"Of the three fathers (Preus, Koren and Ottesen) who have been shaped into a sort of holy trinity for the Norwegian Synod, the “forgotten” or less visible person of that trinity might be Jakob Aall Ottesen...What is of chief interest to us in this essay is the theological legacy, especially the Reformation, confessional Lutheran legacy Ottesen left on the immigrant church he helped organize. One part of that legacy is fellowship with the Missouri Synod, which led to the formation of the Synodical Conference in 1872."
Who is Jakob Aall Ottesen? The answer is not short, except there are few short bios on this good man. His name is not on the lips of many Lutherans, but his life was dedicated to our service. The details of his life's work are more suitable to a college course, but I'll attempt a brief summary. My information comes from the Ottesen Museum, located between the campuses of Bethany Lutheran College (BLC) and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mankato, Minnesota; from a lecture, The Legacy of Jakob Aall Ottesen, given by BLC Professor Erling T. Teigen commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Norwegian Synod and an excellent geneological website by Ms. Dixie Hansen. We'll start with his obituary, since it is the earthly sum of his life:
PASTOR OTTESEN IS DEAD
One of the founders of the Norwegian Synod lays down his pilgrim's staff
A Life of Sacrifice
The old pastor, Jacob Aal Ottesen, one of the pioneers and veterans of the Norwegian Synod, died about 12 o'clock Saturday night, and his death did not come unexpectedly, neither for himself nor for those nearest to him, as he had been in poor health for a long time.
Pastor Ottesen was born in the Fet Parsonage in Norway 11 June, 1825, and he therefore got to be 79 years and 5 months old. His father and grandfather had been ministers in Fet for about half a century. The family belongs to one of the oldest ones in the country, and there have been approximately 50 ministers among Pastor Ottesen's kin.
Following his graduation with distinction from the university, Ottesen for three years was a teacher at Nissens Latin og Realskole (Nissen's Latin and High School) in Kristiania. However, Norway was not where our Lord had decided for him to work, and since many of his compatriots had emigrated to America, he accepted in 1852 the call from a congregation, which had been formed in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After his ordination by Bishop Arup, he left with his young wife, Katarine Doderlein, a daughter of School Principal Døderlein of Kristiania Katedralskole (Cathedral School) for the unknown America. Ole Bull had just started his disastrous colony, Oleana, in Pennsylvania, and Pastor Ottesen was requested to go and preach the gospel for his compatriots there. His parish in Manitowoc consisted of three organized congregations in and around the town as well as a mission field in the area from Green Bay to Milwaukee. This was truly mission and pioneer work that not only called for a sincere love for the Lord and His work, but also required much bodily strength and perseverance. Most of his time was spent traveling, especially on horseback in all kinds of weather and through thick forests without roads. Pastor Ottesen traveled that way, often 30 to 50 miles a day, and picked up a bad case of rheumatism, which resulted in permanent damage to one of his legs. In 1853 he was one of seven ministers who met in Koshkonong together with 42 representatives from 28 congregations to consider the question of establishing the Norwegian Synod. Its constitution was adopted here, and then later at the Synod Conference in October, 1853, got voted in after having been presented to the congregations.
Pastor Ottesen was the Synod Secretary for many years. The old pioneers had a keen eye for how to succeed with their work. They had to get their pastors educated in this country, and Pastors Ottesen and Brandt were sent in 1857 as delegates to visit the Lutheran schools in St. Louis, Columbus and Buffalo to see what could be done to get the Norwegian ministers educated at one of these schools. Based on the report that the two delegates brought to the Synod, the Seminary of the Germans in St. Louis was chosen, and a professorship was filled by theNorwegians, and a hand of friendship given tying the Norwegian Synod to the Missouri Synod. This has lasted until this day. In 1860 Pastor Ottesen was called to Koshkonong, where he served the three congregations: Eastern and Western Koshkonong as well as Liberty Prairie until 1891.
From 1861 to 68, he and Pastor H. A. Preus edited Kirkelig Maanedstidende (Monthly Periodical for the Church). In 1877 he was appointed Professor of Theology at Luther Seminary, which had just been established, but he declined the appointment. That same year, he was also selected as the first chairman for the Eastern District. The Synod was divided into districts that year. He also turned down this position. He was a member of the Synod's Church Council for many years.
