Pietisten's Story

April 30, 2006

by Phil Johnson


I am excited about being here this morning in this church, the great First Covenant Church of Seattle, founded in 1889 as you well know. You folks are heirs of the creative forces of a host of saints including Erick August Skogsburgh and David Nyvall. I read in your centennial history that this building was dedicated in June of 1911 and cost $50,000. That was a princely sum but I dare say you folks have gotten your money’s worth. It’s great to be in your city. Yesterday, through the hospitality of Becky Nelson, we got to see the Emerald City from the waters of Puget Sound.

Before I knew much about this city or this church, I was blessed by all the people from here who I met at North Park. My teammate Bob Blomgren, my old roommate, Gord Johnson, my fellow traveler, Carl Blomgren, the Wahlquists, people I admired as a raw freshman from Northern Minnesota — Don and Marilyn and later Tim and later yet Fred with whom Bob, Carl, and I tackled the wilds of Ontario, Canada. It was clear to me that the students from First Covenant of Seattle were the heart of North Park College.

Since college days I have met Bryce Nelson who has written for Pietisten. Bryce and his brother, Dwight, put on a seminar at Bethlehem Covenant in Minneapolis which is our church. Later, Hans and Stephanie Blomgren came to Minneapolis. Hans was a big addition to Bethlehem’s Pietist Vikings basketball team and we were blessed to have Stephanie work with our youth at Bethlehem. Shortly after, Bethlehem received another gift from this church when Ryan Eikenbary-Barber, our Associate Pastor for five years, came. Then, by providence, I met Karl Nelson at the funeral of his Grandfather, Curtiss Johnson, Bonnie’s dad. Curtiss was a great friend of Pietisten. He’d call me with ideas, write sports articles, and give gift subscriptions. We miss him. Well, within a few months after Karl and I met, Karl had created an excellent Pietisten website that he continues to maintain. So, my life has been abundantly blessed by the fruits of this church. We are honored to be here both on our own behalf and to represent Pietisten. For those of you who don’t know, this journal, which comes out randomly of late, is Pietisten.

Several people have asked me to bring greetings to you. Pastor Glen Wiberg, who knows many of you well, sends his warmest greetings. I suspect, knowing how Glen gets around because people love to hear him preach, that he has probably preached here. Phil Stenberg, Sandy and my pastor at Bethlehem, sends his greetings, Elder Lindahl who some of you had at North Park for Bible and Philosophy, asked me to bring greetings from him.

I am grateful to Bryce and Pastor Mark Nilson for asking me to meet with you folks in this Sunday School Class.

Bryce asked me to talk with a dual purpose — to speak of the people, books, events, and so forth that have helped keep my faith and about the journal I edit called Pieitsten. I want to merge these objectives by focusing on the influence of the people associated with Pietisten and to talk about Pietisten itself. Of course though there have been many other vital influences in my life as well.

First, a thumbnail historical sketch.

The Early Story

In 1842, George Scott, a Scottish Methodist doing missionary work in Sweden, founded a journal that he named Pietisten which in Swedish, as many of you know, means The Pietist. The suffix “en,” as I have been told, not knowing Swedish, means “the.”

Scott had traveled through America talking about his mission to the Swedes and he raised contributions totaling $2,000 to start the journal. From Scott’s perspective the Swedes were under the dominance of the official State Lutheran Church and because of its stifling spiritual atmosphere, Swedes lacked a real Christian experience — the experience of the warm heart like Wesley had had which the Methodists cherished. I think that the Wesley experience is about the same as what our forefathers and mothers, and perhaps we ourselves, meant by the term a born again experience. If so, the Swedes of the conventicles who we call mission friends and pietists shared what Scott was talking about.

