Chapter II: The Young Congregation

April twenty-third has on occasion been observed as the date of the founding of the new congregation in Des Moines. The date of the formal organization came a bit later, and this date has also been observed. But whether the early date or the later one is chosen, the fact remains that the congregation did begin to function officially in the spring of 1899. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, and for a good many years, the Des Moines group could point to few tangible results. Nevertheless, the work begun at that time was to leave its mark on the Danish community in Des Moines, on the Danish Church and its college, and, above all, on the kingdom of God.

A Congregation and Constitution
That segment of the Danish community in Des Moines which leaned strongly toward the Danish Church and the Grundtvigian view had not been entirely without services prior to 1899. The college opened in the fall of 1896, and there had been pastors of the Danish Church living in Des Moines since that time. It is, therefore, safe to assume that services were held on a fairly regular basis during the years immediately preceding the congregation’s founding. It was only natural, though, that there should be a desire more firmly to establish what already existed in some degree.

The first step toward this end was taken on Sunday evening, April twenty-third, when a number of Danish people gathered at the home of Jacob Esbensen, 1030 East Seventh Street. At that time the following resolution was adopted: “We the undersigned are hereby united for the purpose of organizing a Danish Evangelical Lutheran congregation in Des Moines.”| Twenty-four names follow the resolution. At this same meeting, a committee was named to draw up and present a constitution for consideration at a later meeting. Named to the committee were: Pastor R.R. Vestergaard, the president of Grand View College; and two laymen, Christian Nielsen, and Jacob Esbensen. Now for the third time in less than a quarter century, some of the same people were to attempt to organize a Danish congregation in Des Moines. Their hopes and their fears on that occasion are not recorded. Perhaps, such doubts and fears as were present were relegated to the background by a greater hope than ever that this time the venture might succeed. In this case, the hope was to prove justified; the congregation which they founded did succeed.

The actual founding of the congregation took place on May tenth. On that Wednesday evening a meeting was held at the home of the college president located on the corner of East Ninth and Grandview. Here a constitution was presented, adopted, and signed by twenty-five members. The last survivor among those who signed the document that evening, Mrs. J.L. Jensen (nee Efra Nielsen) died in December of 1971.

The constitution provided for a board consisting of a president, secretary, and treasurer. The president was Christian Nielsen. Peter P. Hornsyld, a teacher at the College, and Jacob Esbensen were named secretary and treasurer respectively. Christian Nielsen was selected as the delegate to the convention of the Danish Church to be held in Chicago in June of that year. Here he was to seek to have the new congregation admitted into the church. One other significant action was taken on that evening. It was voted that the delegate was to invite the church to hold its convention in Des Moines in 1900. Both of these missions of the delegate were fulfilled. The new congregation was admitted to the Danish Church, and, in 1900, the synod, for the first time held its annual meeting in Iowa’s capital city. This was to be the first of eight times.

No unusual or outstanding features mark the constitution which was adopted and made effective on that evening. It simply provided a base upon which the congregation could function. There are, however, some points that do warrant further comment. Among these is the name of the new congregation. It was to be known as “The Danish Evangelical Lutheran St. Johannes Congregation in Des Moines, Iowa.” The synodical affiliation was also spelled out, and it reflected the legal status of the synod at that time. The local church was to be affiliated with “The Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” which was at the time incorporated in Iowa under that name, and with the “Danish Lutheran Church Educational Association,” the name used by the same group in an earlier incorporation in Illinois. The confessional statement said simply, “The congregation has the same faith and confession as our mother church, the state church in Denmark.” As might be expected, the ritual and altar book of the church of Denmark was to be used and pastors must be those recognized by the Danish Church. The constitution had the rather standard provision that in case of a division in the congregation the property was to belong to those who continued to adhere to the Danish Church. In a day when racial and ethnic barriers were often more assumed than expressed, it should be noted that the congregation was to be open to all men and women who were willing to accept the provisions of the Constitution.

The more practical arrangements for the organization of the congregational structure were contained in a number of by-laws. Here is found an interesting provision regarding membership. The prospective member was to sign the constitution and then, at the next meeting, his membership would be announced. This by-law was changed in 1902, however. After that, the prospective member was to indicate his desire to the pastor or the president of the congregation. The next Sunday his name was to be announced at the service. Then, if within fourteen days no objections were raised, he could sign the constitution and become a member. If there were any objections, these were to be referred to a congregational meeting, and the prospect must then be accepted by a two-thirds vote. That allowances were made for human error is indicated by the fact that, on at least one occasion, a new member was given voting rights at a meeting because the pastor had forgotten to announce his membership earlier.

