The Readers: The cultural and educational legacy of Pietism

A conversation with Gunnar Hallingberg

As part of the filming for the documentary, ”God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good,” we interviewed Gunnar Hallingberg, former rektor at Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola (SVF) in Jönköping, Sweden, to ask him about the cultural and educational legacy of Pietism, which he documented in his book “Läsarna” (2010) (“The Readers: The 19th Century Folk Awakening and the Modern Breakthrough”). Recorded by Tim Frakes, translated and edited by Mark Safstrom. May 21, 2015.

MS: Can you tell us about yourself and your career as an educator?

GH: I am Gunnar Hallingberg. I am rather old – just one year away from my 90th birthday! I was formerly the rektor here at Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola. I was about 50 when I came here, and I remained here until I retired, and actually a little bit after that, since there were a few areas of specialization that they wanted to keep around in the curriculum, primarily within media studies. A little bit to my surprise, I was approached by the Swedish Mission Covenant to take this position (1976). I had an academic background. My dissertation was in the area of literary studies at Gothenburg University, and I was also docent there [assistant professor]. Over time, my specialization expanded to include radio and mass media, which became a deeper and deeper interest. Eventually I was invited to come over to America by then president of North Park College, Karl A. Olsson. I was there one year, 1961-1962, to teach Swedish, and also to conduct research on American media. I can say that this was a turning point in my life.

I had thought that I would continue as a teacher of literature at the university level. It was something that I enjoyed. But then, a little later in the 1970s, there was an opportunity for three years of steady teaching at the University of Chicago. It was rather ideal, as I could be here in Sweden and attend to my duties as docent at the university, and yet also travel over there for six weeks at a time and make use of all the resources that the University of Chicago had to offer. This made it possible to become more of a specialist in mass media, on the humanities side. This was about the time of the so-called “red wave,” which came with its disruptions as well as positive contributions. The literature department at Gothenburg became a rather socialist institution, if I may say so, which made it somewhat difficult for me to completely thrive there. And when I came to America at that time, I was rather suspect, too, naturally. So I was glad for this opportunity, as I could do what I wanted, to get the kind of education within media studies that I very much wanted to gain. And I had an invitation from Chicago [North Park College] to start an exchange program, what became the Collegelinjen [College Line] and has continued for 40 years, and involved something like 1,500 students. That’s a short summary.

photo of Gunnar Hallingberg

In later years, I had the chance to return to my studies and wrote two books on Swedish radio, drawing from my background in radio and service on the board of Swedish Radio. These books dealt with radio as cultural history. I was also involved in the leadership of the Free-Church Research Council [Frikyrkliga forskningsrådet], and I was able to be engaged in researching the free church movement, the awakening, as a cultural-historical factor in Swedish history. We were a few veteran scholars there who took this on; we had hoped for some younger people to take up this research, but the time was not ripe for that. So, then I also wrote two books about what I would call the free church’s cultural history. Yes, and now I am meeting with you [chuckle].

MS: This research that you just mentioned, regarding the cultural history of the free church movement, could you tell us how you became interested in that?

GH: I mentioned earlier my interest in mass media studies, and what I wanted to accomplish there was to investigate how media influenced cultural life. I am a humanist, a literary scholar and historian – that is my discipline from the beginning. What I learned from my time in America, and which was also slowly beginning to arrive in Sweden, was this interdisciplinary approach to the study of cultures. Modern social anthropology, cultural anthropology, took up this approach, and I got to know many such people at the University of Chicago. And what they were trying to understand were the worldviews of various groups, nationalities, regions. They were interested in how people related to God, and yet also how they drank coffee when they got up in the morning, when they constructed buildings, and so on.

When I and my good friends – many of them having passed away by now – began research in this area, we realized that this is an aspect of church history that was not so well highlighted. We are not theologians – we had one theologian with us, the rest of us were humanists. [We wanted to know] how did they live? What was characteristic of their fellowships? One didn’t used to ask “how is your relationship with God?” Just as one previously did not ask questions about the sexual sphere, just so, people in Sweden did not ask about the spiritual sphere.

When I started as the chairman of the Free-Church Research Council, I presented this question, accompanied by Olle Engström, who was older than I was, and who had been rektor at the Mission School at Lidingö, among other distinctions within the Swedish Mission Covenant. (He had actually been invited to come to America before me, but as he could not be away from his family and responsibilities, it ended up being me who came in 1961.) We made a sketch for how this project might look. We had Sven Lundkvist, professor in history at Uppsala, engaged in research in the folk movements, a traditional historian, who took on the project and wrote a book on the Mission Covenant, called Tron och Gärningarna [“Faith and Works”]. And then later I took on this project, gradually.