The Swedish Parliament was not fond of Scott or of anyone who presumed to “convert” good Lutheran Christian citizens and it expelled Scott from the country. Not, however, before he had befriended Carl Olaf Rosenius, the young man who continued as editor of Pietisten until 1868. In 1868 the board of Pieitsten asked Paul Peter Waldenström to become editor. He did and he continued editing until 1915 when publication of the journal ceased. It is important to note that though we think of Pietisten as Covenant history, it was edited by Lutherans until Waldenstöm became part of the Swedish Covenant in 1878. Many Christians with Swedish roots, Augustans Lutherans, Free Church, Swedish Baptists, etc. see Pietisten as part of their heritage.

At one point the circulation of Pietisten was about 9,000. It was passed around among the immigrants in America as well as pietists in the Homeland such that the estimated readership was triple its circulation.

Our Story

This is interesting, I hope, but what does it have to do with us? One evening in 1985, Peter Sandstrom and David Hawkinson, both ordained Covenant Pastors without parishes, were sharing refreshments at the CC Tap in Minneapolis. While conversing about their spiritual and theological passions, they decided to revive Pietisten. As far as I know, neither of them had actually read the old journals at least to any significant extent. When they came over to our house to talk about the idea with Tommy Carlson (that’s when I first met Tommy) and me, I was all for it though I can say for certain that I had never read a Pietisten.

But, we had all read Karl Olsson’s history of the Covenant, By One Spirit, and knew that Pietisten was an independent, ecumenically spirited publication. We knew that the “readers” as they were called read Pietisten and found in it devotional writings, sermons by Luther (I have been told that Luther’s writings were rarely read or published in the State Church), and commentary on scripture. We all loved that history and the story and spirit that Pietisten represented to us.

Okay, but then what about the idea of pietism? Why would we, or anybody, think of us as pietists? If by pietism one means abstinence, legalism, strict religious practices, and orthodoxy, we were and are not pietists. But, if by pietism one means human beings with deep convictions about personal life — that personal life is the heart of life and of the divine; if by pietism one means a deep appreciation for reading, thinking, talking, and personal living, and, if all these things mean a desire for friendship and fun, we are pietists.

And if, as in our case. one cherishes the history of the Covenant Church and of the Swedish experience that has shaped our lives, then maybe both you and we can understand why we chose to call our journal Pietisten.

So, in 1985 we began to meet. Though we had no standing as a Covenant thing and have never wanted to, every one of the original four editors is a graduate of North Park and three of them had at least attended North Park Seminary. It is also true that our meeting place is a half block from Minnehaha Academy and four blocks from Bethlehem Covenant Church.

In 1986, Peter Sandstrom brought over the first issue prepared on a Macintosh computer. We printed it and mailed it. Our next issue will be the 62nd. To further describe Pietisten, I will tell you more about the friends involved and their influence on me.

David Hawkinson is currently Pastor of the Covenant Church in Jericho, Vermont. He has a flaming heart and has been a big influence on me and on all of us. Many of you know of David’s father, Zenos, the late, well-known History professor at North Park. Some of you had Zenos for history classes in college. Some of you know of David’s grandfather, Erik, who was Dean of North Park Seminary for many hears. Both these men were great figures in the schools and the denomination — Zenos was an especially terrific, imaginative, exciting teacher and Erik was a deep man and a great preacher who taught and inspired a generation or two of Covenant pastor-preachers.

Well, in my opinion, and I say it with conviction, should comparisons be made (contrary to the advice of the Apostle Paul who said it was not wise to do so), David is an even more remarkable teacher than his father and a better preacher than his grandfather. In the early 1980s, David came to Minneapolis to read Bible with a young Jewish scholar-teacher, Earl Swartz. They formed a teaching association that they named “City Gates” because the Hebrews got together to read and talk about scripture in the gates of the cities.

The Bible study classes they initiated and held around the Twin Cities were amazing and wonderful. They came upon a way to study such that their classes were living studies — they were happenings. When they teach to this day, and speaking of David in particular, the entire class becomes eager participants probing the text for personal meaning and new depths. You can get a feel of this, though it lacks the live gathering of readers, in David’s articles in Pietisten under the rubric of the “Making of A Reader.”

