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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

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Koren, Ulrik Vilhelm
(December 22, 1826–December 19, 1910)

–pioneer Winneshiek County clergyman and national leader among Norwegian Lutherans in America—was born in Bergen, Norway, into an old and distinguished family of merchants, clergy, and government officials. His father was a ship captain who perished at sea when Vilhelm was 15, but his widowed mother saw that he finished Bergen Cathedral School and went on to the University of Oslo. He had a keen mind, a ready wit, a fondness for art and literature, and a fine tenor voice that allowed him to become a founding member of the university chorus.

    Koren graduated from the university with a degree in theology in 1852. Parish calls in the Lutheran Church of Norway were scarce, so he temporarily took a teaching position. A year later, influenced by writings of the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, Koren decided to make a "leap of faith" and accept a call from Norwegian Lutheran immigrant congregations on the Iowa frontier.

    He was ordained by the bishop of Oslo on July 21, 1853; he married his cousin Elisabeth Hysing on August 18; and together they set sail for America on September 5. Elisabeth Koren's diary describes in charming detail their long journey from Norway to the Norwegian settlement of Washington Prairie in Winneshiek County, where they arrived on December 21, 1853, and their early life in Iowa. At first, they shared a small, one-room log cabin with another family of four. There the urbane, well-educated young city couple had their first experiences with Norwegian country folks. Vilhelm knew half a dozen languages, and Elisabeth read Danish, Norwegian, German, and English, but neither of them knew much about the earthy dialects, colorful costumes, and brightly painted furniture of rural Norway, now transplanted to Iowa.

    Koren was one of the first clergymen to serve Norwegian Lutherans west of the Mississippi River (C. L. Clausen of St. Ansgar preceded him by six months). He took up his American pastoral duties with energy and verve, traveling far and wide by horse and buggy. At first, he served scattered congregations in four counties of northeastern Iowa and two in southeastern Minnesota, chanting the Lutheran høimesse (literally, "high mass") in barns, in log cabins, and under the open skies–preaching, baptizing, marrying, burying, and confirming.

    In addition, he became actively involved in the wider activities of American Lutheranism. He developed close ties to the German American theologians of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. His leadership ensured that Luther College moved to Decorah in 1862 after an initial year in Wisconsin. Koren wrote widely on theological matters, often displaying a wit and dialectical skill reminiscent of his model, Kierkegaard. He was also a poet, hymn writer, preacher, and popular raconteur. In Norwegian Americandebates over slavery during the 1850s, he took the position that slavery was not a sin because it was not condemned in the Bible, though it was a grave social evil. His collected works were published posthumously in four volumes, and one of his hymns, "Oh, Sing Jubilee to the Lord," is still in the Lutheran Book of Worship.

    Koren served as vice president of the Synod of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1871-1876) and president of the Synod's Iowa District (1876- 1894). During the Election Controversy (Naadevalgsstriden) of the 1880s, he defended the semi-Calvinist position that some were elected to eternal salvation by God before the creation of the world, rather than the traditional Lutheran view of individual justification by faith. That controversy led to a schism in the Norwegian Synod. From 1884 to 1910 Koren served as president of the reduced synod, where his theology prevailed.

    Koren served a large number of congregations in his day, but the core of his far-ranging call was always Washington Prairie, where the Korens resided until their deaths. Vilhelm Koren died in the Washington Prairie parsonage in 1910, and Elisabeth Koren died in 1918. Her diary was published in Norwegian in 1914 and in English translation in 1955.

    The Korens had nine children, including Caroline Naeseth (1857-1945); John Koren (1861-1923), president of the American Statistical Society; William Koren (1864-1937), professor of Romance languages at Princeton University; and Elisabeth Torrison (1867- 1914). Paul Koren (1863-1944) succeeded his father as pastor and served until 1941, giving the Korens a remarkable tenure of 88 years in the Washington Prairie call, while Marie Koren (1874-1968) was the congregation's organist for 50 years.
Sources The correspondence and papers of Vilhelm and Elisabeth Koren are in the Luther College Archives, Decorah, Iowa. Vilhelm Koren's collected works, including Koren's 35page memoir, were published as Paul Koren, ed., Samlede Skrifter af Dr. theol. V. Koren, 4 vols. (1911–12); and Elisabeth Koren's diary was published as David T. Nelson, ed., The Diary of Elisabeth Koren 1853–1855 (1955). The Koren family history is in Gudrun Johnson (Høibo), Slekten Koren, 2 vols. (1941). Biographies appear in O. N. Nelson, ed., "Koren, Ulrik Vilhelm," in History of the Scandinavians and Successful Scandinavians in the United States, 2nd rev. ed. (1900); and Øyvind T. Gulliksen, "Koren, Ulrik Vilhelm," Norsk Biografisk Leksikon (2002), 5:341–42.
Contributor: John Robert Christianson

Cite as: Christianson, John Robert. "Koren, Ulrik Vilhelm" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017