The Revolutionary Waldenström

by Olle Engstrom

In his article in the Fall 1997 issue of Pietisten, Elder Lindahl rightly asks the question “Where is Waldenström?” What a happy coincidence that I can respond: “Here he is.” Last December, my former colleague at the Covenant Theological Seminary in Lidingö, Professor Harry Lindström, defended his dissertation on Waldenström’s novel, Brukspatron Adamsson, before the Theological Faculty of Uppsala University for the Doctorate in Theology. His dissertation, published as Factory Owner Adamsson-Popular Book, Allegorical Novel, deals with this allegorical novel that could be interpreted as a compendium of fundamental neo-evangelism ideas in Sweden. The central theme of the allegory is the tension between law and grace, sin and forgiveness. His argument compares Waldenström with Rosenius and Luther. Lindström's dissertation also deals with Waldenström’s reinterpretation of God and the doctrine of atonement during the 1870s and the resulting changes in his allegory.

Waldenström’s novel tells a fascinating story! It describes the religious development of a Mr. Adamsson, an industrialist and churchman, who moves from place to place in search of the true faith. Self-righteousness was his most important enemy. You can arrive at true faith by living in the city of Law Obedience or in the city of Piety, proud of your own spiritual achievement. Lindström compares Factory Owner Adamsson with John Bunyan's Pilgrim Progress, which PPW would certainly have read, and points out that the uniqueness of Waldenström’s novel is that he places Pilgrim Adamsson right in the middle of a society with its industrial, economic, and social changes of great importance. Adamsson represents the emerging, very self-conscious and influential local or regional industrialist who paved the way for the industrialization of Sweden and who sometimes also dominated the local assemblies during the revival movement.

And Waldenström was a courageous man. There were some shocking aspects to his novel for that day. For one thing, Adamsson’s most important counselor, Mother Simpleminded (Mor Enfaldig), is a woman! She is intelligent, an excellent listener, and comes up with witty remarks. Her teaching is that God's grace is the only basis for our salvation, nothing else. Waldenström's attitude toward masturbation was also radical. Sexual issues have always been in the focus of popular interest whether whispered about or spoken of openly. Masturbation was a hot issue in the last century. Medical doctors warned that the practice could lead to mental catastrophe or even death. Bishops, theologians, and preachers, referring to Onan in Genesis 38:9, added theological warnings. Many publications were written on the issue. But Waldenström goes straight to the heart of the issue and states that even those who practice masturbation are included in the grace of God and could be full members of the Christian community.

When it first appeared as a serial story in 1862, Waldenström’s novel created an uproar in large segments of Swedish society. State church bishops, high and low church leaders, and theological professors attacked him. Waldenström was accused of antinomianism and heresy. Controversies appeared in theological quarterlies, church magazines, and daily newspapers. Nevertheless, the novel was read more than any other in Sweden in those days, with the exception of Luther’s Catechism and Arndt’s Sanna Christendom (True Christianity),

Adamsson is torn to pieces! In 1864, Waldenström was ordained in the Lutheran State Church, but not without troubles. When he preached his ordination sermon in Holy Trinity Church close to Uppsala Cathedral, the Archbishop listened intensely. The next day, Waldenström was summoned to the Archbishop's palace and questioned about his theological teachings. His Holiness warned PPW and ended the conversation by tearing his copy of Factory Owner Adamsson to pieces. Despite the Archbishop's warnings, the chapter of the Cathedral decided to ordain Waldenström into the ministry.

Waldenström was one of fourteen children of a medical doctor and his wife. All ten sons were given academic training—almost unheard of in Sweden those days. After his student examination and some studies at Uppsala University, PPW became the teacher of the Royal Governor's children in Kalmar in southern Sweden. There he met a group of Christians, pietistic in viewpoint, who brought him to a personal faith in Christ. His father back in Luleå, an “enlightenment” man, was horrified. PPW left Kalmar and returned to Uppsala where he joined a group of young Christians. He continued his studies in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Semitic languages, and received the Ph.D. in 1863.

He wrote Factory Owner Adamsson in 1862/63, and revised it quite a few times. Each time, he would explain himself more clearly as he dialogued with his readers and critics. The novel came out in 10 editions—the last one, markedly revised by PPW, in 1891. The last English edition is 1962.

The heated debate that followed the first publishing of his novel became still more heated after PPW’s 1872 sermon on the atonement, and after he had published his book, Herren är from (The Lord is Pious) in 1874. Given all the controversy which surrounded Waldenström’s life and writing, it was, in my judgment, a very courageous step for the leaders of Pietisten to appoint him editor at the death of Rosenius. Waldenström was 30 years old at the time and already quite a controversial figure. The brilliancy of his writing and his pedagogical gifts as he explored the theological issues of the day must have been decisive factors in his being given this important editorial position.

As Dr. Lindström points out, the very learned PPW, with his doctoral studies in many languages, fascinated tens of thousands of readers of the novel with his clear, simple, and rich language Waldenström was as good a writer as he was a brilliant speaker. During his 20 years in Parliament, he was considered the outstanding speaker. It is said that even his political opponents remained in their seats when he spoke. At the same time, Swedish theologians, just as American theologians, have had difficulties acknowledging the importance of Waldenström’s teachings. One who understood and appreciated him was Archbishop Nathan Söderblom. At PPW's death in 1917, Söderblom said: "He left a new concept of God behind as a gift to the Swedish people.

Less important, but illustrative of the impact of Dr. Lindström’s dissertation, at the close of the ceremony at Uppsala University, one of Waldenström’s grandsons turned to me and said, “Jag har fått en helt ny syn på vem Farfar var” (“I have gotten a whole new understanding of who Grandpa was.”)

See all articles by Olle Engstrom