In 1869 a small group of Norwegian immigrants who had settled in and around Northfield met to organize the First Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Congregation of Northfield. Pastor Bernt Julius Muus of Holden in Goodhue County and Harold Thorson, a local businessman, were the leaders in bringing the group together. The congregation called Pastor N. A. Quammen of Christiania Lutheran Church to be its first pastor.
For the first decade of its existence the congregation met in space rented from other churches, in public halls, and in the chapel room of Old Main at St. Olaf College. But in 1881 a wooden church was erected in downtown Northfield, on the northeast corner of Fourth and Washington Streets. This building, and its adjacent parsonage, served the congregation until 1913 when a new brick and stone church was built on the west side of town at the corner of Third and Poplar Streets. The 1913 sanctuary is still the home of the congregation, expanded to meet changing needs in 1948, 1954, 1976, and 2003.
The name of the church was changed to St. Johannes Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in 1879 and the name was anglicized to St. John’s in the following years. St. John’s grew rapidly, continuing to serve mainly Norwegian immigrants and their families, but expanding to include others as the process of Americanization continued. Norwegian was the principal language for worship services, meetings, and Sunday School until the early decades of the twentieth century, when there was a shift to more and more English. The change was accelerated by World War I, when the use of any foreign language was deemed unpatriotic. At first, English services were held monthly, then bi-weekly, and finally every Sunday. By the 1940s Norwegian services were reserved for festivals or other special occasions.
St. John’s and St. Olaf College have been closely related since Pastor B.J. Muus founded the congregation in 1869 and founded St. Olaf in 1874. Th. N. Mohn, first president of St. Olaf, was St. John’s pastor from 1875 to 1899. Other pastors served both congregation and college. St. Olaf students worshiped with the St. John’s congregation from 1875 to 1951. Musicians from the college, both teachers and students, have provided music at St. John’s for decades, exemplified by the St. Olaf Choir that began as the St. John’s Church Choir.
Since its earliest days St. John’s has supported mission work, in the United States and in many foreign countries. Twice in the last century St. John’s has made a special effort to reach out to refugees: after World War II when the congregation helped to resettle 250 “displaced persons” and in 1975 as part of a Northfield-area program to resettle more than 100 refugees from Vietnam. St. John’s has supported the work of missionaries serving with ELCA Global Mission and St. John’s has had mission partner relationships with Rejoice Lutheran in Frisco, Texas and Todos los Santos/El Milagro Lutheran in Minneapolis, MN. Current global mission partners include Iambi Lutheran Church in Iambi, Tanzania and El Salvador Lutheran Church in El Cocuy, Colombia.
In 1994 the congregation celebrated its 125th anniversary with the publication of a new history and several special events. The church building was expanded again in 2003 with the dedication of a new wing, housing St. John’s Hall, updated kitchen facilities, new Sunday School rooms, and a large Commons area. Growth has also meant expansion of the staff that now includes fifteen people both full and part-time. In 2013 the congregation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the sanctuary, narthex, and the lower level fellowship hall. With God’s blessing St. John’s seeks to continue to proclaim Christ as the hope of the world, as it has done since its founding in 1869.