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Danish Baptists in North America

The Beginnings of the Baptist Church in Denmark
The beginning of the Baptist Church can be traced to 1839, when Julius Købner, a native of Odense on the island of Funen, returned to Denmark after having been converted to the Baptist faith in Hamburg, Germany. Upon returning to Denmark, he found families on the island of Langeland and in Copenhagen who were already living according to similar beliefs. Købner was able to convert and baptize these people, and the Danish Baptist denomination gradually spread from here through the rest of the country.

Leaving Denmark
Danish Baptist immigrants left Denmark for different reasons, among which were poverty and the fact that the Danish state church, which was Lutheran, looked askance at Baptist converts. Another reason for leaving Denmark was, as they said, a call from God to preach the Bible in America. The notion of a divine call was a source of bitter contention within the Baptist community in Denmark. Many Danish Baptists felt that individuals would better serve God by remaining in Denmark and spreading the Gospel there. Others went so far as to accuse would-be emigrants of disobeying God's will. Danish Baptists were also influenced by the 'America Fever' which became increasingly prevalent in Denmark in the middle of the 19th century. Because of impoverished conditions in Denmark many people viewed emigration as a good opportunity for improving their economic circumstances and starting a new life.

Danish Baptists Come to the US
The first Danish Baptists came from the Vanløse church, near Copenhagen on the island of Zealand. They arrived in the 1850s and established a church in Abbot Township, Potter County, Pennsylvania, with financial help from The American Baptist Publication Society in 1855.

However, some of these Baptists did not remain in Pennsylvania; instead, they traveled west and settled in  Raymond Twp., Racine County, Wisconsin, where the first permanent Danish Baptist Church was built in 1856. Danish Baptists then began immigrating in greater numbers, settling in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, Oregon, Kansas and California, as well as Alberta, Canada.

Lars Jørgensen Hauge was born in 1827 and grew up on the island of  Funen. Immigrating to the US in 1858, he became instrumental in founding Danish Baptist churches in America. He also started the first Danish Baptist publication in the States, Oliebladet (The Olive Leaf ).  In 1861, P.  H.  Dam left Ålborg for the U.S., where he worked closely with Hauge for six years. In 1867 Dam traveled to Cuppy’s Grove, Iowa, where he helped found The Danish Baptist Church of Altamont, the first Danish Baptist church in that state.

 

 

  Lars Jørgensen Hauge.                                                                                                                            P.H. Dam.

 

 

Danish Baptist Congregations in the US
Early Baptist congregations did not necessarily have a minister; in fact, it was not unusual for congregations to wait several years before formally calling a minister to serve them, and when a minister came he often served several congregations. However, just the founding of a church often provided the necessary foothold for a town and its local institutions to grow.

 

In 1863, while Hauge and other members of the denomination were traveling west from Wisconsin, they heard that several hundred settlers had been massacred by Indians in south-central Minnesota. Wisely, they decided instead to locate in Clarks Grove, Minnesota, where the  First Danish Baptist Church of Freeborn County was organized.  Over time, more people moved to the area and the town grew. Local farmers, wanting to protect their buildings, machinery and cattle from unexpected disasters, met on January 1st, 1878, in the Clarks Grove church to organize an insurance company with the help of the congregation. By 1915, the original church building was too small and a new building was built and the congregation continued to prosper.  In April 1939, then-Danish Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Ingrid visited the U.S., where they were introduced to Danish-founded organizations, towns and churches. Since it was one of the largest Danish Baptist churches in a rural area, the royal couple paid a visit to the First Danish Baptist Church of Freeborn County.

Danish Baptist Churches in North America, 1856-1930

Strengthening Intra-denominational Ties
Prior to 1910, some Danish Baptist churches had merged with Norwegian Baptist churches. To stem this tide, many Danish Baptists wanted to forge and strengthen the ties among the Danish Baptist congregations. One way of doing so was by uniting the congregations within each state into a group and holding annual meetings called State Conferences. Moreover, some congregations advocated gathering on a national level, arguing that it would allow the board and heads of various commissions to discuss and decide issues that were relevant to congregations across the US.  As a result, The Danish Baptist General Conference was founded. The first general conference was held Harlan, Iowa in 1910, and from that year on general conferences were held biennially.

