Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

I recently finished reading for the second time the English translation of Levi’s Journey, an engaging novel by Swedish author, Per Olof Enquist. The novel brings together fiction and history and makes for fascinating reading. A friend in Sweden, Dr. Inger Selander of Lund University, has lectured on the novel in Sweden and Hamburg, Germany. She states that “some of what the author does is close to actual occurrences while other aspects of the factual may be questioned.” It is the story of the two men, Levi Pethrus and Sven Lidman who were instrumental in bringing the Swedish Pentecostal movement from obscurity into the largest of the free churches in Sweden.

What I found fascinating in the novel was that the profound influence of the Moravian revival movement in northern Sweden in the 18th century and on our own movement in the 19th century extends even to the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century. The similarities are striking. Adherents of the Moravian revival were also called “readers” because of their use of the Bible and other spiritual literature. Other similarities of the 18th century revival include lay preaching, informal conventicles, the need for inner conversion, and a stress on the free grace of God through the blood of Christ.

Enquist makes frequent references in the novel to the influence of Moravian hymnody on Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (The Evangelical National Foundation) within the Church of Sweden which was Enquist’s heritage. Levi’s Journey shows the influence on the music and theology of the Moravians on the Pentecostal movement and other free churches, including the Covenant both in Sweden and in America. Our first official hymnal Sions Basun (1908) contained a section of fourteen hymns on “The Cleansing Blood of Jesus” which is the strong emphasis of Moravian hymnody. As Karl Olsson said, “the blood and wounds suggest primarily the suffering and atoning love of Christ in which the soul may rest.”

In the early 50s, Karl Olsson gave a lecture: “Covenant Beginnings: Mystical.” He noted the preoccupation of the hymnody of the Swedish Moravians with bloody and erotic imagery such as “swimming in Jesus’ blood” and becoming “little blood worms who would live happily in his wounds.” This is not entirely absent from our own earlier lyrics. Fortunately, such imagery has been refined and modified in the songs of the 19th century.

One of the more refined and modified hymns from the Swedish Moravians of 18th century, “O Let Your Soul Now Be Filled with Gladness,” is still one of the favorite hymns among Covenanters. We seem to have no trouble with the blood imagery in the phrase of verse 1:

O let your soul now be filled with gladness,
Your heart redeemed, rejoice indeed!
Oh may the thought banish all your sadness
That in his blood you have been freed....”

Another trace of a familiar Moravian theme comes in verse 3:

Praise be to You, Oh spotless Lamb,
Who through the desert my soul are leading
To that fair city of joy exceeding,
For which you bought me as I am.

Our Covenant hymnodist, the late Rev. J. Irving Erickson, saw this hymn as a good example of the type of Moravian hymnody popular in the mid-1700s which speaks “of a spirit that is freer and more joyous than that of the average Pietist.” The author of the text is Peter Jonsson Aschan (1726-1813) who was active in Moravian circles as principal of the school in Växjö in southern Sweden and who wrote poetry with a Moravian emphasis.

I have two observations from my reading of Levi’s Journey. First, in revisiting the Moravian tradition in Sweden it is important to recognize that the Covenant did not begin with the Rosenian movement in the 19th century as some may be inclined to believe. Swedish Moravian “readers” were on the scene long before we arrived and contributed significantly to the movement from which we came. My other observation from Levi’s Journey is that among the Swedish Moravians there was a refusal to institutionalize their movement as happened with other free churches. They just faded away, willing to be and do as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). In a time when bigger is better, when church growth seems to be our highest priority, it is good that we remember the legacy of our Moravian forebears.

My biggest surprise in the novel, however, was to discover that Levi Pethrus’ earlier leadership in the socialist cause continued to reflect his later strong social engagement as a Pentecostal leader in the cause of the poor. The institutionalizing of the Pentecostal movement served to divert him from his earlier passion, a regret he expressed on his deathbed.

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg