In June 1868, covered wagons carrying 23 Norwegian Immigrant families crossed the Big Sioux River and settled in the Canton vicinity. On July 10, 1868, the heads of seven of the families signed papers indicating their intent to establish a Lutheran congregation, and on October 28, 1868, they met in the log home of Tron Lunder to become the charter members of Canton Norwegian Evanglical Lutheran Church, associated with the Norwegian Synod. This was the first church organized in Lincoln County.
Ellef Olson was called to be the first pastor of Canton Lutheran. He had the idtinction of being the first resident clergyman in the Sioux Falley, and because there were few frontier pastors available, he at verious times established and served about a dozen Lutheran congregations in souteast Dakota Territory, northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota.
Four years later, in 1872, evangetlists from the Augustana Synod launched a second Lutheran congregation in Canton, the Bethlehem Norwegian Lutheran Church. Bethlehem was instrumental in getting Augustana College to move to Canon in 1884.
Merging the Congregations
In 1890 the parent synods of the two Canton churches merged to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. It was obvious to most that the two Canton congregations should also unite, but the negotiations lasted on and off for twelve years, each side accusing the other of Norwegian subbornness. Friendly rivalry and competition had marked their past relationship. When Canton Lutheran, in 1881, broke ground for a church, Bethlehem followed with a ground breaking a few monthsl later. When the Ladies Aid society of Canton Lutheran raised funds for a church bell, the Bethlehem ladies raised money for a pipe organ, one of the first in Dakota Territory. The two almost agreed on a common cemetery location northeast of Canton, but the final decisions put the Bethlehem cemetery on the north side of a township road, northeast of Canton, and the Canton Lutheran cmeetery on the south side.
Differences in worship styles had to be resolved. Canton Lutheran was “high church” in liturgical form whereas Bethlehem followed many informal “low church” practices. Canton Lutheran also feared being swallowed up by the larger Bethlehem congregation.
Agreement to merge was finally reached in 1902. To temporarily house the new congregation until a new churhc building could be built, the Canton Lutheran church was moved alongside the Bethlehem church and the adjoining walls were removed to create one large sanctuary. This unique “double church” arrangement attracted national attention. Another result of the merger was to create what was until the 1920’s the largest Lutheran congregation in South Dakota.
Building the Present Church
In 1905 the congregation authorized the hiring of an architect to prepare plans for a new church building. Of the various proposals, a plan for a church without a center aisle was adopted. Although somewhat unusual for Lutheran liturgical worhip, it was favored in order to stop an unfortunate practice that developed in the “double church” when the members continued to sin on their own sieds of the double auditorium. Although the custom was ridiculed each Sunday by one member who with great flourish placed his chair in the middle of the sanctuary, directly over the crack where the two buildings joined, the practice had persisted. The ladies undoubtedly supported the arrangement without a center aisle because it made a common practice in those days of segregating men and women on opposite sides of the sancutary nearly impossible.
The cornerstone for the new church was laid in a memorable ceremony in 1908. The stone for the granite walls came from a Dell Rapids quarry. Much of the lumber came from the dismantled old church buildings. Two distinctive features are the stained glass windows done in the “Tiffany Style” and the extensive woodwork in the sanctuary which was milled in caonton by Gilber Satrum. He and many others in the congregation volunteered many hours of labor all under the expert direction of member John Millie who served as construction supervisor. The new pipe organ was purchased with funds raised by the Luther Leaguers, the teenagers inthe congregation. The women of the congregation were tireless fundraisers, and in recognition of their efforts, the men soon granted the women voting privileges in church matters. When the church ws dedicated in 1910, it was said to be the largest Lutheran church structure west of Minneapolis,a nd four years later, the church was debt free.