MS: In your book Läsarna you claim that the modern breakthrough in Sweden started earlier than it is usually assumed, that rather than the 1880s, that it actually began with the “readers” in the 1820s and 1830s. Can you tell us about what you were trying to demonstrate here?

GH: The research that had been done in this period had been namely church historical. What I did was actually somewhat easy to do, in that I simply worked through this material with fresh eyes, from the outside, not as a church historian but as a literary historian. And I found some things that were important to highlight, connections between figures like the author Frederika Bremer and the awakening, for instance. She was rather fascinated by the readers [Pietists], yet she was a member of the nobility, came from the upper classes, and thought it was unbelievable that these awakening movements could be led by these simple farmers and uneducated/uncultured people [obildade]. This was simply a matter-of-fact assessment that there were uncultured people, and one took pity on them. It was just the terminology of the time. It was taken for granted that almost all culture came “from above,” and came through the state church.

It has been said many times that outside the Church of Sweden, there was no culture to speak of in the old meaning of the term. Torgny Segerstedt, the famous editor of Handelstidning, wrote an editorial on this at the advent of radio, in which he had the rather prescient observation, “now a new time is coming, when even uncultured people will be able to take part in cultural life.” But this would mark the decline of the church, which had been the one to “illuminate the heavens,” that inside had been light, but that outside had been total darkness. He had not discovered that there had already been small communities where the readers had “lit their lamps.”

MS: Also in the book, you talk about the enthusiasm that the readers had for reading, that they were “diligent in doing their homework.” What was it that was so fascinating and engaging for them, and what were they reading?

GH: The basic level of literacy in Sweden had for a long time been very high, and that was so that they would be able to read the catechism, and, in fact, know the whole thing by heart. We used to have a lady here at the school who had learned the catechism this way, and knew the whole catechism by heart. It was quite astounding to listen to her!

The new thing that the readers brought, and that Waldenström and the other preachers taught them, was that they should talk about what they read, that they should meet up with friends and other who lived in the village and that they should read journals like Pietisten, and then give it to someone else, and say to each other, “What did you think?” of this or that article, and they began to discuss this. And there are many fine examples of this, it was a new way to read.

It wasn’t me who was the first to say this, but rather it was a researcher in the history of ideas, Ronny Ambjörnsson. This was a source for curiosity about what was going on out in the world, one got new hymns and songs from America as well as general interest in America, as there were many who were moving over there. I wrote an essay in a festschrift for Karl A. Olsson when he turned 75 years old (Amicus Dei, 1988), “The Emigrants and the ‘Readers’: Two Neglected Groups in Cultural History.” They were neglected, that is to say, did not receive the attention I thought they deserved. I wrote about this partially for our own youth, so that they would be aware of their background, as well as for others who now have become interested in this thanks to the fact that our concept of culture has changed.

The readers really were a “culture people;” they created what I call a culture of action (verksamhetskultur). It was not a sophisticated or elite culture, but rather they wanted to live in something that they could engage with and touch. After they had started to read publications like Pietisten and begin reading the Bibles more seriously at home, as they did in Västergötland, they started discussing how “we ought to build mission house here!” And that is what they did. And the Tibro Mission house, where my father grew up with his large family, in Skaraborgs county, that still stands to this day, a century later. […]

MS: One of the great figures in the awakening movement was Carl Olof Rosenius. Can you tell us about Rosenius and the circle around him?

GH: It’s quite interesting. My first wife died many years ago, and I am now remarried to a Norwegian woman, and have gotten a large Norwegian family. There in Norway a great number of Rosenius’s writings were translated and published in Norwegian, and were available in people’s homes. Rosenius is without a doubt one of the great cultural figures in Swedish history, yet he never made it into the academy, and today many people are not aware of him, either. He was an unbelievably gifted human being. Born 1816 and died in 1868, in his early fifties. Yet he had an enormous influence. He set out studying theology and was to become a priest, studying the Augsburg Confession and the Concordia, but began having some doubts, and then attended the meetings of the Methodist, George Scott. Scott had a large ministry in the 1830s and ‘40s, and before he was driven out of the country, had founded Pietisten, which was handed off to the young Rosenius. Rosenius became a capable editor for Pietisten, which was one of Sweden’s largest papers at one point, with a greater circulation than Aftonbladet. This was his forum, along with the English Church, which Scott had built with funds raised over in America. This was Bethlehem Church, one of the first sanctuaries of the free churches (which has since been demolished, but that is another story). He had begun to attend there and even substitute for Scott in preaching.

