A SYNOD OF ONE: THE STORY OF IMMANUEL LUTHERAN CHURCH
by Karen Christofferson
At the top of one of the many gently rolling hills of French Lake Township is a little white church called Immanuel Lutheran Church. Nineteen ninety-eight marked the centennial for Immanuel, also referred to in the past as the "Norwegian church" because of its Norwegian roots and Norwegian language services in the early years, or the "Blaness church" after the Rev. Johan 0. Blaness who served there for 52 years (1916-1968). Immanuel Lutheran Church has the distinction of being the only remaining church in the smallest Lutheran synod in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America founded by the Rev. Elling Eielsen in Jefferson Prairie, Wisconsin April 13-14, 1846. In 1867 in Jackson, Minnesota, Eielsen Synod was added to the synodical name.
Elling Eielsen (1804-1883), a lay preacher and evangelist in Norway, arrived in America in 1839 and established headquarters among Haugeans. He is considered the chief transplanter of the Hauge movement from Norway to America. Hans Nielsvw Hauge (I 771-1824) started a revival movement in Norway by lay activity alone. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his ministry. Under Eielsen's leadership the first house of worship for Norwegian Lutherans in America was constructed (Fox River Lutheran Church, Norway, Illinois). His ordination on Oct. 3, 1843 made him the first Norwegian Lutheran pastor to be ordained in America. In 1876 the synod founded by Eielsen numbered 24 pastors, 59 congregations, and 7,500 members. That year a split occurred and some of the clergymen left the Eielsen Synod and organized the Hauge Synod. In 1917 the Hauge Synod joined the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. The Eielsen Synod has always declined to affiliate with any other synod.
Eielsen stressed the importance of repentance, conversion and lay preaching. He opposed ritualism, formal worship, clerical vestments, and clerical authority. The Eielsen Synod had 1,500 members in 1953, 75 members in 1971, and approximately 25 members in 1998. In 1971 there were churches at French Lake and Jackson, Minnesota, Centerville, South Dakota, Taylor and Lodi, Wisconsin. (The Rice Lake Church in Stockholm Township, another Eielsen church, closed in 1968.) According to Clifford Nelson in The Lutherans in North America, "the "Eielsen Synod was on the periphery of Norwegian American Lutheran developments, but it continued an isolated existence until the 1960s when it faded away as a synodical organization."
Immanuel Lutheran Church was founded in 1898 by pioneers who emigrated from Norway and Sweden between 1871 and 1892 and settled on farms in French Lake Township. Some of them were related and followed one another from the old country, and many second generation family members married into neighboring families as was typical of the time. It seems that Henrik and Gjertrud Kringsberg were some of the earliest immigrants, and they became leaders in organizing the church.
The plaque on the front of the church lists the charter members of the congregation:
Henrick & Gjertrug Krinsberg
A. J. & Maria Lindberg
Mrs. Ingrid Malsterteigen
Ole & Ingeborg Larson
Hendrick & Anna Anderson
Peder & Karoline Berg
Hendrick & Anna Hendrickson
P.O. & Maria Walberg
John & Marit Nelsen (Walberg)
Martin & Martine Opshal
John & Marit Forsberg
John & Martha Gerard
Also typical of the time was the "circuit rider" pastor. The Rev. Stener Stenby (1861-1941) pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Clear Lake, Iowa was called to be the first pastor at Immanuel. From 1898 to 1904 he traveled to French Lake by train when he was able or there was a need.
The Rev. Johan O. Blaness (1879-1968) was called to be pastor of Immanuel in 1916, where his tenure lasted 52 years until his death. Pastor Blaness and his family moved from Gary, South Dakota to the farm in French Lake Township in May of 1916. He was Inunanuel's first resident pastor; however, his responsibilities included traveling to other Eielsen Synod churches and home missions. At first he traveled by train and then by car, starting out in any weather. In June 1937 a new car was presented to Pastor Blaness by the Jackson and Centerville congregations. His appointment book listed 25 towns in five states that he visited regularly, but there were many other towns that he visited.
Listed here are some of the places that Pastor Blaness and other Eielsen pastors served:
Minnesota: Jackson, Litchfield, French Lake, Dawson, Eagle Bend, Minneapolis, Sacred Heart, Cokato, Wilhnar, Albert Lea, Blue Earth, Frost, Hendricks, Clarissa, Montevideo, Grass Lake, Smith Lake, Rice Lake, Granite Falls, Bagley, Madison.
Iowa: Grinnell, Clear Lake, Wabina, Manley, Nora Springs, New Sharon, Story City, Jewell.
Wisconsin: Carter, Price, Talor, Lodi, Hayward, Rhinelander, Eleva.
South Dakota: Millard, Vermillion, Centerville, Sisseton, Gary, Red Elm, Pierpont, Oldhazn, Viborg, Irene.
North Dakota: Willeston, Cartwright, Walford City
Montana: Fairview, Harlem.
There are hundreds of people in the area who were baptized, confirmed or married by Pastor Blaness. Couples would often arrive at the Blaness farm with marriage license in hand. If Pastor Blaness was doing farm work, he would always clean up and dress up before performing the ceremony.
After Pastor Blaness' death in 1968 at age 88, the Rev. Thore Larson (1904-1982) of Jackson became pastor. Pastor Larson served Immanuel from 1968 until his death in 1982, dividing his time between Stall Norwegian Lutheran Church of rural Jackson, Immanuel in French Lake, and the other remaining churches in the synod, a pastorate that stretched over 650 miles.
In 1982 Pastor Thore Larson's son, the Rev. Truman Larson, became pastor and continued serving the Jackson church until it closed. He continues to drive to French Lake once each month to conduct services. Pastor Larson was ordained as a pastor in the Eielsen Synod in 1986 and is the only ordained pastor in the Eielsen Synod.
Lay Pastor Edwin Erickson, who has done much to keep the church alive by planning services and arranging speakers, also serves Immanuel. The congregation is also fortunate to have Pastor Lee Shelton of Willmar, MN as speaker once or twice a month. So in 1999 Immanuel Lutheran Church continues the Eielsen tradition of simplicity in worship, lay preaching and "circuit rider" pastors. There are services every Sunday, where about 25 members, plus visitors, attend. There are also fifteen children in Sunday school.
After 101 years, Immanuel Lutheran Church continues by God's grace and provision.
Karen (Hultgren) Christofferson is a member of the historical society and long-time attendee of services at Immanuel Lutheran. This article first appeared in the December 1999 (V. 19 No. 4) issue of In The Midst Of.