Interview with Carl Olaf Rosenius

by Elder M. Lindahl

Readers have asked for more information about some of the personalities of Pietisten’s roots. Rosenius granted Elder Lindahl a Narnian type interview in September, 1867. Picture the two of them taking coffee together in a konditori in Umeå, Sweden. — Ed.

EL: What a pleasure to have a chance to meet you, Pastor Rosenius. Modern technology is truly amazing!* Thank you for your willingness to do an interview. First, I must ask what language you would like to use, Swedish or English? And, could we "kasta bort" our titles and use first names?

COR: You are most welcome. Yes, it’s is amazing to meet someone from another day and age. As to language, let’s go with English, and, I agree, Elder, no titles. Let’s shake on that.

Q: Good. Tell me something about your early life—when and where you were born and about your parents.

A: I was born on February 3, 1816 in Nysätra about seven Swedish miles north of here in Norrland. I was third in a family of seven children. My mother, Sara Margareta, was a daughter of vicar Olof Norenius, a teacher. She was a saintly person and my first teacher. My father, Anders Rosenius, was a Lutheran State Church pastor. He was a Godly man, held in high esteem by parishioners. He preached a message of repentance.

C.O. Rosenius

Q: How was your boyhood?

A: Well, I was a serious, thoughtful youngster. I remember I would often go out into the woods and fields by myself to think. I would leave the games of my siblings and playmates to meditate alone on the big issues—God, the soul, and the universe. I just had to be certain about God. One day when my folks lived in Säfvar, I even set up a "fleece" test to determine whether or not there was a God.

Q: You mean like the Hebrew Judge, Gideon, in Judges 6?

A: Something like that, though I did not actually put out a piece of sheep’s fleece. The test I devised was to see if I could walk blindfolded from a spot back of the barn to the corner of the granary. If I arrived at the corner of the granary, I would know that God existed and had guided my steps. So, kerchief tightly in place, I set out on an adventure which would decide the big question for me.

Q: How did it come out?

A: Well, I had only gone a short distance when I was overcome by an unspeakable anguish—it was as though an invisible arm stopped me dead in my tracks. When I took off my blindfold, I was at the very edge of a deep, open well. One more step and I would have fallen in!

Q: That’s some story. I suppose the incident gave you continuing assurance of God’s existence. Do you remember any other experiences of Divine help, any struggles?

A: Well, I didn’t have to set up another test as such. However, there was one time when I was on skis out on the ice, and I went out pretty far. A voice came to me from the shore saying, "Be careful!" Startled, I looked around and saw a wide hole in the ice into which, without this warning, I would have fallen and drowned. I took that as Divine guidance. I remember, too, reading a wonderful book by Bishop Pontoppian, The Mirror of Faith when I was about 15. I was eating breakfast, saw the old book on the table, and opened it. I was so impressed by the spiritual truths in this book that I said aloud: "Well, then it is best to mirror our faith!" And that’s what I still think each person should do. Yes, there were struggles as well as some open criticism. Even after accepting God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, I had doubts about the existence of God.

Q: What was the religious situation in the State Church in those days? Why did your father preach repentance?

A: Those were dark days in the Church; we thought it was the last times because vital Christian faith was missing from the Church and society. There was so much drinking of brännvin, such worldliness, dancing, and theaters. Most of the pastors, themselves worldly, preached about the value of honesty, thrift, how to raise cattle, care for the soil, live a good life, prosper and so on. If a layperson preached the Word of God, they would be accused by the clergy, arrested and jailed under the Conventicle law which banned all private devotional meetings. My father received much criticism from church authorities and was always under suspicion for encouraging personal faith and holding sectarian meetings.

Q: Was he accepted among the common people?

A: Yes, many became believers through his ministry. Father taught people to read the Bible by themselves. That angered the church leaders and they forced him to move often.

Q: His problems must have been hard on your family. Were you and your siblings able to attend school?

A: Yes, it was hard on us. When my father was moved to Säfvar, my brother Anton and I were sent to school here in Umeå. Along with other subjects, we read the Word of God and the writings of Martin Luther. In the fall of 1833, I matriculated at the Gymnasium in Härnosänd. It was there in my third year, in 1836, on Long Friday and Easter, that I gave my first public sermons.