Another way in which the Danish Baptist Church attempted to forge and strengthen ties among its congregations was through newspapers. Initially, The Olive Leaf reported on the lives and activities of Danish Baptists. It ended its nine-year run in 1886, but a year later, another Danish Baptist newspaper, Vægteren (The Watchman), was founded to take its place and to keep Danish Baptists informed on what was happening within the church on a national level. The Watchman attempted to appeal to Danish Baptists of every age and interest by running columns and reports from various organizations with the Danish Baptist communities, such as the National Women's Organization and the Young People's National Organization. Because the churches often served as places for social networking among Danish immigrants and their descendants, it was common for The Watchman to report on the activities in the Danish communities and assist in drumming up support for founding local societies. 

The Language Changes, but the Heritage Remains
As decades passed, more people started speaking English instead of Danish. Danish Baptists, like other Danish denominations in America, faced the daunting challenge of maintaining their Danish heritage, particularly their language, within a larger, heterogeneous society. Pressure was brought to bear on the Danish Baptist churches to offer services in English instead of Danish. Traditional congregations often resisted such changes. For example, the First Danish Baptist Church of Chicago struggled over the issue for several decades beginning in the 1890s. In many cases, Danish Baptists favoring English services chose to leave their traditional congregations in favor of  American Baptist ones. The language issue  was further exacerbated during World War I, when anti-German sentiment ran high in the United States and many American communities prohibited the use of languages other than English at public gatherings. Soon, most Danish Baptist churches began conducting services in English, and articles in The Watchman and the minutes of meetings and conferences were dutifully written in English. 

It was not, however, just the change in language that had an impact on the churches and congregations. The membership of the congregations started becoming more ethnically diverse. The very first Danish Baptist church, in Raymond Twp., in Racine County, Wisconsin, for example, called its first American-born pastor in 1912. Changing demographics often led to congregations merging with other similar congregations.

Other Danish Baptist quietly transitioned into American independent churches. After World War I the Osco Baptist church in Upland, Kearney County, Nebraska, changed into an independent American church. In 1918 the rural Oakfield Danish Baptist Church changed its name to First Baptist Church and moved to nearby Elk Horn, Iowa, where it hoped to recruit more church members. The First Danish Baptist Church of Freeborn County became an American Baptist Church in 1958. Now called First Baptist Church, today it still remains one of the largest Baptist churches in the rural US.

The (Lack of) Contact between Danish-American Baptists and Baptists in Denmark
It appears that contact between Danish Baptist congregations in America and Danish Baptist congregations in Denmark was limited from the beginning. Perhaps those Danish Baptists who disapproved of emigration chose to sever contact with those who had left. Whatever the reason, communication between the Danish Baptists congregations in the two countries remained minimal. Historically, the interest was mostly one way, with individual Danish Baptist immigrants and their descendants expressing curiosity about what was going on back in Denmark. For example, a Danish woman, Kathrine Nielsen, paid a visit to her brother in Oakland, California, and discovered that the Danish Baptist immigrants and their descendants wanted to hear more about Denmark and how the country was faring after World War II. When Nielsen returned to Denmark, she communicated this curiosity in a brief article for the weekly Danish Baptist magazine, Baptisternes Ugeblad. This rare article in itself serves as evidence of the oft-neglected history between the Danish Baptist congregations in Denmark and the Baptist congregations founded by Danish immigrants.

By 1958, many of the churches founded by Danish Baptist immigrants had become independent American Baptist congregations.  In that year the board of the Danish Baptist Conferences gathered for its last national meeting. Today, these independent Baptist churches, mindful of their heritage to greater or lesser extent, remain as reminders of the role Danish Baptists played in the settling of America.

 


 

                       (Source:  Seventy-five Years of Danish Baptist Missionary Work in America)

    Miscellanous Photographs

 

 

 

Danish Baptists. A Selection of Ministers and Prominent Early Members.

Danish Baptists. A Selection of Ministers and Prominent Early Members.

Number of Images: 120
Last Updated: 10/25/2011
 
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