Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part III


The Minority Bodies of Friends In Iowa





The Conservative Friends in Iowa:

Separation at Salem and Springdale


            Upon the adjournment of the two rival Yearly Meetings at Oskaloosa, the Friends in attendance returned to their homes in all parts of Iowa and related the story of what had transpired. For days and weeks in almost every Quaker home in Iowa separation was the common topic of discussion. Many there were who had long felt dissatisfied with the course affairs had for years been taking but who sill were not ready to break from the meetings they loved; while there were others who were led at once to aid in promoting the separation.

            At Salem, naturally a strong center of conservatism, a separation was not long in being effected. Side by side in the minutes of the Salem Monthly Meeting for August 2, 1879, it is recorded that meetings were being held in the surrounding country by the students of Whittier College, and that “about 20 of our senior members who neglected Mtgs. for a year or more and manifested their disunity with the Church at large organized a separate society under the name of ‘Friends’”.(228) In the same month the report sent to the Quarterly Meeting from Pilot Grove gave notice that forty-three of its members had withdrawn and established a separate meeting.(229) Under the leadership of such men as Peter Hobson, Ephraim B. Ratliff, Thomas Nicholson, James Pickard, John R. Brown, and Mathew Trueblood a new Salem Quarterly Meeting was organized and a report was made to the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends in 1879.

            Separation next appeared in the Springdale and West Branch neighborhoods; and although slow in its development, it proved to be unique both in the manner in which it took place and in the way in which it has since persisted. The first recorded evidence of the rising discontent at Springdale is to be found in the resignation from membership of Thomas Montgomery, a prominent and influential member of that meeting. The manner in which he met the committee appointed by the Monthly Meeting to treat with him on the subject illustrates well the spirit in which the whole separation was conducted in this Quarter, much in contrast to the more violent scenes that transpired at both Bear Creek and Salem. The report of the committee rendered on May 21, 1881, reads:


            We have had an interview with Thos. Montgomery on the subject of his resignation, in which he gave us in kind Christian spirit, the reasons for the step he has taken. As chief among thee reasons he mentioned changes in our manner of worship, which seem to him to be gaining ground, such as singing from books & in companies; & the practice of calling on one another to pray, & responding to such calls, in public, which he spoke of as admitted & practiced by ministers & others among us. Regarding such practices as inconsistent with the doctrines of Early Friends, while expressing warm attachment to our ancient principles & to his neighbors & friends, he is best satisfied to release himself from responsibility for these thing by withdrawing from membership with us.(230)


            At West Branch, near Springdale, Archibald Crosbie, Clarkson T. Penrose, and Jesse Negus led the movement looking towards separation. Those who were among the discontented met on January 1, 1883, and organized an independent meeting, arranging for the use of the Baptist church as their future place of meeting.(231) It was not until April 21st, however, that cognizance was taken of the fact; when the West Branch Preparative Meeting complained to the Springdale Monthly Meeting of the first two persons named above for assisting “in setting up a meeting for worship contrary to our discipline.”(232)

            In the Baptist church this growing group of Quakers devoted to the principles of their ancient faith, continued to meet Sunday after Sunday during the spring and summer months, entirely independent of, and out of touch with, any other organized religious body in Iowa. Conscious of their isolated position four of their number attended the Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends held a t North Branch, Iowa, in the fall of 1883 for the purpose of feeling their way towards a union with them. So hearty was the welcome which they received and so congenial were the conditions which they found there that when they returned to their friends at West Branch it was with the recommendation that such a union be perfected at the earliest possible time. Action was taken accordingly, and when the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends convened in 1884 there appeared a new Quarterly Meeting upon its roll, namely, Springdale (now known as the West Branch Quarterly Meeting), with Jesse Negus, Clarkson T. Penrose, Abram Wilson, James Hawley, Erick Knudson, and James Hadley as its representatives. (233)


Notes and References


228- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 8 mo., 2nd, 1879, pp. 275, 276.


229- Minutes of Salem Quarterly Meeting of Friends, 8 mo., 9th, 1879, p. 131; 11 mo., 8th, 1879, p. 136.


230- Minutes of Springdale Monthly Meeting of Friends, 5 mo., 21st, 1881, p. 258.


231- The facts concerning the Conservative separation at West Branch were carefully related to the writer by Jesse Negus, one of its chief leaders, and by other responsible persons of the community who were concerned in the movement.


232- Minutes of Springdale Monthly Meeting of Friends, 4 mo., 21st, 1883, p. 309.


233- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, 1884, p. 1.



The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part III


The Minority Bodies of Friends In Iowa





The Norwegian Friends in Iowa


            Along the southeastern border of Marshall County, in Le Grand Township, and almost mid-way between the railway stations of Le Grand on the Chicago and North-western, Dunbar on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul and Dillon on the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroads, there is one of the most unique and interesting Quaker settlements in Iowa. It is the Norwegian community bearing the name Stavanger.

            The first of these Friends from the land of the midnight sun to appear in Iowa came with a group of their fellow-countrymen, who founded the settlement of Sugar Creek, Lee County, in 1840. Soon, however, a dissension arose in the settlement. Some of the company adopted the Mormon faith, then spreading in the southeastern corner of Iowa; while the Quaker members of the settlement moved northward into Henry County, near Salem, and there built a Norse meeting-house for their use on the farm of Omund Olson in 1842.(234) Free from the ecclesiastical oppression and compulsory military service of the home-land, and from contentions among themselves over religious differences, they lived here in peace and plenty for a time. Before long, however, the rigor of long winters was missed, the news of better and cheaper lands to the northward came to their ears, and once again they moved on to build new homes and settlements, leaving Sugar Creek to decline and disappear.

            The first of these Norwegian Friends to find their way to Marshall County were Soren and Anna Oleson. Having made the acquaintance at Salem of Thomas McCool and his wife, Julia Ann (a minister of prominence in the Society of Friends), both of whom were much away from home in their religious travels, the Olesons were induced to take charge of the McCool farm in Marshall County, near LeGrand. They moved there in 1858, and found a climate that was delightful and a soil surpassed in fertility by none in Iowa. They early purchased a small tract of land and then sent word to their friends concerning their attractive new home. (235) Within a year an old neighbor, Thore Heggem, came with his family direct from Norway and settled to the south of Le Grand. In 1861 Christian Gimre came with his family from Wisconsin; while in 1864 Mathias Huseboe and family, together with a number of young people, came from Norway and settled in the neighborhood.(236) Thus began the settlement of Stravanger, named after the community in Norway, from which most of its members had originally sailed.(237)

            For a time the Friends at Stavanger regularly attended the recognized meeting at Le Grand; but being unable to understand much of what was said in English, they requested the privilege of holding a meeting fro worship among themselves. In 1864 request was granted, and under the care of the Le Grand Monthly Meeting an “Indulged Meeting” was set up at Stavanger.(238) At first, as was common in the West, the meetings were held in the nearby schoolhouse or at private homes. Later, about 1870, “an old building was purchased” for meeting purposes; and finally, this gave place to the present more attractive though strictly plain structure which preserves all of the primitive features of a Quaker house of worship.(239)

            An episode of peculiar interest in connection with the history of the Stavanger settlement was the arrival in 1869 of about fifty newcomers direct from Norway. In the year 1853, Lindley Murray Hoag, one of the most powerful and widely traveled ministers among the Friends in Iowa, had an impression that he should make a religious visit to the Friends in Norway; and in connection with this impression he claimed to have been given a clear mental image of the place he was to visit, though its name and location were entirely unknown to him. True to his inner promptings, he made the long journey. Upon arrival in Norway, the Friends there “received him most kindly, and several of them, among whom was the able interpreter, Endre Dahl, went with him to all places where Friends were found”. Dahl finally informed him that they had now made the rounds, but Hoag did not feel satisfied. “A map of Norway was placed before him, but that did not give him any help.” He became uneasy, fearing that his mission was a failure, when suddenly, looking out from a little window across the mountains to the eastward, he exclaimed: “There, over there, is the place where I must go.” Dahl led the way; and among the mountains, in the valley of Roldol, they found a people who, although they had never heard the Quaker message, responded eagerly to the simple religious truths which fell from the lips of their strange American visitor.

            Soon after the visit of Lindley Murray Hoag to this mountain fastness in Norway, many of the people of Rodol Valley united to build a church and joined themselves with the Society of Friends at Stavanger. Almost at once persecution arose over the questions of military service and their relation to the priest; but rather than give up their new found faith, some fifty of them banded together, “left Stavanger in a sailing-vessel bound for Quebec, Canada,” in search of a refuge in the New World. From Quebec they continued their journey to the westward; and, “one day”, says John Marcussen in writing for the Friend’s Intelligencer, “all these people came to Le Grand, Marshall County, Iowa.” They had not forgotten their visitor from America, and though they knew but little of the English language the one word “Iowa” was very familiar to them.(240)

            Foreign by birth and conservative by nature, the Stavanger Friends early found some things not to their liking in the meetings to which they were subordinated. In 1871 they entered protest against the “mode of raising money by apportionment”;(241) and by 1885 so discontented had they become with their church connections that they withdrew from the Orthodox body and united with the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends.(242)

            As unremitting toil soon won for this sturdy Norwegian folk the blessings of material success, they set to work to provide for their children the means for a better education than they themselves had had. In 1888 they submitted to their newly adopted Yearly Meeting a project for founding a school of advanced grade in their midst.(243) The Yearly Meeting’s committee on education, to which the subject was referred, at once took action. In the fall of 1891 this committee reported that a two-acre tract of land had been purchased for a campus, that “a building twenty-six by thirty-six feet, two stories high, with a stone basement for dining and cooking purposes” had been nearly completed, and that a school was in operation with Anna Olson as matron and Anna Yocum as teacher. The expenditures, amounting to $2,741.25, had been nearly all met by subscriptions, and there was an indebtedness of but $81.50(244)

            The new “Yearly Meeting Boarding School” at once became popular. When the educational committee presented its report in 1890 there were in the Yearly Meeting 121 children of school age, thirteen of whom had, during the year, attended schools which were under the care of the Friends. By 1892 this number had increased to 128 children of school age, sixteen attending the Boarding School, and thirteen attending other Friends’ schools; while of the 146 children reported in 1893, thirty-six were attending Quaker schools, and the enrollment at the Stavanger school had increased to sixty-three students for the year.(245)

            No exertion was spared to create for the Stavanger institution a healthful religious environment and a strong moral tone.(246) For a time it gave promise of a considerable growth; but with the rise of neighboring high schools and the removal and death of many of its most ardent supporters, there has come a marked decline of late years. For the academic year 1910-1911 there were but twenty-one students in attendance; and at the Yearly Meeting held at West Branch in 1912 it was a grave question whether the Stavanger School should longer be continued.(247)

            To-day it is true that Stavanger has lost much of its unique and distinctive character. Many of the first settlers have either died or moved away; while a new generation, untutored in the ways of the fathers, has arisen. But still there is much of interest about he community. There on the prairie still stands the quaint little meeting-house, somber and silent; while here and there within the unpretentious homes of this congenial folk, one may find some aged Friend still clinging to his mother tongue and to the ancient customs of the Quakers.


Notes and References


234- See Flom’s A History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States, Chapter XXI. See also The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. IV, pp. 233, 244.


235- The Scandinavian immigrants have been a valuable addition to the population of Iowa. The younger men in coming to the State usually hire out for a year or so until they become acquainted with the soil; then they rent land wherever possible; and before long, by reason of their industry, they become land-owners.


236- The writer is indebted to Mr. Carney Meltvedt of Le Grand, Iowa, for many of the facts contained in this chapter, particularly those concerning the first Friends at Stavanger.


237- Stavanger in Norway, is one of the most important commercial centers on the southwest coast of the peninsula. A strong meeting of Friends has long been located in the city.


238- Minutes of Bangor Quarterly Meeting of Women Friends, 11 mo., 5th, 1864, p. 100.


239- OF the fifty Norwegians coming to LeGrand in 1869 as above described, but thirty-six were Friends. Among them were the following men with their families: Knut Botnen, Lars Botnen, John Rinden, Mons Vinye, Gulik Medhus, and Torno Thompson, all of whom are now (1913) deceased except Mons Vinye.