What was at the foundation of Rosenius’s preaching was abandonment to God, to Christ. It was righteousness by faith, it was by faith alone. It was not simply through the sacraments – the Church of Sweden was rather sacramental – but instead it was the preaching of God’s word. And then he was also a poet, a writer of lyrics. His sermons can be read even today, as I mentioned they are in Norway, where his books still are published in new editions, which we hardly do today in Sweden. So, he had a great influence.

What mattered was the individual human being’s decision before God. The Church of Sweden was a national church, everyone was a Christian, everyone belonged. What caused commotion was that now Rosenius came with the message that every person needed to stand at the decision: am I a Christian or am I not? One should also attend to one’s spiritual life. Otherwise, it cannot be said that Rosenius was “free churchly.” He remained in the Church of Sweden, within the Evangelical Homeland Foundation [EFS], which supported him. But when Waldenström came as his successor [at Pietisten], he was more radical and didn’t tolerate all this state-churchly pretense.

During Rosenius’s time the conventicle edict was still in place, which meant that people could not gather for worship without a priest present. In the home it was the father’s duty to read the Bible and pray with the household. But it was not allowed to advertise a gathering. Thus when the old colporteurs came with their bags, they could sell books, but they were not really allowed to hold any devotional message about the books, because, as the encyclopedia, Nordisk Familjebok, explained, the colporteurs were “uncultured, religious, folk speakers.” One had to be ordained in order to be of “pure doctrine,” and being of pure doctrine counted for everything. For Rosenius and those who followed after him, the important thing was rather that everyone was to stand before God and decide as to whether one was a Christian or not. And this remains one of the differences between the Church of Sweden and the free churches.

MS: Rosenius also wrote poems that were set to music. Can you tell us about the music of the awakening movement, and the collaboration with Oscar Ahnfelt and Jenny Lind?

GH: Yes, “Wheresoe’er I roam in valleys dreary” … Oscar Ahnfelt was a talented youth, whose father was a priest, and was going to study at the music academy, was to become a church musician or organist and work in a congregation somewhere. But he could sing well and began to become interested in the guitar most of all. He created his own guitar, a ten-stringed guitar, after the fashion of the guitars used by [Carl Michael] Bellman. And so he began his career, composing some fantastic arrangements. He lived in the Romantic era; Bach no longer stood at the top, but had been replaced by Schubert with his lieder. This is to underscore his contemporary context. The people of the awakening lived in a cultural milieu that they could utilize. Schubert’s lieder were published in folio format, and Ahnfelt’s songs were published this way as well.

He became a very good friend with Jenny Lind, the great star, world famous singer. She was a warm Christian, too. When she was in Sweden in 1850, Rosenius was her spiritual confessor. They arranged for her to sing at religious meetings together, singing Ahnfelt’s songs among others. Ahnfelt began to travel around in the Nordic region. He was very enterprising, acquiring a proper coach, drawn by two or four horses, driving all over Sweden and Norway (at that time they were joined in a union). He sang his songs and earned a living from selling his music folios. The music was arranged for piano or organ; most people used them for the pump organ. But the guitar began to become an honorable instrument again; it had a little bit of a sinful reputation since Bellman’s time. So, there were also notes for guitar, with chords.

When he would travel around he would often be criticized by the clergy. He was not ordained, yet he was speaking and sharing his witness. Before 1858 people were not allowed to do that, quite simply. There is a remarkable story about this; there was a priest in Uppland, who arranged for an Ahnfelt concert in his parish, and many people came. The parish constable also came and said that he could not do this because he was not ordained. But Ahnfelt was a tough sort, and took this matter all the way to the king. And the priest wrote on his behalf that he “would not be a Christian” if he “prevented Ahnfelt from giving his parishioners the opportunity for an evening in the church where they could hear his wonderful music. That is culture if anything is.” And so Ahnfelt managed to escape this one, and he traveled on without the servants of justice being able to capture him.

MS: What kinds of themes were expressed in these songs? What did he sing about?

