Himmel på Prärien – Heaven on the Prairie

by Tom Tredway

This year is the 150th birthday of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod and the 125th of the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant, two of the Swedish-American denominations begun in North America by immigrants. However, the first religious band of Swedes to make its way into the American Midwest in the 19th century was made up of neither Lutherans nor Mission Friends. That distinction belongs to the followers of Erik Jansson, who with their leader/prophet sailed from Sweden to Denmark to New York, made their way by boat up the Hudson, across the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes to Chicago, and finally by foot to the prairies of Henry County, Illinois. There in 1846 they founded a communal farming colony that they named Bishop Hill, after Biskopskulla, their founder’s home parish in Sweden, near Uppsala. The prairies of Western Illinois are pretty flat, but the South Fork of the Edwards River has cut a shallow valley through them, so if you bicycle the forty-five miles southeast from Rock Island or Moline, you will get some feel of hills as you get close to Bishop Hill.

Fifty years ago as the centennial of the Augustana Synod approached, Conrad Bergendoff, then President of Augustana College, was invited to submit an essay on his church to Kyrkohistorisk årsskrift, the leading Swedish journal in church history. Bergendoff was one of the principal 20th century American interpreters of Swedish and Swedish-American religious history. As he summed up the history of his church, Bergendoff conceded that the story had “a strange beginning” – the Janssonists. Bergendoff called Jansson, who taught a variety of Christian perfectionism that denied that a true Christian could sin, “a religious fanatic.”

Perhaps this excess of fervor was understandable. The Janssonists’ last years in Sweden and their first in Illinois were hard. A belief that a Christian would attain perfection may have compensated for the fierce opposition in their old homeland and for the wretched conditions in which the colonists subsisted once they arrived in their new one. The colonists sheltered in dugout caves through their first Illinois winters, and many of their number who had managed to survive the trip across the Atlantic died of disease after they arrived. A party of Norwegians even brought cholera to the colony in 1849.

Within five years they had broken the sod, harvested crops (especially straw used to make brooms) and begun to sell some of their products (including a liquor called brännvin) in neighboring towns. And they had erected a number of buildings: a wooden Colony Church and a brick headquarters, now called “the Steeple Building.” It had an elegant Palladian façade and a simple one-handed clock. (When you are farming Henry County the reckoning of hours is enough; even today minutes can be spared in rural Illinois.) They also built a three-story hotel, a colony store, a school, and a post office. Most of these structures still stand. Between twelve to fifteen hundred Janssonists emigrated from Sweden; at its peak the colony held about one thousand souls.

Jansson held that the persecution he had suffered from church and civil authorities which drove him and his followers from Sweden was a sign that theirs was the true faith. Historians, on the other hand, suggest that this oppression was a sign of the rigidity of 19th century Swedish society. Small religious gatherings held outside the state church were prohibited by the 18th century Konventikelplakat or Conventicle Act, which was still in force in the mid-19th century. All Pietists, including Janssonists, experienced its rigors, including imprisonment.

The prophet of Bishop Hill did in fact die at the hand of his enemies, but in America, not Sweden. He was shot in Cambridge, Illinois at the time of a trial set for the Henry County courthouse in 1850 (only four years after and seventy-five miles to the northeast from the murder of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, in Carthage). Jansson’s followers laid him in state and waited three days for his resurrection. When that did not come to pass, they buried him on the prairie, assigning direction of the commune to a group of trustees.

One of these successors to Jansson had been to a Shaker utopian colony where celibacy prevailed and had come back to Illinois attempting to impose it at Bishop Hill. If fifteen years of communism was not enough for the Swedes, hard times all across America in the late 1850s, financial double-dealing by some of the colony’s own leaders and the threat of mandated celibacy were. In 1861 it was decided to disband the cooperative and distribute its property among both the colonists and certain creditors. As the Civil War broke out, a company consisting of many of these communists enlisted and fought under both Grant and Sherman. One member of that Bishop Hill detachment was Olof Krans, who after he came marching home from war, turned to painting houses. Then, sensing his gifts were greater, Krans began to do portraits of fellow citizens and eventually to paint remarkable primitive scenes of colony life. My own favorite among the latter is “It Will Soon Be Here,” which shows field workers rushing to load their hay wagon while a great black thunder cloud sweeps toward them from the western summer sky.

If you visit the Colony Church, you can see the portraits by Krans. They bear scrutiny. The faces are sober, even grim; one wonders whether these folk practiced their frowns before sitting down to be painted. Of course, like most immigrants from Europe in the 19th century they had much to be grim about. Family members died on the arduous journey, children often succumbed to disease early in their lives (even in comfortable homes like Lincoln’s), the prairie sod was tough, and few who came to America might ever hope to see their homeland and families again.

