In 1871, as spring approached the tiny Danish settlement in the southeast corner of Fairfield Township in Grundy County, Iowa, a small group of settlers came together to organize what was to become the Fredsville Lutheran Church. A Danish pastor had held services from time to time in the area and probably helped to organize the congregation. But the congregation came into being even before they were organized or had a pastor to serve them. Early accounts tell of how people would gather in the homes on Sunday to sing hymns, read the scriptures, confess their faith, pray together and sometimes hear a sermon read. So we see that the church was here long before there was an organization or a pastor or a church building. Faith brought these people together – faith in the words of Jesus Christ who said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” From these meager beginnings they moved forward in faith to meet the challenges that faced them in good times and bad.
The first Danish settlers in this area came from Wisconsin in 1866. One of these was Jens Andersen, who returned to Denmark the following spring and came back with a group of Danish immigrants. He made the trip in 1868 and brought still more settlers for Cedar Falls and the surrounding area. Those who had come from Wisconsin had been acquainted with the Norwegian Synod there and because of this relationship, they made contact with The Rev. C. L. Clausen, a Danish pastor serving in the Norwegian Conference. Pastor Clausen came from St. Ansgar, Iowa, to preach in this area on several occasions and from the references in the early by-laws to the altar book of the Norwegian Lutheran Church, he probably assisted in the organization of the congregation.
The records indicate that the congregation was organized at a meeting in the home of Jeppe Troelsen Slifsgaard on March 12, 1871, and was named “Fairfield Scandinavian Lutheran Congregation.” Officers were elected and a constitution drawn up and signed by the following men:
• Ole Johnson (president)
• J. T. Slifsgaard (secretary)
• Niels Christiansen (treasurer)
• Svend Lindkvist (trustee)
• Lars J. Petersen
• Niels Petersen
The following names were recorded in the church book and were apparently the charter members of the congregation: Ole Johnson, Niels Christiansen, Jens Andersen, (listed under his name is also his son, Guldberg Peter Andersen, born June 18, 1871, undoubtedly the first child baptized in the congregation); Jens Madsen, Niels Olsen, Frederik C. A. Jacobsen, Niels Petersen, Rasmus Larsen, Lars J. Petersen, Svend Lindkvist, Hans Christensen, and Hans Jeppesen.
With the congregation organized, the next concern was to find a pastor. In 1869, a commission had been formed in Denmark in response to pleas for help from emigrants. In 1871, the commission sent 3 men as a mission project to the United States. One of these men, Missionary A. S. Nielsen, had heard about the Fairfield Township community through letters written to Denmark by Lars Nielsen. Missionary Nielsen arrived in New York on June 12, 1871, and after traveling first to Benton County in Iowa, came to the Cedar Falls area. The story of A. S. Nielsen’s first meeting with the new congregation is an interesting one told by Jacob P. Johnson, Ole Johnson’s son. Jacob was 17 years old at the time and relates this story:
“I believe it was in 1869 or 70, that a letter was sent to Denmark to inquire if it were possible to get a Danish minister over here. This resulted in Missionary A. S. Nielsen coming to Cedar Falls in the spring of 1871. The first meeting out in the country was to be held at Jens Madsen’s (he lived in a log house on a hill about a mile south of Fredsville). I stated, was to be held there, because just as these few Danish settlers were congregated and A. S. Nielsen was to open the meeting by the singing of a hymn, our host, Jens Madsen, came in with a letter in his hand and said, ‘Now wait a minute! I have a letter from my relatives in Denmark and they have advised me not to have anything to do with the missionary who was sent to us because he comes with what they in Denmark call Grundtvigianism, and that is heresy.’ When Nielsen wanted to explain, Jens Madsen went over and opened the door and said, ‘Be so kind!’ Now it can be readily understood that this little gathering of settlers, who out here on the Iowa prairie were called together for the first time in order to hear a message from one sent from the Mother Land, was surprised and taken aback by this turn of events and it made a painful impression on me who though only a boy, was still old enough to be an active participant. It also struck the older people hard as I saw tears in many an eye. Now all this happened in a moment, and when Nielsen was invited to leave the house, he quietly gathered his books together. Meanwhile, I saw several of the men speaking together in low tones. Presently Jens Andersen invited the people over to his house; we accepted and followed in a group and there the first service was held by A. S. Nielsen on the Jens Andersen farm a quarter of a mile west of Jens Madsen’s. A. S. Nielsen was called as pastor and later went to St. Ansgar, Iowa, to be ordained by C. S. Clausen.”
