Covenant and Lutheran chapel goers

by Tom Tredway

Every fall in the 1950s a number—maybe nine or ten or twelve—of North Parkers made their way down Illinois 92 or US 6 from Chicago (there were then no Interstates) to another Swedish-American outpost in Illinois, Rock Island. The late adolescents were headed for Augustana College, there to spend two years completing their BA degrees. NPC was at that time a junior college, and a few North Parkers weren’t from Minnesota and couldn’t get the in-state tuition at the “U” in Minneapolis. So for us the Lutheran college on the Mississippi, like North Park, started by Swedish immigrants, was a good place to finish college. Then you could go on to seminary (Arvid Adell or Dusty Larson), med school (Jim Lindblade or Tim Johnson), or grad school (Chuck Green or Tom Tredway). Or maybe get a job and send money back to at least one of your alma maters.

At North Park most of us had been pretty regular at chapel, held in those days in the Old Gym. We had to be; it was required. That was also the case at Augustana, so there was no big difference there. But there was a difference in the case of the voluntary religious services. NP had a regular Wednesday night “fellowship,” held in (faux Colonial) Isaacson Chapel in the Nyvall Seminary building. Along with music, camp choruses, and Bible readings, it offered the faithful the opportunity to testify to fellow attendees about their personal religious and spiritual experiences, sometimes characterized as their “walk with the Lord.” If for three or four weeks running you didn’t say anything during the testimony time, people maybe wondered whether you were backsliding a little.

When we got to Augustana some of us made it to the occasional weekday worship services offered evenings in (faux Gothic) Ascension Chapel, up on Zion Hill in the Lutheran Seminary buildings. Unlike the morning chapels in Old Main, which were pretty generic, these services, often held before college vacations like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, seemed to me, anyway, to be “Lutheran”;—with a vengeance. By that I mean they were liturgical. The Order of Service was printed, and nobody was expected to get up and witness spontaneously to her or his personal Christian life. Perhaps showing up in the first place was witness enough.

The presumption seemed to be that to sing the hymns (accompanied always by a stately organ and never by a glissandoing piano), to join in the printed congregational prayers and responses (the ones in darker type), to listen thoughtfully to the preacher (who wore a clerical collar and vestments), and when it was offered to take Communion (kneeling up front at the altar rail) was enough to express your Christian commitment.

But it wasn’t only the formal worship that struck me as representing a difference between Covenant worship and piety and Lutheran. By my senior year, I had supplemented my exposure to the Lutheran Church with attending Sunday morning worship at a local congregation four or five times. Of course, I was dating a Lutheran girl, so it was not pure ecumenical curiosity that put me in those pews. Sometime that year it dawned on me that deeper questions might lie behind the obvious differences in Covenant and Lutheran public worship patterns.

I remembered that we Mission Covenanters were glad that we had no formal creeds; we read the Bible, listened to the Spirit, and let the personal faith to which we testified at Isaacson Fellowship services grow, however God and we together willed. For their part, Lutherans, at least the serious ones, seemed to believe that it was not only their liturgical formulae that expressed their faith; they held to creeds as well. I knew the Apostles’ Creed, but the Nicean, the Athanasian, the Chalcedonian—what were they—let alone the Confessio Augustana (for which the school itself was named) or the Book of Concord (for which a bunch of other colleges were named)?

I learned in religion class, required at Augustana as at North Park, that Lutherans held these ancient documents to be full expressions of the historic faith to which they assented, and that some of them, at least, felt that to subtract from or add to these creeds or confessions was to fall away from full Christianity.

The two men who, to me anyway, stood (if not “towered”) respectively over the two schools—and maybe to a degree over their respective churches as well—were Karl Olsson, soon to be President of North Park, and Conrad Bergendoff, in that role at Augustana since 1935. Even then I could see that though the two shared a deep loyalty to Swedish-America as well as to the faith, they were certainly different personalities. “KO” was quick-witted and brilliant and possessed of a lively vocabulary that served that wit well. He did not, at least in World Lit class (Nyvall basement, three mornings a week), suffer fools (there were several of us in the class) gladly.

Bergendoff, when he spoke slowly and deliberately to us from the Chapel pulpit (Old Main Chapel, second floor) or smiled fleetingly in passing on the campus sidewalks (you got off onto the grass to let him pass), was a person of great bearing and dignity. He seemed to be an intellect as powerful as Olsson, but was perhaps a milder man, and maybe not as readily witty as KO. Later, when I got a job at Augustana, I learned there were people who called him “Dr. B,” but by then he was retired. When we were turning 20 nobody called him that, even when he was not in the room; Olsson was “KO” to all of us.

So when you went to church services there were obvious Covenant-Lutheran differences. Further, the Lutherans—at least when they were confirmed—evidently assented to creedal statements which we Covenanters hadn’t even heard about. And if personalities mattered, the two churches seemed to have produced very different types, certainly in the two men many of us so much admired and talked about.

Both churches, of course, knew that life was fragile and fleeting. Having spent my life in both companies I understand that fact. So I hesitate to write now that I intend to explore these differences in the next two issues of Pietisten, the second of them a whole year away. But for personal and academic reasons both, these matters are of considerable interest to me; I hope a few readers stay tuned.

Our journal professes roots in both traditions. The decades have carried us to some degree on diverging paths, but such a brief historical exercise may be of interest to some of you too. I intend to write about liturgical and creedal questions and to remind us that at times even KO and Dr. B themselves tangled;—politely but clearly—over these matters. Those exchanges are quite instructive.

Tom Tredway is President Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Tom Tredway