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
(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
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
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
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
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.)