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The Old Danish Church

By October 27, 2023 5 Comments

There ought to be a turnout. There ought to be a sign a mile back–you know, “Scenic Overlook” or something akin to warn drivers on E54 that a scene is coming up that looks more like a painting than a church.

If the traffic was any busier, there’d be accidents at the Old Danish Church. Honestly, the place looks make-believe. You will take your eyes off the road–trust me. If you stop the car and stand there for a second, you can’t help but expect men in vests and women in long dresses to step out for a potluck. Kids tear around, playing leapfrog over the cemetery stones. Women gather. Men smoke hand-rolled cigarettes or fat, black cigars.

The churchyard spreads out neatly over the long side of the hill, the whole place manicured so tidily that even the bushes are restrained. The scene is perfectly bucolic–rustic, pastoral, darling-ly 19th century Americana.

Which it is. Then again, not. The Old Danish Church is old and Danish; but its fitting name derives not from its age or ethnicity but a bloody fight few remember or wish to. That fight began with a revival back in Denmark, a religious rumble immigrants lugged along when they settled way out here. Two visions of the Christian life went to war, as they often do, the “Happy Danes vs. Sad Danes.” Their words, not mine.

You’re welcome to swim into the theological weeds if it moves you, but let me summarize, beginning with the eye of the storm, the headmaster of “Happy Danes,” Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig, who, back in Denmark, loved his country and his good times. 

The “Sad Danes” spent their time pointing out the darkness all around and kept their noses in the scripture as if it were a grindstone. We might call them 19th century Danish fundamentalists. Once the powers-that-be right here in this Old Danish Church went along with Grundtvig and the “Happys,” the other half left, climbed the hill behind the church, and built their own.

All of that explains, sort of, why the one in front of you is called the Old Danish Church, the original, not the hypers’ hilltop fortress.   

Still, this Old Danish Church, set where it is in the hills, is beautiful. Ought to be on a calendar. Probably has been. Neat as a pin too.

An odd churchyard stone lists the names of eight children in a mass grave that commemorates the Johnson kids, taken by a wave of diphtheria that ravaged the neighborhood of the church.

Peter and Mary Johnson were married here in 1879. They lived in a log cabin up on the hill. Tragedy struck the two of them early, when their Maggie died, scalded in an accident at home. 

Then came diphtheria. No phones, of course. People practiced strict quarantining to stifle the outbreak, but seven Johnson children fell into sickness, one by one. With each death, Father Johnson would ride his horse up on the hill where they lived to signal to relatives building a barn down below that another, and yet another child had died at home. Those relatives would build another casket and dig another grave.

Mother Johnson, right here in this Old Danish church, sang a hymn for each of her children, a testimony of the depth of her faith. When the seventh died, or so I was told, the music would no longer come.

No one worships at the Old Danish Church anymore. It’s beautiful but not particularly accommodating. Once a year, sometime around Memorial Day, people gather here to remember the place and the stories and the heritage of a community long gone. It might interest you to know that Memorial Day is not chosen because of the holiday weekend, but because of a special moment in the old church’s history. 

After the internal strife, the “Sad Danes” church fell into disrepair, and then there was a fire. In a series of mergers within the Lutheran family, the “Sad Danes”–some of them anyway–moved back in with the “Happy Danes” right here, in this little church on County Trunk E54. 

Just thought I’d mention it. 

If you’re up in the hills sometime, and you’re coming up from Moorhead on E54, be warned: don’t be surprised if the car in front of you suddenly veers off the pavement to let someone out with a smartphone to snap a picture. Pull up behind them. You’ll get your turn. 

There ought to be a turnout. That Old Danish Church is beautiful. 

The community has been gone from the neighborhood for years. What descendants there are worship today at the church in town. So, the Old Danish Church isn’t a church at all anymore; its worship is over.

Today it’s like an antique postcard, one of those you pick up at auction with a box of “miscellaneous household items.” That’s about it: a yellowing postcard. But then you never know what message it might offer on the other side until you look. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I love these.

  • Jim says:

    My doctoral mentor, Sydney Ahlstrom, used to talk about the happy Danes and the sad Danes! Then, small town Minnesota Lutheran boy that he was, he expanded on the Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Germans and all their sundry rivalries, ending, sadly, that their only point of unity was their mutual contempt for the Finns. Just in case we, like Rev Gruntvig, had lost sight of total depravity….

  • Jack says:

    You did it again—brought out the best in me.

    I so appreciate the thoughtful implications.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I can’t help but sense the heart of this story in some sort of metaphor for the American Church we’re a part of now. The Old American Church … thanks James.

  • Henry Baron says:

    That’s a story worth telling – and remembering. And thanks for telling it so well, Jim!

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