Tributaries of faith

by Craig E. Anderson

“Seldom has a generation stood so naked in its self-estimate and so enthusiastic in its trust of God’s mercy in Christ”

—Eric G. Hawkinson (Images in Covenant Beginnings, 46.)

A theme that weaves its unambiguous way throughout any story of those Swedish Pietists that emigrated from Sweden to America is the role of Christian faith in their lives. In my own family it is impossible to rightly understand my grandparents, John and Frida (Carlson) Anderson and Charles and Hilma (Lindstrom) Peterson, who immigrated to Rockford, Illinois in the late 1800s, apart from this steadying belief that animated their lives. It was a faith nourished by two important tributaries.

First, there was the Lutheran Church of Sweden. From their infancy, Sweden’s State Church had been their spiritual home. As infants they were brought to their local parish churches for baptism. To those churches they came with their parents to worship and receive communion after they were confirmed in their early teens. From the Church of Sweden they developed an appreciation for good order in both worship and church life and learned of the importance of the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. In its worship life they also absorbed the richness of the stately hymns and anthems of the church, and grew accustomed to a trained clergy and the weekly preaching from dagens text, the assigned scripture lessons for a particular Sunday.

A second tributary in their spiritual formation was pietism and the great spiritual revivals it helped to spawn, which swept through Sweden in the 19th century. From this stream they learned the importance of a personal relationship to Christ, one marked by conversion, a self-surrender to Christ and a conscious turning away from sin or spiritual apathy. Pietism stressed the study of the Bible and encouraged its reading for spiritual nourishment. In those scriptures they learned not only its teachings, but through its pages they encountered the living and life-giving Christ.

What revival preachers emphasized was not so much what God demands but what God offers, namely forgiveness and a new life brought about by a spiritual birth from above. These preachers and lay colporteurs invited people to come to God just as they were and taste of his unmerited favor. It was the gospel of the cross of Christ, “the power of God unto salvation”— and its message fell on people’s ears like a summer rain on parched ground. Many gave their hearts to Christ and experienced inward pardon, peace and joy. Perhaps there is no more important window to their faith than the hymns and gospel songs of the Swedish awakening where the theme of God’s love and friendship is pervasive.

Many Swedes coming to Rockford affiliated with Swedish Lutheran churches like First Lutheran, Emmanuel Lutheran or Zion Lutheran, congregations linked with the Swedish Augustana Lutheran Synod. Others, however, influenced by renewal movements in Sweden, looked for a worship experience more markedly pietistic in flavor and tone, and yet one that was still rooted in Lutheran theology. Now that they could choose where they attended church, some were looking for gatherings where the sacraments were administered with reverence, but also where the importance of the new life in Christ was stressed, where there was an emphasis on Bible study, prayer, living the consecrated life, and where revival hymns would be sung. This pietistic spirit and emphasis was present in many Swedish Lutheran churches in America, and it was often more pronounced in some congregations and “mission societies” being formed both within and alongside Lutheranism.

One such gathering was the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society in Rockford, founded in 1875. It was called a “society” rather than a church, reflecting terminology used in the state church context that they had left. These societies were neither a denomination nor affiliated with a denomination with authority to ordain ministers. To call them “churches” seemed presumptuous or at least inappropriate. They still referred to their spiritual leaders as preachers or colporteurs (rather than “pastor,” reserved for the state church’s clergy). Since most Swedes believed only duly ordained clergy should perform the sacraments, they sought out ordained Swedish Lutheran ministers with pietistic and evangelical sympathies to assist these societies in sacramental ministries. The formation of a denomination, however, was inevitable, if the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society of Rockford, like other mission societies, was to license and ordain pastors, not only for the administration of the sacraments but to perform legal marriages and conduct funerals.

