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The Norwegian-American Summer Religion School


From the 1870s through the 1930s many Norwegian-American Lutheran congregations held summer schools for religious education. They were called RELIGIONSKOLER [reh-lih-ggeh-oon-skoh-ler], religion schools, parochial schools or Norse schools. One, two or three congregations would participate in running these schools from four to six weeks.

At first, professional teachers from Norway taught, then Lutheran seminary students. Eventually educated parishioners served as teachers. At some parochial schools, graduates returned to teach their younger brothers and sisters.

In the morning, the teacher began the class with Norwegian hymns. They sang patriotic songs of Norway and America. The afternoon session began with another hymn and also ended with one last hymn. Many students remembered the singing as a precious part of RELIGIONSKOLE.

Students memorized Bible verses and mastered Bible stories. After two summers, students would know much about the Bible. They learned church history, especially the Reformation. Students memorized Luther's Small Catechism. They studied the history of missions.

Students recited the Norwegian Alphabet—AH-BAH-SEH, improved their speaking of Norsk and wrote summaries from Norway's literature. Some schools taught American history, arithmetic, and world geography.

Each school determined the criteria for graduation, usually involving two summer sessions. St. John Church of Hatton had a three-year program, with certificates for each year. In some schools the atmosphere was so joyful that many graduates returned session after session.

RELIGIONSKOLE ended the summer with the SKOLEFEST (skoh-leh-fest). All the participating congregations came. People gorged on Ladies Aid picnic food and the very best ice cream. School children sang hymns, recited Bible verses and gave short orations. Pastors passed out certificates.

To pay teachers, buy books and supplies, congregations held special offerings. Ladies’ Aid Societies also gave funds, and parents paid a fee for each child, ranging from twenty-five cents to five dollars. In the 1880s, congregations could pay parochial teachers fifteen dollars a month. By the 1920s, North Prairie Church of Velva was paying its teacher sixty dollars a month.

The longest running Norse Schools were in eastern North Dakota. The Goose River congregation, rural Hatton, ran its school for sixty-six years; St. John of Hatton ran its school for sixty-five years. As for attendance, the Esmond Religion School had from six to twenty-five students. The Abercrombie parochial school once had a class of forty-five.

By 1920 the hymns were sung in English. Soon the Norwegian language faded. The summer session shrank to ten days, becoming Vacation Bible School. By 1940, Sunday School had became the standard means for church education.

Dakota Datebook written by Doctor Erik Luther Williamson

Source: Williamson Doctor of Arts paper, University of North Dakota, 1991.