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The “Happy Danes” vs. the “Sad Danes”: Assimilation and Religious Divide amongst Danish American Immigrants

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(This post is by Sarah Lancaster, intern, European Division)

 The Danes who emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century settled in the Midwest, assimilating quickly, while also holding on to Danish language and culture. The effects of the social and economic conditions in their new surroundings, as well as the tension between assimilation and Danish sentiment, exacerbated a pre-existing difference in religious ideology. The schism that resulted had effects not only on religious observance, but also on everyday life, creating the distinct communities of “Happy Danes” and “Sad Danes.”

Four Danish Fra Amerika from Henrik Cavling’s Book, Fra Amerika between pp. 344 and 345.

Between 1840 and 1940, more than 375,000 Danes emigrated to the U.S. From the mid-1800s, many Danes came as Mormon converts on their way to Utah, Mormon missionaries having been active in Denmark since 1850. Danish immigrants in the later 19th century were mostly motivated by economic reasons. Denmark had lost 40 percent of its land to Germany during the German-Danish War of 1864, entering into an economic depression. Against this backdrop, a growing population and limited land meant people had to search for work abroad.


Danish Farm. Monona County, Iowa by John Vachon, 1940



In the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of public land to any citizen, or immigrant who filed an intent to become a citizen. Because of this, large settlements of Danes arose in the Midwestern states of Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The Midwest offered new opportunities, as wages were much higher in the U.S. Farm work could earn twice as much as in Denmark, and artisans could earn four to five times more.

The Danes assimilated fast. They scattered across several states and English was learned quickly by many as it reaped greater economic benefits. Many more men immigrated to the United States than women, establishing high rates of marriage into American families. The Danes were also more readily accepted because they were white, Northern European, and Protestant.

A birds-eye view of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home to a large Danish settlement and Danish printing press.


The Dania Society Building in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

While Danish immigrants assimilated quickly, many nonetheless continued to enjoy their connection to Danish language and culture. A number of towns had Danish reading clubs, societies, schools, and other associations. The Danish-American culture that emerged created a literature that focused on the Danish-American experience, primarily on the subjects of church life, farming, pioneer stories, and Danish-American history. However, the interpretation of Lutheranism, idealizing Danishness as opposed to assimilation, ultimately divided the Danish Lutheran community in America.

NFS Grundtvig; A Contribution to Depicting Danish Intellectual Life in the 19th Century,” vol. 3, pt. 2.




The religious schism within the Danish church in America stemmed from two major ideologies developed during the 19th-century religious revival in Denmark. On one side was the teaching of Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), a revivalist preacher, nationalist, hymn writer, and proponent of the folk school system. His unconventional approach focused less on the Bible and placed more emphasis on the Apostles’ Creed. He held a holistic view of incorporating community and culture with an emphasis on Danishness.

The other ideology was known as the Inner Mission, a fundamentalist view. In contrast to Grundtvig, the Inner Mission adherents held the Bible as a cornerstone of their faith, taking a literal interpretation and believing it the word of God. They focused on piety and placed great emphasis on personal conversion and revival in the Christian faith. These two ideologies formed different sects within the Danish Lutheran church.

With no traditional church framework, Danish Americans had to find their own way in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the Danish-American community split into separate churches such as the Danish Lutheran Church (Blair Church), the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (the Danish Church), and the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (North Church). The Blair Church and the North Church subsequently united to form The United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (The United Church), located in Blair.

In the mid-19th century, Danish immigrants first joined the Norwegian Lutheran church. Subsequently, the Danes developed into a distinct group, the Norwegian-Danish Conference.  In 1884, the Danes withdrew from the Conference to form the Danish Lutheran Church in America. It was established in Blair, Nebraska (the Blair Church) and followed Inner Mission ideology, opposed Grundtvigianism, and steered the group’s focus toward America instead of Denmark.

Around the same time, Danish pastors began emigrating to the U.S., Anders S. Nielsen, Rasmus Andersen, Niels Thomsen, and Adam Dan, among the first. Adam Dan, also well known for his works of poetry, formed the Church Mission Society (Kirkelig Missionsforening) with the other pastors. This would become the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America  (the Danish Church).

The four early Danish-American pastors who formed the first Danish Church in America. From “Dansk Luthersk Mission i Amerika,” p. 57.

