Oct. 31, 2008 is more than just Halloween for Cobbers. It is also Reformation Day at Concordia, marking the 117th anniversary of the college’s opening in 1891. Almost 120 years ago, Pastor J.M.O. Ness, Fargo druggist Lars Christianson and Pastor John. O. Haugen laid the foundation for the private liberal arts college that students still attend today.
Research shows that during the 1800s, 20 Lutheran pastors met biannually in the Red River Valley Lutheran Pastoral Conference. In a September 1889 meeting, the group of pastors discussed founding a Norwegian Lutheran school. Earlier, Swedish Lutherans in the area had offered to have Norwegian children attend the Hope Academy in Moorhead, however, the academy was not large enough. With all of the Lutheran children and there being more Norwegians than Swedes in the Red River Valley, the pastors decided to open their own school for Norwegian Lutheran children.
They also decided that the location would be determined by the highest bidding city out of Fargo, N.D., Grand Forks, N.D. and Crookston, Minn. Crookston and Grand Forks boosters combined to outbid Fargo and proceeded with the plans to build the school.
Shortly after the meeting, the pastors were offered a deal they couldn’t refuse in Moorhead. They had negotiated a $10,000 price tag on six acres of land valued at $30,000. It was decided there were enough Norwegians in the Red River Valley to support two schools, so Grand Forks continued to move forward with their school while Moorhead would now be the site of a another Norwegian Lutheran school as well.
Although Moorhead was an unlikely location for a Norwegian Lutheran school, it gained a reputation for being “the wickedest city in the world.” Bars, dance halls, and even brothels dotted the city, largely established for the railroad construction crews of the Northern Pacific. When North Dakota entered the Union as a dry state in 1889, this reputation would only grow. When Fargo bar owners moved to Moorhead to set up business there instead, nearly 50 bars emerged. This was an especially large amount in comparison to its population of 4,000 people.
The pastors had purchased their six acres of land in this growing town of Moorhead, along with the abandoned Bishop Whipple Academy building for $10,000. This Academy, named for the first Episcopalian bishop of Minnesota, Henry W. Whipple, was closed in 1887 after five years due to a lack of students and funding.
“Practicality triumphed over piety,” professor emeritus Carroll Engelhardt said in “On Firm Foundation Grounded: The First One Hundred Years of Concordia College.”
The pastors agreed.
“When we heard of the opportunity to buy this place in Moorhead so cheap, we couldn’t afford to turn down the offer,” founder Lars Christianson said.
Moorhead, however, eventually turned out to be an ideal location for the school. The city was served by both the transcontinental Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads. Fargo-Moorhead was the distribution center for almost all of North Dakota and was conveniently located between the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the northern Great Plains. The pastors, and later, the parents of the students, considered the school site to be far enough out in the country to be an oasis from the immorality of the city of Moorhead.
After securing approval from congregations in Grand Forks and Fargo, the pastors organized the Northwestern Lutheran College Association. Pastor Ness and Christianson were named president and secretary of the association, respectively.
The school was named Concordia after the suggestion of Pastor Haugen. Concordia means “harmony, concord, union,” and was to commemorate the union of the three synods that formed the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1890.
Concordia was not founded primarily as a school for prospective clergy, as other Lutheran institutions like Luther and Augustana were. Instead, Concordia had “broader social purposes than theological training,” Engelhardt said.
On Oct. 15, 1891, Concordia opened its doors to students. At first, a high school program attended by a mere 12 students was offered. College students didn’t arrive until 1907 and a complete liberal arts curriculum wasn’t organized until 1913. Consequently, the first bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 1917. That same year, Concordia consolidated with Park Region Luther College, which had opened in Fergus Falls, Minn. in 1892. Professor Ingebrikt F. Grose, professor of mathematics from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., was named school administrator.
Formal dedication of the school took place on this day of Oct. 31, 1891. A band led a large procession from the Grand Pacific Hotel to Concordia. Bishop Whipple Hall was illuminated with Japanese lanterns, wax candles and colored lights. Addresses in both English and Norwegian were given and messages of congratulation were read, including one from St. Olaf: “St. Olaf sends his best wishes to sister Concordia. May heaven’s blessings rest upon her until the end of time.”
The opening of the school was met with general good will, but some native born residents scoffed at the idea that Norwegian foreigners would be able to operate a school with any success. The vice president of the NLCA replied that Scandinavians are stalwart Lutheran Protestants and “the percentage of illiteracy in their homeland is smaller than any other lands under the sun.”
“[Scandinavians] believe in a love of education. They want the heart educated as well as the head.”