Miss Modin: The Swedish lady missionary

by David M. Gustafson

When Ellen Modin gathered with forty teachers and seven preachers in Salt Lake City at the Congregational Church on April 2, 1885, a reporter from The Salt Lake Herald referred to her as “Miss Modin, the Swedish lady missionary”—a title descriptive of her whole life. After serving in Utah, she returned to Minneapolis where she founded a school for female evangelists and a rescue shelter for women and children. She lived a missional life.

In Evangelical Free Church history, Ellen Modin was the first missionary associated with its earliest work, which in 1885 was called Kristnas gemensamma verksamhet, the United Work of Christians. She was not only the first to receive support from the mission account but was the first approved missionary on the field. She arrived to Salt Lake City several months ahead of Edward Thorell, the second Free-work missionary to Utah. She originally associated with American Congregationalists “working among Swedish women who had adopted Mormon teachings and practiced the religion of polygamy.” The Report of the American Home Missionary Society stated: “In Salt Lake City, Miss Modin has been visiting from house to house, ministering to the sick and gathering the Scandinavians for study of the Bible and prayer.” In addition, she worked among Chinese immigrants. Several Chinese embraced the Christian faith and two became employed as missionaries.

Ellen Modin (1853 – 1941) originally from Hälsingland, Sweden, had lost both of her parents to death before she immigrated to America in 1881. She arrived first to Des Moines, Iowa, and then relocated to Minneapolis. She came to America as a teacher, having completed her course of study at Bollnäs Seminarium in Gävleborg. The Utah Mission was taken over by the Free’s United Work of Christians as a result of Fredrik Franson’s visit to the Utah Territory in 1879 and 1880. In company with F. J. Fredrickson, Franson spent six months working as an itinerant evangelist in the Mormon territory. His vivid descriptions of the conditions were reported in the periodical Chicago-Bladet, stirring readers to pray for and support this mission.

Such reports prompted Ellen Modin to join the mission to Swedish Mormon women, and so she arrived in February 1885 to begin her work. Three years later she was joined by Lottie Axelson and Mathilda Johnson. In Modin’s first book, titled Eko från flydda dagar (Echoes from Days Gone By) and published in 1906, she gave an account of her activities among Mormons, writing: “I made it a practice to spend every morning studying books of Mormonism, comparing their teachings with the Bible.” She spent her afternoons visiting Swedish Mormon women with a view to persuading them to evangelical faith.

In 1891, Modin left Utah, returning to Minnesota where she founded Kvinnornas Allians Missionshem, the Women’s Alliance Mission Home, in St. Paul. This was a period of time when female evangelists were active in the Free Mission, especially in Minnesota. Women ministers were encouraged by Fredrik Franson of the newly founded Scandinavian Alliance Mission—later known as TEAM—and August Davis of the newly founded Scandinavian Mission Society of Minnesota—the first Minnesota district of the Free Mission. Modin was active with the Scandinavian Mission Society and took it upon herself to travel throughout the country raising funds for her school in which she would serve as instructor. The Women’s Alliance Mission Home offered Bible training courses exclusively for female workers, at a time when some churches called only women to conduct revival and mission meetings, and at least one, called women to serve as pastors.

In 1897, the building of the Mission Home in St. Paul was sold and Ellen Modin arranged for the purchase of a property in Minneapolis. She continued as president of the Scandinavian Women’s Alliance Mission Home “until the brethren no longer encouraged the mission.” Consequently, in 1907 it was discontinued. Modin sold the property and transferred the assets to the newly founded Skandinaviska Skyddshemmet, Scandinavian Home of Shelter—a ministry for “fallen women.” This home provided refuge for women and children, particularly for Swedish girls who were pregnant out of wedlock. It was a place for them to stay during their pregnancy and birth of the child. The home then arranged for children to be adopted. Modin adopted a son herself, namely, Roy N. Modin, “a poor boy” who went on to become a trombonist in the Fort Snelling Army Band. During her years in Minnesota, Ellen was an active member of the Scandinavian Free Mission Church, known later as First Evangelical Free Church in Minneapolis.

From 1909 to 1932, Ellen used her talent in writing to publish a monthly periodical titled Räddningslinan, The Life Line—the official organ of the Scandinavian Home of Shelter. The organization’s name was later changed to the Scandinavian Rescue Mission. Over the years, Ellen was assisted by editors such as Rosine Widfeldt, Josephine Princell, and Hannah E. Johnson. Modin’s publication of the monthly periodical, as well as her three books and several poems, earned her a place among George M. Stephenson’s seventeen noted Swedish-American female authors. In the 1920s she published the work about her life and ministry titled Det gjorde Gud (God Did It) that contains accounts about “God’s wonderful leading and his glorious answers to prayer in ministry.” In 1930, she published Varifrån och varthän? (Wherefrom and Wither), a book of her reflections on “living on earth’s streets in light of God’s Word.”

Ellen Modin, the Swedish lady missionary, was not faint in heart. She was an activist with the Southside Citizen’s Committee that worked to close down Minneapolis’s “red light district.” She was known as a feisty woman with a passion to take the gospel in word and deed to others, whether to Swedish women in Salt Lake City or to distressed women and children in Minneapolis. In our day when many speak of “missional living” and what it means “to engage in one’s context with word and deed,” Ellen Modin is an example of a Swedish lady who lived a missional life.