This history of Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church is a compilation from a research paper done by Robin Stern Barnett on the settlement of Koshkonong Prairie while a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and “The History of the Western Koshkonong Lutheran Congregation” by Agnes Grevstad Lee published in 1975.
October 1, 1991 designates the one-hundredth anniversary of the Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church. It was on that date that the congregation was incorporated and the cornerstone laid for the church. This history tells the story of events that led to the establishment of the Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church.
Though many Norwegians had come to the Wisconsin wilderness before 1843, none was an ordained minister. Lay preachers, who for the most part carried with them deep-rooted antagonism toward their homeland’s church, first met the settlers’ religious needs. This led to a state of affairs which Lutheran writers have described as chaos and confusion, and the result was that avid religionists of many different denominations visited the Norwegian settlements attempting to gain converts for their own churches. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Mormons all had a measure of success. But by mid-1843 there was a strong desire for services held by a regularly ordained clergyman. Though the lay preachers had performed a “useful labor of love and mercy”, an increasing population and challenging pioneer life experiences demanded more systematic and thorough spiritual care.
Many immigrants looked back to Norway for religious leadership. Coincidentally, in Norway, a religious interest was stirring in regard to the Norwegian immigrants. In. 1843, C. L. Clausen, a young Dane, had gone to Norway hoping to join a Norwegian missionary to Africa. It was suggested to Clausen that he go to the United States instead since the Norwegians in the Muskego settlement needed a school teacher. (Muskego is in southeastern Wisconsin near Milwaukee). Clausen accepted the proposal but the Muskego settlers persuaded him to become their minister rather than their teacher. Clausen, who was well-educated and informed, was examined and found qualified. He was ordained by a German Lutheran minister, and called to serve the people of Muskego.
In February, 1844, Clausen visited all the major Norwegian settlements in Wisconsin, including Koshkonong. At each colony he preached, baptized and offered the Lord’s Supper. He did not organize any congregations outside muskego believing that he wouldn’t be able to care for them.
Meanwhile, back in Norway, a young Norwegian theological candidate, J. W. C. Dietrichson, became active in the newly organized Norwegian Missionary Society. Through this group he became acquainted with a Christiana (now Oslo) merchant who was deeply concerned for the immigrant’s spiritual welfare. The merchant offered to pay Dietrichson’s passage to America if he would establish “a permanent church order among them”. After thoughtful consideration, Dietrichson applied to the Norwegian church department and requested ordination so he could conduct religious work among the Norwegians in.America. Although a call to serve a specific congregation was normally required before a pastor could be ordained, because of the apparent need and unusual circumstances, the church approved his request.
Dietrichson left for America in May, 1844. His main goals were to organize Norwegian-American Lutheranism, bring religious order out of its present disorder and form congregations according to accepted state-church ritual.
After briefly preaching in the New York area, Dietrichson reached the Muskego settlement on August 7, 1844 and the following Sunday preached to Clausen’s congregation and participated in the communion service.
Dietrichson came to Koshkonong Prairie in late August and conducted his first service with Holy Communion in Zuiiund Anderson’s barn. This site is in the eastern part of the district. A monument now marks this site. Following those services he held a worship service with communion in the western portion of the settlement under two oak trees on Knud Aslaksen Juve’`1s farm. A stone monument marks this site. Local legend has it that deep niches were cut in the oaks to provide support for the communion table and as a result the trees died.
At a later service in 1844, sixty people came to communion under the oaks, and Dietrichson used as his text words from Psalm 78:19 “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness”. At this time he was asked by many of the settlers to come and work among them. However, before making a decision, he wished to survey other Norwegian communities. Dietrichson continued his travels and visited other settlements where he conducted services but did not organize congregations.
Dietrichson found the Koshkonong settlement to be the largest and relatively nearest the geographic center of the other “western settlements”. Therefore, he agreed to the Koshkonong settlers’ written request to be their minister and made Koshkonong his ministry’s focal point. In October, 1844, he organized the “Norwegian Lutheran Congregation on Koshkonong Prairie in Dane and Jefferson Counties, Wisconsin Territory, North America”.
He met with the eastern Koshkonong and western Koshkonong settlers separately. At each meeting he explained his reasons for coming to America and read his brief biography and his ordination credentials. He then asked the people if they really desired to remain faithful to the church in which they were baptized and if they wanted him to put their church affairs in order. He received an affirmative response so he then presented the following four points which he felt people must voluntarily agree with before joining a congregation:
- Do you desire to become a member of the Norwegian Lutheran congregation at this place?
- Will you to that end subject yourself to the church order that the Ritual of the Church of Norway prescribes?