In the first years, members of Rockford’s Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society met in homes for conventicle-type gatherings as they had in Sweden. They also gathered in borrowed facilities for larger Mission Friends meetings arranged for visiting preachers, including such celebrity preachers as E.A. Skogsbergh and C.A. Björk. The Society, however, was eager to provide catechesis for its children by way of Sunday School and confirmation classes. That was difficult to do without permanent facilities. So in 1880, the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society built a modest frame Mission House (Missionshus) at a cost of $1,600 on Fifth Avenue near Fourth Street. In these early days, the group numbered fewer than 100, but with Swedish immigration in full swing, it grew steadily.

The group joined the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Synod (usually called the Mission Synod), a loosely-knit association of these little societies in the Midwest. Other similar emerging churches formed the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Ansgari Synod (or the Ansgar Synod) or otherwise remained independent. Though small these synods had privately published newspapers widely read by Swedish people associated with the Mission Friends movement: Missions-Vännen (by the Mission Synod) and Zions Banér (Ansgar Synod). The worship of the churches in these synods was orderly and tasteful, but less formal and more spontaneous than the liturgical worship of many Lutheran churches. Yet these societies retained important aspects of their Lutheran heritage such as infant baptism, confirmation, preaching from the lectionary (dagens text), regard for a trained clergy and an appreciation of the stately hymns and anthems along with a love of revival songs.

Soon the congregation on Fifth Avenue had outgrown its little chapel. So seven years after the building was constructed, it was sold in the year 1887 for $1,800. Plans were now underway for a new church facility on the corner of Kishwaukee and Third Avenue with planned seating to accommodate as many as a thousand worshippers! Though still fairly Lutheran in its theology and some of its practices, it was “low church” in its worship style, something that appealed to those immigrants who found their way to worship there. It was decidedly pietistic, evangelical — and, I would add — somewhat legalistic.

This legalism expressed itself in things like opposition to women’s outward adornment (lipstick, rouge, costly apparel and even the braiding of the hair), to tobacco and alcohol usage, movie-going, card-playing and dancing — though many of these prohibitions faded as the years passed. Many Lutherans referred to these practices as “adiaphora” — matters indifferent to faith and Christian life, since not specifically prohibited by scripture. Therefore some of these activities were not seen as taboo as long as done in moderation. But many Mission Friends viewed them as “worldly,” blurring the lines between church and society and damaging to one’s Christian witness. However well meaning, this legalism could (and sometimes did) divert attention away from the primary emphasis of God’s overflowing grace and the joyful friendship which Christ offers. While it did contribute to a certain wholesomeness in living, it could lead to self-righteousness and a judgmental spirit among some members. That tempered the beauty of the revival heritage. Some of us experienced or observed this first hand when growing up years later. Yet, I believe most of us found these congregations to be places of generous love and caring support. That was always my experience.

The irony of this concern over minor issues of behavior is even more striking when measured against the more serious moral failures of racism that were hardly on our radar screens until the 1950s. It took another generation of spiritual awakening led by prophetic preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr. to arouse Christians to these offenses against God and humankind. (Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg claims that Swedish immigrants were virtually oblivious to the injustice done to Native Americans when their land was taken and parceled out to them by the United States government.)

In 1885 the Mission Synod, the Ansgar Synod, and a handful of independent Mission Friends congregations joined together to form what became the Evangelical Covenant Church. This new denomination began to ordain pastors and explore ways to train young people for the ministry. The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society of Rockford, already a member of the Mission Synod, quite naturally joined the newly formed denomination. Upon the completion of their church facility (at a cost of $18,365), the congregation’s name was changed from the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society to the Swedish Evangelical Mission Congregation (Missionsförsamlingen), though it was for many years referred to as the “Mission Tabernacle.” The name was later changed to the First Evangelical Mission Covenant Church.

When my maternal and paternal grandparents arrived in Rockford, they found their way — not to a Swedish Lutheran Church, but to this church where they attended Sunday School, worship services and became church members and even leaders. Later my maternal grandparents would help plant what was the first exclusively English-speaking congregation in the Covenant, the Bethesda Evangelical Covenant Church of Rockford, the church that was my spiritual home.