But a 21st century visit to Bishop Hill, especially if it falls on a warm summer afternoon, is not a grim experience. There are several pleasant places to eat lunch or supper, and the small colony store has Swedish-American trinkets aplenty. You can buy a Himmel på Prärien (“Heaven on the Prairie”) T-shirt reasonably priced, and the town square’s picnic benches and gazebo are shaded by oaks and maples and walnuts. Some of the old animosities have been forgotten, and these days every Swede of importance – royalty and their ambassadors included – makes the trip to Bishop Hill. The government which would not claim the Janssonists a century and a half ago now finds a visit to Bishop Hill obligatory. You should follow their lead if you find yourself in Western Illinois. But remember to watch out for ominous thunderheads piling up in the west.

Of course, though the coming of Swedes to the Middle West began with a zealot, that is far from the whole of the matter. The people who followed the Janssonists were presumably more moderate, though a colleague of Conrad Bergendoff, another American historian of the religiously-inspired immigration from Sweden to America, O. F. Ander, was not so sure. He, like Bergendoff, was asked to mark the Augustana Synod centennial with an essay for the Swedish Kyrkohistorisk årsskrift. Ander labeled the “America fever” that swept through Sweden in the mid-19th century and led to the vast emigration as a “mass psychosis.” He raised the further possibility that even the Swedish väckelserörelse (revival movement) which occurred in the same period could also be viewed in that light. (Ander, Professor of History at Augustana College, first expressed these ideas in a lecture at Uppsala University, where he was honored with an honorary doctorate in Theology.) One may or may not want to go as far as he did in judging the religious revivals of the 19th century. Maybe it would be better to leave the matter as Bergendoff did, by simply labeling the prophet of the first band of immigrants a fanatic. But it is certainly clear that many of the leaders of the 19th century Swedish-American religious groups were exceedingly zealous when attempting to convert or least to refute those who did not share their own particular religious and theological commitments.

One of the exercises of this year, 2010, that marks Lutheran and Covenant anniversaries might be to re-examine and clarify the values and the ideas with which more “mainline” or “orthodox” sorts of Protestantism made their way from Sweden to Illinois and points beyond. Were there important ways in which they were influenced by the same factors that produced Janssonism? Since most of them, not only the Mission Friends but the fathers of the Augustana Synod, had strong differences with the authorities of the Church of Sweden, the manner in which they differed from the Janssonists bear careful examination. Another such anniversary exercise could be to review the differences between the varieties of Swedish-language Christianity which took root and grew in the New World. It would also be worthwhile to seek the commonalities which might at least by now, a century and a half later, bring them closer together. The immigrant churchmen were keenly aware of their differences; at the present time the beliefs and practices which they had in common may be of larger significance.

A re-reading of George M. Stephenson’s 1932 classic, “The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration,” might be one place to begin. Karl Olsson’s history of the Covenant Church, “By One Spirit” (1962), would be another. Augustana’s 150th anniversary has been anticipated by the recent publication (2008) of Maria Erling and Mark Granquist’s “The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America.” You can see the same sober expressions on the faces of 19th century Mission Covenant or Augustana Lutheran forebears in these books that you find on the walls of the Colony Church at Bishop Hill. Maybe similar factors were responsible for the similar downturns to their mouths. Anyway, it was not until well into the twentieth century that Christians, Pietists included, seem to have allowed themselves to smile when sitting for their portraits.

In any case, a trip to Bishop Hill would not be a bad supplement to anniversary ceremonies, conferences and reading. You can have a look at the stolid faces in the Krans gallery, contemplate the fertile prairies on which the first immigrants eventually prospered, and try the bean soup at P. L. Johnson’s Gift Shop and Café or the desserts at the Red Oak Comfort Food & Pie Co. Between the awful seriousness of the 19th century progenitors (Janssonist, Covenant, Lutheran, Baptist, Free Church, Methodist, and what else) and the easier lives which their great grandchildren now lead, one might wish to perceive the workings of Providence which has brought the descendants of the immigrants to these 2010 anniversaries. Though not quite so spectacular and extreme as the Janssonists’, the religious history of much of Swedish-America, especially in its early phases, seems to have been characterized by a sort of movement between suffering and judgment on the one hand and happy delight and the relaxation that comes with prosperity on the other. So a visit to Henry County might stir up reflection about one’s own religious history as well as that of the colonists of Bishop Hill and their often forgotten sect. It is worth remembering that almost all of the 19th century immigrants from Sweden to the Midwest had been touched by Pietism, in one form or another. Perhaps, sitting in the Bishop Hill gazebo on a quiet June afternoon, one could try to figure out why Christians with Swedish roots are still struggling to understand one another, when so much of their heritage and faith is common – even if their history in the New World did begin with “a religious fanatic.”