From the Day of Pentecost, God has raised up men and women to fill the needs of His church. He called Paul to deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles, and summoned Martin Luther to stand against abuses of the official church during the sixteenth century. Similarly, the Lord has continued to raise up people of His choosing to respond to changing circumstances in our own era. The lifework of Elmer Leon Jorgenson is part of the longer story of God’s love in sending leaders who are equipped—both by talent and commitment—to minister to specific needs of His people during various stages in the Church’s history.

The bold stance for freedom in Christ contended for in the early nineteenth century by men such as Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, was under severe attack from within their own movement by the 1930’s and 40’s. Taking to a new extreme Alexander Campbell’s emphasis upon intellectual debate, many in the Churches of Christ were painting themselves into a comer of theological exclusivism and legalism. An increasingly humanistic reliance upon conformity with die party line of strong leaders and a consequent neglect of spiritual gifts accompanied this drift. Although there were strong individual exceptions, the movement could hardly be characterized as a great praying church. The Churches of Christ often seemed more interested in judging the song services of a congregation as to whether it “conformed” in singing without instrumental accompaniment than in developing a rich worship service of psalms and hymns, spiritual songs and prayer. Although Alexander Campbell had held a postmillennial position concerning the return of Christ and the future of the Kingdom of God, many of his colleagues and followers held to the premillennial expectation of the Lord’s coming. Such differences were aired and debated, but with respect, not venom. A later generation of followers lost the generous and Christlike spirit of Stone and Campbell. The primary characteristic of Christ’s people–“Behold, how they love one another!”—was often hard to find in the relationships between preachers and churches regarding their prophetic beliefs, their views on the indwelling Holy Spirit, and their acceptance of Christians with views which differed from their own. As the check list for required external conformity grew ever longer, internal spiritual discipline and the love of Jesus became matters of considerably less emphasis.

  1. H. Boll, born in 1875 in Germany, was schooled from 1895 in the Nashville Bible School under the “great-hearted” James A. Harding. He began preaching 1896. After serving as a traveling evangelist, he made a visit to the Portland Avenue Church of Christ in Louisville in 1903, and from 1904 (with one year out to teach in Tennessee) he served as minister of that congregation until his death in 1956. From that post, Boll was able to develop his leadership as preacher, writer, and beloved teacher, and was instrumental in “raising up” many preachers. His gentle faith and strong character helped renew love and a disciplined knowledge of Scripture, a heavy dependence upon prayer, and a consciousness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for generations of people whose lives he touched. Although he had served as frontpage editor of the Nashville journal, The Gospel Advocate from 1909 until 1915, his teaching of the imminent and premillennial return of Jesus, together with his irenic spirit toward other believers in Christ, made him and his colleagues the object of bitter and denunciatory campaign throughout most of his lifetime. The restoration of Christian love as the hallmark of Christ’s church and an attitude of inclusiveness, as advocated by the first-generation leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement, generated a Christlike spirit emanating from Louisville which has touched almost a century of Christian lives.

A generation of men and women were called to serve in this renewal movement, this moment of church history. Among the “giants” of the time were Stanford Chambers, H. L. Olmstead, H. L. Rutherford, Don Carlos Janes, Tona Covey, J. R. Clark and my uncle, E. L. Jorgenson. The Jorgenson story is a marvel in itself of God’s providence.

From Denmark to Nebraska

In 1873, Christopher Jorgenson, a member of the famed King’s Military Palace Guard in Copenhagen, married Lena Peterson, a seamstress (or “lady in waiting”) for the Queen. Family tradition held that she married below her station, and that she had, as a result, to leave the palace. In any case, the couple farmed a little while, but upon hearing a positive report from a Danish couple who had migrated earlier to Nebraska, decided they would take their four living children and emigrate to the New World.

There were many reasons why the Jorgenson’s may have chosen to join nearly 300,000 Danes who left their country–the larger portion of them for America-between 1870 and 1914. Denmark had recently lost Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia in war, “for all Danes a shattering experience.” Times were hard, and it is doubtful whether Christopher and Lena were landowners, or at least very extensive ones. Religion, on the other hand, was evidently not a major part of the reason for leaving: the Jorgenson’s remained faithful to their Lutheran Church background ten or eleven years after their arrival in rural Nebraska, along with some 8,000 Danes who made the state their adopted home between 1868 and 1914.

The effort, by relatively poor farmers, to take four children from the capital city of Denmark to the unknown American West, must have required an agonizing decision by both husband and wife. The financial cost of the passage—according to family tradition, in the poorest of the steerage class, along with many of their fellow emigrants—required a considerable outlay of the available Kroner. Even the trip from New York to Nebraska on the train was fraught with difficulties for the non- English-speaking foreigners. Upon their arrival in Nebraska in 1884, they settled on a rented farm in Newman Grove, Madison County, Nebraska. Christopher Jorgenson built first a sod house for his wife, the former palace “lady-in-waiting,” and the children. A frame house was completed by 1888. Alice Jorgenson Spaulding wrote, “Mother had been raised in a little more affluence in her girlhood than our father and adjusting to the hard life of a farmer’s wife in pioneer days was a little difficult. She often longed for her family and for Denmark'” But her hard work and her experience as a seamstress did help the family through those hard early years as they pioneered on die Nebraska plains.

E. L. Jorgenson, remembering some of the hardships experienced by his family before and after his birth in 1886, wrote in 1960:

“Why was I born in this land of privilege and religious freedom when my Nordic ancestors were born and lived for generations in Europe, where also my parents were born?  Did the Lord have a hand in these fortunate factors, or were they wholly of my own volition and choice?”

Elmer L. Jorgenson (1886-1968)

Elmer Leon Jorgenson was born at Newman Grove December 9, 1886, the first of the family to be born in the United States. He joined a family of two older brothers (Julius and Alfred) and two sisters (Alma and Luella). His parents both sang, his father quite well, teaching his children the Danish ballads and lullabies he had brought in his heart from his native country. Later, after becoming a member of the Church of Christ, he learned to love the hymns and sang them well. Brother Julius played folk music on the fiddle. Alfred learned to play the classics on the violin, as younger brother Elmer would later carry further. Alfred and Elmer sang together a great deal as they worked together on crisp Nebraska mornings.

When Elmer was nine years old, the family moved to a farm at Roselma near Albion, a place which belonged to the pioneer preacher, D. J. Poynter. This occasioned the transfer of rural schools for the younger children in the new community they were situated too far from a Lutheran Church for regular attendance, so they began attending a nearby Church of Christ. The parents were taught and especially befriended by a neighbor, Henry Houtz, and were drawn to place membership in the new church, followed by each of their children upon maturity.

At age 14, Elmer began riding by mule the fifteen miles to high school. Although the music offering at the school was limited to school songs—patriotic, romantic, sentimental—Elmer imbibed all that he could from participation in his high school singing activities. His father passed away in 1902, when Elmer was fifteen years of age. Two years later, he was sent to a business college in Grand Island—a town where he was able to hear some very good musical performances. Then, during his last year at Grand Island (1905), his mother passed away at Albion, and Elmer returned home to join brother Alfred on the farm.

During the summer of 1906, Elmer writes, “it happened!” God called him to preach, mainly by song. He relates the life-changing episode in some informal memoirs written late in his life:

“I had led some singing in the home church. Had some private voice lessons early. But… . ill-prepared as a “singing evangelist.” [I was] expected not only to lead, but to render a “Special song” every service.”

He had already played the school organ, learned to sight read music well, “mastered” the Choral Union, and learned every song in the book he was to use in Iowa. That summer, he joined an evangelistic team of four men, and sang in Marshalltown, Ottumwa and Burlington. “Got the fever of sacred music in dead earnest. Began to clip.” The latter suggestion anticipates the many years he clipped and saved favorite songs in preparation for Great Songs of the Church, his life’s major work.


Two years later, after the rigorous School of Reality in which he taught rural school in the winters and led singing with the Witty-Nelson evangelistic team in the summers, he was invited to the Odessa, Missouri, Western Literary and Bible College “to make my way by teaching a class in sight singing. Very inadequate.” The invitation to join the college in the fall of 1907 as both teacher and student no doubt stemmed from the influence of Don Carlos Janes, a native of Ohio who had spent several summers in Iowa doing evangelistic work in which he and E. L. Jorgenson had worked together during the summer of 1907.

The two years at Odessa were a watershed experience for the young singer. During that time, he made lifelong friendships with many young people who became leaders in the church: H. L. Olmstead, Don Carlos Janes, E. A. Rhodes, J. Edward Boyd, Tona Covey, 0. D. Bixler, and several couples who took up foreign missions somewhat later. Early in his Odessa tenure he met the girl of his dreams, Irene Doty, a native of Odessa and also a musician. They married in December, 1909, immediately before taking up permanent residence in Louisville, Kentucky.

It was at Odessa where Elmer first heard the honored James A. Harding preach. This was a notable experience since Harding “planted the church” at Highland in Louisville where Jorgenson would become the minister in 1913. Notable, too, because Harding’s text was Revelation, chapters 19-21, from which the record shows he drew a classic premillennial interpretation.

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience for the young teacher- student, however, occurred in the spring of 1908, when:. . . Brother Boll came. I led singing for his meeting …. Here was the real thing …. The second spring he came again. That time he asked if I would go with him in September to Cincinnati. Yes. Then to Louisville? Of course; and that October, 1909, was the greatest revival [I was] ever in. By December [Irene and I] were married and settled in Louisville.


Dr. Dale Jorgenson, August 1995


To be continued in 3 more articles.