Voting rights were given to all men and women “. . . over eighteen who have fulfilled their responsibilities to the congregation.” This provision did become an issue at times, and on more than one occasion a decision had to be made as to whether or not a member had met his responsibilities. Such responsibility consisted mainly of financial support. This was required of all members unless they were excused by reason of some hardship. The minimum requirement was fifty cents every three months. This was later raised to seventy-five cents and still later to $5.00 per year.

Regardless of whether they were members or not, the services of the congregation were to be open to all. No one was to be excluded from the sacraments by reason of non-membership. The pastor was given … a free hand to allow all to participate in the church’s means of grace in accord with his conscience and his responsibility toward God.”5 Other by-laws provided for the call of a pastor, for a church board of three members, and for amendment of these laws by two-thirds of those present and voting at a meeting.

Pastor and Worship
The new congregation did not have a full-time pastor. The man who served as the first pastor was Rasmus R. Vestergaard, the college president. Some of the succeeding college presidents were to fulfill the same responsibility. Thus, in 1903, Vestergaard was followed by Benedict Nordentoft as pastor of the congregation. He in turn was followed by Eilif Wagner in 1908, though Wagner at that time was not yet the college president. Nordentoft resigned as pastor in order to devote full attention to the college. Wagner continued after he became acting college president in 1910 until he was succeeded by S. D. Rodholm.

It was not until 1920 that St. Johannes was able to call and maintain a full-time pastor. Even then, within a few years, the church was once again forced to depend upon the college, and thus indirectly upon the synod, for pastoral services. This arrangement was to continue until 1943.

Naturally, the absence of full-time pastoral leadership had its disadvantages, but it surely also had some advantages. Had it not been for the proximity of the school and the willingness of its leaders to serve the congregation it is doubtful that St. Johannes would have come into being. Added to this is the fact that the congregation, through this arrangement, enjoyed a succession of well-trained and competent pastoral leaders. The good preaching which has generally characterized St. Johannes’ and, later, Luther Memorial’s pulpit is in no small measure attributable to the strong link between church and school. The suggestion that the congregation owes its very existence to the college is an allusion to the financial advantage inherent in this arrangement. For many years the pastor received no salary, and, indeed, asked for none. He was remembered from time to time, especially at Christmas, with a gift. At Christmas in 1899, for example, Pastor Vestergaard was presented with a watch.

The first of the congregation’s spiritual leaders to receive a regular salary was Pastor Wagner. A motion was passed at the quarterly meeting in October of 1908 calling him to be the pastor and promising him an annual salary of $150. This step was qualified to some extent by an amendment to the motion which said, in effect, that along with this promise of a salary went the expectation of more regular services during the summer months. This was a reference to the fact that during the time when the school was closed for vacation, there might not always be a pastor in Des Moines, and the congregation was, therefore, dependent upon guest preachers.

There was a recognition that the ordained men at the school were paid by the synod. Further, since the congregation benefited from their services in a direct way, it should make a special effort to contribute more to the college and synod. To what extent this was actually done is difficult to assess at this point. Intentions were good, but these sometimes exceeded results. In 1904 it was decided to pledge $200 toward the operation of the college in lieu of a pastor’s salary. After a good deal of effort, that sum was almost reached, but the next year it was decided not to guarantee a definite sum.

The young congregation was fortunate in that, though it had no church building, it could assemble for services in the college auditorium. Other meetings and gatherings, especially as the congregation slowly grew to the point where it became difficult to accommodate them in private homes, were also held at the college. Communion services were generally held in rented church buildings. Early records show that about half of the services were held in other churches. A small Sunday School had been begun, and this also met wherever the services were conducted. Arrangements were generally made for the rental of a church for a three-month period. Payment was then made on the basis of the number of times the church was used during that quarter. At the annual meeting in January of 1901, for example, a payment of seventy-five cents for each of the six times a particular church had been used during the fall quarter was authorized. The same church was also paid twenty-five cents extra for each time the Sunday School had met on its premises. With the passing of the years, these charges naturally increased.

The name and location of the church used during the fall of 1900 is not stated. Those who wrote the minutes and those who heard them knew which church was meant by “kirken” (the church). Seventy-five years later it would be interesting to know something more definite. Some of the churches used are mentioned somewhat more specifically though, at this late date, it may still be difficult in some cases to identify them specifically. Reference is made to the German church and to the Methodist Church. Just which churches were meant by this and whether they are still standing is uncertain. In any case, they were generally churches located in the downtown area of the east side. Other churches used can be more positively identified. One was the United Danish Church on Pennsylvania Avenue. Another was the Swedish church, an appellation that almost certainly refers to First Lutheran (Now named Capitol Hill Lutheran Church located at 511 Des Moines St.).

