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Norelius, Eric (1833–1916)

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Eric Norelius, Swedish-American clergyman

Eric Norelius, Swedish-American clergyman.

Eric Norelius traveled to the Minnesota territorial town of Red Wing in 1855. He planned to meet with groups of immigrant Swedes looking for a Lutheran minister to lead them. The twenty-one year-old churchman thus began a six-decade ministry that served the state's Swedish Lutheran population.

The September 1855 arrival of Eric Norelius encouraged Red Wing-area Swedish Lutherans. Immigrants in the area needed a minister. Norelius, born in Norrback, Sweden, in 1833, seemed a good fit. A few months earlier, Pastor Norelius had married Inga Peterson, a daughter of a Swedish settler he had met in Chicago. The young couple agreed to come to Minnesota where Eric would serve two congregations. One church was in Red Wing, the other in a settlement started by Hans Mattson that was later known as Vasa.

The Noreliuses made the Vasa area their home base. According to his journal, the congregation provided an eight by ten foot building to which they added a twelve by sixteen foot addition during the winter of 1855-56. The building would also be their church and school. Money was scarce. Norelius's first year salary at Vasa was one hundred dollars. He still managed to buy 160 acres in White Rock, close to Vasa.

Norelius also served Red Wing's Swedish Lutherans, but he soon had other calls. Settlers in "Swede Prairie" asked for help. Swede Prairie was the nickname for a swath of land southwest of Red Wing. It touched upon the towns of Vasa, Welch, Spring Garden, and Cannon Falls Township. During the 1850s, Pastor Norelius founded twelve Swedish Lutheran congregations in and around Goodhue County.

Life became a challenge for the Noreliuses. After the disastrous economic Panic of 1857, congregants managed to provide the minister only a tiny salary: seventy five dollars plus a barrel of beans, and few bushels of corn. Eric and Inga left Vasa and Red Wing in October 1858. Their Minnesota congregations were unable to pay him the promised salary and Norelius's debts grew after he started a Swedish language newspaper, Minnesota Posten, in November, 1857.

Norelius was gone for two years. Eric agreed to become editor of Hemlandet, Swedish-language newspaper in Chicago in January 1859. He did stay involved with the Lutheran church, however. The minister took part in an important Wisconsin meeting of Scandinavian pastors and laymen in June 1860. They worked to create a united Scandinavian Lutheran synod made up of Swedes and Norwegians. The assembly used the name "Augustana" for this new organization. Norelius suggested the title. The word showed the importance of the Augsburg Confession for those in the synod.

In October 1860 Norelius began work as a traveling missionary to Swedish settlements west of Minneapolis. He spent time in Meeker, Kandiyohi, Carver, and McLeod counties. In 1861 his former churches in Red Wing and Vasa issued another call to their former pastor. He accepted and returned.

Eric Norelius did not limit himself to preaching and pastoral duties. He published the Minnesota Territory's first Swedish language newspaper, the biweekly Minnesota Posten, in 1857. Early in December 1862 he founded a school in Red Wing at the request of state Swedish Lutheran churchmen. He had thirty students by the following February. The roots of present-day Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter are found in this modest program. Norelius also established the Vasa Orphan's Home in 1865. He began writing books about Swedish Lutheran church history and its mission in 1867 while convalescing from illness.

In 1870 fellow church leaders elected him president of the Minnesota Conference, a division of the Augustana Synod, an affiliation of upper Midwest Lutheran Churches. Three years later Norelius was chosen president of the entire synod. He held that post for seven years. Lutheran churchmen brought him back as synod president in 1899 and kept him in office until 1911. His nineteen years as president were the most of any person holding the position.

In his 1901 report to Augustana congregations, President Norelius noted the synod's growth. Since 1876, their church group had grown from 273 congregations to about 900. Total membership was 200,000.

In 1912 the aging minister, his health failing, preached at Gustavus Adolphus College's fiftieth anniversary. He also spoke at the sixtieth anniversary of the Vasa congregation in June 1915.

Eric Norelius died on March 15, 1916.

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Anderson, Alexander P. The Seventh Reader: Short Stories with Some Verse. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, 1941.

Arden, G. Everett. The Journals of Eric Norelius, A Swedish Missionary on the American Frontier. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Barton, H. Arnold, ed. Letters from the Promised Land: Swedes in America, 1840–1914. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press for the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, 1975.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County. Chicago: H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1909.

Eric Norelius Papers, 1851–1916.
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers of the prominent Swedish Lutheran clergyman including correspondence, sermons, reports, etc., many in Swedish.

Jarchow, Merrill E. Private Liberal Arts Colleges in Minnesota: Their History and Contributions. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1973.

Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.

Johnson, Emeroy. Eric Norelius: Pioneer Midwest Pastor and Churchman. Rock Island, IL: Augustana Book Concern, 1954.

Hans Mattson and Family Papers, 1855–1990 (bulk, 1855–1939)
Manuscript Collections, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and other personal papers, some in Swedish.

Mattson, H[ans]. The New Swedish Colony in Minnesota-North America: Good Land for Emigrants, at the Cheapest Conditions by Lake Superior Railway. Translated from Swedish [Nya Svenska Kolonien i Minnesota-Nord Amerika] by John LaVine. Kristianstad, Sweden: K.J.M. Mollersvard, 1872.

Norelius, E[ric]. "Evangelical Lutheran Church, at Vasa," in History of Goodhue County: History of Goodhue County Including a Sketch of the Territory and State of Minnesota. Red Wing, MN: Wood, Alley & Co., 1878.

Norelius Eric. The Journals of Eric Norelius, a Swedish Missionary on the American
[Translated from Swedish by G. Everett Arden.] Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Norelius, Eric. The Life of Eric Norelius, 1833-1862: Lutheran Pioneer [Translated from Swedish by Emeroy Johnson]. Rock Island, Illinois: Augustana Book Concern: 1934.

Norelius, Eric. Vasa Illustrata: en borgerlig och kyrklig kulturbild /farmstalld af E. Norelius. Vasa, MN: Svenska Evangelical Lutheran Forsamlingen, 1905.

Rice, John G. "The Swedes," in June Drenning Holmquist, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Setterdahl, Lilly. Minnesota Swedes: The Emigration From Trolle Ljungby to Goodhue County, 1855–1912, vol. 1. East Moline, IL: American Friends of the Emigrant Institute of Sweden, 1996.

Related Images

Eric Norelius, Swedish-American clergyman
Eric Norelius, Swedish-American clergyman
Norelius House, Vasa.
Norelius House, Vasa.
Dedication of the Norelius stone at Vasa.
Dedication of the Norelius stone at Vasa.

Turning Point

In 1856 Eric Norelius accepts a dual role as minister to the Swedish Lutheran community in the Minnesota Territory hamlets of Red Wing and Vasa.



Eric Norelius is born in Norrback, Hassela parish, Halsingland, Sweden, on October 26.


He comes to the United States to further his education.


Norelius graduates from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and he preaches to Swedish Lutheran congregations at Red Wing, MN and at the Mattson settlement. He marries Inga Peterson on June 10.


The now-ordained Lutheran minister accepts the call to serve both the Red Wing and Mattson (later known as Vasa) Swedish Lutheran congregations.


He publishes Minnesota Territory's first Swedish language newspaper, the biweekly Minnesota Posten.


Norelius leaves Minnesota for two years to edit the Chicago newspaper Hemlandet but continues his work for Swedish Lutherans.


Norelius, now working as a traveling missionary, returns to Minnesota. He works in Meeker, Kandiyohi, Carver, and McLeod counties.


His former congregations in Red Wing and Vasa issue Norelius a new call, and he accepts.


With the encouragement of other Lutheran pastors, Norelius opens a school in Red Wing; this is the start of the future Gustavus Adolphus College.


Norelius also opens the Vasa Orphan's Home.


Fellow church leaders elect him president of the Minnesota Conference, a division of the larger Augustana Synod.


Norelius is chosen president of the Augustana Synod. He holds that post for seven years.


The Augustana Synod brings Norelius back for another term. He serves until 1911.


Dr. Norelius is knighted by King Oscar of Sweden and Norway and named a Knight of the North Star Order.


Norelius speaks at the fiftieth anniversary celebration at Gustavus Adolphus College.


Norelius dies.