As the influential Minneapolis pastor plunged into a fiery sermon in 1889, his Trinity Lutheran flock quickly realized he wouldn’t again be preaching about the wickedness of alcohol.
There is a worse evil than “the terrible tide of intemperance … more rampant, and far more insidious and dangerous, gazing boldly into our faces wherever we go. It is lechery and lust,” the Rev. Malchior Falk Gjertsen said.
He zeroed in on the “national shame” of rising divorce rates and “semi-nakedness” in theaters and dance halls where waltzers, “without blushing,” embrace “in the sensuous whirl.” Part of his sermon, critiquing newspapers, proved particularly prophetic.
“The press, knowing the public taste for what is sensual and low, does its best to gratify and feed that taste, and gloats with delight over reports of seductions [and] adultery. ….”
A decade later at the peak of his popularity in 1900, Gjertsen became ensnared in a scandal that would cleave his congregation and cloud his legacy of good deeds — including educational breakthroughs as a longtime Minneapolis school board member. After a trip to Norway, a steamy love letter surfaced — “full of words and terms of endearment and fairly glows with love and passion.”
Norwegian pastors obtained two anonymous letters that handwriting experts said matched Gjertsen’s script. The letters had been turned over by a 28-year-old Swedish woman, Esther (Bienakowsky) Paulsen, who converted from Judaism in New York in 1892, was baptized in the Lutheran Church and married a Norwegian lay preacher.
The couple returned to Europe in 1898, where Esther followed Gjertsen to speaking engagements during his summer trip back to Norway. When Gjertsen rebuffed her request to take her back to the States with him, the scandal erupted.
The Augsburg seminary in Minneapolis sent an investigator to Norway. Declaring his innocence, Gjertsen returned to Norway with his wife, Sarah, to “meet the accusation and, if possible, bring the instigator to justice.”
By 1901, a Norwegian book, “Falk and the Jewess,” appeared on the streets of Minneapolis. When a Norwegian weekly newspaper in Minneapolis reprinted the passionate letters in 1903, the publisher was fined $35 for mailing indecent material.
In the end, Gjertsen was more or less cleared of the accusations, although he admitted writing the second letter. That prompted church officials to conclude that it was improper for a married man to write an unsigned letter “containing such strong statements and sending it to another man’s wife.”
Despite winning a church vote 82-63, Gjertsen resigned — explaining that he wrote the letter because Esther had threatened suicide if he didn’t take her back to America and he considered it his duty to be kind.
Defying Lutherans’ staid stereotype, the crowded church meeting in 1901 devolved into a “pathetic scene … there were hisses and threats” before the meeting was adjourned “to avoid a general row,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported.
Insisting he was the victim, Gjertsen said: “There are few in the congregation who have any idea of the sufferings I have gone through.” His supporters splintered from Trinity Lutheran and started Bethany Lutheran Church in 1904 with Gjertsen as its first pastor. After outgrowing its first yellow brick church and rebuilding after a 1917 fire, the twin-towered church heads into its second century on the corner of Franklin and 25th Avenue S.
The story of Gjertsen and the church are part of a fascinating new book called “A People’s History of the Seward Neighborhood,” (Nodin Press, 2018). Seward neighbors spent seven years researching and writing essays about the Minneapolis neighborhood’s Scandinavian roots up to the influx of modern-day East Africans. Gjertsen is just one of the colorful characters who emerge from the book’s 320 pages.
“The reverend’s story resonates in the age of #metoo and also because he was more than just a successful clergyman in Minneapolis’ powerful Scandinavian community at the turn of the 20th century,” said one of the book’s editors, Rick Musser. “His fall from power has sex, a mysterious woman and scandal aplenty.”
All of which diminished a rich legacy Gjertsen crafted in three decades in Minneapolis. Born in Norway in 1847, he moved to Minneapolis in 1881 and his “reputation and influence made him one of the best known and widely sought-after clerics in Minneapolis,” the book says.
When he died suddenly at 66 in San Diego in 1913, his obituary was front-page news — with no mention of the scandal. “He was a power in the politics of the city … in great demand as a speaker all over the Northwest.”
During his years on the school board, Gjertsen helped provide free textbooks and opened South High School. He was credited with quelling a Norwegian mill workers strike in the 1880s, supporting American Indians and founding a hospital. He wrote hymns and a Norwegian-American anthem. Survived by his wife and three children, he was buried at Lakewood Cemetery after a funeral drew 3,000 people to Bethany Lutheran.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.