Erling Jorstad

Erling Jorstad, Professor Emeritus of History and American Studies at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, passed away on June 21, 2017.

A graduate of and teacher at St. Olaf for thirty-eight years, Erling found a home for his enthusiastic love of learning in the world of interdisciplinary studies. In classroom teaching, scholarly publication, and community service, he left a record of innovative achievement.

He is survived by his two children, both summa cum laude graduates of St. Olaf, Eric (’78) and Laura (’82), and two grandchildren, Jessica (Grinnell ’07) and Krista (American University ’11, Sciences Po [Paris]/Columbia University M.A. ’16). His three siblings, Oscar, Curtis, and Elsie, now deceased, were also Ole graduates.  He was married to Helen Haban Jorstad for twenty-three years, and to Ruth Arnold-Jorstad for twenty-five years.

Born in Kenyon, Minnesota, Erling entered St. Olaf after graduating from Kenyon Schools in 1948. In his four years on campus, he served on the honor council, was co-editor-in-chief of the Manitou Messenger, was a SPAN (Student Project for Amity among Nations) student in England in the summer of 1951, received a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Graduate studies included a master’s degree from Harvard in 1953 and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957. He started teaching at St. Olaf in 1956 and continued there until his retirement in 1994. Thereafter he and Ruth spent their winters in Scottsdale, Arizona, becoming sunbirds back in Northfield during the summers.  Erling spent his last five years living with his son, a judge, in Tucson, Arizona, with constant support also from his daughter in Vermont, a distinguished book editor.

Erling’s fields were American intellectual history and American religious history. His favorite teaching subjects were Alexis de Tocqueville, Thorstein Veblen, and Reinhold Niebuhr. With E. Clifford Nelson, he started St. Olaf’s first team-taught interdisciplinary course in American religious history, and continued it with Professor Susan Hill Lindley until 1994. Best known for his three-point lecture outlines and wide-ranging, rapid delivery, he found in history the expression of the mission statement of the Danforth Foundation program: classroom teaching as a search for religious vocation in its many forms.  In 1978-79, he served as field supervisor for the St. Olaf Term in the Far East.  He spent his research sabbatical leaves at Union Theological Seminary, New York; the University of Chicago Divinity School; and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. His writing sabbaticals were spent at Holden Village (near Chelan, Washington) and Scottsdale, Arizona.

His published research grew out of his teachings; by 1994, he had brought out eleven scholarly books in the field of American religious life. Specific subjects included the Protestant charismatic movement, evangelical popular culture, American religious history in the 1980s, and the leaders of the Christian right. He contributed articles to encyclopedias of religion and American history in these same fields. His publishers included Augsburg Publishing House, Abingdon Press, Edwin Mellon Press, Praeger Publishers, and Greenwood Publishing House. He also reviewed books in his fields, published in some twenty-five scholarly journals. He wrote his final book after his retirement: Twenty-Five Bicycle Tours in the Twin Cities and Southeastern Minnesota (Countryman Press), edited by Laura.

Professor Jorstad found in interdisciplinary study the opportunity to help launch several campus programs.  He was on the founding committee and first teaching faculty for the Paracollege and Women’s Studies, for the Great Conversation, and for the Teaching Learning Center. Beyond the classroom, he led courses in many fields for Elderhostel, Northfield‘s Elder Collegium, and Ole Hostels and Luther Hostels in Washington and Arizona. During his time in Arizona, he led some thirty adult forums for ELCA congregations and served two terms on the Grand Canyon Synodical Council. Over the years, he also presented programs to several ELCA pastors’ conferences and workshops. In the academic world, he offered research papers to groups including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Council of Church History, the Upper Midwest History Conferences, and several sociology of religion study groups. He presented the opening convocation for the school year of 1958-59 and the Honors Day convocation in May 1994. He taught at several summer theological-musical conferences at St. Olaf and at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. At the latter, he was a featured speaker at the February all-city forums.

Erling‘s retirement years were spent reading the books he had for years vowed to finish, and riding his beloved bicycle for as long as he could in the countryside he cherished. Throughout his career, he quoted as his guiding principle a description of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey: He talked too fast and didn’t know when to quit.

A private memorial service has been held with his immediate family.

Comments: 2

  1. Dolores Peters says:

    To Erling’s family, My condolences to you on Erling’s passing. My first memory of Erling dates from my arrival as a new member of the St. Olaf History Department in 1986, when he greeted me warmly and began telling me anecdotes about the Department. My favorite memorable moment in getting to know him was when a group of us took a sightseeing break from interviewing candidates at an American Historical Association conference and stood on a NYC street corner eating soft pretzels and trying not to be blown away by blustery winds. Erling was a force of nature, whether he was talking about the religious Right or his latest bike trip. I thank him for his many contributions to the College and Department, and for his kindness to a junior colleague. ~Dolores Peters

  2. Erling Jorstad was one of the kindest and most thoughtful gentlemen I’ve ever met. Although we never worked together I had the opportunity to meet Erling (and his wife, Ruth) when they would come back to St. Olaf for the graduation ceremonies each Spring. Erling and Ruth treated me as if we’d been friends for years and they greeted me with a hug and a smile and lots of good conversation. Throughout the last 15 years Erling and I would correspond via e-mail to share updates, etc., and he was always gracious and fun-loving. I’ll really miss Erling.

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