In 1920, First Lutheran Church (then called Bethlehem Church), Palo Alto, was established by Bertram Swanson, a student from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, who remained with the congregation for only a year. He was succeeded by another student, Elmer Friedlund, who also remained for just one year. In addition to preaching, they carried out administrative tasks without a church building, an office, or a local address. Since they were not yet ordained, they were not qualified to administer baptism, communion, or confirmation. Ordained pastors from other churches in the California Conference stepped in two or three times a year to preside over these sacraments and rites.
So it was not until the summer of 1922 that the two-year-old Bethlehem congregation received its first ordained pastor, Walter Fritiof Peterson.
Walter’s parents were Claes E. Peterson and Nellie Peterson, who had each immigrated from different parts of Sweden and who met in Illinois, where they were married in 1880. The same year, they homesteaded in Nebraska where they built a sod house and where Walter was born on September 4, 1888. By this time, the railroad had reached the area, and the village of Bertrand, which Walter claimed as his birthplace, had been established.
Walter Peterson was baptized as a child, and attended a country school where he finished 8th grade at the age of 13, and was confirmed a year later. He worked at home until the age of 21. In 1909–1910 he attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, then transferred to Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas where he studied until 1916. During his student years he preached in various places, and for two years had charge of a congregation in Smolan, Kansas, up the road from Lindsborg.
During 1916–1919, Peterson attended Augustana Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois, and was ordained in 1919 in Lindsborg. In July 1919, he married Florence L. Danielson in Red Oak, Iowa, and began his first call in August in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he served until 1922. The couple’s first son, Walter Fritiof Jr., was born in July 1920.
Walter Peterson apparently had been sent to San Francisco in early summer, 1918, while still a student at Augustana. He is mentioned in this article from Vestkusten, the Swedish language newspaper, dated June 6, 1918:
“From the Ebenezer Congregation. Last Thursday afternoon, nearly the entire congregation gathered in the church’s chapel for a quiet prayer time as a response to President Wilson’s proclamation. Student Walter F. Peterson preached there for the first time to this congregation. The theme of the sermon was that we who are Christian, humble ourselves before God, confess our dependence on God, and pray that He gives victory to our weapons, that we may win a glorious and lasting peace, not only for this nation but for the whole world.”
President Wilson had proclaimed that May 30, 1918, in addition to the usual Memorial Day observations, be a day of “public humiliation, prayer, and fasting … beseeching God that He will give victory to our Armies as they fight for freedom … bringing us at last the peace in which men’s hearts can be at rest.” A week later the Battle of Belleau Wood began and marked the turning point in World War I, which ended six months later on November 11, 1918.
Unlike the later group of five students who stayed in California for a full year, Walter Peterson was in the Bay Area only for the summer of 1918. In early September, Vestkusten reported:
“Student Walter F. Peterson, who has been the pastor’s assistant during the summer, travels back to Rock Island next Monday morning to complete his studies for ordination next summer. Student Peterson has done a good job and made himself popular. We will miss him, but will wish him much progress in his studies and his future entry into the ministry with joy and hope.”
The Palo Alto Times on May 10, 1921, devoted several paragraphs to the new congregation:
“LUTHERANS CALL PASTOR IN IDAHO.
A call to the Rev. Walter F. Peterson, now pastor of the Lutheran Church at Idaho Falls, Idaho, was extended today by the Lutheran congregation of Palo Alto following a meeting of the membership held last night when the choice of a pastor was made.
“The Rev. Mr. Peterson is a graduate of Augustana College and Theological Seminary of Rock Island, Ill. He is a married man, 30 years of age.
“In case of his acceptance, he will fill the pulpit of the local church and Emmanuel Lutheran Church of San Francisco, the plan being to combine the two pastorates. Under that arrangement the pastor will preach to the San Fransisco congregation on Sunday forenoons, and to the Palo Alto membership on Sunday afternoons.
“C. B. Swanson, theological student at the University of California, who has been acting pastor of the Palo Alto Lutheran pulpit since the organization of the church here some months ago, plans to attend Augustana College at Rock Island next year. He will preach his last sermon here on June 5, and will devote the summer to touring California, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa on a Lutheran foreign missionary drive.
“The pulpit here, in the interim between the departure of Swanson and the arrival of the new pastor, will be supplied by Elmer Friedlund of Berkeley, also a student at the State university.”
Although called in May 1921, Pastor Peterson delayed his arrival in California until June of 1922. On June 19, 1922, the Palo Alto Times announced the arrival of the new pastor:
NEW PASTOR COMES TO LUTHERAN CHURCH
The Rev. W. F. Peterson who has been pastor of the church at Idaho Falls, Idaho, for several years, has come to take charge of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Palo Alto. He will hold services each Sunday afternoon, conducting the meeting in English one week and in Swedish the next.
He and his family are living at 188 Oxford Avenue, Mayfield.[Now the California Avenue district of Palo Alto.]
The Rev. Mr. Peterson succeeded Elmer Friedlund, who has gone to Los Angeles.”
We know that Pastor Peterson remained in Palo Alto for a little more than a year, and that sometime in 1923, he accepted a call to Boone, Iowa. The records in the First Lutheran archive are scanty for this period and we can only estimate the date when he left by tracking mentions of his activity.
As soon as Pastor Peterson had arrived in California, he was asked to speak on June 1, 1922, at a mission meeting in San Jose. Later in November he spoke at a Women’s Missionary Society meeting. On April 3, 1923, he presided at a special congregational meeting at Bethlehem, Palo Alto, to discuss buying a building lot. At the end of June, he is mentioned as one of the speakers at the Luther League Annual Gathering held in San Anselmo. Pastor Peterson confirmed a class of seven young people at Bethlehem on September 9, 1923. This may have been one of his last acts for the Palo Alto congregation; the November 14, 1923, issue of Vestkusten, reported that Pastor A. A. Swanlund was preaching in Palo Alto, but that on the first Sunday in December, Pastor John Bildt would take up the work in San Jose and Palo Alto.
Pastor Walter Peterson served in Boone, Iowa, from 1923 to 1930. His second child, James Harold, was born in Boone in August 1930. Later that year he took up his final call at Bethlehem, Red Oak, Iowa. There he died on April 13, 1944, at the age of 55.