To Smile or Not to Smile

by Phil Johnson

The other day Wally Bratt told me that he was reading By One Spirit by Karl Olsson for a second time—a good book, he acknowledged. Several days later he reported that after finishing the book he went back to look at all the pictures. "There was not a single smile on any of the faces of those old Covenanters," he said. I began thinking what this might mean.

C.A. Bygel, Chairman, Swede Bend, Iowa

Does it mean that our pietist Covenant forefathers and mothers were dour and sour? If so, are their pictures more dour and sour than the pictures to be found in an Augustana Lutheran history book? There are several photos of Augustana pioneers in By One Spirit and they seem more sour to me than the Covenanters. Perhaps most Swedes were dour and sour and photos of, say, Italians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be full of smiling faces. Or, maybe the expression in these photos does not mean the people were sour or dour. Maybe most people photographed in that time presented a serious, formal demeanor. Maybe photographers of the era said "Compose yourself, stand still" rather than "Smile" or "Say Cheese."

Data on several of these questions could be gathered rather easily and I encourage you to do that and to let us know what you learn. As I looked through the photos, I thought there were some hints at a smile or a twinkle in the eye suggesting more pleasant aspects than Wally credits. To date, I have believed that the mainstream of our pietistic tradition is joyful. Unlike the Schartauians who are reported to be intentionally legalistic and sour and who were without the benefit of a joyful conversion experience (see the article by Bob Greenwall, p. 10) and other pietists who were sober and judging, the forebears I identify with were influenced by the joy of the Moravians and they encouraged one another to "rejoice in the Lord."

It probably doesn’t matter whether there is a religious source of our delight in laughter and tendencies to smile. Maybe the inclination to laugh comes from our generation’s values. But, who can sing songs like "I have a friend who loveth me," "There is a joy that can be known," or "Let your soul now be filled with gladness" without feeling the joy in the music and finding a thankful heart within. And, doesn’t a thankful heart lead to joy and to smiles? It provokes tears of joy as well. What does a photo of a person in the midst of tears of joy look like?