Peter Sandstrom, who is now finishing his doctoral work in education at the U of M, is another big influence on me. What can I say about Peter that can convey the treasure he is to my life? Peter is an imaginative and thoughtful person. He is a philosopher. He is a teacher and he has been an extraordinary preacher. He taught fifth grade for five years and I know those kids got way more than anybody bargained for. He knows about almost every thing from astronomy to theology to literature.

Tommy Carlson is the forth founder. Tommy grew up in Okerbö, Sweden and moved to the US with his family when he was 16. Tommy knows Swedish and gives us a degree of authenticity on the Swedish front that would be woefully lacking without him. The base note of Pietisten, even though it may not always be read with relish or read at all, is his translations of Paul Peter Waldenström’s Commentaries. Tommy is also our house doctor. He is a history major from North Park who makes his living by remodeling and fixing things in peoples houses — our own house is a major case in point. He makes house calls and is always on call when this or that no longer works or Sandy has thought of something else we need. A special thing about Tommy is the way he makes friends with everyone for whom he does work.

Sandy Johnson has almost single-handedly represented women in Pietisten matters. She has been present from the beginning. She guided our choice of paper, copy-edited as no one else, as far as I’m concerned could have, making the crew she was dealing with fairly presentable. She has always been in the heart of things and at the same time has helped draw the line between our personal lives and Pietisten. “Boundaries!” she says.

Pietisten’s World Wide Headquarters have always been in the basement of our house and every Pietisten meeting, except our Annual Meetings, has been in our living room starting 8 pm once a month or two months or whatever. This has been going on for twenty years. The meetings have been open and guests welcomed though the core group has been pretty constant. I can’t tell you how great the blessing of having these people meet together at our house has been for me and for us.

There isn’t time to speak of everyone who is vitally significant to Pietisten but I must mention several more. Two of them are in this room — Nels Elde and Karl Nelson. It’s not difficult to imagine what a joy and privilege it is to be associated with and inspired by these young men. Nels started inspiring me when he was a boy. He and our son Eric were good friends and our families were friends. Eric was soon off to college after Pietisten began and his role has been primarily as Sport Prophet with perhaps a somewhat ironic take on what his dad was up to. Nels, being younger, was on hand for several more years teaching me how to use the computer, guiding, consulting, and promoting. We played a lot of basketball and once Nels and I estimated how many shots I’d missed in my life. As I recall, we came up with the figure of a million four hundred thousand. I’ve missed more shots since then but it’s pretty much over at this point and I will add very few misses to my record.

I selfishly regret that Dr. Nels’ college studies and subsequent graduate work have limited his Pietisten activities as they have for our son, Eric. Nels has been Associate Editor for years and still is even though I have had to travel two thousand miles to catch up with him.

Karl’s participation by contrast, though from the same distance, is much less theoretical at the moment. Check out our website, Pietisten.org, if you have not. The correspondence between Karl and me by email is steady, informative to me, another of my blessings and a great gift to Pietisten.

Others have gathered around and joined us — people of stature who have given legitimacy to a bunch of mavericks. Zenos Hawkinson and Paul Holmer while they were alive, Glen Wiberg, Arthur Anderson, and Elder Lindahl are among the venerable Covenant persons who are part of the fabric of Pietisten — or the quilt of Pietisten as Sandy likes to say. To have these persons come along side us and become a part of us has been a bit of a surprise, a delight, and a great blessing.

Bruce Carlson is our Poetry and Navigation Editor, Art (Skeets) Bowman is our resident Catholic, Bob Bach our ace reporter, Art Mampel our Poet Laureate, and Mel Soderstrom our advocate without peer. Bob Elde, Nels’ dad, has been with us from the beginning. We call him Doc and he is the Dean of Biology at the U of M. Recently I was able to lasso my old High School football teammate Shorty (Dave) Swanson to get involved. Swanny is an amazing guy. You don’t know how amazing until you start talking with him or doing something with him. He just finished reading the entire works of Charles Dickens. When he decides to do something… Besides, he is a Lutheran and we have been in need of at least one since Skeets Bowman joined the Catholics.

I’ll stop mentioning names with two observations: (1) each of these persons is an organic part of my life and helps me keep the faith and (2) since the very main thing about Pietisten is friendships and connections, there are many more people for whom I am thankful and by whom I am blessed and the best thing is that the circle is open and, by the Grace of God, will never be closed.

After a few issues of Pietisten had been published, I was in Chicago staying with Mel and Dagmar Soneson while spending a few days at North Park. Mel Soneson, for those who don’t know, was an unforgettable Professor of Philosophy at North Park for many years. He liked Pietisten and said to me: “You know you will never succeed.” By succeed, he meant have an impact on things in the Covenant. I was a bit surprised by Mel’s comment because I thought it obvious that we were not trying to accomplish anything. This being so, there was no way for us to fail. In 1989, I went to the Covenant Annual Meeting at Pacific Lutheran College. Olle Engstrom, the former rector of the Swedish Covenant Seminary and great Covenant ecumenicist, was the honored guest of the Meeting. I managed to get an interview with him for Pietisten. I felt a coolness when I introduced myself and we began to talk. Doctor Enstrom said: “So what’s your agenda?” It later became clear to that pushy religion was distasteful to him. When he asked me, I was blank. I said: “If we have one, I don’t know what it is.” He laughed and immediately relaxed into a most enjoyable conversation.

I relay these events to help make it clear that we are not trying to do anything, accomplish anything, or become something. So, failure is not possible. Tommy Carlson, who is President, groans every time we get a new subscription or someone gives us a gift. “This means we have to keep going,” he says.

Yet, we are trying to do something. We say what we are trying to do in our Premises which are printed in each issue which I’d like to spend a few minutes on.

Pietisten Premises

To intend blessing

What this means is pretty clear, I think. You will see that each Pietisten premises aim at setting us free and providing the most desirable way to get through the day. To intend blessing is such a much easier and friendlier way to go than the alternatives. Intending blessing has no opposition. There is really nothing the people one intends to bless can do about it. It’s a form of the one-way character of agape love. However, a couple things must be quickly said. The first is that we “intend” blessing. It doesn’t bind us to do anything or mean that we always do what we intend. Second, it does make us or anybody else right or good or better to think this way and to act accordingly. It is very important to avoid judging right or wrong. Judging right and wrong brings nothing but trouble. To bless means to praise, thank, and wish the best for the person, activity, or institution that one blesses. Doing this can be like blowing on goals to keep the fire of something good alive.

To take people as they present themselves to us

By this we mean we want to join those who don’t respond to a person based upon what others have said about him or her. We want to ignore rumors and possible false witness. In stead, we mean to respond to everybody on the basis of what happens in person between us. I think this attitude helps a lot and I believe it can foster the desired “I — Thou” relations described by Martin Buber.

To seek no other authority

We don’t want to have to find some other authority than our own for saying, doing, and thinking what we do. Nobody was about to give us any anyway. We claim no authority other than what we think, feel, or do as individuals. We don’t want to be responsible to or for anyone other than ourselves. It shows the extent to which these premises reflect our sincere self-interest.

To engage with friends in an open conversation and to expand our friendships

This is a really big premise. This is what we like to do and want to keep doing. I don’t think there is much of anything more satisfying in this life than friendship and good conversation—“open conversation” in which no one need fear to say what he or she thinks or does or might not know or does not understand. We are all pretty ignorant and want to learn. Making friends has enriched our lives and has been what has kept this journal alive for twenty years. To us, twenty years, knowing who we are and what we are like, is pretty unbelievable.

To keep alive a tradition of spontaneous voices in the congregational and democratic traditions

I don’t know what exactly how my editorial colleagues or you take this but I mean it in the most ideal sense that every person has a part and a say. Nobody is excluded from the conversation. Two or three, as it says in the Bible, have plenty of authority to decide on things and to be an authentic center of both church and nation by the freedom and power of the human spirit. None of us has known anything we like better. For myself, with regard to democracy, I liked it and have been glad for it ever since I first heard about it in grade school. I have always believed that the Covenant Annual Meeting is the ground of authority in the Covenant Church and have always thought that was as it should be. I must admit that for some years now my main interest in Annual Meetings has been as a good place to meet old friends, get a few new subscribers and sell some cds, tee shirts and the like. My commercial interest have not diminished my conviction that the congregational tradition is a great one to keep alive. Most of us belong to the Covenant family while we are at the same time part of the larger church and citizens of the world.

To bless all forms of human endeavor and ministry

Having said that we want to keep the congregational tradition alive, we are not interested in convincing other people or denominations to become congregational. We do not think it is right and other ways are wrong. We delight in the variety of church expressions of the followers of Jesus. There are many expressions of human religious and artistic endeavor from the Greek Orthodox and Roman churches to the simplicity of the Quakers that enrich our lives. Bless them all. And bless those who choose not to be a part of a church and people of other faiths.

We aren’t against anyone except those who want to destroy. We don’t want to judge where we have no business judging and where judging can only bring trouble as Jesus warned. We want to build bridges and make friends. Jesus said: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The more we bless and foster what is good, mainly by a friendly attitude the better off we are all likely to be. As I have already asserted, this is matter of deep self-interest. We can adopt a blessing attitude—whether it helps anybody or anything or not. I think giving blessing does help because it is for sure healthful for us. Yank Swanson, the former NP football coach, taught Hygiene (Biology 7-A — two credits). The central proposition and motto of his course was “Objective living (wanting the best for everyone) is hygienically sound.”

To seek a thankful heart and look for Gospel

Nothing could make better sense. We’re talking about a way to find fun— the way to find a light and lively spirit. I know you have experienced the deep, satisfying, enlivening experience of a thankful heart. Especially when thankfulness comes upon you unbidden— when it comes upon you and you haven’t made it up. And by “to look for gospel” we mean finding good news, moments of authenticity, looking for stories of good news, interest, fun, and serious thinking that does not take itself too seriously. There is a lot of Gospel to be uncovered. Maybe that should be Pietisten’s official news front. Maybe we should have a column “Have you heard this good news?” But, if we try too hard be something, we risk losing the whole thing.

To be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves—

This is what Jesus told the twelve disciples when he sent them out on mission. It’s fantastic advice if you think about it. Innocence is what makes this approach work; it can’t work without it. Innocence can be hard to come by and isn’t always clear. Being innocent means wishing everyone well, wishing the best for everyone. An example of innocence is the very first congregation of Christians, who didn’t even call themselves Christians. Luke reports that everybody in Jerusalem following the day of Pentecost thought well of them. Being wise as a serpent means realizing it is important to be alert or you might miss the fun or blessing or the chance to respond to a need. It means not to fear tough-mindedness but rather, to apply it best one can.

As understood and informed by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “Strong Mind, Tender Heart.”

This sermon is found in the little book Strength to Love, a collection of Martin Luther King’s sermons. The text of the sermon “Strong Mind, Tender Heart” is “Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). It has been a while since I have read this sermon but it has been a continuing influence in my life for the good. A tough mind and a tender heart is a worthy goal.

To enjoy the liberty to say and print anything we want and let it be subject to criticism by anyone who is interested

This is probably pretty obvious, especially in light of what has been noted previously. We humbly assert that we are going to do whatever we want and that we want others to do the same. One of our so-called editors groans at this premise because he thinks it is merely a way to justify publishing our own stuff which isn’t that great. I can’t say he’s wrong. But, it remains the case that everything comes back to the idea that Pietisten is mainly conversation and friendship and so anybody can chip in.