- Will you promise that you shall not call or accept any other minister and pastor than such as can clearly establish according to the Norwegian Lutheran Church Order that he is a regularly called and rightly consecrated pastor? And will you show the pastor thus called by you and the congregation to spiritual leadership the attention and obedience that a member of a congregation owes his pastor in all things that he requires and does according to The Ritual of the Church of Norway?
- Will you, by signing your name or by permitting it to be signed, here make acknowledgment that you have joined the congregation on the above-named conditions?
About thirty families plus some single people from the western area and forty families from the eastern area became members as a result of those two meetings. Dietrichson essentially organized one congregation with two preaching places. He used only one membership list indicating whether the person had joined at East or West. He did not indicate where baptisms took place.
Soon after the congregation was founded, eight men were chosen on a geographic basis to assist the pastor in his work. The western representatives were Ole Knudsen Trovatten, Knud Aslaksen Juve, Knud Olsen Holten and Tron Kittilsen SVimbili:. Provisions were also made at this time for the instruction of children. Ole Trovatten was appointed as teacher for three months at $10.00 a month.
It is important to note that these settlers were not illiterate. There were schools for children in Norway back in the 1700′s. They did not always have schoolhouses, but they had a “Omgangskile” literally a “going around school”. Classes were held in the homes. One or two weeks in each home so the children got their education even without a schoolhouse. The teacher was usually the “klokker”. A “klokker” was the one who read the opening and closing prayers of the church service and who led the singing. He was a well-educated man.
Instruction was centered especially on reading and religion. In order to learn their catechism they must learn to read. Not all learned to write. But these were intelligent people with a basic education. When they emigrated, they took with them their most precious possession—their catechism, their Bible, their hymnbook and a Postille (book of sermons).
It became evident that church structures needed to be built. Exactly sixty days after the western part of the congregation was organized, on December 19, 1844, a completed 28 X 36 foot log structure was dedicated. This building was the first Norwegian- American Lutheran Church to stand complete in North America (the eastern church building was identical and it was dedicated on January 31, 1845).
As described by Dietrichson, both churches were made of logs and plainly furnished. A table covered with a white cloth, and with a black wooden cross, surrounded by a kneeling bench, served as an altar. A simple lectern served as a pulpit and an oak log topped by a tin pan served as a baptismal font. The parishioners sat on benches. A parsonage was probably built at this time in the same austere fashion.
In early March, 1845, the congregation extended a formal call to Pastor Dietrichson and asked him to be their permanent pastor. He didn’t accept right away, since he had planned a return trip to Norway after he had established the congregation. On this trip he hoped to convince young pastors to emigrate and minister here.
Dietrichson left for Norway, promising he would come back if he couldn’t secure any capable young pastors. In his absence, C. L. Clausen served the Koshkonong parish and the Muskego congregation.
Unable to find even one pastor willing to emigrate, Dietrichson returned with his bride in September, 1846. At this time the congregation purchased land for a parsonage which was located halfway between the two settlements. Dietrichson moved into the new parsonage just before Christmas in 1846. It was a simple oak structure consisting of three rooms with a kitchen and pantry.
When Dietrichson returned from Norway, he brought along a common chalice which had been given to him as a gift from the late bishop of Christian’s children, for the Koshkonong congregation. The chalice was regularly used to serve the wine and the cover was used to serve the bread. This chalice, which was crafted in 1833, is now preserved in West Koshkonong’s museum.
Dietrichson spent four more years at Koshkonong. At that time the entire Koshkonong area had 2,012 members. On the list of parishioners there are names such as Juve, Joitil, Drotning, Felland and Langemo. Descendants of some of these people are still members of Western Koshkonong. On May 26, 1850, Dietrichson preached his final sermon at Koshkonong and returned to his homeland.
The Reverend A. C. Preus was then called, and he arrived at Koshkonong in July, 1850 to become Koshkonong’s second pastor.
During the A. C. Preus pastorate, the congregation grew and prospered.
In 1852 a third church was built because some of the people in the northern part of the parish lived eight to ten miles away from the Koshkonong church. The church, built of local limestone, now called St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran Church, continues to remain active today.
Within the next few years, several more pastors arrived from Norway. By 1853 there were seven pastors and 28 congregations in southern Wisconsin. It was then decided the congregations should become organized. A convention was held at Luther Valley in October, 1853 where a constitution was adopted and the “Synod” formally organized. At the first gathering of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, West Koshkonong’s pastor, A. C. Preus, was elected and installed as its first president. He was re-elected to that position until he retired from the post in 1862.
While these synodical events took place, the West church was conducting its own important activities. The first log church had become too small, so the congregation decided to build a large brick church that could hold 1,000 people.
There is very little first-hand information available on the new church. However, Preus’ daily journal revealed that the last service in the log church was held on August 15, 1852.
