Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Going to Vesterheim
This wonderfully haunting painting greets visitors at the entrance to Vesterheim: the National Norwegian Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa. Clearly, Father is missing. Interpretations include a familiar story: he's gone on ahead to America to find a place for his family.
That table is spread with food, but obvious anxiety. No one is smiling, not even the children. The prominence of the empty chair suggests their father's absence is daunting, as is what must have seemed inevitable, a voyage across the sea to a strange country from which they'd never return.
Most 19th century American immigrants, be they Dutch or Norwegian or German or Irish, were dirt poor. Most saw America as a promise attainable otherwise only in their dreams. Most were unhappy. Who would suffer this kind of loneliness and danger emigration created if, as people say here at times, "Life is good"? It wasn't. What the American dream offered for this family had dual motivations: that they could live better in a new country because they weren't and couldn't back home.
I think we do ourselves well to remember what we came from. I've always assumed that my people on both sides of the family were potato eaters, like those in Van Gogh's celebrated early portrait.
My people knew little of what Americans call "success." They were certainly not aristocracy, nor anything near to "middle class." My ancestors were tired and poor and yearning to be free.
And religious. Most of those who came from the Netherlands in the mid-19th century were religious separatists who'd challenged, even despised the State Church of Holland in a series of fights rooted in theology but demonstrably political: they were unwilling to suffer the oppressive reign of church leaders who considered them and their piety silly at worst, or dangerous, at best.
I never knew that similar beliefs--both religious and political--affected mid-19th century immigrants from Norway, too--or Germany. In those countries, poor people were deeply affected, heart and soul, by stirring religious movements that were highly individual, powerfully strong, and, according their respective governments and appointed church hierarchies, clearly rebellious.
"The sloopers," those very first Norwegian immigrants, carried with them a religious identity that created immense confidence that they were especially chosen of God, a belief my own people shared. That double-fisted faith emboldened them, not because they were arrogant--they weren't. But it simply would not have dawned on them that God's hand wasn't there beneath every last move they made. They believed they were that close (and that others weren't.)
In Holland they were "afscheiding," the break-aways, because they'd defiantly walked out of the Dutch Reformed Church. In Norway many of those earliest immigrants were Haugeans, disciples of Hans Nielson Hauge, who one day sang a hymn out in the open air of the country and underwent a mystical experience: "My mind became so exalted that I was not myself aware of, nor can I express, what took place in my soul. For I was beside myself." That moment changed his life and turned him into an itinerant preacher who traveled through rural neighborhoods talking about the absolute importance of "the living faith," something akin to what we might call "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
That individuality was seen as a threat to church powers, because it was, politically as well as religiously; it created an idea as radical as "the priesthood of all believers," emphasis on all.
Not one cell in my body is Norwegian, at least nothing that I know of; but last Sunday we walked through a really fine ethnic museum that could well have been telling my family's own immigrant story, ours, however, in wooden shoes, the story of a people just as hopeful and just as confident that the Lord God almighty, creator of heaven and earth, was there with them in the ship that crossed the sea and there too in the new land.
For better and for worse, that faith is still there.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:00 AM