Sabbath Day

by Elder M. Lindahl

Picture two young boys, maybe nine and twelve, on Sunday mornings standing in the narthex of the Swedish Mission Church in Stambaugh, Michigan handing out little text-only Sions Basun hymn books to the people as they arrive for worship. While the boys greeted people, the huge bell above them clanged loudly when sexton Art Thompson pulled on a thick rope nearby.

Many of the boys’ friends, excused from the service because it was in Swedish, were already downtown at Dr. Vilas’ corner drug store reading the funnies and drinking cokes. That really didn’t matter too much as these two young guys knew they played an important part in the Sunday Morning Worship service. Also, their father, Harold, paid them each $5 per year for their Sunday job.

Few parishioners in those days came to the service from a week at a desk job. The immigrants in this area were hard-working miners, farmers, loggers, salesmen, carpenters, electricians, painters, butchers, and mechanics. The women were mainly homemakers, some worked along side their husbands on the farm.

The technology of the day was not highly developed. This was prior to the emergence of the large supermarkets and the great variety of fine chain restaurants we have today. Families seldom ate out. Small neighborhood groceries, owned by local families, were common. You came in with a list and the clerk would retrieve the various items for you. Some items were packaged while others, like dry beans, corn, peas, oats, and pastas in different forms, were stored in bins under the store counter. The grocer would weigh these commodities by the pound. Pickles came in large barrels. Meats, eggs, and milk products were often obtained from local farmers. Wild game was common fare. It was a time when it took great effort to raise animals, plant and cultivate a garden, shop, hunt, butcher, make meals, bake, sew and wash clothes, can berries, fruits, and vegetables, clean, repair the house, and so on. You could buy gas on Sunday, but not much else. Sunday was a day of rest, and there were some special restrictions on what one could or could not do. You planned ahead, studied your Sunday School lesson and took a bath on Saturday night. You dressed up and made your way to church each Sunday. This was the first day of a new week, a time to worship and rest. The toil of the week was now passed, and people expectantly, but wearily, sat together in this sacred space.

Though I, as one of the kids passing out those little hymn books, did not understand Swedish, the uplifting singing once the service began somehow transformed the foreign words to understandable, beatific praise. The music in those Sunday morning services was joyous and edifying. Accompanied by a piano on the left and a pump organ on the right, those pietists could really sing. Art Nelson, red of face as he pumped for all he was worth, made the little wooden music box quiver and shake.

“Sabbath Day,” page #501 in Sions Basun was a Sunday morning staple, sung most every Lord’s day. The words and tune by colporteur Joel Blomqvist (1840-1930) symbolized the parishioners’ temporal and eternal perspectives on life. There were five verses, and none was omitted.

A good, singable translation by organist and choir director A. L. Skoog is well-known to most readers. However, what follows here is my literal translation, which although neither singable nor rhyming, seems to express the meanings and the emotions of those worshiping immigrants:

Sabbatsdag, hur skön du är,
skäntk av Gud, jar har dig kär.
Kom, o kom att än en gång
samla oss till bön och sång!

Sabbath Day, how beautiful you are,
Given by God, I hold you dear!
Come, O come now once again,
Gather us for prayer and song.

Efter arbetsveckans strid
få vi sitta ned I frid.
Vid vår Faders rika bord,
lyssnande till nådens ord.

After the struggle of the work week
May we sit down in peace
At our Father’s rich table,
Listening to the word of grace.

Gud, vår Gud, till dig vi ber:
Ge oss rik välsignelse.
Låt ditt evangelium
ljuda klart I alla rum!

God, our God, to you we pray:
Give us rich blessing.
Let your Gospel
Ring clear in every place!

Låt I dag ditt helga ord
göra under på vår jord.
Kom och våra själar föd,
Herde god, med livets bröd.

Let your holy word today
Work miracles in our world.
Come and be our soul’s food,
Good Shepherd, with the bread of life.

Herre, ge oss snart den tid,
då vi efter livets strid
I en evig sabbatsro
får I dina gårdar bo.

Lord, give us soon the time,
When after the struggle of life
In an eternal Sabbath rest
We live in your courtyard.

The thoughts expressed in these words gave a fundamental rhythm to their immigrant lives. Consciously or unconsciously, they were going back to the basic pattern of Genesis 2:2-3. “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day….So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it....”

Like the Creator of the universe, humans, too, need and deserve a day off from their hard labors. Work, work, work deadens the soul. The Sabbath-day break provided the immigrants with some crucial time for reflection, leisure, worship, and rest.

The two young kids who passed out those little Swedish song books are now octogenarians, and the patterns of how people work and worship have changed dramatically. One can easily bemoan the difference from the time weary immigrants held copies of Sions Basun in their calloused hands to the present when computer-literate parishioners sing praises off overhead screens, when keyboards and drums replace both pump and pipe organs. Some worry that the ever-advancing technology will displace spirituality completely when little villages like Stambaugh are eclipsed into a global village.

But, the good ol’ days, if that’s what they were, are gone. “We live forward, but we can only think backward” as Kierkegaard remarked. Technology is clearly here to stay both in the culture and in the church. Though little remains of what the early immigrants thought and felt as they sang about the Sabbath Day, the natural rhythm of each new week continues to refresh the human spirit. It’s still good to hear those old words, “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1).

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl