‘We always need to focus on bringing people together’: Church celebrates 100-year milestone of reunification

Published 8:30 pm Thursday, June 28, 2018

By John MolseedRochester Post-Bulletin


In a world pocked with strife and conflict at times fueled by religious zealots, a century of reconciliation was cause for celebration this weekend in Rock Dell, a rural area just west of Stewartville.

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This story goes back to 1889, when a narrow doctrinal difference split a Rock Dell Lutheran church.

The split ended 100 years ago Saturday, when parishioners from Zion Lutheran Church in Rock Dell walked up a hill to rejoin their East St. Olaf brethren.

On Sunday, East St. Olaf parishioners walked from their hilltop church to the site of the old Zion church to mark a century of reunification.

Rev. Paul Thompson dedicated a historical marker at the small cemetery where the church stood. He said the occasion was a reminder that people make mistakes and that people who disagree can still be brought together.

“Sometimes you learn a lot from the difficult moments,” he said “You learn a lot from your mistakes and you learn a lot from your ancestors’ mistakes.

“We always need to focus on bringing people together.”

The sign, provided by the East St. Olaf Heritage Association with a Legacy Grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, commemorates the split.

Norman Senjem researched the Rock Dell Zion Church. He recalled his mother pointing out the small, isolated cemetery and saying something vague about people from East St. Olaf Lutheran Church leaving and starting their own church.

“That’s all I knew,” he said.

A dispute over interpretation of predestination led 185 parishioners to build a church on the one-acre site south of East St. Olaf Church. The dispute is hardly known today. About 130 years ago, it was polarizing communities and splitting churches throughout the Midwest.

“If you explore one particular area in enough detail, you learn things about society that weren’t apparent,” Senjem said. “Back then, it was a vital issue.”

East St. Olaf had sided with the Missouri Synod who wanted a strict interpretation of the theory that God determines in advance who will be saved. The other side, known as anti-Missourians, disagreed with such a strict interpretation.

In 1917, the disputing synods merged and formed the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. The following year, the two Rock Dell churches reunited — with the church mostly accepting the anti-Missourian interpretation. The Zion church building was dismantled and sold for lumber.

Senjem said he’s glad to have researched the history and to have marker to tell the story.

“We’re a product of our history,” he said. “The better we understand it, the richer our lives will be.”

Thompson said the lessons from that dispute almost 130 years ago are still relevant today.

“We are picking our truths all over the place,” he said. “If we could focus a little more on some universal truths and what’s important, the world will be a better place.”