The company we keep

by Mark Safstrom

It was the summer of ’39 – that is, 1839 – and the young Carl Olof Rosenius was tormented by two lingering doubts: “Does God exist?” and if so, “is the Bible really God’s word?” Rosenius had had no shortage of spiritual mentors in his youth, including the charismatic laywoman preacher Maja Lisa Söderlund, who had previously helped him regain confidence in his faith. In this more recent episode of doubt, one might have expected him to be content with the many great friends and mentors that he already had.

However, being a non-conformist Christian in those days had been no easy journey, and Rosenius had experienced some ostracism in his student years. This sense of otherness had prompted serious questions of spiritual identity, and it seemed important to Rosenius to allow himself to keep wrestling with these tough questions. So, he decided to seek out the friendship of another non-conformist preacher, George Scott. Scott was a foreigner and a Methodist employed to serve the English-speaking workers in Stockholm, but had also gathered a sizeable following among the Swedes. By most accounts he was “the wrong crowd,” and friends warned Rosenius against spending time with Scott, lest he become – gasp! – a Methodist.

But other friends, including Old Maja Lisa, thought this could prove to be a productive friendship, and expressed their support. After getting involved in the ministries at Scott’s church, Rosenius quickly found resolve in his own faith, and refined his ecumenical strategy. To his friends who were still concerned, he explained:

“I would have it be understood that even if I spend periods of my short time working together with Methodist preachers, then this will be in accordance with what I have already explained are the principles and conditions, namely that I will be working for Christ’s church, might offer my life, my strength for Christ and his commands – not for Wesley or Luther, who are dead, who were servants who did not wish to be the head of the congregation – might offer my life, my service for the one holy universal church. Its members may be childish enough to want to be called after Paul, Apollos, Cephas – it makes no difference to me what name they take. So long as they are Christ’s, then they are my brothers and I wish to serve them.”

What is striking about Rosenius’s experience is that when he had doubts about faith, his recovery of faith was achieved not by retreating into what he already knew, but instead by seeking out new friends. The end result of his friendship with Scott was not that he became a Methodist, but rather that he became a stronger and more effective Lutheran preacher. Scott would later be forced to leave Stockholm, and Rosenius would take his place, quickly rising to become the most prominent preacher of his generation.

A common theme in this issue is developing strategies for forming and deepening friendships. Christa Mazzone Palmberg’s opening article offers an invitation to rediscover what it means to truly be present to our friends and to God. Phil Johnson’s remarks at the Pietisten picnic last summer presented us with a renewed charge to “expand our friendships,” something that has long been a premise of this journal and the community that surrounds it. Warren Lindstrom reflects on the process of making friends and the rewards of sustaining ongoing, open conversations with those friends. Tom Tredway shares with us another installment of memories of the interaction between Covenanters and Augustana Lutherans, which is an ecumenical exchange that has greatly informed this journal over the years. And Chrissy Larson encourages us to find the energy and inspiration from Christ to be persistent in making friends in those cases where differences can make it particularly difficult.

In our workplaces and churches and everywhere in between, we daily have opportunities to retreat or advance in the cause of expanding our friendships. Making friends is something worth doing, but also worth doing right. In those cases where we might find ourselves called to keep company with the “wrong crowd,” we can get off track by forgetting our spiritual identity. By regularly reminding ourselves of the Christian purposes of friendship, even the “wrong crowd” can prove to be worthwhile company.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom