Christ Before Pilate: An American Story

A Novel by Waldemar Ager
Christ Before Pilate Book Cover


Exploring “the raging desire of a good many people to crucify anything that surpasses their own little understanding and perception.” –Waldemar Ager


“I have never read a book where so many people get their hides tanned.”—E. E. Løbeck


“You have precisely the qualifications for describing Norwegian-American cultural life.”—Ole Edvart Rølvaag


"It is safe to say that the book not only launched Ager on a career of literary importance, but also confirmed him in his dream of a Norwegian-American literature, to which he himself had offered the best and most effective testimony.”—Einar Haugen, in Immigrant Idealist

Kristus for Pilatus: en Norsk-Amerikansk Fortælling
Waldemar Theodor Ager (1910)


Presten Conrad Walther Welde
Nowegian title of Kristus for Pilatus
Aschehoug Publishing, Kristiania (Oslo), Norway (1911)
(Digitized on-line at the Hathi Trust digital library)


Christ before Pilate: An American Story
Translation by J. J. Skordalsvold
Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis (1924)


Perils of idealism

The Norwegian poet Johan Sebastian Welhavn once summed up what happens to an idealist:

Hvo som gaar foran I en Alvorsdyst
Han seirer ei men falder

(He who takes the lead in battle
Will not conquer but perish)

According to Ager biographer Einar Haugen, who summarized Christ before Pilate in his ironically titled literary biography of Waldemar Ager, Immigrant Idealist, Norwegian storytellers have long been fond of the way in which idealists usually meet with tragedy*, their ideals colliding with reality in tragic proportions.

Over in the United States, Norwegian immigrant Waldemar Ager was no exception. He runs the starry-eyed protagonist of this 1910 story through a mill, pouring in portions of pride, guilt, sin, redemption, heart-broken mothers, factionalism, materialism and even a sex scandal.

A tale of two churches 

Ager opens Christ before Pilate in a city not unlike 19th-century Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where there is a thriving lumber trade and with it, a large community of Norwegian immigrants. Conrad Walther Welde is the pastor of a large, well attended Lutheran church in the town and third in his family line to be a minister. A Christian idealist, he feels a constant, tacit reproach from Reverend Mr. Mosevig, pastor of the smaller, shabbier Lutheran church in town, from which Welde’s church attracts much of its congregation. Mosevig found his calling after a sinful and dissolute start, which he regards with particular pride when compared to what he considers Welde’s high-church airs.

Ager lays a broad mantle of guilt on Welde’s shoulders; he feels guilty for his thriving parish, for the accident of his birth, for the tradition of ministry in the family, for his good looks and physical strength, for his beloved and absent Maggie, for Mosevig’s threadbare, grumpy existence—for nearly everything. And out of that sense of guilt, he goes out of his way to make amends with people who lack his own good fortune. In the end he is derided by everyone, even by the children to whom he casually hands out candy.

The continual rebuff would be enough to discourage most people, but Welde considers himself in lofty company. He has been studying a copy of a painting hanging in his rectory, Munkáczy’s “Christ before Pilate,” and identifies not only with Christ standing there in judgment, but with Pilate. He feels the two, as representatives of those with finer, more altruistic sensibilities, should have stuck together against the mob of purblind malcontents, in whom he imagines he sees the distorted features of Mosevig.

Despite the martyr’s symbolism, much of the novel reads like light satire from the pen of Garrison Keillor, known for his depiction of the social and pious-minded cliques, cleavages and squabbles common to churches and families in the Protestant Midwest. But Ager strikes notes of deep pathos with, among other things, a drunkard’s funeral and the plight of Mosevig’s young daughter. And a protagonist who identifies with Christ can not find his way to a happy resolution.

Outlandish landmark

Kristus for Pilatus was Ager’s second novel after I Strommen, penned in 1910, when the author was forty-one, and a landmark novel for Norwegian-American literature. Within a year, the novel was published again in Norway, by Aschehoug publishing house—the first novel by a Norwegian-American to be so honored. The title in Norway was changed to Presten Conrad Walther Welde, apparently in order to avoid confusion of the novel with a religious tract.

A lay minister in the states, a Mr. Overlid, made just that mistake, however, and wrote to a Minneapolis paper, Folkebladet, to caution readers to stay far away from the book. It “consists of some invented popular tales written in a language that in many instances oversteps the limits of common decency. It is perhaps to be expected that W. Ager would publish a book of made-up lies and comical sketches, with side thrusts at pastoral and congregational work.”