Services held at the college were usually, though not always, conducted in the morning. When a church was used for services these observances were most often held in the late afternoon. There were two reasons for this. The first is the very obvious one that the congregation which owned the building would naturally want to use it for the morning services. The other reason is not so obvious but was, in some degree, as compelling. St. Johannes had within its membership a fairly large percentage of young unmarried women who served more affluent families as domestics. Such girls could hardly be free from their duties on a Sunday morning. Since many of them lived and worked on the west side, it was not until the latter part of Sunday afternoon that they were free and able to join their Danish friends for worship in the language they loved.

The F. L. Grundtvig Matter
The business of the congregation was carried out by a board, but the congregation met frequently. Quarterly meetings were held regularly. In addition, a substantial number of special meetings were held. One such was held every year just prior to the church convention. The purpose of this meeting was two-fold. First, it was necessary to elect a delegate and an alternate to represent the congregation at the convention. Beyond that, however, the meeting was called to discuss such items as were to come before the Synod. Such issues were taken up one by one, and the members had ample opportunity to express themselves. For example, the matter of voting rights for women at the synod convention was one of the questions debated at a meeting early in June of 1904. The delegate was given a free hand to vote according to his best judgment when the issue came before the convention. At the same meeting, the congregation expressed itself as favoring a tower to cap the center building at the college. Incidentally, in both cases, the issue failed at the convention. It was voted not to add a tower to the building because of the added cost. Voting rights were not extended to women at that time because a new constitution had been adopted only the year before, and the delegates felt that it should not be changed so soon.

The report of one such pre-convention meeting, held on June 7, 1901, contains a very interesting item. The secretary’s minutes say simply that a resolution was adopted providing that: “The church board is to compose and sign a complaint concerning the fact that the synod board, in the course of its discussions with Pastor F. L. Grundtvig, did not consult with the congregation in Des Moines. This complaint is to be submitted to the convention by the delegate.” At the next meeting, the convention delegate gave his report. Through this, it may be learned that F. L. Grundtvig had offered to become the pastor of the Des Moines congregation. Beyond these two brief references, no further mention of the matter is made in the secretary’s reports. Other sources, however, reveal that this was a very complex matter involving not only the congregation and Gruntvig but the Synod, Grand View College, and “Kirkelig Samfund af 1898,” (Church Society of 1898) a church group in Denmark. The story behind those two brief references deserves retelling here not only because it involved the congregation but also because Grundtvig was one of the most prominent men in the Danish Church.

Frederick Lange Grundtvig was the son of Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig and his second wife. This fact alone gave him a good deal of stature and prestige among the Danes in America. Following the completion of his university training in Denmark, he married and set out for America with his wife. He lived for some two years in rural Wisconsin and while there achieved some distinction in the field of ornithology. After some contact with the Danes in the new world he decided to enter the service of the Danish Church. Accordingly, at the age of 29, he was ordained in Chicago to become a pastor of St. Stephen’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in Clinton, Iowa. Here he served for a period of seventeen years. During that time he came to be recognized as an outstanding pastor and poet. Moreover, he was increasingly seen as a leading figure in the struggle to preserve and promote Danish cultural interests in the New World. When he returned to Denmark in the summer of 1900, it was with the expectation that he would resume his work in America during the next year.

In November of 1900, Grundtvig wrote to Pastor Peder Kjolhede, president of the Danish Church, saying that he would like to take up the work in America again and that he would be willing to accept a call from any of the four congregations named by him. His first preference was for the congregation in Des Moines. Here he felt he could work to increase the membership of the congregation and at the same time serve the college by lecturing there. In return for this, he asked for a guarantee from the synod of an annual salary of $700. He also sought to have a parsonage built near the college. When he failed to receive an early reply from Kjolhede, he wrote again, this time saying that his offer was contingent on its unanimous acceptance by the synod board.

Meanwhile, Kjolhede was sounding out the board on the matter by means of a “round robin” letter. There were lengthy but needless delays, and the end result was far from unanimous. While some favored the offer highly, others were not sure that Grundtvig, whom they described as a “loner, could work well with Vestergaard, the president of the College. A more prosaic objection lay in the fact that the Danish Church lacked the funds with which to build a parsonage and to guarantee a salary. Then, in the spring of 1901, came an offer to Grundtvig from “Kirkelig Samfund of 1898” to remain in Denmark and serve that organization. This, along with the delays in replies from America as well as a decreasing desire to travel to the new world again, resulted in the decision of Grundtvig and his family to remain in Denmark.

