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The History of Immanuel Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church and Her Pastors, 1888-Present

On a dreary, rainy afternoon in the fall of 1888, a small group of Danes was gathered in the Washington Colony Cemetery (4 miles south of Fresno, CA) to pay their last respects to a departed brother. They were waiting the arrival of the clergyman who was to administer the final rites, but the pastor failed to arrive. After waiting for many hours, the body of the departed was consigned to the grave without benefit of clergy, and the mourners decided to do something to prevent the repetition of such a situation. Standing at the grave, the need for a pastor of their own, to minister to the needs of the living and dead of this community of Danes, was made obvious.

The small group of Danes had come to Fresno along with other Danes and settlers of many nationalities, encouraged by the construction of the Central Pacific Railway in 1872 as well as the development of irrigation systems which made cultivation profitable in the area. Some came directly from the "Old Country" where opportunities were more limited and some came from the Midwest, from North Dakota where they had become tired of struggling with the cold difficult winters. All brought to California their experience in farming and other trades as well as a longing to continue the traditions and ways of their homeland. The results of this desire was the building of the small Union Lutheran Church located on Central and Elm Avenues. The Reverend Diedrichsen, who was pastor of a Norwegian Lutheran Church in San Francisco (190 miles to the north), paid frequent visits to this congregation to preach. This was the beginning of church life in the valley for the Danish community.

But, as the mourners at Washington Colony Cemetery on that Fall day in 1888 knew, an occasional pastor was not enough. A group of these settlers, including John Schmidt, Jorgen Hansen and M. Madsen got together and sent a letter to the Reverend N. Hansen at Watsonville inviting him to come to Easton "to preach the Word of God to the Danish families here". They also arranged for the purchase and donation of several lots at the corner of Lincoln and Elm Avenues and a parsonage was erected.

Pastor Hansen accepted the call to Easton and began his service here with his installation sermon on November 11, 1888. He also served another parish in the city of Fresno.

On December 2, 1888, a congregation was formally organized in Easton under the name of Immanuel’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, Easton. This congregation was the first United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC) congregation established on the Pacific Coast and holds the honored title of "Mother" congregation of the UELC Pacific District. The original call committee and later members of Immanuel’s congregation consisted of nine families and three single men. They were: Mr. & Mrs. Jacob Jorgensen; Jorgen Hansen; Thomas Hansen; N. B. Nielsen; George Pilegard; Chris Rasmussen; John Schmidt; T. B. Jensen; Chris Jensen; Andreas Jensen; and, Marcus Koler.

Pastor Hansen served Immanuel for only one year and in 1889, he accepted a call to Portland, Oregon.

The second pastor to serve Immanuel was the Reverend S. Johnson, who was installed in February 1890. During his pastorate a Ladies’ Aid Society was established and special work started among the young people. He, likewise, also served the congregation in Fresno and, like Pastor Hansen, resigned to accept a call to Portland in September 1892.

After Pastor Johnson’s departure, the congregation was without a pastor for some time and this was a difficult time for the little flock. An invitation to join the Norwegian Synod was extended to the clergyless group. During these years the Reverend Niels Hansen of Ferndale (a small town 450 miles to the north) heard of Immanuel’s dilemma and made several visits to Easton to guide the congregation during the crisis. At his suggestion, a request for aid was sent to the Reverend G. B. Christiansen who in turn succeeded in interesting a newly ordained pastor, the Reverend P. Rasmussen of Blair, Nebraska, in serving God on the West Coast. A call was extended to Pastor Rasmussen which he accepted and began his move to California. The patience of the congregation was destined to further trial, for the great railroad strike of 1894 began just as Pastor Rasmussen reached Sacramento (180 miles to the north of Easton), and for more than a month he remained there in idleness until the until the Central Pacific resumed service.

Pastor Rasmussen preached his inaugural sermon on July 22, 1894. Immanuel, now less than six years old, was on her third pastor, and had been without clergy for nearly two of those years. Up to the time that Pastor Rasmussen came, services were held in the Union Church at Central and Elm Avenues (one mile North of Immanuel’s current location). Shortly after his arrival, a plan was carried out whereby a couple of the rooms in the parsonage were fitted out as a meeting place for the congregation. For four years, services were held regularly in this little chapel in the parsonage. In 1887 a movement was started toward the building of a church. Immanuel's first sanctuary was built on the corner of Elm and Lincoln and was dedicated in the spring of 1898.

