125 years: Milestone for Poulsbo First Lutheran

There is an old wooden door, unhinged and layered with dust, laying on its side in a small crawlspace beneath the towering steeple of Poulsbo First Lutheran Church. Solid and paneled with modest detail, it once provided access to the house of God, a place with roots deep-seated in local history.

Congregants of First Lutheran are celebrating the church's 125th anniversary this year with several events over the coming months. Members of an anniversary planning committee recently discovered the old door, installed at the church in 1908 and likely removed in 1959; it's one of many pieces that tell how a small Norwegian sanctuary, the first Lutheran church on the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, became a worship center for hundreds and a gathering place for a community.

A rocky beginning, a conservative voice

After its establishment as the Fordefjord Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in 1886 by roving pastor N.G. Nilsen and town settler Jorgen Eliason, the church had high leadership turnover in its early years. Its first two pastors each left to form new churches: the Free Lutheran Church of Poulsbo, which eventually became Grace Lutheran; and the Free Christian Mission Society, now Christ Memorial.

“Really, First Lutheran was the beginning of all the other churches in town,” said Judy Driscoll, local historian and member of the planning committee.

Early pastors would circulate on horseback between congregations in Poulsbo, Vinland, Bangor and Keyport, speaking once or twice a month at each location, she said. First Lutheran shared a pastor with congregants in Vinland into the 1920s, until that group grew large enough to afford its own pastor.

Early congregants of the church, which preceded the establishment of city government in Poulsbo, often delivered written demands to the town’s new City Council over various issues, most of them relating to citizen morals, according to “Fordefjord Budskap,” a book written at the church’s centennial.

In January 1913, the congregation condemned lotteries, drafting a letter to the City Council requesting they forbid such “dangerous pursuits” which “generally demoralize the life of the community,” according to the book.

In October 1917, church leaders protested a permit given to a local businessman to open a pool hall in town, calling the establishment the “work of the devil.”

Members spoke out against a dance hall downtown in March 1920, in part because it would keep people from worshiping on the Sabbath, they surmised. These written suggestions to city officials continued as late as 1982, when the church asked the City Council for an ordinance against pornography.

Congregants wrote conservative and pietistic resolutions in the early 20th century, often intervening in the private lives of fellow members. Members weren’t allowed to sell liquor, and women weren’t given the right to vote on church matters until 1927, several years after national suffrage.

A cultural shift

Perhaps the strongest words were spoken and written regarding the transformation of church services from the Norwegian language to English, a gradual shift that began in 1921 and continued through the 1940s.

A motion to create an English language congregation was struck down in 1919 because it “would weaken the congregation’s cultural unity.” English-language services were approved once a month in 1921, the result of World War I and the increase to Poulsbo’s population with the boom of military families employed at the naval base at Keyport. As the town’s population increased, it diversified.

When the church’s name was changed to First Lutheran in 1942, it was the culmination of a cultural shift, committee member Bob Nichols said. Many of the church’s members today don’t have Scandinavian ancestry.

“Poulsbo’s First Lutheran has changed a lot since those days,” Nichols said. “It’s no longer an ethnic church. It’s been a very dynamic congregation and has ventured out in so many ways into the community.”

The church sponsored Poulsbo’s first Boy Scout troop. It has developed close ties with non-profit Martha & Mary and the Poulsbo-North Kitsap Rotary Club. This year, it hosted North Kitsap Fishline’s holiday toy shop for families in need.

Church members serve a free community meal each Thursday, and the church’s former parsonage is now used as transitional housing for the homeless. The Christian Center provides emergency shelter in times of cold weather.

A place to gather

First Lutheran is well-known in the immediate area, and by lutefisk aficionados around the region, as home to an annual lutefisk dinner that draws hundreds. The first lutefisk dinner was held in 1913 by the women of the church, and was open only to the congregation. It raised $26.80, and was heralded a resounding success. Since, organizers have opened the event to the public. It’s a full-day affair, requiring more than 1,000 pounds of lutefisk and 2,000 pieces of lefse to be prepared in advance by volunteers.

While the congregation has long gathered at the crest of the city skyline, overlooking Liberty Bay, the original church building rotted and was torn down in 1908. Another renovation was done in 1959, but the sanctuary still holds stained glass windows from the 1930s and an altar painting done in 1912.

The church’s steeple has become a Poulsbo landmark, and several congregants have faced the challenge of keeping its bells ringing over the years.

“Fordefjord Budskap” tells the tale of Bill Peterson, who in 1935 volunteered for the precarious job of fixing a cross to the church’s spire. A crowd gathered below to watch as he worked.

“I couldn’t think of anything else but my dad while I was at school today. I prayed all day! Then as I was coming home I glanced up and there it was — all gold against the sky,” said Peterson’s daughter, Edna, at the time.

A handful of men braved the heights in 1978 to make repairs to the tower to prevent damage to its organ.

“You get the real sensation when you are clear on top. You can see the scaffolding swaying below you,” Steve Smalaaden recalled.

The church will host a banquet on Feb. 20, 1 p.m. following special services at 8, 9 and 11 a.m. Banquet tickets are $10. An anniversary choir concert is scheduled Feb. 27, 4 p.m., and a special historical Sunday school class will be held throughout the year.

To learn more about upcoming events, call the church at 779-2622.

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