GH: Before we had the old chorale book, a great musical treasure from Luther and others. But as it was, the singing in church was rather slow, somewhat easy to play. This was an early congregational singing. Ahnfelt made everything more hip, you could say. There was of course Moody and Sankey in America, who were also in the background. This was a new spiritual song culture. They are still beautiful songs. “Wheresoe’er I roam in valleys dreary” is unbelievably beautiful. And there is another one I think of often, “imagine the day when the fog that surrounds life will clear and I may be where God and the Lamb are.” This image stays in one’s consciousness. According to the Swedish International Composers’ Bureau, one of the most sung hymns today are still Lina Sandell’s “Children of the Heavenly Father,” her “Day by day, and with each passing moment,” and others.

MS: The last question I have is regarding the folkhögskola in Sweden. From your time as rektor at SVF, what is it that you think is unique about this kind of education? What has it contributed to overall Swedish society and church life?

GH: It is interesting that Sweden is a little bit behind when it comes to the folkhögskola. It began in Denmark and took hold in Norway, which I learned in later years from my contact with Norway. I myself did not grow up with this; I came here as an academic, which maybe was good both for the school and for me. It was during that time, in the “red wave,” when we thought we could “do without teachers” and so on, there were boycotts and teachers were shut out, there were riots on American campuses, and the students were going to “take care of themselves.” And one can say that the folkhögskola began somewhat in that fashion, with [N.F.S.] Grundtvig in Denmark, who was a priest. He was a sort of righteous antagonist of the priestly hierarchy. The priest used to stand in an elevated pulpit, and speak down to the people. When the boys would come, [Grundtvig] would think, “they know quite a bit. Why don’t we sit in a circle, and talk about what we want to learn.” This idea came back in the student movements in the 1970s, this idea from a century before, from Grundtvig’s time.

There was also the nationalistic aspect of Romanticism across Europe. Greece was liberated. In Finland, Runeberg wrote “The Tales of Ensign Ståhl” and national songs. In Norway there was Bjørnsson and others who wanted to be liberated, and this became the Norwegian independence movement. And they received this school form as a “smithy,” as a forum for articulating one’s ideas. In this way the folkhögskola was a tool for the nation, especially in Norway and Denmark, where this was an additional avenue to cultivate good and educated citizens. In Sweden the important thing was the student tradition, one had one’s student cap on, and so on. This was

the academic way, and was strictly emphasized. In Denmark and Norway, people had more respect for those with folkhögskola education. […]

There is a pedagogy that the folkhögskola has always been proud of, which is that people would sit together in a circle. When I came to SVF, they were still sitting in desk rows, which I thought was peculiar, from my experience with the folkhögskola in Gothenburg. Now we don’t have those old desks.

The folkhögskola faced a decline in the 1960s when there was a renewed emphasis on developing the gymnasium track, and everyone was to become a student at the university. It seemed like the folkhögskolor would go out of business. It was about that time that I arrived here. And I remember that there were many who were concerned about this. And I remember exclaiming at one point, “Do you think I would have applied to this position if I didn’t believe in this? If I didn’t think that this had a future?” And it has proven to be the case that this school still had life and vitality. And so we invested in education in media studies, the Journalism Line, and another idea was that we would start this exchange with America, the international College Line. This was in part a demonstration that the folkhögskola was not waiting for anything to come from above, we were not waiting for some decision from the education department, but rather that we could take action ourselves. So long as we had money to cover it all, we could do whatever we wanted. And I liked that.

MS: What are your hopes for congregations today and Christianity in Sweden?

[…] I would say that the free church idea is the only one that is constructive for the future. This is something that we have learned from America, among other places, and from the ecumenical movement, and the strong charismatic movement, such as the Pentecostal movement. […] It has to do with how one builds congregations; it is not like with a national church, in which one has the congregations drawn out on a map in advance. But one instead builds a congregation “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” And each Christian, wherever they are, who have received God’s word and decided to be Christians, these are who comprise the church in every country. All of us are part of this, regardless of whether we are Pentecostal “friends” or members of the Church of Sweden.

One cannot deny that it is also good for religion to have a public side in a historically Christian country like Sweden. Swedish Social Democrats have always said that religion is a “private matter.” But that really is not enough. In a modern society, one has to have some kind of public side. And you have that in America, where you can hardly become president without announcing which church you belong to – and where every church is a free church. […]

The church will continue on, it is not up to us. We can only believe. But the forms that it will take will be exciting to watch.