During this time, Pastor Johnson returned from Portland and settled in Oleander (@ three miles Southeast of Easton) where he started mission work among the Danes living near Selma (@ ten miles Southeast of Easton). After a few years, Pastor Johnson accepted a call to Denver, CO, and Pastor Rasmussen was asked to continue this Selma outreach. He did so, devoting one Sunday per month to the Selma outreach until 1901. After being Immanuel’s pastor for seven years, he resigned in order to give his full time to the Selma church. His last sermon at Immanuel was November 3, 1901.

The Reverend N. M. Andreasen of Racine, WI was the next and fourth pastor at Immanuel, preaching his first sermon in Easton on December 1, 1901. While at Immanuel, Pastor Andreasen preached occasionally at San Francisco. He was strongly urged to devote his full-time ministry to the congregation there, but felt that it would be unjust to resign at Easton, having been here for so short a time. During his pastorate, a mission house was built at Oleander, where, because of distance (remember that this was during when people traveled by horse), it was more convenient to gather, particularly in the evenings. This building remained in use until 1922 when it was donated to the newly organized UELC congregation in Caruthers, CA (@ 8 miles Southwest of Easton) where it is still used by the congregation for offices and meeting rooms. In 1906, after five years of service, Pastor Andreasen resigned.

This time, Immanuel was without a pastor for a short time only. One month later, the Reverend M. C. J. Engholm was installed as pastor. During his pastorate, the membership of the congregation increased considerably with nearly 200 members being added in the six years that he stayed. This was due largely to an influx of settlers from North Dakota who left that state because of the depressed economic conditions and the rigorous climate. The growth was so great that it became necessary to increase the size of the sanctuary. In 1909, a Social Hall was erected in back of the church to accommodate the growth in the Sunday School program. In 1912, Pastor Engholm resigned to accept a call to Portland, OR, thus becoming the third of Immanuel’s pastors to go to Portland. This time the congregation did not find a successor so readily, however, they were fortunate in having in their midst Mr. Henry N. Hansen, a theological student, who preached regularly during this six month period.

The call to Immanuel’s congregation was accepted by the Reverend A. P. Hansen. Pastor Hansen came to Immanuel from Racine, WI and was installed on March 9, 1913. In addition to his work in Immanuel’s congregation, Pastor Hansen served both the Reedley and Fresno churches (Now Christ L/C, Reedley and Bethel L/C, Fresno) until they called their first pastors. He left Easton in 1920 to return to Denmark.

Pastor A. P. Hansen’s successor was the Reverend H. M. Hansen who came to Immanuel in 1920 from Sleepy Eye, MN. It was during his pastorate that the congregation began to change the worship service from the Danish language to English. At first, one Sunday per month was reserved for the Danish language because it was difficult for the older Danes to accept this change.

Pastor H. M. Hansen left in 1929 to accept a call to Oakland. The eighth pastor for Immanuel was the Reverend A. R. Petersen who came from Minneapolis, MN and was installed by the Reverend Jensen-Gyde on December 22, 1929. Pastor Petersen had been a criminal lawyer when the felt the call of God to go into the ministry. His ministry at Immanuel was characterized by the strictness of the UELC. During his pastorate, the sanctuary was again enlarged. This was accomplished in 1940 by removing the roof and cutting the building in half, right down the middle of the center aisle, and pulling the outside walls apart, then replacing the roof. Pastor Petersen resigned after 11 years to accept a teaching position at Lutheran Bible Institute in Minneapolis, MN. At this time it was decided to offer the next pastor a salary of $1,500 plus 3 festival offerings. $300 was set aside to help with moving expenses.

The Reverend E. Petrusson accepted the call and came in 1941. Pastor Petrusson was only with Immanuel two years. He was a good preacher who showed a great deal of concern for the people of Immanuel. He left in 1942 to accept a call into the military Chaplaincy in the San Francisco Bay area.

