A.L. Skoog: Translating a heritage

by Mark Carlson

The Pietist revivals of the 19th century sought to better connect people with the church. They were Christians devoted to translating their experience with God from their heads to their hearts. Conventicle groups studied the word and spent time singing songs that reflected their new-found spiritual awakening. Covenant historian Karl Olsson states (in By One Spirit),

The unifying experience of the Mission Friends was salvation. They were one in the Crucified. They gave the freest expression to this in their singing. The name ‘läsare’ [“readers”] by which Mission Friends were designated in Sweden emphasized the importance of a devotional reading of the Bible and related literature; it would have been equally correct to call these people ‘singers.’ For nothing seems to have brought them closer to a union with Christ than the singing of their hymns.

The Evangelical Covenant Church has retained some of this musical tradition and seems to acknowledge the fact that music has the ability to reach people in a way that the spoken word often cannot. According to J. Irving Erickson, the Covenant inherited a responsibility to preserve this heritage. In his book Twice-Born Hymns, Erickson says, “In the early days of the Scandinavian-American churches there was a body of hymnody quite common to all, but now it seems that the Covenant has become the custodian of this tradition.” As he saw it, the other denominations (such as Augustana, Evangelical Free, Baptist General Conference, and others) had merged or drifted from this specific Pietist heritage in favor of mainline American musical traditions. Two musicians, Lina Sandell and Oscar Ahnfelt, greatly impacted the Covenant’s use of songs in the expression of faith. However, their legacy would have been smaller had it not been for the efforts of one American Covenanter, Andrew Skoog, who helped to translate this heritage to the English-speaking generations.

Throughout the 1800s, several talented hymn writers emerged from the revivals. Among them was Lina Sandell, born in the town of Fröderyd, Småland in 1832. In 1860, Lina accepted a position as editor of publications for the Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (Evangelical Homeland Foundation), the revival wing of the Church of Sweden. Formed in 1856, the EFS served as a focal point for the expanding revival movement and used published materials as its primary way of resourcing conventicles. Lina’s first responsibility with EFS was to help in putting together the organization’s first hymnal, Sionstoner (“Tones of Zion”). Amid her other involvements, Lina served as an editor for over 40 years on a number of other publications and hymn collections. By the time of her death in Stockholm in July of 1903, she had written thousands of hymns and poems.

Much of Sandell’s popularity can be attributed to Oscar Ahnfelt, whose music accompanied many of her hymns. Ahnfelt also worked closely with Carl Olof Rosenius and others setting their poems to music. Ahnfelt’s intention had been to become a minister like his father, but he lost interest in theological studies and made his way to Stockholm to study music instead. It was there that Ahnfelt came in contact with the preaching of Rosenius and experienced a spiritual awakening. It was not long before he was active in conventicles, singing and playing his ten-string guitar. Ahnfelt was sent out by the EFS as an itinerate musician, earning him the title “spiritual troubadour.” The first edition of Ahnfelt’s collection of hymns came out in 1850, Andeliga Sånger (“Spiritual Songs”), published with the financial assistance of the opera singer Jenny Lind. Eleven more editions would follow, with half of the music being composed by Ahnfelt and much of the lyrics attributed to Sandell, as well as Rosenius. Lind had also promoted the music of Ahnfelt and Sandell while touring America with P.T. Barnum.

The Pietists who immigrated to America and had been influenced by the revival brought with them the songs and hymns that they held so dear. As the immigrants organized into synods and denominations, they used the same hymnals, including Andeliga Sånger. However, more songwriters began contributing new music, including Andrew L. Skoog. Skoog had been born in Värmland, Sweden in 1856. His father, a tailor, felt there were better possibilities for the family in America and they re-settled in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1869. Andrew, being the eldest child, helped in his father’s shop, preventing him from regularly attending school. As a young man, Skoog was not a committed Christian and had his sights set on theatre, and had an interest in music from an early age. Without his knowledge, Skoog’s mother had asked Rev. Skogsbergh to use her son as an accompanist during some revival meetings in St. Paul. Skoog had a conversion experience while playing the organ during one of these meetings. In reflecting upon this experience, Skoog stated, “God not only saved my soul, but awakened the dormant gift within me.” It marked the beginning of a long relationship working together, and as Skogsbergh had become known as the “Swedish Moody,” Skoog would become known as the “Swedish Sankey.”