240- For the account of Lindley Murray Hoag’s visit to Norway in 1853 and its results see an article entitled A Remarkable Chapter in the History of Friends, written by John Marcussen, which is reprinted from the American Friend in the Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. LXIV, 1907, pp. 548, 549, 563-565.


241- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Friends, 1871, p. 4.


242- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, 1885, p. 5.


243- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, 1888, pp. 10, 11.


244- Stavanger Mirror (a paper published monthly for a time at LeGrand in the interests of Stavanger Boarding School), Seventh Month, 1903, p. 3.


245- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends 1890, p. 5; 1892, p. 8; 1893, pp. 9, 10.


246- See the “Rules and Regulations” of the Stavanger Boarding School for 1910-1911, as printed in the Appendix above, pp. 287, 288.


247- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, 1912, pp. 10, 11.


248- In her excellent work on Amana: The Community of True Inspiration, pp. 99-102, Bertha M. H. Shambaugh mentions the struggle which the people of this unique settlement have had to maintain their social integrity.



The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part III


The Minority Bodies of Friends In Iowa





Quaker Conservatism and Its Future in Iowa:


            In view of what has been said in the foregoing pages it must now be clear that unless some great change takes place, the Friends of whatsoever branch in Iowa are not likely to become a numerous or influential body in the immediate future. This is an age of progress. The spirit of modern life has penetrated to the most secluded communities. For any people to avoid contact with the outside world is well nigh impossible under existing conditions.(248) Herein lies the struggle of the Conservative Friends.

            For the most part those who withdrew from the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends on the ground of departure from the primitive customs of the Society were the middle-aged and elderly members. Out of harmony with the free spirit of the rising generation, they have from year to year, like the Wilburites, received almost no additions to their membership. Almost every year one or more of their leaders pas away, there is a gradual thinning of the ranks of the older members, and the attachment of the young people to the order steadily declines.(249)

            The first serious blow to their cause came in 1891, when in the following words came the request that the Salem Quarterly Meeting be closed:

            After deliberate consideration on the subject, we are united in requesting that this Meeting [Salem Quarterly Conservative] be discontinued, and that its members be attached to West Branch Quarter. Our greatly reduced numbers by death, removals and resignations, together with the remoteness from Meeting of the most of our members are the reasons for our making the request.(250)

With the death of their two most prominent ministers, Harvey Derbshire and Ephraim B. Ratliff, the spirit of the Conservative body at Salem, weak from the beginning, was broken; and in response to the above request their meeting was discontinued.

            Among these Conservative friends there is a grave feeling of uncertainty and anxious care relative to the years that are to come. The records of their Yearly Meeting in Iowa from 1880-1912 seem almost wholly concerned with matters of internal interest. There is little reference to broad lines of religious activity, such as home or foreign missions, temperance reform, the men and religion forward movement, or social service. Their roll of meetings is annually called and responded to with little change. Epistles are received from the Yearly Meetings with which they correspond, and these are answered after the accustomed style. But of the world at large and the great issues of the hour they appear unconscious and unconcerned. They seem little to realize the great lesson of unprogressive Quakerism, or the truth of the ancient proverb that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”(251)

            In conclusion, it may be observed that while a persistent spirit of conservatism has led the smaller body of Orthodox Friends in Iowa into a state of stagnation and apparent decline, a growing disregard for its original tenets now threatens to leave the larger Yearly Meeting little that is distinctive in character except its denominational name. Is there not somewhere between these two extremes a happy medium, which would be advantageous to both? It is possible that the rising generation in both sects, freed from old-time prejudice and imbued with the broader spirit of the twentieth century, may find sufficient common ground on which to reunite. Indeed, the trend of events would seem to point in that direction.


Notes and References


249- The general status of the Conservative Friends in Iowa is seen by the following table, compiled from the minutes of their Yearly Meeting:



Number of Families

Number of Parts of Families

Children Between 5 and 21 years

Number of Ministers




(not given)























250- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative)Friends, 1891, p. 4.


251- Proverbs, 29:18.



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