"America is No Paradise" -- Paul Peter Waldenström and Social Justice

by Mark Safstrom

As the term “social justice” is gaining more usage in America, not least in the Covenant Church, it might be useful to discuss how well this concept fits the Covenant profile. Is it a buzz word that well-meaning Covenanters have picked up from mainstream culture and transplanted into the Covenant Church? Or is this new term, and the goals associated with it, in line with the unique Pietist history of the Covenant?

To begin, we might do well to ask a time-honored Covenant question, “Where is it written?” Paul Peter Waldenström (P.W.), who coined that phrase, has himself left an extensive written record of his thoughts about American society and its imperfections. Looking back at the writings of this spiritual giant can serve as a good litmus test of the climate of the early Covenant leaders concerning social justice.

P.W., the prominent leader of the Covenant in Sweden, made four speaking tours in North America in 1889, 1901, 1904, and 1910, each time spending several months crisscrossing the continent. He published his journals in the form of travel books in “Through the United States of North America” 1890, “New Journeys in the United States of America” 1902, and “Through Canada” 19051, and sent regular commentary of his trips to Swedish American newspapers for immediate publication. Within these pages are some profound insights into the present and future health of the immigrant community, and the nature of race relations in North America. The virtual “Waldenström mania” that surrounded each of his visits gave him a ready audience of hundreds of thousands of Swedish Covenanters, Congregationalists, Free, and Augustana Lutherans, among other churches, as well as those Swedes with no church affiliation.

P.W.’s motives in coming to the United States were varied. His curiosity for the newly established American Mission Covenant was the main draw, but in addition to his role as a Covenant patriarch, P.W. also had obligations to the Swedish Parliament, to which he was a representative, as well as the Swedish school system, as teaching high school was his primary vocation. He therefore faced harsh critics in the Swedish press at home, attacking his trips as frivolous and a waste of taxpayer resources. As a result, P.W. considered his trips to North America to be intensive research and teaching visits, in addition to being preaching tours. His travel books were an effort to prove that to his critics, and resulted in a rich description of life in America, presenting both its virtues and faults.

In his first visit P.W. was astonished at how little Swedes knew about their new homeland. P.W. was irritated when he heard immigrants talking badly about the “old country” and its “hard, stale bread” and about how good and easy life was in America by contrast. This struck P.W. as a false and dangerous trend that could prevent the Swedes from seeing the faults of their new country. Would the negative experiences that forced some to leave Sweden and their relative success in America cause them to be blind to those around them who were being taken advantage of and in need?

P.W. made a conscious decision during his second, third and fourth trips to address this. In addition to including detailed information on American life in his travel books, he also held public lectures to inform the Swedish Americans about the “light and dark” aspects of Swedish history, the free church movement, and the nature of congregational life in America, among other topics. These lectures were reprinted in both Swedish and English language newspapers.

So, what did P.W. have to say about the need for compassion and justice in the United States? Quite a bit. The situation of race relations in turn-of-the-century America particularly troubled P.W. While he was here, he busied himself to research American history and current events. P.W. rather frankly described such dark episodes of the U.S. experience as lynchings and the de facto denial of voting rights to blacks in the South.2 However, he also went further. While it was commonly assumed that racial injustices only existed in the South, P.W. was quick to point out that the North had a peculiar blindness to the racial hierarchy that existed even there. Numerous times he commented on how odd it was for him to see that the waiters at most fine restaurants and train dining cars were almost exclusively black. This was even the case in Yale University’s dining hall, where P.W. had been invited as a dignitary for the school’s 200th anniversary celebration.3 “This is perhaps a remnant from the old days of slavery that is still ingrained in the good American people,” was his somber reflection.4

Christian organizations had not escaped this racial hierarchy either. P.W. relates the irony of how black women were not allowed to be members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.5 However, P.W. did highlight several episodes where the church had taken a role as an advocate against discrimination, including a recent Congregationalist pastors’ conference in Chicago (1887) that had made a public protest against a restaurant owner who had denied service to a black delegate. The protest had been picked up by local newspapers, but without result on the restaurant’s policy.6

Racial inequality in America went beyond black and white relations, and P.W.’s critique also included observations about the situation of Chinese immigrants.7 During his visits, a hot topic in American politics was the question of imposing laws to prevent further Asian immigration. P.W. commented that these attempts were driven by unjustified fears, and represented a restriction of freedom and a compromise of democracy that should not be tolerated. He writes, “One has a difficult time understanding the rationale behind actions such as these in a land that exalts itself before others for its freedom.”8 Similarly offensive were the violations of treaties with the Native Americans, who were repeatedly forced off their land. While P.W. tempered his criticism by saying that there was much that the European countries could learn from the United States, he closed with these remarks: “But the acknowledgment of [all the good aspects of America] should not allow the nonpartisan observer to become blind to all of the social inequalities that exist in the same land and which threaten the health and liberty of the Union, and which caused one famous American statesman to cry out: ‘I tremble with fear for my country when I think about how God is just.’”9

So, how to interpret P.W.’s advice? An American might justifiably respond to P.W. by saying, “easy for you to say.” Sweden at the turn of the century was relatively ethnically homogenous, despite some ancient internal conflicts with the Sami and Gypsy populations. It would not be until the end of the 20th century that Sweden would begin to deal with large-scale immigration and fully know the difficulty of orchestrating harmony and equality in a multiracial nation. However, P.W.’s point was not to condemn American society or to compare it to his own country. On the contrary, his fascination with and love for the United States and Canada is evident in his frequent and prolonged trips. Instead, P.W. wanted to use his travel books and public lectures in America to rally the Swedish Christian community to use their church organizations to meet the social, economic and racial challenges that faced them and their neighbors. It would be easy for the immigrants to develop closed communities that were blind to the social needs around them. But P.W. hoped that the churches could be an institution for overcoming ethnic boundaries and addressing social injustices.

The early Mission Friends and Augustana Lutherans had already made strides in this direction. P.W. gives many examples of this, including his description of the work performed by the Covenant’s Home of Mercy (Barmhertighetshemmet), which had ministered to the poor among Chicago’s immigrant communities.10 The overwhelming needs of the immigrants streaming in from Europe particularly troubled P.W. and he encouraged his readers to support the organizations that ministered to them. “It would be a great joy to me if this little travel book of mine could, both here in Sweden and over there in America, inspire a greater participation in this project.”11

In his description of Augustana’s Hospital in Chicago as well, P.W. had praised its ability to transcend ethnic and confessional barriers. “Since 1884, when the first patients were admitted, up to 1901 the hospital has cared for 8,556 patients, representing 19 nationalities and 24 Christian confessions. On the sick bed and in death, a human being becomes merely a human being—not Jew or Greek, not slave or free—and the Christians become only Christians, not Lutherans, Baptists, or Methodists, but quite simply Christians, which the Lord intended that they should be even in the days of their health in the Christian congregation.”12 In other words, P.W. regarded the congregation and other Christian ministries as sites that should be welcoming for a diversity of Christian creeds and ethnicities.

Waldenström tried to articulate some of the social and racial problems facing Americans in the hope that by doing so he could help prevent the Swedish immigrant community from becoming blind to them. He saw the churches of these immigrants as a powerful tool that could be used to address the economic and medical needs in the cities, as well as foster trans ethnic cooperation and communion between Christians. Although the immigrant churches might currently be limited by language and cultural differences from their new homeland, he offered a unique prophecy that these institutions would eventually grow into diverse, English-speaking congregations, whose work could positively affect the American and Canadian nations as a whole.

Although the term “social justice” would perhaps be new to Waldenström, it seems clear from his own statements that social justice goals were an important part of his vision for the role that the Covenant could play in North America. However, for a Pietist like Waldenström, this work for social justice was always second to, and fueled by, the transforming experience of an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In his own words, the Christian’s engagement in ministries of social justice would be an outgrowth of a life lived in the “City of the Gospel,” as he made clear in his 1863 allegorical novel “Squire Adamsson.” Although this novel presented a critique of 19th century bourgeois society and a call to serve the poor, P.W. also went to great lengths to warn against works righteousness and instead stressed the primacy of living in unmerited grace.13 The Christian was called to serve as a response to grace, rather than as a qualification for it. In the Covenant’s continued endeavors toward the realization of social justice goals, this prerequisite encounter with grace through Jesus Christ must not be diminished or abandoned. That is where the social justice of our Mission Covenant and that of the world differ dramatically.


1. Paul Peter Waldenström. Genom Canada; Reseskildringar från 1904 (Stockholm, Sweden: Normans Förlag 1905), Genom Norra Amerikas Förenta Stater; Reseskildringar (Stockholm, Sweden: Pietistens Expedition 1890), Nya Färder i Amerikas Förenta Stater; Reseskildringar med 190 illustrationer (Stockholm: Normans Förlag 1902).

2. GNAFS. pp. 286, 292.

3. NFAFS. pp. 62, 303.

4. GNAFS. p. 292. “Det är kanske något från det gamla negerslaveriets tid, som sitter kvar i de goda amerikanarne ännu.”

5. Ibid., p. 291.

6. Ibid., p. 292.

7. Ibid., pp. 413, 538.

8. Ibid., p. 286. “Man har verkligen svårt att förstå den tankegång, som ligger till grund för sådant i ett land, som framför andra berömmer sig af frihet.”

9. Ibid., p. 286. “Man har verkligen svårt att förstå den tankegång, som ligger till grund för sådant i ett land, som framför andra berömmer sig af frihet.”

10. Ibid., p. 320.

11. Ibid., p. 106. “Det skulle vara mig en verklig glädje, om denna min lilla skildring kunde både här i Sverige och där borta i Amerika uppväcka ett allvarligare deltagande för dess verksamhet.”

12. NFAFS. pp. 156. “Från år 1884, då de första patienterna mottogos, till och med 1901 har sjukhuset vårdat 8,556 sjuka, tillhörande 19 nationaliteter och 24 olika kyrkobekännelser. På sjukbädden och i döden blifva människorna endast människor – “icke jude och grek, icke träl och fri” – och de kristna bli endast kristna, icke Lutheraner, baptister, metodister, utan rätt och slätt kristna, hvilket Herren hade ämnat, att de skulle vara äfven under hälsans dagar i den kristna församlingen.”

13. Harry Lindström. I livsfrågornas spänningfält; Om P Waldenströms Brukspatron Adamsson—populär folkbok och allegorisk roman. (Stockholm, Sweden: Verbum 1997). pp. 152, 159-60.