Skip to main content

The 150 year history of Augustana College

(This story was written in celebration of Augustana's sesquicentennial in 2010.)

College and Swedish immigrants put down roots together 

Augustana College, an independent, selective liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), traces its roots to the universities of Uppsala and Lund in Sweden. Graduates of these centuries-old seats of learning founded Augustana to educate Lutheran pastors and teachers for the growing settlements of Swedish immigrants in this country. Through its 150 years of history, Augustana's mission has evolved with the integration of the immigrant community into American society, and today Augustana is considered one of the nation's premier colleges of the liberal arts and sciences.

Augustana was founded under the auspices of the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod, a national church body then almost exclusively comprising recent Scandinavian immigrants to America. The school's first president was the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn, who opened the Augustana Seminary in a small frame building on Superior Street in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1860.

During the next year, the fledgling institution received gifts that vastly strengthened its stance as an institution of higher learning: $10,000 from Swedish Lutherans, $1,500 from the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, and 5,000 books for the new college library from King Charles XV of Sweden. At the same time, the student body was weakened as a number of students left the school to join the Union ranks in the Civil War, while an even greater number of prospective students enrolled instead as soldiers.

Esbjörn returned to Sweden in 1863, and the early leaders of the Augustana Synod decided to move their school to an agrarian setting. In response to an offer from the Illinois Central Railroad to sell 1,000 acres of farmland at a subsidized price, Augustana relocated to Paxton, Ill., under the presidency of the Rev. Dr. Tufve Nilsson Hasselquist.

Hasselquist strove to solidify the school's place in the life of its church. By 1875, when the initial dream of creating a Swedish pioneer community in Paxton proved to be unrealistic, Augustana moved to Rock Island, a more central location among the growing number of Augustana Synod congregations. More than 2,500 people assembled on Oct. 14, 1875, for the dedication of the first Rock Island building of Augustana College and Theological Seminary.

At home in Rock Island

In Rock Island, the institution began to develop as a liberal arts college. A second building, East Hall, was constructed in 1875, and the cornerstone for Memorial Hall — now our beloved Old Main — was laid in 1884.

At the time of the move from Paxton, the faculty had included eight professors and enrollment totaled 90 students; two years later, the first class to receive the bachelor of arts was graduated. At the 1885 graduation ceremonies, the newly co-educational college announced Ines Rundstrom as its first woman graduate.

Dr. Olof Olsson, a clergyman, teacher, and musician, became Augustana's third president in 1891. Olsson brought to the presidency a strong emphasis on academic freedom, which was a boon to Augustana's development as a liberal arts college. Yet Olsson accepted the call to the college presidency only reluctantly, because of tenuous health and a significant challenge in the form of competition from colleges in maturing Swedish immigrant communities in Minnesota, Kansas, and New Jersey, each of which had been founded by regional conferences of the Augustana Synod. The resulting decline in support for the Rock Island school meant considerable trials for its leaders, and yet the Olsson years also were years of steady expansion in both course offerings and students.

A collection of photos from Augustana history

A collection of photos from Augustana history, centered around Old Main: clockwise from upper left, students meeting at College Drug; the first Augustana building on Superior Street in Chicago; Fritiof Fryxell speaking to the Udden Geology Club in the 1930s; the first Augustana building in Rock Island and 7th Avenue; the Silver Cornet Band, Augustana's oldest musical group, founded in Paxton in 1874; students relaxing, 1910s; the 1904-1905 baseball team; students walking away from Old Main in the 1980s; President Conrad Bergendoff and Old Main; Thomas Tredway Library; dedication of the Centennial Boulder; Dorothy Parkander teaching in East Hall in the 1960s.

A fiscal foundation

His successor was Dr. Gustav Andreen, who became Augustana's youngest president when he was called to the school in 1901. He also was the first alumnus to serve as president, having graduated from Augustana in 1881, as well as the first to have his doctorate from an American institution, Yale.

During Andreen's 35-year presidency he devoted his considerable energy to securing the fiscal health of Augustana. This included a $250,000 gift from the children of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C.A. Denkmann in 1910, to fund construction of the Denkmann Memorial Library. Five buildings were added to the campus during the Andreen years and an endowment was established thanks to his tireless travels to synod congregations. In the last years of Andreen's presidency, Augustana faced the loss of its accreditation due to substandard facilities for science instruction. But in spite of the Great Depression, Andreen secured funding for a state-of-the-art science facility, Wallberg Hall of Science.

Dramatic growth

A 1915 Augustana alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, succeeded Andreen in 1935 and guided the college for 27 years. Bergendoff became recognized nationally as an educator and internationally as a theologian. During his first year as college president, Bergendoff had the bell tower designed after a similar structure at Uppsala and erected on campus using lumber from the first college building.

Bergendoff's tenure was highlighted by dramatic growth: of the campus physical plant, financial base, student enrollment, programming, and strength of the faculty. The college was formally recognized by the American Association of University Women in 1937 and by the National Association of Schools of Music in 1938. Augustana's academic program was further recognized and approved by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in 1954, followed by the American Chemical Society in 1955.

Six major buildings were erected during Bergendoff's presidency, but no achievement was of greater satisfaction to him than securing an Augustana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1949. Today, roughly a tenth of American colleges and universities can boast the Phi Beta Kappa distinction.

Augustana College had reached some tremendous milestones as it celebrated its centennial year. Friends of the college had boosted the endowment over $3 million and raised scholarship funds to $350,000. Enrollment exceeded 1,200 and the college faculty numbered 90. The library held more than 100,000 volumes, and the $1.15 million Centennial Hall opened for the celebration of the college's first 100 years.

Enrollment doubles

In 1962, the Augustana Synod merged with the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (Suomi Synod), and the United Lutheran Church in America to form the larger, more ecumenical Lutheran Church in America (LCA), one of the predecessors to today's ELCA. During this same auspicious year, Dr. Clarence Woodrow Sorensen became Augustana's sixth president.

Sorensen's academic career had made him an internationally respected scholar. During his tenure, Augustana's enrollment doubled in size and several new buildings were added, including the Roy J. Carver Center for Physical Education and the John Deere Planetarium. The seminary returned to Chicago in 1967; the college acquired the property known as the Augustana Book Concern from the LCA and later renamed the building Sorensen Hall.

In 1974, Augustana College received its then-largest single gift, $1.5 million from college board member Roy J. Carver, as well as its largest foundation grant, $259,000 from the Lilly Endowment. The grant allowed the college to enhance its curricular balance of liberal arts study with professional preparation, while the Carver gift put his name on the college's new physical education center.

Teaching and learning

On July 1, 1975, Dr. Thomas Tredway became president after having served for five years as dean of the college and 11 years as a member of the history faculty. While his tenure may be remembered for the unprecedented growth of academic facilities — including the library, the Science Building, and the Franklin W. Olin Center for Educational Technology — a more lasting legacy is the strengthening of Augustana's faculty and academic program as well as of the college's endowment.

As Tredway observed in a president's report from the 1990s, "No amount of new construction or success in fundraising will compensate for an inferior academic program. We do well to remember that a college is really about teaching and learning, about faculty and curriculum and students."

In recognition of his service, particularly in bolstering Augustana's focus and status as a college of the liberal arts, the library was dedicated as the Thomas Tredway Library in 2003.

Authentically Augustana

Augustana's current president, Steven C. Bahls, was installed in 2003. Since coming to Augustana, Bahls has overseen development and adoption of an ambitious strategic plan designed to advance the college's position among the nation's premier liberal arts colleges. The plan's title, "Authentically Augustana," was chosen in part, according to Bahls, because, "the primary and clarion values of Augustana are the values associated with authenticity — truthfulness, excellence, genuineness, and faithfulness."

Within the first years of Bahls' presidency, a document entitled "The Five Faith Commitments of Augustana College" was created to articulate the historic and ongoing relationship between the college and the Lutheran Church, and provide context for the missional priorities of Augustana, including ecumenism, global focus, personal piety, servant leadership, and social justice. Curricular enhancements have included Senior Inquiry, Augie Choice, and a comprehensive transformation of Augustana's general education program. To assist in the implementation of the strategic plan, Authentically Augustana: A Call to Action — a $100 million comprehensive fundraising campaign, the greatest in the college's history — was launched in 2008.

In 2008, President Bahls, members of his family and a group of Augustana alumni traveled to Sweden in conjunction with a tour by the Augustana Choir. The choir and their fellow travelers made the trip to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the college's first president, Lars Paul Esbjörn. Listening as the voices of the Augustana Choir were raised toward the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral at Uppsala, those in the audience experienced a mighty insight into the past as well as a heady glimpse of the celebration to come.

In the year 2010, the sesquicentennial of Augustana College, our students, graduates, faculty and friends commemorate 150 years of preparing undergraduates for meaningful lives of leadership and service.