The net result was that when the convention of the church met at Ashland, Michigan, in June of 1901, the question was not whether Grundtvig’s offer should be accepted but whether the board had handled the matter correctly. It should be said, incidentally, that later the same year a letter of call was sent to Grundtvig by the congregation at Kimballton, Iowa. By this time it was necessary for him to reply that he was not physically well, but when he had regained his health he planned to remain and work in Denmark.

It is perhaps idle to speculate on what might have been. It does seem more than likely, however, that if Grundtvig had come to Des Moines, the congregation’s history would not have been much different. Later in 1901, his health was not good, and his condition slowly deteriorated. In March of 1903, he died at the age of forty-nine.

In June of 1900, the congregation was, for the first time, host to a synod convention. The invitation had been extended at the previous convention and, after its acceptance, committees began making plans for the event. By present standards, the convention was not large but then neither was the congregation. At this point, St. Johannes numbered less than thirty-five souls. Some 150 out-of-town guests attended the meeting, the largest attendance at any convention since the schism of 1894. The large number of guests is probably best accounted for by the fact that there were many who wanted to see the church’s school. The center of attention was certainly Grand View College, but it was the congregation which acted as host. Most of the guests, of course, were housed at the college, and in the absence of a church building most of the meetings were held in the newly built gymnasium.

In this connection, it might be pointed out that, while the convention was assembled to carry out the business of the Danish Church, there was more to the program than official meetings or even lectures and sermons. As always, when Danes met, there was a good deal of singing. Also, on Saturday evening during the convention, a well-received musical program was presented by both the former and present music instructors with the help of a number of their students. Meals, at which the local members were as welcome as the out-of-town visitors, were served in the college dining room. For the Sunday service, the Swedish church was rented. The weather is said to have been very pleasant during the convention days, and this added a final touch making it a successful and highly enjoyable event.

The meeting was not a success financially, but it was not intended that it should be. The total receipts of $220.75 did not cover the expenses of $232. The deficit of less than $12 does not seem great until one realizes that the total receipts also came from the local congregation. These were gathered through collections and pledges in the congregation prior to the convention. This method with the local congregation being responsible for the total financing of the convention gradually died out. By 1912, when the next convention was held in Des Moines, the invitation, as published in Dannevirke, was almost apologetic in stating that the delegates would have to be charged $2.00. It was said that city prices must be paid for food purchased and that, since the congregation was small, help would have to be hired for some things. It might be noted that even with this charge, the 1912 convention showed a deficit of some $120.

Children, Youth, and Ladies Aid
The early records do not shed much light on the efforts of the congregation on behalf of religious education. It is not explicitly stated when or where or how often the Sunday School met. We do know that there was a Sunday School because rent was frequently paid for a meeting place. We are also told in the secretary’s record that, from time to time, certain individuals were given a small monetary reward for their work with the Sunday School. In this way also we learn that there was, at times at least, a Saturday School and a Vacation School. There was a hope that the Saturday School might eventually blossom into a parochial school, but this never happened. With the exception of the Sunday School, which met wherever services were being held, the educational efforts of the congregation were carried out at the college. This included confirmation instruction. Such instruction was, of course, directed to the children of the congregation, but it also was for the benefit of the younger, unconfirmed students at the college. Indeed, this was one of the important features in college advertising, and a substantial number of young people spent the winter months in Des Moines because, among other things, they could receive instruction and be confirmed in this way.

A young people’s group, “Holger Danske,” was begun in 1906. This group, like all youth organizations related to the Danish Church, was not directly connected with the congregation for many years. True, it was generally made up of members of the congregation and their young people, but it was not an integral part of the church. In general, it was a much older group than those who are considered the youth of the church today. The teen age group, to be sure, was a part of it, but these would represent only the lower end of the age scale. The bulk of the members were probably in their twenties or even older.

There were those who felt that a youth group was not needed in Des Moines since the College was located there. Therefore, it was said, such an organization would very likely result in a duplication of efforts by and for the young people. On the other hand, there were those who felt quite strongly that a youth group was needed. One of their major arguments lay in the fact that the school was closed from June through September. During this “dry period,” as it was sometimes called, the congregation was dependent upon visiting pastors. In these circumstances, it was argued, a young people’s organization could give greater continuity to the work. In 1908 the local youth group was admitted to “Dansk Sammenslutted Ungdom” (Danish United Youth) and a new chapter in its history began.