Jens Madsen later consented to hear A. S. Nielsen give an explanation and was to serve as president of the congregation for 2 years while Nielsen was pastor.
According to Rev. Enok Mortensen in his book, “The Danish Lutheran Church in America,” A. S. Nielsen came to Cedar Falls and preached to a large crowd gathered on the banks of the Cedar River for a Fourth of July festival; and at a subsequent meeting, also held on the banks of the Cedar River, was called as pastor by the Danish Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls (now Nazareth Lutheran Church). Nielsen was ordained on November 17, 1871, and served both Fredsville and Nazareth until 1879.
In “the congregation out on the prairie”, Rev. Nielsen conducted services and meetings in the Fredsville schoolhouse and had many gatherings in the various homes. Since the pastor lived in Cedar Falls, the children were sent there for catechetical instruction except during the busy season when the pastor would have instruction here. In 1873, the congregation met to consider building a church. The following is taken from the congregational minutes when the decision was made:
“A general need for the erection of a little Danish church for the Danish people living outside of Cedar Falls has for a longer time been considered. A meeting was held December 7, 1873, regarding the matter, at which time it was shown that there was a general interest for the cause and the majority of those present subscribed a definite sum toward the building of a church. A later meeting on December 11, 1873, for the same purpose, more detailed plans were laid and a building committee elected consisting of Ole Johnson, Iver Ravn, Anders Sorensen, Soren Sandholdt and Chris Refshauge, who were to oversee construction of the new church. It was decided that the church should be built in Fairfield Township on Iver Ravn’s land. Iver Ravn had promised to donate one and one-half acres of land for the church and cemetery. Svend Lindkvist offered to erect the church for $425; the length of the church was to be 32 feet, 12 feet high, 20 feet wide, having four windows, 16 pews and 2 benches, pulpit, altar railing, altar, baptismal font and tower.”
The committee at a meeting held at Iver Ravn’s decided that one acre was sufficient for church and cemetery, and so in 1890, they found it necessary to pay the new owner $400 for one more acre for the cemetery. The church was completed and dedicated in 1874; and on February 14, 1875, Pastor Nielsen dedicated the cemetery at the time of the first burial – a child, son of Jorgen Schmidt.
By now the Nazareth congregation had its own church also and so separate church councils were organized. A joint meeting of the councils was held in Cedar Falls on December 26, 1874, to determine pastor’s salary for the coming year. It was agreed that Fredsville should be equal in respect to rights and services. In addition, Pastor Nielsen was to be given feed for his horses.
Fredsville continued to grow during Nielsen’s pastorate which ended in 1879, when he moved to Chicago. Pastor Nielsen was active in organizing new congregations in the middle west and in forming the Danish Mission Society, which was to become the Danish Lutheran Synod. He served as ordainer from 1872-1901, and was Synod President 1879-83, 1885-87, and 1891-94.
Rev. Jens Jensen (Mylund) came to Fredsville in 1879. He lived in Cedar Falls, but served the Fredsville Congregation well, and it continued to grow. In 1885, it was decided that a larger church was needed. The new church 28 x 48 feet, was dedicated in 1885, with Pastors A. S. Nielsen and Adam Dan participating in the services.
Prior to 1888, the congregation was variously called “Fairfield Congregation”, “the Congregation outside Cedar Falls”, and “the Congregation on the Prairie”. At the congregational meeting January 26, 1888, Soren Hansen suggested the name “Fredsville” (Danish for peaceful village), and the name was approved by the congregation. That same year, consideration was given to build a folk high school at Fredsville with Carl Hansen as president. Plans were considered and money subscribed for this purpose; but when Hansen moved away, the plans were dropped. Rev. Jensen left Fredsville in the spring of 1889.
At this point the congregation felt that it was strong enough to support its own pastor. An acre of ground was acquired across the road from the church and at a congregational meeting April 7, 1889, the decision was made to build a parsonage. The parsonage was built and paid for at a cost of $1,000.
At a meeting on April 21, 1889, it was decided that a call should be sent to Rev. R. Thomsen in Denmark. The call was accepted, and Pastor Thomsen arrived around July 4th.
Pastor Thomsen organized a reading circle and also conceived the idea of an annual harvest festival which continued for many years. The festivals were held in the fall, usually on a farm in the Fredsville area. For the occasion, a large tent was erected, a speaker’s platform built, and picnic tables arranged on the lawn, all decorated in festive array with various harvest items. Guest speakers were invited, the Fredsville band played and the young people entertained with plays and pageants.
At the urging of Pastor Thomsen, an organ was purchased for the church. Pastor Thomsen enjoyed painting in his spare time, and painted the pictures which hung at the altar for many years. In 1894, he resigned and returned to Denmark. Pastor P.L.C. Hansen served the congregation until the new pastor arrived.
The Rev. C. H. Fechtenburg came to Fredsville in January of 1895. His pastorate was a short and apparently stormy one. It was recalled that he gave much attention to the church records and saw to it that they were well kept. In 1894, there had been a split in the Danish Lutheran Church in America and a new synod was formed. It is evident from Pastor Fechtenburg’s notes in the church records that he favored the new synod and invited many guest pastors from the new synod to speak at Fredsville. He notes, however, that in September, 1895:
“Pastor Grundtvig of Clinton spoke in the church to that part of the congregation which adheres to the Grundtvigian Synod. Earlier, Pastor Helveg and Pastor Adam Dan have spoken to them.”
On March 15, 1896, he records:
“Today, the president of the congregation announced that Pastor Adam Dan would speak here on March 22nd. This was done without consulting the other members of the board or the pastor whose function it is to decide in such matters.”
Pastor Dan spoke on March 22nd, “this time, however, not just to the Grundtvigian part of the congregation, but to the congregation as a whole.” On May 10, 1896, apparently as a result of the strife, Pastor Fechtenburg resigned and asked to be free to leave as soon as possible. This was accepted.
Although in 1884, the congregation had joined the Danish Lutheran Church in America, referred to as the old synod, when the split came in 1894, they made no move to join with either of the factions. There were many, however, who had strong ties to the old synod; and now that the congregation was to elect a new pastor, this group wanted a man from the old synod. Though many opposed this, Rev. Adam Dan, who stood firmly with the old synod, was elected on the seventh ballot at the congregational meeting on July 14, 1896.
Pastor Adam Dan preached his first sermon at Fredsville on October 4, 1896, and emphasized that his prime concern was to work for peace to keep the congregation together. He recalls in the church records that a few families left the church at that time, but even some of those returned and “the seas of strife have calmed down”.
Pastor Dan started a Sunday School shortly after his arrival with sessions held before the worship service. This was attended by about 30 to 35 children. Each summer, a Danish Vacation School was held for 2 months at 2 different locations with attendance of about 35 children.
Pastor Dan’s daughter, Thyra, helped to organize a Girls’ Society, which became very active in the church. This group purchased a bell for the church. Thyra was also responsible for organizing a small choir, which sang on Sundays and for special occasions. The church was completely redecorated with wood paneling on the walls and ceiling, and a narthex was added. The women of the church gave 2 chancel chairs to complete the refurnishing. Improvements were also made on the parsonage with a bay window being added. Each year, the congregation celebrated Danish Constitution Day, June 4th, and continued the fall Harvest Festival. Other gatherings included concerts by the Girls’ Society and several lectures sponsored by the Lecture Society. Pastor Dan continued to be active in the work of the synod as well as serving the new congregations at Waterloo and Cedar Falls. Shortly before Pastor Dan resigned, the congregation once again joined the Danish Lutheran Church in America. Pastor Dan preached his farewell sermon on April 8, 1890.