Q: Let’s see, you were 20 at the time. By the way, "Long Friday" certainly describes the day better than "Good Friday." How did your sermons go?

A: Not too well. The parish priest was displeased and said I had demeaned the pulpit by using the dialect of the people. He criticized the content also because I encouraged people to become one with Christ. He said that was "mystical fanaticism."

Elder Lindahl

Q: You also preached once for the Bishop and his family when you were young, didn’t you?

A: Yes, it was at a worship service with communion. The Bishop told me that my sermon grieved him. After dinner, he called me before some clergy and said I had preached against works righteousness and stressed the righteousness of faith. The Bishop talked for some time, attempting to show me from Scripture that works are necessary for salvation. I stood up to him and contended that salvation does not depend on us and what we do, but on what Christ has done for us.

Q: What did the Bishop say?

A: He became quiet. When I moved from Härnosänd, however, he did wish me peace and gave me his blessing.

Q: What did you do after graduation?

A: My parents were in Burtresh, some miles north of here, and I lived with them for a while. I assisted my Father in the pulpit and with visitation. With the permission of the Bishop, I made a missionary trip to the Lapps. Also, it was here I came to know a remarkable lady called "The Prophetess from Grand Rapids."

Q: Grand Rapids? There’s one in Michigan and another in Minnesota, but this is the first time I’ve heard of one in Sweden! Tell me something about this "Prophetess from Grand Rapids."

A: That was my name for Maria Elisabeth Söderlund, twenty-two years my senior, a preacher and teacher known for her unusual spiritual gifts and insights. She lived nearby in the village of Stor-Kåge (Grand-Rapids). I met her during my summer vacation when I was in my second year in the Gymnasium, and she helped me spiritually. I wrote her a letter just as I was leaving for the University of Uppsala.

Q: What year was that and what was the gist of your letter?

A: The fall of 1838. I wrote something to the effect that I would soon be in the place where the "throne of Satan had been erected." I said that I could be in such a University only because the Defender of Israel defended me. Drunkenness, immorality, oaths, and vices of all sorts flourished at the University. I had heard that the darkness in that "veritable Sodom" was denser than it was in Egypt. Pastors trained there would certainly lead the common folks astray.

Q: Quite a letter! I spent a school year doing research at Uppsala in the 1963-64. Attending this great University must have been a liberating, broadening, capstone experience for you. I suspect you changed your opinion of the place once you began your studies. Right?

A: No, not at all. In fact, Elder, even though Uppsala was already 361 years old and considered one of the finest schools in Europe, it was for me a horrible experience, and I left after a few months. The faculty was corrupted by the higher criticism coming from Germany. Students spent more time drinking and carousing than they did on their studies. No one kept the Sabbath. Also, my funds were running out and my health was not good. On leaving, I advertised as a private tutor, and in the summer of 1839 found a job tutoring two children of Countess Lenna near Stockholm.

Q: How did that go?

A: Well, the tutoring was all right, but there was no one with whom I could talk about spiritual things. I had some difficult intellectual and emotional struggles of faith there, and I felt very alone. I began to have serious doubts whether God existed. My prayers to continue my theological studies went unanswered. I remember one night praying about this on my knees in my little room. Suddenly, I got up and said, "What madness! Who am I talking to? Does God exist here in my little room? What folly!" I also had grave doubts whether the Bible was actually God’s word.

Q: Did these doubts get resolved?

A: I heard of a great revival in Stockholm, the work of an English pastor, George Scott, a Methodist. He invited me to meet with his circle of believers, läsare, and I received help.

Q: Were your doubts finally overcome?

A: At first. After a while, however, it was just as before. Concerning the Bible, I said: "Who knows? Who knows?" So I contacted Scott again. He said the Enemy has the power to confuse one’s thoughts and that I should write out on a piece of paper everything against, and everything for, the view that the Bible is the word of God. The Enemy can’t stand good research, he added. Three days later I was completely convinced that everything in the Bible was Divinely given and true. I was happy and exclaimed, "Everything is true, entirely true, Divinely true, and everything I thought I lost remains." I saw things more clearly than before and now I believed my sins were forgiven.

