Lutherans from Norway, Germany, and other parts of the United States were among the first settlers in Winneshiek County after the removal of the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Indians in 1849. Rev. Vilhelm Koren conducted the first Lutheran services for Norwegians in Decorah on July 10, 1854 in a log schoolhouse on the present site of First Lutheran Church. The first census in Decorah, two years later, showed that ninety Norwegians and twelve Germans were among the 759 inhabitants.
Luther College came to town in 1862 and located at 202 West Main Street. The college had thirty-four students and two teachers — Laur. Larsen, a Norwegian, and F.A. Schmidt, a German. Both were ordained Lutheran ministers, and they began to take turns conducting weekly services in the old county courthouse, across the street from the college.
That same year of 1862, a Lutheran Ladies’ Aid (Kvindeforening) was organized by seven Decorah women, who soon began to mend clothering for college students. In 1863, the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Decorah was formally organized with 120 baptized members. President Laur. Larsen was called as pastor.
Luther College dedicated its Main building in 1865 and moved to the campus. Professor Nils O. Brandt replaced Larsen as pastor, and worship services also moved to the college from the courthouse.
In 1873, the present site of First Lutheran Church was purchased for $2400. The Norwegian Synod offered to pay for half of the building if the congregation would erect a large church to serve as the “temple” of the Synod. The congregation agreed. A. Anderson of Janesville, Wisconsin, was hired as architect and general contractor. Contracts were let in 1875, and construction began. Christmas services were held in the new basement that year.
On a rainy Sunday morning, June 18, 1876, a crowd estimated at 1300 assembled to dedicate the new sanctuary. The congregation had grown to 454 baptized members, and several hundred delegates to the annual meeting of the Norwegian Synod were also present. Rev. H.A. Preus, president of the Norwegian Synod, preached the sermon.
On that Sunday and for the next thirty years, morning services were held in Norwegian, and there was an English service in the evening. The pastor wore a black Norwegian cassock and ruff collar and chanted the liturgy. In a continuous tradition from the early centuries of the Christian church, women sat on the left side, and men on the right until 1886 when this custom was abandoned. The common cup was used in communion until the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, when individual communion cups were adopted. The altar panel was blank until 1895 , when Herbjorn Gausta’s painting of the Good Shepherd was installed.
From 1876–1881, a parochial school was held in two rooms in the church basement, with bilingual instruction in both English and Norwegian.
Controversy within the Congregation
During the late 1870’s, a controversy broke out over the doctrine of salvation. F.A. Schmidt, now a seminary professor, attacked the Missouri Synod’s teaching that God had elected certain people to eternal salvation before the creation of the world. Schmidt spoke out in public, Rev. Vilhelm Koren rose to his feet and declared that an attack on the Missouri Synod’s doctrine of Election was an attack on him because he shared that view. The battle was on.
In 1884, Brandt left the pastorate of the Decorah congregation and Laur. Larsen returned as pastor, with Th. Eggen, a recent seminary graduate, as associate pastor. Larsen agreed with Koren regarding Election, but Eggen was on Schmidt’s side. Pretty soon, lay people were reading the arguments of the theologians, taking sides and joining the debate. Women tried to calm down the angry men, but to no avail. In those days, women had no vote in the church.
At the annual meeting on January 7, 1889, the congregation split in two. The majority withdrew and formed Decorah Lutheran Church, with Eggen as pastor. The minority remained loyal to the Norwegian Synod, Luther College, and what they considered the original teachings of the congregation. They kept the church building, took the name of First Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and assumed the total debt of the congregation. Baptized membership fell from 874 in 1887 to 365 in 1889.
First Lutheran was a small congregation in a big church, owned jointly by the congregation and the Norwegian Synod until 1930. A series of outstanding leaders served the congregation for short periods of time. Amund Mikkelsen was pastor for six months, followed by J. Th. Ylvisaker from 1889–90; Marcus F. Wiese, 1890–91 (Pastor Paul H. Christenson’s great-grandfather); Elling Hove, 1891–94; Jacob Aall Ottesen, 1894; H.G. Stub, 1896–1900; and Bernt Askevold, 1900. By then the congregation was back up to 600 members.
Rev. I.B. Torrison’s twenty-eight year tenure (1901–1929) brought new stability and growth. In the years 1898–1919, the parochial school in the church basement was revived as a full-time school with six grades. Catechism instruction at the beginning of that era was in Norwegian, English, or German. Worship in two languages continued until 1959 when weekly Norwegian services ended. Beginning in 1916, the English services moved to Sunday morning once a month, twice a month from 1918, and every Sunday from 1925.
The new Salmebog (1903) and black Lutheran Hymnary (1913) were adopted in Rev, Torrison’s day, but the congregation continued to use the 1685 Norwegian ritual of baptism until 1972. Musical organizations like the choir, choral union, and the ladies’ chorus flourished. Youth organizations were formed. The basement was modernized, the sanctuary redecorated, and electric lights installed around 1900. The church building underwent a major renovation in 1926, and in 1929 a new pipe organ was installed in the front of the church, replacing one from 1895.
Pastor T.A. Hoff served the congregation from 1929–1947, continuing the Norwegian and English-language services and inaugurating radio services on KWLC. In 1939, Crown Princess Martha and Crown Prince Olav of Norway (later King Olav V) attended services at First Lutheran and presented a splendid Norwegian Bible to the church.
Construction of the Parish House in the years 1951–1957, during the pastorate of Rev. Rudolph A. Ofstedal (1947–1957), was the congregation’s biggest building project since 1876. The building was complete in 1953. Extensive use of volunteer labor and donated materials held the cost to around $200,000.
Rev. Alvon Nelson served the congregation from 1957–1967, followed by Rev. John Ness from 1967–1972. The red Service Book and Hymnal appeared in 1958, containing new liturgical settings. The second setting was used at First Lutheran until the green Lutheran Book of Worship appeared in 1978. Former members of First Lutheran helped to edit both hymnals. New walnut pews were installed in 1965.
When the congregation celebrated its centennial in 1963, no fewer than sixty-one men and women of the congregation had gone into ministry or missionary work. Many others had become parish workers and teachers in church schools. By 2002, the number had risen to seventy-four.
Rev. Paul H. Christenson served as pastor from 1972–1987. In 1973, the congregation commissioned a new pipe organ, built by Casavant Freres of Quebec to last for centuries. Strong musical traditions continued with up to five choirs, numerous instrumentalists, and hosts of talented musicians from the congregation and Luther College.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 30, 1975, an arsonist entered the basement and set fire to the century-old structure. Total destruction was prevented by outstanding fire-fighting. The completely restored church was rededicated on Sunday, June 20, 1976, exactly a century after its dedication. President David W. Preus of the American Lutheran Church, a son of the congregation and great-grandson of H.A. Preus, was preacher.
The building was refurbished again as it approached the age of 125. A new roof, copper eaves troughs and downspouts were installed during the pastorate of Glenn Kappelmann (1988–1994). In 1994, a two-story brick addition was built behind the chancel.
Following the departure of Pastor Kappelmann in 1994, Pastors Nelson Preus and Ole Winter both served brief interims. Steven M. Jacobsen arrived as senior pastor in January 1995 and continued until his retirement at the end of June 2010. Thomas Miller and Marion Pruitt Miller joined him as associate pastors in January 1996, sharing a call. Thomas Miller had primary responsibility for youth work and Marion Pruitt Miller had special responsibility for church music. Thomas Miller resigned in December 2001. Subsequently Marion Pruitt Miller served as associate pastor for five years, and in January 2006 the congregation issued a new call to her and Steven Jacobsen as co-pastors. Upon Pastor Jacobsen’s retirement in 2010, the co-pastor arrangement stipulated that Marion Pruitt (Miller) Jefferson resign as well.
The church council issued her a two-year contract at that point, to serve until a new senior pastor was in place. Pastor Chad Huebner was called by the congregation to serve as senior pastor and arrived in November 2011. Pastor Marion Pruitt-Jefferson resigned in April 2012. Pastor Melissa Bills was called to serve as Associate Pastor of First Lutheran beginning her service March 1, 2013.
The congregation has developed a variety of patterns of additional staffing in recent years. During Steven Jacobsen’s ministry the congregation added a director of youth and family ministries. Adrian Walter currently serves in that position. Mary Hart served as parish nurse for some years. Following her retirement, Jenine Jordahl has served as parish visitor and volunteer coordinator. Several retired pastors have served as visitation pastor: Henrik Engebretson, Paul Jordahl, and Richard Simon Hanson.
Through all these years, First Lutheran Church has continued to serve the one purpose for which the congregation was founded, expressed in a motto of three words: Soli Deo Gloria — Glory to God Alone!