The Reverend Erling Ylvisaker’s account in Eminent Pioneers notes that this unusual eight-sided (octagon) building was erected in a unique manner. It was built around the old church and once the walls were up, the old building was dismantled and the logs handed out through the new building’s windows and doors. In this manner, services were held in the old church almost until the new one was complete. The new church was to last until 1893.
When A. C. Preus was called to another congregation in 1860, the Reverend Jacob Aal Ottesen was called to West Koshkonong. Pastor Ottesen preached his first sermon there on July 1, 1860. He was an untiring worker serving three congregations as well as preaching places in Stoughton and McFarland until they got their own pastors.
During Ottesen’s pastorate, Norwegian immigrants “poured into Wisconsin by the thousands”. He had been at Koshkonong for only a year when the Civil War broke out. This led to the first conflict Ottesen was to face. The Norwegian immigrants had opposed slavery, however, during the war they found themselves arguing in their churches whether slavery was a sin or not.
But the predestination or “election” controversy of the 1880′s was the most tragic story in the history of the Norwegian-American Lutheran Church. The issue was over the question of whether man must cooperate with God in attaining his salvation or whether it is dependent alone on the grace of God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God:” Ephesians 2:8.
Professor F. A. Schmidt, a highly respected seminary faculty member at St. Louis, wrote an article accusing Professor Waither of the Missouri Synod of teaching false doctrine. Little credence was given to this at first, but he continued in his attacks so that the people of the Missouri Synod and the professors at the seminary had to retaliate and it resulted in outright war between the two factions–the Synod and the anti-Missourians. This spread into the congregations, involving their members, and causing strife between friends and rifts in families.
The now aging pastor (Ottesen) suffered greatly for his doctrinal position and his defense of the truth. On April 22, 1884, the West congregation proposed that Ottesen should no longer be declared their pastor since he wouldn’t sign the anti-Missourian Confession which West had accepted. The tension within the congregations mounted and the struggle ensued. On May 1, 1886, the anti-Missourian trustees employed legal council so they could institute suits which would enforce their rights to possess and control the congregation’s property at both East and West. This legal battle was waged for the next five years and involved East and West members in three cases carried all the way to the State Supreme Court.
When the air cleared, there were two West Koshkonong congregations. Ottesen urged his followers to immediately reorganize and rebuild. They chose a site directly up the hill and north of the old West church.
On October 1, 1891, the Western Koshkonong congregation was incorporated and the cornerstone for the new church was laid by the Reverend H. A. Preus, the synod president. The classic, gothic-style, brick church with a tall steeple was built at a cost of $7,433.80. Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church is literally and spiritually built on a rock. It stands on a natural limestone base and has faithfully stood on God’s word as revealed in the Bible for all its doctrinal direction. Today, this church built on the hill not only serves as a local landmark, but as an important reminder of the past and a memorial to its proud founders who labored so diligently to raise it one hundred years ago. The present congregation of 300 members can indeed be proud of their past and the forefathers who prepared a “table in the wilderness”. For all this, a century of pastors, teachers and parishioners are most humbly grateful.
The architect for the design of Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church was Jens J. Naeseth of Stoughton. The general contractor was A. A. Flaskrud and I. N. Gumnes did the interior painting and decorating. Many members faithfully donated many hours of labor and three men from the congregation were specially honored for their part in building the church. Solid gold watches were presented to Tollef Langemoe, Knute Oden and Gunder Edwards. Upon completion, the church was dedicated on May 27, 1892.
Unfortunately, there is no information about the beautiful stained glass windows, no information as to the craftsman or when they were made. There is also no historical information about the hand, carved pulpit, altar, pews and balcony railing.
After completion of the church, there were several additions and improvements. In 1908, a pipe organ built by the Hinner Organ Company of Pekin, Illinois was installed. It had one keyboard with 61 keys and a pedalboard of 27 notes to control nine stops on 491 pipes. In the early days, the bellows that provided the air pressure for the pipes were manually operated. Among the stops is one marked “bellows signal” with which the organist signaled for more air. That part is now electrified. The pipes visible on the front of the organ still display the original green shading, stenciling and gold leaf ornamentation which was in vogue in the early 1900′s. The organ has a very low and melodious tone and its distinct sound comes from the low wind pressure.
The altar painting is an original painted by Herbjorn Gausta, painter of exceptional talent who appears to have been the first professional artist of Norwegian immigrant origin. Gausta’s early paintings are scarce because in 1889, soon after he settled in Minneapolis, the building in which he rented a studio burned to the ground. He lost 100 canvasses from his private collection
which included much of his best work. Gausta painted the crucifixion scene for Western Koshkonong soon after he had lost most of his possessions in the fire.