Q: So, good Lutheran that you were, you now turned to Methodism?

A: Well, yes and no. Pastor Scott was a warmhearted believer who I found to be free of all ties to an established church. I appreciated his personal message, his Godly ways, and his constant use of the Bible. We became close friends in the Lord, but we had our theological differences. I never did became a Methodist. Other Swedes criticized me for this contact, warning me against sects. Still, I was blessed being with Scott. What attracted me was his passion for saving souls, not his doctrine of perfectionism. I held with Luther on simul justis et peccator. That is, we continue to be sinners even as we walk with the Lord.

Q: Did you do some preaching at this time? What other contacts did you have with Scott?

A: I preached in Scott’s English Church the Sunday after Christmas in 1840. Pastor Scott wanted to ordain me, but I refused as that would tie me to a certain parish. He began publishing a monthly paper, Pietisten, in January, 1842. He was editor-in-chief and I assisted him. In 1842, I also became editor of Mission-Tidning. It was fantastic the way we could now reach people all over the country with a message of personal salvation through these pages. I decided this was my life work. What a joy it was to work with those two publications.

Q: It sounds like you found your calling. Pastor Scott must have been a very good man.

A: Yes, he really was. He accepted me as a lay preacher even though I held firm to my Lutheran theology and though I hadvery little theological education. Some Swedes seemed threatened by him. One problem was the trip he made to the States in the summer of 1841 to raise money for the work in Sweden. In the course of a successful fundraising tour, $2,000 of which he used to start Pietisten, he made some unfortunate, negative statements about conditions in Sweden and this offended Swedes when word came back. A rising tide of ill will, threats, and hostility developed against him. It all came to a head on Palm Sunday evening in 1842. A mob rushed the chapel where Scott was preaching and broke up the meeting. He left by a window, barricaded himself in a room, and miraculously escaped with his life. The Swedish authorities told him they could not protect him and that he better leave the country. So he did. However, I recall that some years later, in 1859, he came back for a short visit and was treated hospitably.

Q: What did you do when Scott was forced out of the country?

A: Well, it was a confusing time. With my mentor gone, I visited my mother in Norrland. My father had passed away earlier. By mid summer, however, I was back in Stockholm, and was asked to take over the editorship of Pietisten. The group of sincere Christians somehow rallied around my preaching and leadership.

Q: Did you preach then in Scott’s English Church?

A: Not for long. It officially closed from 1842 to 1851. During that time and after, I held meetings in homes and in a variety of other places. These meetings, called conventicles, were unlike the Methodist prayer meetings where people prayed aloud and testified. Rather, I would read a passage of Scripture, pray, and give a meditation concerning practical Christian living. I did not actually preach from a church pulpit until 1851.

Q: Was there no singing at the conventicles?

A: Oh, yes, indeed. How could one forget Lina Sandell, Oscar Ahnfelt, Jenny Lind, and others? Lina Sandell wrote some wonderful, moving songs that had a certain lightness about them. Many songs are attributed to her, though she wanted to remain anonymous. "L.S." after a text, however, was a dead giveaway. Ahnfelt, who was called the "spiritual troubadour" set her words to music and sang them. He also wrote and sang his own songs. Ahnfelt had been a member of the Royal Opera at Stockholm and had a marvelous voice. Hearing him, as he accompanied himself on the guitar, was an unforgettable experience. Lina’s songs became known as Ahnfelt’s songs. What a combination!

Q: And we know that you also wrote songs. We have several of them in The Covenant Hymnal: "Whereso’er I Roam," "Now, Anxious Hear, Awake from Your Sadness," and "With God as Our Friend."

A: Yes, I did. Sometimes I’d write an entire song, sometimes I’d edit the verses of others. I wrote all the verses of the last one you mention. Between songs and poems, I probably have written sixty or so. One loses count.

Q: What was the Swedish State Church’s reaction to the conventicles? Did you want people to leave the Church and form a separate sect?

A: The reaction was negative. I was not an ordained minister, you know. Nor was I holding forth in a special church building at the usual worship times. Just the same, I considered the conventicles as new life, personal faith, and a closer walk with God within the Swedish State Church. We had no idea of separating from the Lutheran Church.

Q. Tell me something about Pietisten? What’s in the name? What was its content?

A: The name was Pastor Scott’s. Many Swedes wondered about it because for them it had a negative and legalistic meaning. On the title page of each issue, we stated: "Pietist comes from the Latin, pietas, which means godly." As to content, we included at first articles about life, faith, stories and letters, important observations, readings for children, songs, poems and much more. In time, lead articles took up more space. Many of these articles from Pietisten came out later in book form. I worked hard on my articles, taking care to make them accurate and precise. Once they were written, I would ask my friends to comment on them before I set them to print.

Q: How about circulation?

A: The first year it was small, about 600, but the numbers went up each year. In three years we had 1,500 subscribers, and during many of the years there were 10,000 subscribers.

Q: That’s really impressive. Your modern counterpart is now in its 13th year and we have some 800 subscribers. Pietisten, I understand, was at first a monthly—when did it become a quarterly?

A: After I had finished my book on Romans last year. Beginning in 1860, I wrote an extensive series of articles on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and these were just recently published as a two-volume study. I was run down and not feeling well after that, and so decided to make it a quarterly.

Q: Tell us something about your personal life. When did you marry?

A: Well, I went with a wonderful girl named Agatha Ulrica Lindberg for several years. Her parents were not too keen on our wedding plans at first, but we were married on August 2, 1843, here in Umeå by Pastor A. A. Grafström. None in her family were Christians. Agatha keeps a beautiful home and many people stay with us. She writes poetry and songs, some of which have been published in Pietisten. Her motto is: "Entirely for Jesus…Entirely from the world." We had seven children, five boys and two girls, of whom three died in early childhood. Living are: Carl David, 23, a civil engineer, Agatha Maria Elisabeth, 20, Paul Josef, 14, and little brother, Per Efraim, is 12.

Q: How would you characterize your theology?

A: Martin Luther’s doctrines are central for me—justification by faith alone is especially basic. I hold to the traditional Lutheran view on the atonement. I appreciate the personal emphasis on the blood of Jesus shed on the cross for me and I encourage people to become readers of the Bible, God’s Word. Actually, doctrines, central as they are, are not finally what is important in my life. For me, it’s a matter of putting doctrines and creeds into daily practice. The problem today is that we do not lay the Word on our hearts and immediately apply, use, and implement it in our lives. We reason about doctrines and concepts and order them clearly and consistently, but the actual business of faith is repentance in one’s heart, the new birth, trust, joy, and love of Christ. God’s kingdom does not consist of words and talk, but is godly power flowing through one’s life. You could summarize my theology in four words: "Come as you are."

Q: You’ve been criticized by your successor, Waldenström and others as not being clear on atonement theory. Also, that you and those who followed you "grubbed too much in man and his experiences." Grubbing in one’s own experience, your detractors contend, means looking away from God and creating a "sighing mind." They say the Rosenians feel themselves wretched, are forever examining the inner life and finding it wanting. How do you respond?

A: I can only say that we start where people are, with the burdens, trials, doubts, and anxieties they are carrying. We certainly do not invite them to stew and brood, or grub, as they put it, in human experiences. Rather, we try to lift anxious, guilty hearts to higher ground, to bring forgiveness, new life, and reconciliation with our Living Lord. As I wrote in one song:

Now, anxious heart, awake from your sadness,
have you forgotten the things that remain:
Grace and communion, unbroken union with
Christ arisen and ever the same?
—The Covenant Hymnal, p. 472)

EL: It has been a delight to get to know you a little, Calle. Thank you for your time and your willingness to share something of your life and work with us. I hope your health improves day by day.

COR: You are most welcome, Elder. Greet the modern readers and remind them of what Christ has done for us all on the cross. And may you all be constant in your efforts to win souls for the Kingdom. Finally, in the words of old Bishop Pontoppian, "Mirror the Faith!"

Elder Lindahl is a retired North Park University professor living in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl