity of the city centered on the river in those early days. Until the coming of the railroads in 1866, the principal means of transportation and access to the city was by steamboat. Many, if not most, of the supplies used by early settlers in central Iowa arrived in this way.

During the early fifties, Des Moines became the seat of government of Polk County. By 1857, a charter was granted, and the new city was officially established. With the granting of the charter, the word “Fort,” which had been a part of its name, dropped, and the rising community was known henceforth simply as Des Moines. Some six months later in January of 1858, the state capital was moved from Iowa City to Des Moines. From that point on the new city was well on its way to becoming the leading urban center in the state. By 1870, there were already over 12,000 residents. This figure rose even more rapidly in the decades that followed, so that by 1900 there were more than 62,000 inhabitants in Des Moines.

Danes in Early Des Moines

The census of 1880 indicates that Iowa ranked second among the states in the number of Danish-born residents. Then years later it ranked first. The number of Danes in Iowa had more than doubled, and by 1890 had reached over 17,000. The number of Danish immigrants in Des Moines, however, was not as great as might be expected from this fact.

There is no record of any Danish-born persons living in Des Moines prior to 1865. In the fall of that year, three men of Danish birth came and in February of 1866 five more arrived. The latter had been employed in the construction of the Rock Island Railroad. That winter the railroad reached only as far as Kellogg, some forty miles to the east. From there the young men had walked to Des Moines. Among the five was Mikkel Lauritsen, who with his half-brother, Niels Lauritsen, had fled Schleswig when that territory was taken by the Prussians after the war with Denmark in 1864. A large number of such refugees were to come as immigrants to Eastern Iowa, and some came as far as Des Moines. This fact, incidentally, makes it difficult to arrive at reliable statistics on the number of Danes in a given area because after 1864 those coming from Schleswig were officially counted as Germans. The first Danish girls to come to Des Moines were the sisters Christine and Marie Jorgensen. They had come from Sjaelland, in Denmark, and lived for a time in Story City, Iowa. In 1870, they migrated to Des Moines. During the early seventies, Christine became the wife of Mikkel Lauritsen.

Though the Danes did not come to Des Moines in any great numbers during the succeeding years, there was a slow but steady growth in the size of the Danish community. The result was that the Census of Iowa for 1895, indicates there were 238 Danish-born residents in the city. Ten years later, in 1905, the number in the entire county had increased to only 362. The Danish residents were representative of the various professions, trades, and occupations. In addition to pastors and teachers, there was a bacteriologist, at least one butcher, several carpenters, other craftsmen, at least two foremen, some laborers, a number of domestics, and of course, many housewives. A member of the Danish community, Jens Pedersen, served for a time as a city treasurer.

One cannot begin to probe the story of the Danish community in Des Moines as it existed before the turn of the century without again and again coming upon the name of Mikkel Lauritsen. He seems to have been extremely active on behalf of Danish causes in early Des Moines. Indeed, it is not too much to say that he, more than any other Dane, is responsible for the fact that the Danish Church located its school here. His hand is also seen in the establishment of what has since become Luther Memorial Church. Mikkel Lauritsen was far from wealthy. To call him a poor man who was at times plagued by debt would be to come much closer to the truth. He had little formal education and could hardly be called a learned man. In fact, at the time of his death the editor of the Danish weekly, Dannevirke, wrote of Lauritsen, “He was not a man who distinguished himself by his clarity of thought. He had difficulty expressing his thoughts and his feelings.” He and his wife had no children. For a time they were proprietors of the “Farmer’s Home,” a hotel and boarding house on Des Moines Street in the downtown Eastside. Later, during the 1880s, they operated the “Iowa House,” a similar establishment located at 611 East Locust Street. Still Later, his occupation, if listed at all in the City Directory, is given as “real estate” or “laborer.” For a time he was also an agent for Thingvalla, a Danish steamship company catering to immigrants. Shortly after Grand View College was built, he and his wife moved to the Grand View area. Here they built a home at the northwest corner of East Thirteenth Street and Boyd Avenue. That house has long since been removed to make way for the Grandview Lutheran Church parking lot. It was here that the Lauritsens supplemented their meager income by taking in boarders. It was here, too, that they died, he is 1914, and she five years later.

If Lauritsen was not distinguished by reason of wealth, learning, a large family, or social status of any kind, he made up for this lack by commitment to Danish religious and cultural causes that are not often matched. In the previously cited article, the editor of Dannevirke (Dane or Danish Work) goes on to say that Lauritsen left no doubt that his thoughts and feelings centered on Danish life and culture. “He was Danish in heart and soul,” the editor wrote. It was this devotion and dedication that led Lauritsen to play a prominent and often leading role in setting up Danish organizations in the capital city. He was especially active, even up to the time of his death, in organizations whose purpose was to struggle for the rights of Danes in those areas taken over by Prussia in 1864.

Early Secular Organizations

It was, however, an uphill struggle to establish and maintain any kind of social, fraternal, political, or religious group among the Danish immigrants in Des Moines. One obvious reason is that the number of Danes in the city was small in the first place. Added to this was the fact that there were basic philosophic, political, and religious differences among them. This naturally meant that those who could be counted on to share in any one group were few. The consequence was that during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a secession of Danish organizations rose and fell in Des Moines.

In 1875, a social group, “Dania,” was organized. Then, in 1883, “Hans Kruger’s Minde” (Hans Kruger’s Memory) was founded at a meeting in the Lauritsen home. The purpose of this group was to aid in the struggle for the continuity of the Danish language and culture in the German-occupied territory of Schleswig. Still later a secret society called “Druiterne” was born. All of these either died or gave way to other groups with national affiliations. So, for example, “Druiterne” was succeeded by the Danish Brotherhood. For a time, there was also a local chapter of “Dansk Folkesamfund” (Danish People’s Society). Lauritsen’s passion for things Danish led him to the forefront in the founding of these groups. So, too, it caused him to take a leading role in founding a Danish congregation, not just once but three times.

Religious Activity

What seems to have been the first Danish congregation in Des Moines was founded in the Lauritsen home, probably about 1875. It was organized under the pastoral leadership of Markus Frederik Weise, an ordained minister in the Norwegian Lutheran Church. He was a Dane by birth and emigrated in 1863. He attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1866 to 1869. He served a parish at Huxley, Iowa, from 1874 until 1890. Since he was of Danish origin, it was natural that the Des Moines Danes should turn to him for leadership. However, the congregation founded then, Our Savior’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran, was short-lived. Perhaps a Dane, trained in the Missouri Lutheran Seminary and serving in the Norwegian Church while seeking to minister to a diverse group of Danes, was too explosive a mixture. In any case, the group broke up after Weise sought to introduce the Norwegian hymnal and, what was probably worse, made some unkind remarks about Bishop N.F.S. Grundtvig.

Shortly thereafter a Norwegian-Danish congregation came into being. There was also, at a somewhat later date, a Norwegian-Danish Methodist group. Then, in 1888, a group of Danes banded together to constitute Our Savior’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. This congregation appears to have been loosely organized and had neither a church building nor a resident pastor. It was not affiliated with any national body. After the schism of 1894, it was served mainly by ministers from “Nord Kirken” (the North Church), comprised of those who had refused to sign the new constitution of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This would seem to indicate that its membership was made up of persons who were theologically oriented towards the Norwegian-Danish Group. This congregation continued to exist and be served in this manner for some ten years. Then, in 1898, after the schism had taken place in the Danish Church and after the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church had been organized in 1896, a change took place. Our Savior’s congregation called a resident pastor, reorganized under the name Bethesda Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, erected a church building, and built a parsonage during the next year. Under the leadership of their new pastor, they became a congregation of the United Danish or Blair Synod. The church they built is still standing at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Buchanan Street. In 1947, this building was sold, and the Bethesda congregation moved to Highland Park, changing its name in the process so that today it is known as the Highland Park Lutheran Church. The old Pennsylvania Avenue structure today houses the Penn Avenue Church of God (Edit: 2024, building now houses the Evangelistic Missionary Church of God In Christ congregation.)

Meanwhile, there was no congregation in the city affiliated with the Danish Lutheran Church, the most broadly based of the Danish Lutheran groups. Instead, Des Moines was a “preaching place” visited as often as possible by ministers representing that body. The small number of Danes in Des Moines met in homes or, occasionally, in rented church buildings. Among the pastors who visited Des Moines during those years were: O.L. Kirkeberg, Jacob Holm, J. Jensen-Mylund, Peder Kjølhede, and T.T. Horslund. Incidentally, Lauritsen and his wife were almost invariably hosts to the visiting pastors. This period came to an end in 1894 with the formation of a new congregation affiliated with the Danish Church. This group, in which Lauritsen played a prominent role, was called St. Johannes (St. John’s) Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. At the organizational meeting in May of that year two other significant actions were taken by the new congregation. First, it voted to affiliate itself with the Danish Church. Second, it invited the annual convention of the body to meet in Des Moines that September.

This latter action, and indeed to some extent the varied organizing of the congregation, appears to have been inextricably bound up with the prior decision of the Danish Church to build its school in Des Moines. The story of how the school came to be located in the Iowa capital city has been told elsewhere. It will be sufficient to say here that a Des Moines banker had developed a tract of land that he called the Grand View Addition. He had offered to give one block of the land to the Danish Church for the erection of its college. Beyond that, he had offered to give the church the privilege of selling 100 lots for what was, in effect, a commission of $100 each. This gave not only free property for the church’s school but also the possibility of raising $10,000 for its building. The problem was to sell building lots.

It is in this connection that St. Johannes’ was founded. It was hoped that the lots would be purchased by Danes, and thus a Danish community would center around the school. Not many Danes in Des Moines could purchase building lots, but the city was growing, and there was hope that the Danish community might grow with it. The important and immediate problem then was to acquaint Danes with the Grand View area and interest them in buying building lots there. One of the best ways to do this was to have the church convention in Des Moines. This would give an opportunity for many to inspect the site for the school, and among the many visitors might be some who would be willing and able to invest in a building lot. It should be pointed out that while no explicit statement of this aim has been found such an inference does seem justified on the basis of the facts. Further, this is by no means to suggest that spiritual motivation was lacking as a basis for the new congregation. After all, they had met together for worship for almost twenty years. The organizing of the congregation in 1894 simply meant the time was especially propitious for establishing, on a formal level, what had already existed for a long time on an informal basis.

Despite the hopes of many, both in and outside of Des Moines, the annual convention of the Danish Church was not held here that year. The new congregation could not be admitted to the synod until the convention itself voted to accept it. Also, the synod constitution provided that congregations of the synod were to act as hosts to the annual meeting. therefore, it was not ruled that St. Johannes congregation in Des Moines could not be host to the convention since prior to that meeting it was not yet legally a part of the synod. This ruling was far from pleasing to some but it stood nevertheless.

The result was that the annual convention was held at Carlston, near Alden, Minnesota, in September of 1894. Jens Christian Bay was the delegate from the new congregation in Des Moines, and that congregation was formally admitted into the synod. For a time during that fall and winter, St. Johannes congregation even appears to have had a pastor. Rev. K.C. Bodholdt, the new president of the Danish Church, moved to Des Moines from Waterloo and lived for a time at 1214 East Seventh Street (Edit: Now home to Carver Community School). In the spring of 1895, he moved to Manistee, Michigan.

In September of 1895, Bay was again the delegate to the convention. After that, the congregation becomes more difficult to trace. Indications are that it continued to exist for a time, but its hold on life was rather tenuous, to say the least. Pastor Peder Kjølhede, who assumed the presidency of the church in 1895, lists the Des Moines congregation as one of the fifty-four congregations in the Danish Church in 1896. Evidence for its continued existence is also found in the reference made to it by speakers on the occasion of the dedication of Grand View on September 27, 1896. One speaker, referring to, “… the congregational circle that gathers about the school,” reminded his Des Moines hearers that, “For those parents who send their children to the school, the characteristics of the congregation and the Danish community here will be of great consequence.” Beyond that, no further evidence of congregational continuity exists. Hence, it must be concluded that the St. Johannes congregation, as such, simply faded out of existence. that this must have been the case is borne out of, especially by the fact that a new and more enduring congregation was established in 1899.

This new congregation, which was also called St. Johannes for many years, was, then, the culmination of the efforts by adherents of the Danish Church to bring forth a local church organization affiliated with the body. Luther Memorial, which was the new name adopted by the St. Johannes congregation in 1942, exists today, as one of the few enduring monuments to Danish political, cultural, and religious activity in Des Moines before the turn of the century.