A ladies aid society antedates the founding of the congregation. It was established on December 12, 1897, and appears to have functioned first in relation to the College. It was called Grand View Ladies Aid, but after the congregation came into being it worked diligently on behalf of both the College and the congregation. The minutes of a congregational meeting in 1902, for example, record a written vote of thanks being sent to the Grand View Ladies Aid for altar linen which they had donated. They also raised money for the convention effort and other causes.

Receipts, Disbursements, and Dreams
Though the congregation was able to pay all its bills and, in most cases, have a small balance at the end of the year, it was far from affluent. In fact, there were a couple of years during the first decade when there was a deficit. The receipts came almost exclusively in the form of membership contributions, contributions that were, in effect, dues. While exceptions could be made in hardship cases, the constitution made it very clear that ” . . . every member is duty bound to contribute.” The minimum contribution was raised from time to time, but it was expected of all.

The disbursements were in keeping with the limited income. During these early years, there was no pastor to pay and there was no building to maintain, but there were other expenses. Rental of a church, altar wine, and communion wafers, flowers for the funeral of a member, a gift for the pastor, a gift or carfare for the organist, a recognition for work done with the Sunday School – these are some of the expenses typical of the congregation in the early years of the century. Contributions to benevolences, the causes of the church at large, were made through special collections. Thus, there were drives to gather money for the operating expenses of the synod, the widow’s pension fund, a building fund for a teacher’s residence at the college, the operation of the college itself, and numerous other causes. Frequently a committee was named to solicit funds for this or that cause.

Though expenses varied considerably and though they steadily grew, they do testify to the fact that the early congregation lived a spartan existence. That it was able to conclude so many years with a surplus is attributable to two major facts. The first is that regular expenses were not great, and irregular expenses were held to a bare minimum. The other and perhaps a more important reason for continued solvency lay in the fact that separate collections were made for the various causes. The synod did not assess an amount for benevolence but simply made an appeal to the congregations and accepted what was contributed. This accounts for the fact that the synod, which may be said to have existed by supplication, was often in financial difficulty.

Toward the end of the first decade the congregation was able to list among its assets a building fund of $258. This sum had been accumulated slowly through adding a little now and then from the surplus and also through special gifts for that purpose. This was, as yet, the only substance to the dream of building a church. Almost from the beginning, there had been hopes of building a church across the street from the college. It would still be some years before that dream would become a reality. This was partly because the congregation was small, partly because it did have a place to meet, but also because there was a good deal more talk and dreaming than there was action.

As early as the fall of 1901, a committee was appointed to arrange for the purchase of two lots. These lots were west of the present “Valborgsminde” (in memory of Valborg) and were the third and fourth lots east of the corner of East Ninth Street. It was believed these lots could be purchased for $150 each. On the condition that this was the case and that half of the sum could be raised as a down payment, the purchase was authorized by a congregational meeting. The lots were not purchased. Presumably the $150 was not subscribed. The reason for assuming this is that at the same time it was voted to begin a building fund. A year later this was discontinued for lack of interest. It was not until 1909 that two lots were actually purchased and then not the same two nor for the same price. By that time there were beginning to be plans on the part of the synod for the erection of a home for the aged. It was then that the congregation bought two lots adjacent to the home site on the west, the fifth and sixth lots east of the corner of East Ninth on Grandview, for $525. In connection with this purchase the congregation was also incorporated. It would be some years yet before a church would be built, and then not on these lots, but this was the first concrete action taken in that direction.

As it neared its tenth anniversary, the young congregation began to be more firmly established. Its membership was growing, though very slowly. By 1908 it was reported as having 54 members. The number of family units was not large; there were only about a dozen of these. A fairly large number of unmarried domestics and students were members also.

In an article which appeared in Dannevirke in early 1908, Ole Jensen, a member of St. Johannes, told something of the status of the congregation at that time. He pointed out that the congregation enjoyed a favored position by virtue of its relationship to the school. He said that this should be considered by the members when contributions to synodical causes were sought. He indicated that he would not judge the response to synodical appeals at this point. Jensen also spoke of two new families that had recently been added to the congregation and then went on to add: “We hope they know that we are not concerned so much with their financial contribution as with having them among us and giving us the benefit of their knowledge and wisdom.”

Life in the young congregation was indeed more than sharing the financial burdens. It was even more than sharing wisdom and knowledge. It was also a sharing of a life made viable by a common faith and culture.