I heard an interesting piece of gossip at my class reunion last Saturday.

I don’t think anyone will be hurt by it. The news was more than a hundred years old.

The reunion took place at the farm of one of my classmates (we lived

in a small town, and it was a small class. Smaller now). The town is

Kenyon, Minnesota, not a famous place, but once a center of

Norwegian-American settlement, made conspicuous once upon a time by the

story I shall now relate.

Our host told us, “This farm once belonged to the first doctor in Goodhue County, Dr. Grønvold.” That was interesting.

Later another classmate, who knows I’m interested in history, told

me, “You know, there was a big scandal here in the 1800s. That farm over

there” (he pointed to a brick house about a thousand feet away) “is the

Holden church parsonage. The pastor there was gone a lot, and his wife

had an affair with the doctor who lived here.”

“B. J. Muus?” I asked. Yes, he said, that was the pastor’s name.

I’d read about the story, but never gave it close study. Now I’d

stumbled across the living oral tradition, on the very spot, and it

piqued my interest. So I read up about it.

Bernt Julius Muus

(1832-1900) came to America from Norway in 1859, and settled at Holden,

northeast of Kenyon in southeastern Minnesota. He seems to have been a

man born for the frontier, an A-type personality who was all about the

job, first, last, and Sunday. He spent much of his time on the road,

performing pastoral acts for pioneer communities and promoting the

Norwegian Synod’s school, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

His wife seems to have been a different sort of person.

Oline Christine Kathrine Muus came from a comfortable home in Norway

where she’d been somewhat pampered. She had decided that she wasn’t

serious enough about spiritual matters, and so had married a seminarian.

She doesn’t seem to have been prepared for life on the rolling prairie,

where winter blizzards drove snow through chinks in the walls and

Native Americans still pitched their teepees. She was a pretty, cultured

woman who loved music and had learned some medicine. In Holden she

found herself alone for long stretches with a growing family, hungry for

intelligent conversation.

Dr. Grønvald was an educated man, a musician himself, and he lived about the length of a city block away.

There was talk.

We don’t know that there actually was an affair. Holden folklore

says there was, but Holden folklore also justifies her a little. B. J.

Muus was a hard man, they say.

In 1880 Oline sued her husband, not for divorce at that point, but

for her inheritance from her parents, which he had taken into his

keeping. It was an interesting legal question, since they both remained

Norwegian citizens. The lawyers had to argue whether Norwegian or

American law applied in the case (in the end she was awarded that

portion of the money received within the statute of limitations). Then

began the series of meetings of Holden congregation, which would extend

through her divorce suit in 1881 (denied by the courts) and her appeal

for a legal separation, which was granted in 1883. Her accusations

against her husband included neglect, years of literal silence, and

parsimony to the point where their children’s health suffered through

lack of heat and decent clothes. In particular she claimed that when

she’d broken her leg, her husband had delayed getting her medical

attention. (She later admitted he’d done the best he could under the

circumstances. The doctor who finally cared for her, as it happened, was

Dr. Grønvold.)

The Muus family was not only the talk of Holden, but of Norwegians

across America, and back in the old country. Their conflict crystallized

political and religious arguments that were on everyone’s minds.

Pastor Muus was a leader of the Norwegian Synod, the “conservative”

Norwegian Lutheran group. The Norwegian Synod saw it as its mission to

transfer the Norwegian state church, as far as possible, into the

American environment. Their focus was sacramental, and they looked with

dismay on the shenanigans of the Hauge Synod (my own people) and the

Lutheran Free Church (predecessor to my present employer). Those

radicals allowed laymen to preach, and subjected their congregations to

the chaos of emotionalism and revivalism.

When Oline moved out of her home (she would see very little of her

children for the rest of her life) she moved to Minneapolis, where the

Free Church leaders helped her maintain herself until she could

establish herself as a piano teacher. In their view, she was just

another victim of the authoritarianism of Synod pastors, who fancied

themselves kings on earth.

Earlier, during her inheritance lawsuit, she’d been visited by

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsen, the famous Norwegian poet and novelist, who was

touring America. Bjørnsen, as a liberal freethinker who’d come to hate

the state church, arrived positively disposed to her case. However, on

closer acquaintance he declared her “a real mountain troll…. God

almighty, how he [Pastor Muus] must have struggled with that female.”

The Norwegian radical immigrant Marcus Thrane (once a friend of

Ibsen’s), on the other hand, saw her as a heroine. He wrote an operetta

entitled “Holden,” which was performed in Chicago, as well as a satire

on the case called “The Old Wisconsin Bible.”

Oline eventually settled in the Norwegian colony of Fruithurst,

Alabama, where she operated a hotel. She died in 1922. Pastor Muus

continued as a leader of the Norwegian Synod until being expelled for

doctrinal noncomformity in 1888. He returned to Norway, where he died.

But he is best remembered today as the father of St. Olaf College in

Northfield, Minnesota.

The tragedy of the Muus family seems from today’s perspective

something like a cultural hurricane, the confluence of low-pressure

areas emptied out by the dissolution of centuries of certainty. Pastor

B. J. Muus believed that the man was the head of the wife. If he

surrendered himself wholly to a mission, it would be unnatural for her

not share in his sacrifices. The idea that she had a life and interests

and needs of her own barely occurred to him, even when he left her on

her own for weeks on end.

Draw what lessons you like. Certainly missionaries need to be taught

to be flexible, to distinguish between the essential and the

dispensible in order to adapt to unfamiliar situations. Certainly men

need to care for their wives as for their own bodies (with the caveat

that willingness to neglect the second doesn’t excuse neglect of the

first). Some will say it proves marriage is slavery, or that

Christianity is itself an oppression.

Myself, I’d say that life is dangerous and full of pain, and that it

is not good for a man to be alone. That if we want to follow Christ we

must lay down our own lives, giving more to others and expecting less

for ourselves.

Oddly enough (seen from a modern point of view) neither B. J. nor

Oline Muus allowed their pain and loss of reputation to turn them

against Jesus Christ or His church.

(Source: Bernt Julius Muus, published 1999 by The Norwegian-American Historical Association.)