During the tragic church controversy that broke out in the Synod during the 80's, Ottesen and his congregations suffered much, and in 1891 he stepped down as a minister and moved to Decorah, where he has since lived. Last year during the jubilee for the Synod here, as one of the few original ministers, he was present and spoke to the Synod. A short time before the Synod Conference, he and Pastor H. A. Stub received from King Oscar the Order of Knight of St. Olaf for long and honorable service to the church. Pastor Koren was made Commander of the Order of St. Olaf. Pastor Ottesen for more than a generation has carried the burden that goes with a large parish, although he was not strong physically, and this was in addition to all the work that the community had him do. However, he had a good education in the classics, sharp judgment, and was a competent writer, and more than anything else he had an intense love for his Lord and His work and was willing to offer everything for it. Although Pastor Ottesen's work has not attracted the attention of the big world, because it was done quietly among the members of his own congregation, he often did some really heroic deeds. He lived a life of self-denial at all times and that should be known in wide circles. We all owe an invaluable debt to men, who like Ottesen, just lived for one reason, namely to break bread for others and to take the gospel of Our Savior to as many as possible. Bless the memory of them!
Pastor Ottesen had a happy family life. Ottesen had a sharp and witty mind, and there are many who carry happy and amusing memories from the parsonage at Koshkonong. Pastor and Mrs. Ottesen had six children; three of them died quite young. A daughter, Diderikke, married to Professor Dr. H. G. Stub, left at her death two sons, who now are ministers. The two children who survive him are: his son, Pastor Otto Christian in Rio, Wisconsin, and his daughter Hanna Cathinka, who has stayed with him all the time here and who faithfully and lovingly has cared for him. An adopted son, Olaf Mandt, died young after serving as a minister in Baltimore for a short time.
From 1894 to 1896, Ottesen was the minister for the Synod congregation here in this town after Pastor Hove moved to Mankato and before Prof Stub became the minister here. He has otherwise, except for the last two years, preached off and on. His last task as a minister, as far as we remember, was the ordination of his daughter's son, Jacob Stub, to the holy work as a preacher in the fall of 1902. Ottesen has written and translated much. He wrote Kort Uddrag af Synodens Historie (A Short Excerpt of the Synod's History), which was presented at the World Exhibit in Chicago. At the request of the Synod, he rewrote the Catechism and translated Gynter's Symbolik from German.
Professor Erling Teigen illuminates some personal facts of Ottesen's life. First of all, he was known as having a keen mind, he avoided the spotlight, he worked tirelessly and suffered rheumatism and depression from it, and he raised children who contributed to the faith and to society in future generations.
Ottesen was one of the seven pastors who organized the Norwegian Synod in 1853 (C.L. Clausen, H.A. Stub, A.C. Preus, G.F. Dietrichsen, H.A. Preus, Nils O. Brandt, and Ottesen), having just arrived in 1852. Aside from his long service as a parish pastor, Ottesen’s contributions are in the form of theological writing, particularly polemical articles in the church paper, first called Kirkelig Maanedstidende, but Luthersk Kirketidende after it became necessary to publish semi-monthly and weekly. He served several times in the early years as secretary of the synod, but a most momentous and far-reaching assignment for this young pastor came in 1857 when he was sent by the Synod (the resolution was passed at the 1855 convention) with Pastor Nils Brandt to visit some Lutheran seminaries in the U. S. The mission was to find a place to train pastors for the Norwegian immigrant church. From 1859-1868, he was co-editor with H.A. Preus of the church paper, Maanedstidende, which was the platform for a large part of his writing, much of it doctrinal and polemical. He wrote a brief history of the Norwegian Synod (to be distributed at the Chicago Exposition in 1893), as well as a series of articles entitled “A Look at the Missouri Synod.” He translated Guenther’s Symbolik from German to Norwegian, as well as Walther’s The Evangelical Lutheran Church: God’s True Visible Church on Earth.
Ottesen had one son who entered the ministry, Otto Christian Ottesen, who did not outlive his father by many years, dying in 1917. Two grandsons, Hans Andrews Stub and Jacob Aall Ottesen Stub also became pastors, and had notable service in the merged Norwegian Lutheran Church in America after 1917. Their mother, Diderikke Aall Ottesen, was married to H.G. Stub, who led the Norwegian Synod into the 1917 merger. The young mother died in 1879, soon after the birth of her second son. The first daughter born to the Ottesens was named Hannah, but she died soon after birth, as did another girl. Including Diderikke, the young mother, the Ottesens left three children buried at Koshkonong. (Nils Brandt was married to a Diderikke Ottesen, who apparently was a sister of J. A. Ottesen.) One daughter lived to adulthood, also named Hannah, who lived with the Ottesens until the death of Mrs. Ottesen (Cathinka) in 1899, and Pastor Ottesen in 1904. Ottesen also had a foster son, Olaf Mandt, who lived with the family in Koshkonong for confirmation instruction, and then was sent by Ottesen to Luther College, and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. After his ordination, he served in Baltimore, where he died after two years in the ministry.
