Some first-rate quotes below, from a post on Patheos by a biographer of Swedish-American aviator Charles Lindbergh, on the anti-German hysteria that spilled over and left some Swedish, Norwegian, Czech and other immigrant churches unable to communicate with their parishioners during World War I and its immediate aftermath.

I presented a paper on the hysteria, titled “A Religious Community’s Response to Wartime Nativism: Swedish- American Lutherans in Rock Island at the Onset of World War I,” at the Illinois History Symposium sponsored by the Illinois State Historical Society, Lincoln Land Community College, Springfield, on April 20, 2017. Basically, several Midwestern states — including Iowa but not Illinois — banned the use of foreign languages in public during the war. Iowa went so far as to forbid them over the telephone.

The unexpected outburst of wartime nativism was especially ironic for Lutherans because the spring of 1917, when the US entered the war, was the scheduled kickoff for a previously planned celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, suddenly an enemy nation. My nut graf (actually three grafs with an embedded quote) was as follows:

At Augustana College and the Swedish immigrant churches in Rock Island and Moline, the Lutheran musical heritage was to be a major part of the 400th anniversary celebration, highlighted by the premiere on campus at the annual Synod assembly of a Reformation Cantata with music by J. Victor Bergquist and a text by Ernst W. Olson. By the winter and early spring of 1917, preparations were well under way. But on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, casting a shadow over any celebration involving the “Land of Luther.” The event was held as scheduled, but the assembly took on a muted, ambivalent, almost sorrowful tone. At the same time students and faculty at Augustana threw themselves into the war effort. [note 6] Thus, they set the tone for the war years.

Not only in Rock Island but nationwide, Swedish-Americans of the Augustana Synod adopted an attitude toward the war that was narrowly drawn from the Lutheran confessions of faith, an attitude that distanced itself from the widespread religious nationalism of the day. In this, it was closer to J.C. Squire, an up-and-coming English poet of the day who wrote in 1915:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout,
“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”
God this, God that, and God the other thing.
“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out.
[note 7]

Augustana Synod Swedes, on the other hand, prayed for the strength to preach God’s word as they understood it and administer the sacraments in a world consumed by war and sin. They weren’t opposed to the war effort. In fact, they supported it. But they didn’t fully embrace the nationalistic fervor of the day and they didn’t lose sight of their own institutional goals as Lutherans of Swedish-American descent.

Swedes in other states and other ethnic groups everywhere — including in Davenport, Iowa, just across the river from Rock Island and Moline — were dramatically affected, however, by the crusade against “hyphenated Americans,” as recent immigrants were known at the time. And an Aug. 10 article by Chris Gehrz in the Anxious Bench blog (part of the evangelical channel) on the Patheos website details some of its main outlines.

Gehrz, who is publishing a biography of the aviator, noted that young Lindbergh didn’t speak Swedish and attended an English-speaking church in his home town of Little Falls, Minn., when he attended church at all. He guesses that’s because the “people of Bethel Lutheran worshipped in a language that the Lindberghs didn’t understand.”

But the war years and the 1920s saw a pronounced shift away from foreign-language church service — exacerbated by the war — and Gehrz has some fine detail I’m filing away here for possible future reference.

Verbatim extracts follow (all links are in the original):

[…] Writing in 1929, Richard Niebuhr emphasized the role of language in making “many an immigrant church” into “more a racial and cultural than a religious institution in the New World,” where “in many a pulpit the duty of loyalty to the old language was almost as frequent a theme as the duty of loyalty to the old faith.” 

So the fact that the Lindberghs chose an English- rather than Swedish-speaking church in the first decade of the 20th century underscores just how thoroughly they had assimilated into Anglophone America.

***

As in Minnesota, Swedish (plus Danish and Czech) communities in Nebraska were targeted, not just German enclaves. So too in Iowa, where in May 1918 Governor William L. Harding issued the so-called Babel Proclamation, mandating the use of English in all schools (public and private), all public conversations (including those conducted over the telephone), and all public speeches. That included sermons, for while Harding admitted that

Each person is guaranteed freedom to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience… this guaranty does not protect him in the use of a foreign language when he can as well express his thought in English, nor entitle the person who cannot speak or understand the English language to employ a foreign language, when to do so tends, in time of national peril, to create discord among neighbors and citizens, or to disturb the peace and quiet of the community. 

***

[…] Here again, Germans were not the only population affected. In Peoria [Iowa], where James D. Bratt reports that some patriotic Iowans struggled to distinguish between “Dutch” and “Deutsch,” Christian Reformed minister J.J. Weersing was forced out of town and vigilantes burned down his church and its school. In Cedar Rapids, a Czech-speaking Catholic priest organized a protest against the Babel Proclamation a week after it came out. And Rev. C.J.M. Grönlid, the pastor of a Lutheran church near Paint Creek, petitioned Harding through a plaintive letter:

I have preached the Gospel in the Norwegian language exclusively for about 40 years, and now in my old age (63) at once to turn over to English will break up my ministry, and exclude about half of the parish from public worship. I therefore petition you most humbly to be permitted to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in Norwegian, because that is not going to create any strife, distrust, or controversy in the community…. Sir, I have been a Pro-ally since the day the Kaiser declared war and invaded Belgium…. I might defy any community in the State to be more patriotic in spirit and in deed than our Norwegians here, and we are tolerably American in language, except the worship.

***

Danish Americans, whose homeland Prussia had invaded in 1864, were particularly offended by measures like Harding’s. “A person may be born Denmark and still be a good American citizen, and a dog may be born in America and still be a dog,” wrote Lutheran minister Peder Sørensen Vig, who served as president of Trinity Seminary across the border in Blair, NE. “No language in itself is either loyal or disloyal, but it is the use made of such languages that counts.”

Cite: Chris Gehrz, “The American Christians Who Couldn’t Worship in Their Own Language,” Anxious Bench, Patheos, Aug. 10, 2022 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2021/08/language-bans-christian-worship/.

Link to Patheos “Write for Us” form: https://www.patheos.com/write-for-us.

[Published Aug. 14, 2022, at 12:01 a.m.!]

One thought on “Futures file (Notes & Quotes): Iowa’s nativist ban on foreign languages during World War I

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