Loving the prairie neighbor: Christian Orphans’ Home of Nebraska

by David M. Gustafson

The Christian Orphans’ Home of Phelps Center, Nebraska, began in 1888 in response to human need — a response prompted by love of God and neighbor. The orphanage was founded by Axel Nordin (1858-1912), pastor of the Swedish Free Mission at Phelps Center, now Holcomb Evangelical Free Church. Nordin took into his home three daughters of L.W. Larson, a blacksmith from Loomis, who was without his wife and unable to care for the girls. By Nordin’s act of charity, he laid the foundation for this work of caring for and educating orphans and other dependent children.

Since Nordin was a bachelor, he enlisted the help of his mother, Anna Stina. It soon became generally known that they took in destitute children and orphans, and consequently received additional applications. Within a year the number of children increased from three to 19, with 11 boys and eight girls.

The Free Mission at Phelps Center had been established in 1880 by Fredrik Franson, who along with burgeoning Free Mission Friends drew upon the Swedish pietism of P.P. Waldenström and American revivalism of D. L. Moody. When the home incorporated in 1889, the board included Axel Nordin, John Dahlström and several highly respected citizens of Phelps County, as well as J. G. Princell and John Martenson of Chicago.

The home’s early history, titled Hågkomster och Minnen (Recollections and Memories), reported that Nordin knew that such an undertaking would require effort and sacrifice and that the education of the children entrusted to his care came with great responsibility. This work was “not the management of perishable things or temporal capital, but the care of eternal souls whose formation shaped essentially who they would become.… To undertake such an exceedingly great responsibility before God and humanity was not to be taken lightly.”

In 1890 the home continued after Nordin accepted a call to become pastor of the Oak Street Free Mission, now First Evangelical Free Church, in Chicago. Miss Mary Johnson (1850-1927), affectionately known as “Tant Mary,” came from Chicago to assume responsibility as the housemother. She was assisted by others, including Charles Norlen, whom she married. The Norlens themselves adopted two of the orphans, Jennie and Reuben.

The orphanage was designed to be a safe and healthy environment. Most of the children came from where “hardly a ray of human love and affection was known.” The children often arrived “dirty, clothed in rags, and devoid of humane treatment.” It was reported:

They have perhaps a father in their life, but he consumes everything he earns and then wastes everything he possesses, and moreover, when he comes home, he is a terror to his family. … They have perhaps a mother, but because of sorrow and hardship, she has become so overwhelmed that she has hardly a trace of motherly instinct left. … O, the poor children that are raised in such homes! What can we expect will become of them? How bleak is the future for these small, innocent creatures! Should not philanthropy’s (människokärleken, love of humankind) sunlight displace the dark, heavy clouds that hang over these troubled homes, ready to crush so many of their futures?

The Free Mission Friends who supported this work maintained a theological view of social obligation in this world and eschatological hope for the world to come. In light of the circumstances that “put innocent children in the most horrific distress, without homes and without care” and in “hearing the heart-rending cries for help until the blood curdles in one’s veins,” they were prompted to ask: “Why all this suffering? Why all this sin? Why such neglect?”

Like earlier Pietists whose sense of social obligation was shaped by the Bible, these Free Mission Swedes believed it was their responsibility to care for God’s creation, and asked, “Should we not all be struck by the Master’s words: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.’” They held to the conviction that they were “here on earth to protect and care for each other.” While they looked forward to the Second Coming as a day of rejoicing for many, they believed also it would be a day of woe for those who showed neglect.

When Nordin presented his plan for the children’s home at the Free Mission’s meeting at Phelps Center in 1889, it was received with great interest. Since no orphanage existed among the Swedish free-church denominations in America at the time, the need was easily recognized. The Free Mission preachers from different parts of the country pledged their support, and interest continued among their churches as well as other Swedish-American denominations. Although the home was supported mostly by Swedes, the doors were open to every needy child of any race or religious faith as long as room and funds permitted.

From the beginning, the primary objective of the home was “to be a Christian home” — a home that surrounded the children with Christian influence. With such close proximity to the Free Mission church in Phelps Center — just five minutes away — the children attended Sunday school and occasional preachers’ meetings. Regarding the children, it was reported:

Not a few have given their hearts to God, and profess faith in Christ. It is certainly great to see human beings saved from temporal suffering and destruction, but how much greater is it to see them saved eternally. Temporal life and happiness are valuable enough but do not compare with eternal life and happiness. How beautiful it is to hear the children’s testimonies when they say they will live for Jesus and obey him. We believe, too, that while seeds planted in the children’s minds may soon be forgotten and we may not see the long-awaited harvest as soon as we would like, the seeds will sooner or later bear fruit. When we have sown and watered, have we done our part; God makes it grow.

Clearly, the home not only observed the mandate to care for others but also the mandate to proclaim the good news of Jesus, emphasizing the pietist principle of personal conversion.

The Christian Orphans’ Home sought the children’s safety and wellbeing, much like the biblical concept of shalom that includes wholeness or holistic health of body and soul, and living in peace with God and fellow man. From the beginning, the home was to be a “life-saving institution” (räddningsanstalt). Sometimes it was not mostly orphans who needed protection and care but defenseless children, victims of domestic violence. In light of the home’s purpose, the early history records:

What a contrast between what things should and could be, and how they are! A happy home is the best imitation on earth of heaven, while an unhappy home is the extreme opposite. To escape from such a “home” and enter a Christian orphanage is a benefit to these little ones… Therefore, a great deal of insight and understanding is required in order to lead and nurture the minds of these children in the right direction, and in this manner, we pluck the weeds that have taken root and started to grow, and replace them with what is wholesome and good.

During its years of operation the home purchased 240 acres of land, erected and expanded its dormitory, and added other buildings, including a school. In 1926, it relocated to a new facility west of Holdrege and changed its name to the Christian Children’s Home. The work continued until 1954, when growth of the foster care system in Nebraska enabled an alternative setting for the care of homeless and abused children.

Between the years 1888 and 1954, it is estimated that the home welcomed over 1,100 children. While some were residents briefly, others grew there to adulthood. The facility continues today as Christian Homes Care Community, providing nursing care and assisted living to senior adults.

The Christian Orphans’ Home remains an example of pietism that was theologically informed and socially engaged. Even during the early decades of the twentieth century when American fundamentalism was separating social action from the Christian life, the Christian Children’s Home practiced a faith that proclaimed the gospel in word and deed. This charity on the Nebraska prairie is an example of what it means to love God and neighbor.

Christian Children’s Home 50th Anniversary Album

This Home under God is divine revelation
That mercy and love is a force in our nation.
It proves to the skeptic, that faith is a fact,
Declaring itself in the gospel of act.
In honor to God and to Him be the glory,
A monument seldom proclaimed such a story.
This Home is a statue in beautiful art,
In living epistles on parchment of heart.
—John Anderson

David M. Gustafson serves as Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Placement at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where he teaches Evangelical Free Church history and courses in missional church.

See all articles by David M. Gustafson