Since the early days of Solvang1, California, no single structure has matched the architectural grandeur of two of the community's first Danish landmarks - Bethania Lutheran Church and Atterdag College. Both were intricately tied to the founding of the Danish colony of Solvang in 1911, and were the core of the community.

Conditions were primitive in Solvang's beginning, housing was scarce and many of the early Danish settlers lived in tents. But, all hands took time to help build one of the town's first structures, a plain rectangular building to serve as first home to Solvang's folk school. Students used blocks of wood for benches and kerosene lamps for lighting in this rough-hewn first school. Three years later, in 1914, it was a happy group of students that moved up the hill to newly-built Atterdag College. Like a sprawling hotel, the white, three-story folk school overlooked the entire town, dwarfing all but Mission Ines.

Bethania Church's origins were equally humble; the Danes first church service, on July 2, 1911, was held in Ines School, a simple wooden structure. Pastor J.M. Gregersen, first pastor of the colony, held services in Ines School until 1914, when a large meeting room in Atterdag College became Bethania's sanctuary. At that time Pastor Benedict Nordentoft, owner-director of Atterdag College, was called to be the pastor.

Formally organized on January 7, 1912, the congregation took the name of Bethania Lutheran church. Vacation bible school began in 1911 with Margreth Petersen as teacher, and the popular summer church-school has been held every summer since, for the past 91 years.

Bethania thrived under Atterdag's roof, but by 1918 the church council was seeking funds to build their own church. In 1921, Pastor Nordentoft decided to return to Denmark, and he sold Atterdag College to Bethania for $5,000. WWI had dampened interest in Atterdag as a Danish Folk College, but the grand structure remained to serve the local residents as a center of cultural and spiritual activities, enriching the lives of many generations. Sadly, Atterdag College was destroyed in 1970 to make way for the much needed Solvang Lutheran Home and Recovery Residence.

Bethania's own church took a step closer to reality when P.C. and Anker Bredall donated land on Atterdag Road for the new church, and the congregation approved construction on May 22, 1927.

Hans Skytt, Sr., a carpenter, drew architectural plans from a photograph he had of a typical rural church in Denmark; he also supervised construction of the church which was completed in 1928.

Services have been held at Bethania regularly since 1928, with few changes through the years, mostly those reflecting the customs of second and third American-born generations. By 1935, the first English language services were being held monthly, and in 1948, council and congregational meetings were conducted in English for the first time.

Nowadays, Danish language services are held only on the Danish holiday of "Little Christmas," December 23, and a Danish speaking pastor is brought in to conduct the service.

Known as "Bethania" around the Valley, the official church name, used since 1957, is "Bethania Evangelical Lutheran Church."

A tradition continuing today in the spirit of Atterdag College, are the Farstrup-Mortensen Memorial Lectures. Also called "Life & Learning Conferences," they are held annually, the last weekend of February. Subjects are varied, like those from the 2002 series: Religionless faith; The cycle of generations, how history repeats itself, and There is no way to peace, peace is the way, and more. The lectures are represented by scholars and theologians who come from around the world. Singing, fellowship meals and folk dancing serve to round-out the lectures.

The lecture series is name after Rev. A. Ejnar Farstrup, who served Bethania as a pastor, and Enok Mortensen, who taught at Atterdag College. Both men embodied a vision and energy which has influenced Danish-American church life by "encouraging meaningful activities to develop one's humanity via mind, body and spirit."

In 1961, once again through volunteer labor and material donations, the congregation completed construction on a beautiful and spacious parish hall. The hall is widely used by the community and Bethania's congregation.

Bethania's state-licensed preschool and after-school program originated in 1987, in response to community need. The staff includes a director and eight certified teachers, offering a 14-1 child/teacher ratio. Enrollment is non-denominational and open to children of all backgrounds. The school provides a much-needed service to families and the community.

Today, 91 years after the founding of the church, Pastor Jarmo Tarkki, of Finnish descent, leads an active congregation of several hundred members. Approximately 50% of the parishioners are of Danish heritage, reflecting the change in the community. Yet the spirit of Bethania's founding continues to thrive within its sturdy walls - a ship, and haven of safety, across the waters of life.

sources: myself, Bob Harris, and Bethania. Copyright © Spring 2002 by Inside the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine, reprinted by permission.
1. Solvang is a small Danish town located a short drive north of Santa Barbara, California.

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