Following disagreements within the Danish Church, a number of pastors, led by Peter Sørenson Vig, a Danish pastor and teacher, left the Danish Church and formed The Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (the North Church) in 1894.

Pastor Kristian Anker. Dana College (Captioned “the first school in Blair”) from “Dansk luthersk mission i Amerika i tiden før 1884” pp. 120-21; 152-53.

In 1896, the Blair church and the North Church merged to form The United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (The United Church). Based in Blair, Nebraska, these Inner Mission “Pious,” “Holy,” or “Sad Danes,” held strict views. They looked down on drinking, dancing, and other entertainments as improper. They also did not encourage Danish language and culture to the extent the Grundtvigians did; devotion to faith was tantamount, and Danish language did not play a significant part in it except to reach new immigrants. In Blair, they established Trinity Lutheran Seminary followed by Dana College. When the two churches merged, the North Church Seminary consolidated with Trinity Seminary in Blair. Kristian Anker (one of the founding members of the North Church) came with them as president, serving as President of Trinity Seminary (1899-1902) and Dana College (1899-1905).

The first Danish folk school in America and “the first school in Elk Horn, Iowa.” Established in 1878 by Kristian Østergaard. From “Dansk Luthersk Mission i Amerika,” pp. 104-6.

The Grundtvigians, those left in the original Danish Church, became known as the “Happy Danes.” Based in Des Moines, Iowa, they followed a relaxed lifestyle, allowing drinking, dancing, and other merriment. A central figure was Grundtvig’s youngest son, F. L. Grundtvig. While he advocated learning English, he also wanted to preserve the use of Danish. Kristian Østergaard, one of the most important Danish-American authors, believed Danes could become the best American citizens by continuing to be Danish, as well. In 1887, the Danish Church established Dansk Folkesamfund (Danish Folk Society). A seminary and Grand View College (now University) were also opened. Danish colonies had previously been established by Grundtvig followers in Tyler and Askov, Minnesota; Dannebrog and Nysted, Nebraska; Danevang Texas; Dagmar, Montana; and Solvang, California. Folk schools were opened as well in the towns of Solvang, California; Elk Horn, Iowa; Ashland, Michigan; Tyler, Minnesota; Kenmare, North Dakota; Nysted, Nebraska; and West Denmark, Wisconsin.

While the two Danish Church branches had their followers, many Danish Americans chose to join American congregations. Assimilation was inevitable and the Grundtvigian message of Danish virtues was not relevant to immigrants trying to get by. Interest in the folk schools waned, which eventually caused most to close. The number of services conducted in Danish in both church synods declined consistently after WWI.

Windmill at the Solvang Brewing Company in Solvang, California, once a Danish colony in… Santa Barbara County,” California. Carol Highsmith, photographer, 2013.

While Danish Americans continued to merge into the American melting pot, information about both American and Danish affairs was provided through newspapers issued either in Danish or in English. Books continued to be published in the Danish language, and there were many American-Danish printing presses. Though the religious schism may be recognized in many Danish-American publications, as both Grundtvigian and Inner Mission key figures contributed heavily to the literary world, there were also many publications in Danish and English purely for entertainment. Novels and plays such as Jeppe on the Hill by Ludvig Holberg, Disturbance on the Farm by Carl Hanson, Skoven hævner and Den gule by by Oluf Christian Molbech, and Smaafortællinger by Evald Kristensen were popular and may now be viewed digitally.


Kristian Anker. “Huset i gyden: fortælling.” Elk Horn, Iowa; Blair, Nebr.: Danish Lutheran Publ. House, 1922.

Adam Dan. “Sommerlöv: sange og vers.” Cedar Falls, Iowa: Dansk Boghandels Forlag, 1903.

Den danske Evangelisk-Lutherske Kirke i Amerika: 1871-1921.” Cedar Falls, Iowa: Dannevirke’s Trykkeri, 1921.

Frederik Lange Grundtvig. “Kirke og folk: digte. Samlet og udgivet af Aug. Faber.” Cedar Falls, Iowa: Dansk Boghandels Forlag, 1909.

 Carl Theodore Hanson. “Disturbance on the Farm,” 1887.

Ludvig Holberg, 1684-1754. “Jeppe on the Hill, or the Transformed Peasant: A Comedy in Five Acts,” tr. Waldemar C. Westergaard and Martin B. Ruud; with a biographical sketch of Holberg by Morris Johnson and an introduction by W. C. Westergaard. First played in Copenhagen in 1722 … Pub. by the Mimer club of the University of North Dakota. Grand Forks, N.D.: The Evening Times Co., 1906.