In 1943, the Reverend Immanuel Petersen accepted the call to become the tenth pastor at Immanuel. Pastor Petersen was a kind and soft hearted pastor whose hallmark was his love of the congregation. During his pastorate there was a time of turmoil when one of Immanuel’s members began spreading Anabaptist doctrine. When the dust settled, several members had left the church. In 1944, Pastor Petersen assisted in teaching "release time" Bible studies at Washington Colony School, but in 1948 the program was moved to Immanuel’s Social Hall because of a court ruling. He left Immanuel in 1948 to accept a call in Ruskin, NE just before the new parsonage was finished.

Pastor Petersen’s tenure at Immanuel saw the culmination of 60 years of growth. By 1949, Immanuel was averaging 190 in worship service and beginning to reach out to the non-Danish community.

The Reverend O. Victor Magnussen came to Immanuel in 1949. He moved into the new parsonage and while there helped Immanuel build their new Social Hall and Sanctuary. During his pastorate Immanuel also bought and installed a pipe organ and sponsored a refugee family from Germany. He left Immanuel in 1959 to accept a call to Petaluma.

Also during his pastorate, on December 4, 1954, Immanuel held its first Danish Smorgasbord. The Smorgasbord was begun as a way to raise money to furnish the new church sanctuary. A yearly Danish Smorgasbord has continued to present day and continues to fund special ministries in the community and church. At the first Smorgasbord, 300 people were served.

In 1959 the Reverend E. Svendsen became the twelfth pastor at Immanuel. He came from Texas where he had been a campus pastor. Pastor Svendsen’s greatest strength came in working with the youth. His provocative style got him in a bind more than once before he left in 1963 to accept a call to Redway, CA.

In 1962, Immanuel, along with the other churches of the UELC, became part of the American Lutheran Church (ALC).

In 1963, Immanuel called their first non-Danish pastor, the Reverend Reinhold Schwindt. Pastor Schwindt came from Castle Rock, WA. His rock solid faith and unflappable style characterized his ministry until he retired in 1974. In 1988, Pastor Schwindt became Pastor Emeritus at Immanuel.

That same year, 1974, Immanuel called her fourteenth pastor, the Reverend Murray Johnson, who came to her from Rancho Cordova, CA. Pastor Johnson’s pastorate included five years of internships in conjunction with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. The program ran from 1976 to 1981 and saw five interns: Bill Martens, Thomas Kent, Roger Thompson, Margie Kane, and Muriel Peterson. Through this program, Pastor Johnson became known as a great teacher of pastors. These years also included the sponsoring of two Viet Nameese families as well as starting Family Camp, teaching the Bethel Bible Series and beginning in 1976, the publishing of Immanuel’s monthly newsletter, the Chimes.

In 1978, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Easton (located 1 mile to the North of Immanuel) closed. St. John’s was a Danish Lutheran Church which was affiliated with the AELC (the dancing Danes) and then with the LCA. Several of St. John’s members came immediately to Immanuel. Many more followed over the next 15 years until most of St. John’s members became members of Immanuel.

Pastor Johnson left in 1983 to accept a call to Sun City, AZ.

Immanuel’s fifteenth pastor is the Reverend Paul Demant. He came to Immanuel from Holbrook, AZ, were he was a worker/priest, on Nov. 1, 1983. He had been the pastor of Peace L/C, Holbrook, and a substance abuse counselor. During his pastorate, Immanuel has increased her staff and built an addition to the church that added a secretary’s office and two bathrooms. The parsonage was added onto and the Social Hall and the Sanctuary were remodeled. Also, during this time, Immanuel has gone to two Sunday services with the addition of the Country Gospel Service.

Pastor Demant brought to Immanuel a passion for reaching out of the congregation into the community and spreading the message of Jesus to those who have not yet heard of Him. From 1983 to present, Immanuel has experienced a steady growth. In 2009 the average Sunday attendance was 225. The enthusiasm that accompanies this growth has become the hallmark of the congregation.

To help prepare the congregation for future staff and to help clean up the corner of Elm & Lincoln, the congregation, in 2003, purchased the lot and house to the east of the sanctuary. The lot has become "Immanuel Park" and has greatly enhanced the appearance of "downtown" Easton.

2009 brings the promise of the new Educational Building! A realistic expectation is that the new building will be done by the end of the year!

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