Reprinting Overlid’s warning in Reform, Ager found it worth a response. When Overlid complained that Ager never really explained why Christ had to stand before Pilate, Ager replied that he was not concerned with answering an elementary lesson in every child’s religious instruction; he was more interested in exploring the “raging desire of a good many people to crucify anything that surpasses their own little understanding and perception.”

A second aspect in which Christ before Pilate broke ground was in its liberal use of anglicisms to reflect the natural drift of immigrants’ language from that of the mother country. Although Ager writes in relatively formal bokmål, his characters occasionally refer to “store graesklaedte Bluffer,” (great grass-clad bluffs), using the English word for riverside bluffs rather than the Norwegian. In another instance he refers to someone as an “en aabenbar Failure,” (an obvious failure). Many other such instances are found, in an era when formal written Norwegian differed little from Danish.

Reviews come in

In the small Norwegian-American publishing community, hungry for something other than pious church tracts, praise for new literary output was often lavish and uncritical, although scattered reviews of Kristus for Pilatus give the impression of blind men feeling parts of the elephant. E. E. Løbeck, a Minnesota state legislator and fellow temperance advocate, liked the effort, but wrote, “I have never read a book where so many people get their hides tanned.”

Another reviewer asserted that he’d never met a pastor like Welde—most he knew were petrified theologians. A new professor from St. Olaf College, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, wrote to object that Ager’s depiction of a Norwegian Lutheran congregation was “too dark,” but assured Ager that “you have precisely the qualifications for describing Norwegian-American cultural life.”

Reviews from Norway were generally favorable, summing it up as a masterful depiction of Norwegian immigrant life, with universal appeal. After noting his “delicate and intimately-made observations,” the Copenhagen Extrabladet asked “Who is Waldemar Ager?”

Writes Einar Haugen, “For all its objective weaknesses, it is safe to say that the book not only launched Ager on a career of literary importance, but also confirmed him in his dream of a Norwegian-American literature, to which he himself had offered the best and most effective testimony.”

Kristus for Pilatus won a 50-dollar prize in 1912 for the year’s best Norwegian-American book. In the same year, Ager became the first Eau Claire resident honored in Who’s Who in America, and remained the sole Eau Claire resident so honored for many years to come.

Kristus for Pilatus was eventually translated to English by J. J. Skordalsvold and reissued by Augsburg publishing out of Minneapolis in1924, as Christ before Pilate.

That version is currently available in paperback from the Waldemar Ager Association. Just contact Ev Krigsvold contact at (715) 835-871, and she will help you with your purchase.


Excerpt: The Drunkard’s Funeral

[Pastor Welde] was getting ready for a funeral which was going to take place that afternoon. The story of the deceased man was very sad. He had been run over and killed while drunk. He had lived the life of a profligate and had been a poor support for his family. His old mother, who had come in from the country, had, however, wished to have her son buried from the church, and the minister had consented. [ . . .] The pastor knelt by his office-chair and prayed God to give him the strength and wisdom to speak the truth as it should be spoken—unvarnished and in all its might.

When the large church-bell struck its dull tones on the afternoon of a week-day and proclaimed that the earthly remains of some fellow-being was to be carried to the cemetery, then there was a bustle going on in many of the homes. Women dressed in black, with hymnbooks and sometimes with a folded white handkerchief about the book, hurried out the kitchen doors and waddled quietly off by twos and threes. They seldom failed at funerals. There was even a regular staff that never failed. They came prepared to weep. The old minister had been especially fine at funerals. When he addressed the mourners and spoke of the dear departed, whose steps should no more be heard in this life, and the empty place at the table, or in the cradle, if it was a child, and the sad loss; then there was a copious weeping. He had a way of tearing open the wounds that were still fresh so as to make them bleed in the presence of the congregation. Every half-smothered cry from the heart-broken mother or spouse brought out audible groans, and the suppressed sobs gave, as it were, a necessary accompaniment to his own voice, tearful as it was on such occasions.

Pastor Welde was different. He tried to make his sermon as short as possible and tried to hold back when he touched the tender, wounded hearts. He touched it so lightly that often the regular weeping squad had no use for their handkerchiefs. Well, one could not expect a young minister to have so much sympathy as the old minister had, thought the women. But when they put their unused handkerchiefs back in the bureau-drawer, it was with a blank feeling—as if they had been cheated out of something which they were entitled to.

The church was nearly filled with people when the minister arrived. The friendly, old parish-clerk, anxious to be on the safe side, told him again what kind of a man the deceased had been, and he expressed a hope that the pastor would make use of the opportunity to give a warning to the dead man’s comrades and others like him. The pastor said it was his intention to do so.