But that was not all the sorrow Ottesen left at Koshkonong. On August 10, 1891, the Ottesens were taken to the depot in Stoughton and took the train to Decorah, Iowa, where they would spend the rest of their lives. Ottesen’s friend Halvor Halvorson notes that in the ensuing 13 years, Ottesen traveled some, coming as close to Koshkonong as Spring Prairie, (where he performed the wedding of his niece Cathinka Hjort to pastor J. Strand), but never visiting there. He was invited by the congregations often, and always sent a greeting for festival occasions, but never visited. It does not seem that this reluctance to return to the place where he had served as pastor for 31 years was rooted in a circumspect pastoral ethic to stay away from places one has previously served.
While serving the three-point parish, West and East Koshkonong, and Liberty (near Deerfield), Ottesen confirmed about 3,000 young people. From that number, one can project an even larger number of baptisms, as well as a great number of marriages, and funerals. And there is a great deal of evidence that Ottesen was a dearly loved pastor among his people. In the late ‘70s, he was permitted to leave for several months to visit Norway, which included the final visit with his father.
But Ottesen had health problems. Early on, there is mention of his being sickly, and not always able to carry the full load of his ministerial duties. Certainly the East and West congregations on Koshkonong Prairie as well as Liberty congregation to the North grew rapidly, and one wonders how one man could keep up with that work.
George Orvick reports what may be the recollection of Julia Reque:
Ottesen traveled a distance of 30-50 miles a day on horseback, in summer heat and winter storm. As a result of these strenuous journeys, Ottesen contracted chronic rheumatism which worked havoc with the nerves of his legs, so that it was difficult for him to talk or stand long. Because of this Ottesen was often forced to sit in the pulpit when delivering his sermons.
This condition may have exacerbated another condition—there is some evidence that Ottesen suffered some depression, which might today be called depression and anxiety. In any case, even before the outbreak of full-scale doctrinal warfare, because of Ottesen’s illnesses, the congregations hired a “kapellan,” a curate or assistant pastor, which would have serious repercussions in the controversial years to follow.
The election controversy which began in 1877 took a toll on his condition. Ottesen wrote in 1885:
But I will add that in the last four to five years, I have been under a great deal pressure from sorrow and distress, both because of physical illness, namely, an often painful nervousness [nervøsitet], and also because of the emergency I saw in the congregation during the bitter controversy, which has gone on here in these years. No one will be surprised that during all this have often been more despondent [modløs] and irresolute [radløs, indecisive] than I would have been otherwise.
What he describes, mentioned also by others, appears to be an already existing condition exacerbated by unusually stressful circumstances.
In reading through the life of Rev. Ottesen, I was struck by the accounts of others of his daughters: Didrikke Aall Ottesen Stub and Hannah Cathinka Ottesen. Didrikke died following a short illness while visiting her parents. Her son (and Ottesen's grandson) Jacob Aall Ottesen Stub, writes:
My mother - Diderikke - I cannot remember. I am told she was a tall and queenly woman. combined with her woman's love of home and dear ones was a keen interest in life in general. She was well educated, loved books and music, but also the out-of-doors. One of her friends, who knew her well, has told me that she was an excellent driver and utterly fearless. In corroboration hereof she showed me a newspaper clipping which tells of her stopping a runaway team, and preventing what would probably have been a serious accident. She did not live to see her two little boys grow beyond babyhood. Blessed be her memory!
His other surviving daughter, Hannah, never married but lived to age 70. She cared for her parents until their deaths and enjoyed learning from her father and the many intellectuals who visited their home. She willed several family heirlooms to the ELS. This Ottesen collection, together with other artifacts, comprises the holdings of the Ottesen Museum. It was the women of the synod who provided the impetus for establishing the Ottesen Museum. As the synod was preparing, at its 1941 annual meeting, to celebrate its 90th anniversary (1943), which also would mark the 25th year of the re-organized synod (1918–1943), a group of women began to discuss the possibility of establishing the Ottesen Museum. Sixteeen women met at Bethany Lutheran College on June 16, 1941, and determined to organize the museum.