There is little information about when the church parsonage was built, but it was completed before 1894 when Western Koshkonong hosted the annual synod convention. The Western Koshkonong christian Day School building was constructed in 1927 and over the past years Western Koshkonong property has continued to develop as new needs arose.
PASTORS WHO HAVE SERVED WESTERN KOSHKONON:
The Reverend Ottesen retired in 1891 and moved to Decorah, Iowa where he lived until his death in 1904. Since then the following pastors have served the Western Koshkonong congregation:
1891 – 1918 Rev. M. G. Wiese
1918 – 1932 Rev. L. S. Guttebo
1932 – 1940 Rev. C. J. Quill
1940 – 1966 Rev. G. A. R. Gullixson
1966 – 1971 Rev. Gottfried Guldberg
1971 – 1980 Rev. Norman A. Madsen
1980 – 1984 Rev. John J. Shep
1984 – 1990 Rev. James C. Olsen
1991 – 1996 Rev. John A Moldstad, Sr.
1996 – 2006 Rev. Mark E. Marozick
2006 – Present Rev Thomas A. Heyn
SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF WESTERN KOSHKONONG LUTHERAN CHURCH
1844 Rev. JW.C. Dietrichson from Norway conducted service on Koshkonong Prairie at Amund Anderson’s barn
1844 First Communion service held under two oak trees on the Knud Juve farm
1844 First Norwegian-American Lutheran church building dedicated in America on the Koshkonong Prairie
1845 Rev. Dietrichson called to be church’s pastor
1850 Rev. A. C. Preus (Dietricheon’s brother-in-law) became pastor
1853 New brick church building dedicated (Octagon Church)
1860 Rev. Jacob Aal Ottesen became pastor
1884 Congregation split over election controversy
1891 New church incorporated on top of hill and north of existing church building. New congregation with Rev. Ottesen as pastor was called Western Koshkonong Evangelical Lutheran Church. Cornerstone laid by Rev. H. A. Preus. Cost of building $7,433.80
1892 Church building dedicated
1892 Rev. Wiese became pastor. Parsonage was built
1893 Octagon church was deemed structurally unsound and demolished
1918 ELS formed from 13 pastors, 11 congregations, and about 1000 souls (first called American Evangelical Lutheran Church)
1918 Rev. Guttebo became pastor
1923 Christian Day School established in church basement-2 teachers
1927 School building erected – cost $10,129.00
1927 Cemetery Association formed
1932 Rev. C. J. Quill became pastor. Church circles were established (Central, Stoughton, Utica, Nora, and Kegonsa)
1940 Rev. Quill while serving as pastor suffered a stroke and died
1940 ReV. G. A. R. Gullixson became pastor and served 26 years
1952 60th anniversary of church celebrated. Choir formed
1961 New addition dedicated in connection with 70th anniversary of church
1966 Rev. Gottfred Guldberg became pastor
1966 75th anniversary of church celebrated
1971 Rev. Norman Hadson became pastor
1973 50th anniversary of school celebrated
1980 Rev. John Shep became pastor
1983 School completely remodeled, and 60th anniversary or school observed. Luther Circle established
1984 Rev. Shep resigned his parish ministry to go into full-time work as director of Thoughts of Faith
1984 Rev. James Olsen became pastor
1988 Preschool established
1989 150th anniversary of Koshkonong Prairie-largest Norwegian settlement in Wisconsin
1990 Rev. James Olsen took a call to serve as missionary in Peru
1991 Rev. John Moldstad, Sr. became pastor
1991 100th anniverary of church celebrated
For ease of reading, the foregoing document was not footnoted when edited by Lois Pieper, Eunice Lee Phillips and Gerhard Lee. However, we wish to acknowledge the sources that were used to compile this history:
* Anderson, Gerald. – “The West Koshkonong Story”, 1844-1969. Rockford, Illinois, 1969.
*Blegen, Theodore C. – “Norwegian Migration to America”, 1825-1860, Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian’s American Historical Association, 1931
*Clausen, C. A.- “A Chronicler of Immigrant Life”, Svein Nilsson’s Articles in Billed Magazine, 1868 -1870. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian’s American Historical Association, 1982.
*Lee, Agnes Grevstad. – “The History of the Western Koshkonong Lutheran Congregation” 1975.
*Nelson, E. Clifford. -”A Pioneer Churchman”: J. W. C. Dietrichson in Wisconsin 1844-1850. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.
*Nelson, Marion J. – Herbiorn Gausta, Norwegian American Painter. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1971.
*Qualey, Canton C. – “Norwegian Settlement in the United States”. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1938.
*Quill, C. J.- “Brief Historical Sketch of Western Koshkonong Church”. 1932