Mother of churches
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Immanuel faced a problem almost inexplicable to contemporary urban church leaders. The problem was: excessive growth.
Growth came in at least two forms: sheer numbers of people, and their wider geographic distribution in the metropolitan area. Thousands of Swedes came to Chicago, making it the third-largest Swedish city in the world. Most of them brought with them religious traditions or at least the desire to spend time with people of their nationality.
Churches were eager to respond, most notably the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, who were feeling the greatest pressure from the waves of immigration. Existing congregations, however, were placed under great stress. Buildings designed to hold a hundred people did not function well with ten times that number present. Moreover, immigrants, including Swedes, had begun moving well beyond the immediate vicinity of downtown and were now spreading north, west, and south of the central district. Many now lived several hours’ journey from their churches.
Immanuel began a process of establishing ‘sister’ or ‘daughter’ congregations throughout Chicago. The first was Salem Lutheran on the south side, in 1868, a mere 15 years after Immanuel’s founding. Two years, later, Immanuel moved to its new home on Sedgwick Street and turned over its old building to a new congregation, First Gethsemane Lutheran (now part of United In Faith Lutheran).
This pattern of ‘spinning off’ new congregations was to continue until 1905, at which time the development of new mission churches was assumed by the Augustana Synod. Among the congregations developed or assisted by Immanuel were Zion (1881), Trinity (1883), Saron (1888), Ebenezer (1892), Emaus (1895), Messiah (1896), Concordia (1898), Nebo (1901), Lebanon (1904), and Irving Park (1905). By 1905, the combined membership of these congregations was well in excess of 10,000.
Two other congregations did not follow this pattern. Realizing that it might be desirable to relocate in the Edgewater neighborhood, Immanuel established Bethel Lutheran in 1911. When Immanuel did relocate to Elmdale Avenue, the Bethel chapel rejoined its mother church. At the same time, Central Lutheran was organized to serve the near north community and took possession of the Sedgwick sanctuary. In more recent years, Immanuel has been instrumental in the creation of the Chinese Christian Church and St. Elias Arabic Church.
In one instance, the formation of new congregations was something less than harmonious. In the 1870’s, a large number of Swedish Lutherans had begun protesting what they sensed as moral laxness, uncertain theology, and a lack of personal piety within the Augustana Synod. By 1884, disagreement and dissent had led first to personal withdrawals from Augustana churches, then formation of new independent congregations, and finally to the formation of two new denominations, the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church. In the years from 1869 to 1884, parish records show that nearly 1000 Immanuel members left to join the covenant movement and were responsible for creating at least three Covenant congregations.
The fate of Immanuel’s ‘daughter congregations’ is certainly not uniform. Some remain strong and active. Some were involved in mergers and continue to live in that way. Some, sadly, simply disappeared. Together, they still provide an instructive look at the growth of Swedish Lutheranism in Chicago.
The Evald Era
When Pastor Carlsson resigned from Immanuel in 1875, the congregation called a 26-year old recent immigrant from Sweden as his successor. For almost 35 years, Dr. Carl Evald and his wife Emmy dominated the spiritual and organizational life of Immanuel, as well as having a major impact on the growing Augustana Synod.
Dr. Evald inherited a rapidly growing congregation, a newly rebuilt church edifice, and an enormous building debt. The membership was apparently quite prosperous, for the debt was retired within 20 years. The true hallmark of the Evald Era was the expansion of ministry groups. Unlike many other ‘institutional churches’ of that period, which developed overtly secular services, Immanuel’s activities were almost all based on Bible study and Christian ministry.
At the core of all this organizational activity were the Sunday School and the Bible classes. The Sunday School, which at one time numbered over 1500 students, was also an important tool for teaching English, a language embraced by Immanuel before many of its sister churches. Well over a dozen other groups, from sewing circles to missionary and tract societies, made Immanuel a constant center of community programs.
A major part of congregational life was directed by Emmy Evald. The daughter of Pastor Carlson, she was a full partner in the leadership of Immanuel, as well as a strong advocate of women’s rights (with presentations to the state legislature and a Congressional committee), played a significant role in the 1893 World’s Fair, and was founder and president of the national Augustana Women’s Missionary Society. She was instrumental in the founding of hospitals for women in India and China, as well as at least two residences for working women in Chicago.
During the Evald Era, Immanuel continued to grow in numbers, even while it created a number of ‘daughter’ churches. The maximum size, not counting Sunday School children, appears to have been around 2000 members.
Public Transportation: We are conveniently located about two blocks from the #22 Clark bus and a ten-minute walk from the Thorndale red line station.
Parking: On Sundays, parking is available at Senn High School (5900 N Glenwood Ave) half a block south of the church. An accessible drop-off location is located directly in front of the church entrance on Elmdale Ave.