In 1879, Skoog joined Skogsbergh at the Chicago Tabernacle to work with the music ministry. When Skogsbergh moved to serve the Minneapolis Tabernacle, Skoog was not far behind in making the move himself. His work in the tabernacles was primarily that of a musician and director, but in 1888 Skoog began to compose his own music. Congregants at the Minneapolis Tabernacle began to look forward to the possibility that the choir might sing an anthem that Skoog had composed the previous week. In reflecting upon his songwriting, Skoog once wrote, “How did I come to write any certain song?… Some came easily and without any effort; others required not a little thought and patience.” In 1893 he started a monthly choir journal, called Gittit, which he published for several years. Skoog was humble about his hymn-writing as he reflected, “The lyrics I compose are not so very many, but it took me some time to discover that I was not a poet. Yet longer it took me to realize my limitations as a composer.”

Skoog played a pivotal role in the Covenant’s transition from Swedish to English as its primary language. In the early part of his career he was regularly translating English hymns into Swedish for use in his choirs. Later in his life he was doing just the opposite to accommodate the younger generation of Covenanters who desired to worship in English. In an obituary on Skoog, the anonymous author relates a desire for more of his hymns to be translated in hopes that his legacy would continue. The author writes, “Some of the hymns listed below may have been translated into English, otherwise they ought to be.” One of the texts was När Morgonen Kommer (“When the morning comes”). I have taken up this challenge to translate the hymn, as it appeared in the journal Gittit: Manadtlig Sangtidning vol.8.

The music is to be played “with feeling,” as noted on the sheet music. The text is loosely based on Isaiah 21:12, and parallels Israel’s journey through times of goodness and times of hardship. It is a song of struggle, but also a song of hope. God may allow us to go through difficult times on our own journey, but he is always there to lead us on. This theme appears regularly in the hymns of the Pietists. Skoog’s hymn offered hope to the many immigrants trying to find their way through the darkness, toward the eternal morning promised by God.

The lyrics of the mission friends convey deep convictions of God as their sustainer, and serve to express the theology that lay at the core of the revival movement. The work of Sandell, Ahnfelt and Skoog represents many more people who used music as a means to conveying their spiritual experiences, among them Joel Blomqvist, Nils Frykman, Johan Nystrom and Carl Boberg. Skoog helped to translate this heritage across a language divide. As the preface to The Covenant Hymnal states, “The formal and informal hymnals of the denomination have represented both continuity and change, tradition and renewal, memory and hope. And the music has likewise given identity to a people.” I am struck by the way Sandell, Ahnfelt and Skoog honored past music traditions while also seeking to incorporate fresh language and music to the Pietist tradition. Thus, we look forward to how we will continue to worship through praise songs and hymns, new and old, in years to come.

När Morgonen Kommer

“When the Morning Comes”

Translated by Mark Carlson

verse 1.
The morning follows a darkened night; Have you well forgotten oh my soul?
When you think you need to catch up, Be still! God knows the goal.
When the morning comes, when the morning comes, and the sun beams forth on high;
When the morning comes, when the morning comes, there will be joy and delight
verse 2.
Yet if your God darkens the way for you, and you are in the valley deep down.
You hear monsters roar – Do not fear or fret! Your help is nearing, don’t frown.
verse 3.
How good that “God helps, when the morning dawns!” He knows what you can bear.
In hard times he gives us direction. He’ll lead us on the way with care.
verse 4.
Lift your eyes upon heaven’s gates! Why, it is already glowing there.
Soon you will go home to a tearless land. There’s no greater joy found elsewhere.

Selected references:

Johnson, Gustav E. A.L. Skoog, Covenant Hymn-Writer and Composer (Chicago: System Press, 1937). Covenant Archives: A.L. Skoog, Box 5 Folder 5.

Lund, Nils W., Oscar E. Olson, Oscar G. Strom. Nils Frykman, J.A. Hultman, A.L. Skoog: Biographical Sketches (Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1943).

Author Unknown. Skoog Obituary. Publication Unknown. 1934. Covenant Archives: A.L. Skoog, Box 5 Folder 11.

Author Unknown. Obituary: When Morning Comes. Tabernakelklockan Vol. 22, No. 12. November 25, 1934. Covenant Archives: Skoog, Box 5 Folder 5.

Carlson, Nathaniel. Letter to A.L. Skoog. Dec. 26 1929. Covenant Archives: Skoog, Box 5 Folder 6.