The Swedish immigrant pioneers who established Lindsborg in 1869 in the Smoky Valley of central Kansas came to the New World primarily for religious freedom of worship and expression, which at the time was unattainable in their part of Europe. They brought with them intense sensitivities and appreciation for music and the fine arts.
In December 1881, because of a variety of historical factors, they established the renowned Messiahoratorio musical tradition — which has come down to the present-day, due largely to the devotion and commitment of the people of Lindsborg and Bethany College. Their organization of a chorus and orchestra soon became known as the Bethany Oratorio Society, or commonly The Messiah Chorus.
Handel’s Messiah is the foundation of this Festival. The popular work is probably the best known and most loved piece of music in western culture. The Messiah is a wonderful marriage of text and music that has been described as a “moral autobiography of man.” The three-part story of the Nativity, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and the promise of Redemption unfolds in a masterful intertwining of solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. This masterpiece has been presented in Lindsborg by a large community chorus and orchestra at least once annually since March 28, 1882. Readers’ Digest magazine in the 1940s called this tradition in Lindsborg “The Oberammergau of the Plains.”
Johann Sebastian Bach’s great oratorio Saint Matthew Passion has been presented by the same oratorio society annually since 1925, and since 1929 it has been presented on Good Friday evening during the eight-day Messiah Festival. The listener for Bach’s moving, devotional St. Matthew Passion experiences a literal account of events leading to Christ’s crucifixion, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, through the words of the people who were there as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. While in Messiah all the events are implied, the Saint Matthew Passion oratorio is ripe with drama. For many musicians and concertgoers alike, this Bach masterpiece and its message have become an essence of the Festival.
In addition to raising the spirit of difficult life for the pioneers, the Messiah renditions had been planned also to provide financial support for Bethany Academy, which was founded October 15, 1881, in Bethany Lutheran Church — as the forerunner of Bethany College. The first rehearsals were held in December 1881, and the first rendition was presented on March 28, 1882, in Bethany Lutheran Church in Lindsborg. The auspicious beginnings of 1882 were followed by “homes” for the annual presentations of the Messiah in the chapel in Old Main on the college campus, then beginning in 1895 at Ling or Messiah Auditorium, and finally for a fourth “home” since 1929 in the especially-designed Presser Hall on the college campus. From the early years, interest in the “Messiah” chorus increased steadily, and membership grew. The personnel of the Bethany Oratorio Society reflected then, as now, the intimate relationship between college and community. Faculty members and students from the beginning joined with residents of Lindsborg and surrounding communities in building ever-changing Messiah traditions. Audiences became larger and larger, and now the Lindsborg Messiah traditions are a treasure of Kansas, the Great Plains region, and all of the U.S.A.
~ A. John Pearson, retired archivist, Bethany College