Evald Rejnholdt Kristensen, “Smaafortællinger.” Omaha, Nebr.: C.C. Nielsens Trykkeri, 1915.

Johannes Izak Marais. “Bishop Grundtvig and the People’s High School in Denmark.” Pretoria: The government printing and stationery office, 1911.

Oluf Christian Molbech. “Skoven hævner; fortælling fra Virginien.” København og Kristiania: Gyldendalske boghandel, Nordisk forlag, 1904.

__________. “Den gule by; billede fra Ohio.” København og Kristiania: Gyldendalske boghandel, Nordisk forlag, 1905.

Olof Nickolaus Nelson, comp. and ed. “History of the Scandinavians and Successful Scandinavians in the United States.” Minneapolis, Minn.: O. N. Nelson, 1893-97.

Bp. Fredrik Kristian Nielsen. “N.F.S. Grundtvigs religiøse udvikling; et mindeskrift.” Kjøbenhavn: K. Schønberg, 1889.

Frederik Rønning. “N.F.S. Grundtvig; et bidrag til skildring af Dansk åndsliv i det 19. århundrede.” København: Schønbergske forlag, 1907.

Peter Sorensen Vig. “Dansk luthersk mission i Amerika i tiden før 1884.” Udg. af den Forenede danske ev.-luth. kirke i Amerika ved en komite. Blair, Neb., Danish Lutheran Pub. House, 1917.

__________. “Danske i Amerika; nogle blade af den danske udvandrings historie, saerlig den aeldre, samt en oversigt over danskernes antal og udbredelse i de Forenede stater.” Blair, Neb.: Danish Luth. Pub. House, 1899.

__________. “Danske i kamp i og for Amerika, fra ca. 1640 til 1865.” Omaha, Neb., Axel H. Andersen, Inc., 1917.

__________. The Danish emigration to America, its causes and roads as well as a view of Danish literature about America and Danish-American writings about the lives and movements of Danes over here, the journey to America and features from the lives of emigrants in this country. A contribution to the history of the Danes outside Denmark, ed. on the occasion of the San Francisco World’s Fair, 1915.Blair, Neb., Danish Luth. Pub. House, 1915.

Newspapers: “Chronicling America.”


Comments (4)

  1. My mother was born and raised in Michigan’s upper peninsula, locus of much Scandinavian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indicative of this was the construction of a major ski jump reflecting a Danish and other northern European winter sport; to this day winter ski jumping contests are held in Iron Mountain, Mich., site of a major jump, one which annually features Danish ski jumpers as well as others from Scandinavia. (The sport has even spread as far a Japan, which sends an occasional Japanese jumper to the event.
    I grew up in a Detroit suburb in southern Michigan, but during my time living there attended several of the ski jumping championships in the north–highly recommended!

  2. What a fascinating history. Thank you for pulling together this snapshot of the Danes and their experience in America… and for the excellent bibliography at the end. Much appreciated.

  3. My father was born in the southernmost part of Michigan’s UP in 1910, his parents having emigrated at different times from Jutland
    My father always said he grew up in the “Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church,” probably so he could brag about having to recite Luther’s Little Catechism in Danish before the congregation to be confirmed.
    His mother counted her several months in folk school in Denmark (before emigration) as the highlight of her life. Once in Menominee MI, she organized Danish summer school for kids at the Danish Lutheran Church so that they would be literate in Danish and know a little Danish history and literature. She also taught the local (Herborg, near Herning) embroidery technique to MI girls.
    One of my grandfather’s sisters supported herself by running a rooming house in Copenhagen — very popular with divinity students because of her large Grundtvig library!
    (Except for my own father, I never knew any of the folks I refer to. These are stories he told me.)

  4. The nicknames of the two branches of Danish Lutherans in America are usually “Happy” for the Grundtvigians, based in Des Moines, and “Holy” for the Inner Mission group, based in Blair, Nebraska. Their views of sacred Scripture were at the heart of the division. It has been said that the Happy Danes believed the Bible “contained the Word of God”; and that the Holy Danes believed the Bible “was the Word of God.” A useful English language publication concerning the split is CHURCH DIVIDED by Thorvald Hansen.

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