Now the pall bearers came with the coffin. The mourners came after. They were not many. The bell ceased tolling. It seemed as if there was no ring in it, only the hard metal gave a sound. The singing was not what it ought to be, either. It was merely so much sound from so many vocal chords. The only thing which sounded natural was the undertaker’s whispered directions to the pall-bearers. The coffin was cheap, very cheap. The minister noticed that.

At the sight of the cheap coffin a voice seemed to awaken within him. He had his sermon ready. It seemed like a long thread that he had to keep in order. “Drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” That was the text. He clung to it. “Such a plain coffin,” said the voice. “Drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God—“ “Only a couple of small wreaths—scarcely any flowers,” said the voice. “Drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” The minister forced himself to go on. “Here we see the dreadful effect of sin.” – “They must be very poor,” said the voice. [ . . .]

Welde turned half aside and closed his eyes. His sermon seemed snatched away. In vain he tried to pick up the pieces. He could have said a thousand things—if only the one woman would stop her coughing and the other cease her weeping—and if only the little girls had not been there—“to hear you proclaim that their father is in hell,” said the voice within him.

The pastor shrank from his task. He could probably have said what he had intended to say if the coffin had been very expensive and had been carried in by big-bellied, red-nosed saloon-keepers, he thought.

The singing had ceased.

Mr. Welde stepped forward and offered a short, almost indistinct prayer. When he was through, he stood a moment and stared helplessly before him. Some small pieces of paper containing his notes were crushed together in the hollow of his hand. He opened the Bible and read, as it seemed, a chapter at random. It was about Jesus who raised the widow’s son of Nain from the dead. He read with an effort that was still more marked when he began to preach.

“We are gathered here,” he said, “to bury one of our Norwegian countrymen, who was run over—or that we, I mean, had the misfortune to run over, so we are in a way to blame for his lying here in this cheap coffin, with only a few flowers--. I for my part regret that I was not thoughtful enough to send some flowers and—well, it is customary, when one has done nothing for the person while he was living to send some beautiful flowers to pace on the coffin. I should have brought a large wreath, for I did not do a single thing for this man while he still lived.”

The stillness of death reigned in the church. The old parish-clerk was bringing a glass of water to the widow, who had a bad cough; he stopped halfway, holding the glass in his hand.

Welde warmed to his subject. To us [Jesus] had said: “Judge not!” When he did judge, he used a measure different from that of men. The one who stood lowest would be bid to go up higher. The one who was highest told to take the lowest place, and the one who gave the least gave most. In a case like this it was best for each and every one to repeat the Publican’s humble prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Pastor Welde grew eloquent. The old woman’s eyes shone with a strange light as she turned them to the speaker. The widow sat a little more erect, she wiped the tear-stained faces of the children, and hushed the smallest one, who began to cry. The pastor closed with an earnest warning to all to be prepared—not to judge others, but to be judged themselves; for we must all appear before the judgment seat of God; before the Father who seeth in secret and rewardeth openly. Our greatest concern should be to be ready when our time comes and the shades of night are drawing nigh.

When the coffin was opened, Welde went down to see the corpse. It nearly gave him a shock when he saw the hard features and the broken nose. When the people had passed around the coffin and the two women went over to it, the old woman put her bony hand under the chin of her dead boy and stroked his cheek. “Goodbye, my boy, good-bye. You must meet me at the gate. I’ll not be long in coming.” The pastor had to turn away. The widow wept silently. She had to be helped out. The two little girls cried, and the little one that she carried on her arm also cried.

There were not many that went to the cemetery; but when the church had emptied its contents into the street and the black stream had filtered out to where it came from; then there was a lot of talk about the minister’s sermon and about him who lay in the coffin with the drunkard’s broken nose.

Here would have been an opportunity to give the drunkards a proper warning—and it turned out almost the opposite, one might say. Still he had spoken better this time than he had two weeks ago, when one of the elders of the congregation was buried.

How different from the old minister!


—Lizbeth Ager, January 2008, Chetek, Wisconsin


* For a man of the cloth’s opinion on how the idealism of Waldemar Ager brought him to a melancholy end, read Clarence Kilde’s master’s thesis: Dark Decade: the Declining Years of Waldemar Ager.

Sources:

Ager, Waldemar: Christ before Pilate.
Translated by J. J. Skordalsvold,
Augsburg Publishing House,
Minneapolis, Minn. 1924

Haugen, Einar: Immigrant Idealist: A
literary biography of Waldemar Ager,
Norwegian American
.
The Norwegian American Historical Association,
Northfield, Minn., 1989