The History of Augustana University

Long before “the green” was green; ahead of the “the quad’s” signature north-campus crisscross; and decades before Ole, Viking Days, Varieties, Vespers and even the Huddle’s early-morning coffee, Augustana University got its start in Hillsboro, Ill. — 650 miles east of Sioux Falls — as a place called Hillsboro Academy in 1835.

Illinois State UniversityAt the urging of Lutheran Scandinavian leaders, Hillsboro Academy was renamed The Literary and Theological Institute of The Lutheran Church of the Far West in 1846. A short time later, the school moved north, to Springfield, Ill., where it was renamed again — this time to Illinois State University. According to school records, a number of the nation’s early influencers attended ISU, including former Secretary of State John Hay and Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. (photo on right)

The College on Wheels

Nick-named by historians as “the college on wheels,” Augustana wasn’t done moving yet.

By 1860, the still-young United States was on the brink of political and social catastrophe. Immigration was at an all-time high. In the South, plantation-owned slaves were harvesting 2 billion pounds of cotton each year. At the same time, opposition and public outrage over slavery seethed through towns and villages in the North. In November, Abraham Lincoln was elected president and a month later, South Carolina officially seceded from the union. The first shots of the Civil War soon followed.

In the Midwest, the railroad, industry and farming opportunities drew Norwegian and Swedish immigrants by the thousands — all of whom were looking for a place to settle; somewhere to call home.

For Augustana’s founders, it was time to make a move.

The Augustana Seminary

Lars Paul EsbjornOn June 5, 1860, Norwegian and Swedish church leaders met in Jefferson Prairie, Ill., to form the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod. The controversial move paved the way for Professor Lars Paul Esbjorn and a group of followers to establish a completely new institution — the Augustana Seminary. Christened in the basement of the Norwegian Lutheran Church on Franklin Street in Chicago, the Seminary’s name was drawn from the Augsburg Confession in 1530, during the time of the Reformation. The document’s Latin designation was the “Confessio Augustana.”

Augustana Seminary held its first class on Sept. 1, 1860 — a founding date shared with Augustana’s sister-college, Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill. Today, the two schools are among the oldest of the 40 colleges and universities affiliated with the Lutheran Church.

The DivisionPaxton, IL

By 1863, Rev. Tuve Hasselquist, president of the Augustana Synod, was lobbying for another move. Hasselquist believed that moving the Seminary to a rural area populated primarily by Scandinavians would be in the best interest of the growing school. Plus, the Illinois Central Railroad promised land if the school relocated. After a vote, the Seminary (photo on right) moved from Chicago 100 miles southwest, to Paxton, Ill., and Hasselquist became the school’s second president.

Marshall, WICraving their own identity, the Seminary’s Norwegian leaders made the decision to separate from the Swedes. They purchased a building in Marshall, Wisc., and in 1869, they formed the Augsburg Seminary and Marshall Academy  (photo on left).  Wisconsin farmer and Norwegian immigrant, Endre Endresen Eidsvaag, gives a bell to the school. A year later, in 1870, the Norwegian Augustana Synod was founded. In 1875, Augustana Seminary moved from Paxton to Rock Island where it has remained since.

Moving WestCanton, SD

By the late 1870's, the Nation’s western frontier was bulging. In 1881, leaders of the Norwegian Augustana Synod made the decision to “follow the people” and settled in Beloit, Iowa. While in Beloit, the school reclaimed the name,  Augustana Seminary and Academy. In 1884 with the institution needing more room, a group of Canton citizens across the Big Sioux River pooled their money and bought the Naylor Hotel and offered the building to the Augustana Synod with the condition that the school move from Beloit to Canton. The Academy remained in Beloit and the name of the school was changed to Augustana College. By 1903, the College moved into a permanent home — its first in 43 years — on the east side of Canton along with the Eidsvaag Bell. 

Home, Summit Avenue

Twenty-five miles to the north, in Sioux Falls, the Lutheran Normal Lutheran Normal School, Sioux FallsSchool opened its doors in 1889. Housed in what is now known as Old Main, the Lutheran Normal School’s mission was to prepare teachers.

By 1918, city and business leaders were lobbying hard for Augustana to relocate to Sioux Falls. Church leaders made the decision to merge Augustana College in Canton with the Lutheran Normal School in Sioux Falls under the name Augustana College and Normal School (ACNS). The Eidsvaag Bell was installed in the school's belltower. In 1926, "and Normal School" was dropped from the name and the site in Canton eventually became Augustana Academy. Despite the similarities in name, it was no longer affiliated with the College and ultimately closed in 1971. (In front of Ladies Hall. Inset: Ladies Hall and Normal School above)

The Eidsvaag Bell in Old MainThe 2010-2011 academic year marks Augustana College’s sesquicentennial. Campus officials and the school’s nearly 1,800 students are planning a number of commemorative events to celebrate the College’s 150th year.

“Van Gogh once said, ‘great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.’ That quote really tells the story of this place,” said Rob Oliver, president of Augustana. “Our history is filled with countless challenges as our early founders struggled to keep their dreams of education and vision for service alive. Thanks to their steadfast commitment and the courageous stewards that followed, Augustana is achieving its vision to become one of the nation’s premier church-related colleges. Today we offer 53 majors, 35 minors and 15 pre-professional programs.”

Augustana’s storied past is just as exciting as its future. The College recently completed an extensive $7 million renovation of its Mikkelsen Library and last year opened Kirkeby-Over Football Stadium, the Augustana Soccer Field and the Huether Tennis Centre. Next up is a planned $30 million, first-phase renovation to the College’s Gilbert Science Complex.

“A lot has changed about Augustana over the last 150 years. Yet so much has remained unchanged — our values; our commitment to academic excellence; our dedication to service; and our support of the liberal arts,” said Oliver. “In so many ways though, we’re only just beginning. We often say that our legendary past, coupled with our vision for the future, is creating an Augustana like never before. I believe that. I believe that, for Augustana, the best is yet to come!”

On June 5, 2010, Oliver, Steve Bahls, president of Augustana-Rock Island, and 100 guests commemorated the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod during a ceremony at Jefferson Prairie Lutheran Church in Poplar Grove, Ill.

Oliver and Bahls gathered at a table used by the original founders during the creation of the Augustana Synod’s first constitution to sign a Sesquicentennial Compact — a document that affirmed each school’s academic mission and desire to remain committed to the mission of Lutheran higher education.

A timeline of notable events in Augustana history.