Waldenström’s unlikely pupil

by Les Olson

Many who have grown up in an environment cultivated by the Swedish free-church movement have heard of the preacher Paul Peter Waldenström (1838-1917). While many might even be able to recall his central question of “Where is it written?,” it is virtually impossible to find much discussion of the connection between Waldenström and his most famous pupil. And no, I do not mean David Nyvall or other religious leaders.

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born in Gävle, Sweden in October 7, 1878. Music was a staple of the household as the family sang around a homemade pump organ, and Joel’s parents were probably choir members in Waldenström’s Bethlehem Church. There is no reason not to believe that the songs of Lina Sandell were often sung in the home. During the early 1890s the young Hägglund attended the Gävle Boys School where Waldenström taught Christianity, Greek, and Hebrew; Hägglund received Bs in biblical history and catechism. After his parents’ deaths, Hägglund and his brother Paul left for America in 1902. Known as either Joe Hillström, or more simply Joe Hill, he became the popular song writer for the International Workers of the World—“the Wobbies”—and coined the memorable criticism of preachers who promised “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” In 1914 he was convicted of a murder he in all likelihood did not commit and executed the next year by a Utah firing squad. Joe Hill then “entered the pantheon of martyred American folk heroes...who seem[ed] to float with Paul Bunyan and John Henry and Johnny Appleseed in a celestial realm somewhere between fiction and legend,” as biographer William M. Adler wrote in The Man Who Never Died (17).

I can still recall the emotional impact of the first time I saw a clip of Joan Baez’s rendition from Woodstock of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and the story of the man who never died. But that alone is not what compelled me to explore the link between Joe Hill and my Swedish heritage. I had long known that all four of my grandparents had emigrated from Sweden to Boston. But other than the names of the villages which they had left, I could pry little additional information from my grandparents or my parents. Little did I expect that I would eventually uncover a strong labor union heritage with accomplishments that survive a century later. My mother’s father built upon his years as a blacksmith’s apprentice in Gothenburg to become a member of the International Union of Steam Engineers in Chicago, and his nephew would patent a Hamilton-Beach coffee maker. My father’s father became a skilled carver and shop steward for his local of the Granite Cutters’ International Association, and the twelve-foot high granite eagles that he helped carve still bear silent witness over the city from the four corners of the Boston Custom House tower.

But never mind pie in the sky—their concern had been to make sure that there was a little on the kitchen table. Their struggle was thus not unlike that which I saw in the recent generations my wife’s family. Though they had roots going back to the second Pilgrim ship in 1621 and reigned among the elite of the Connecticut River gods, their ancestors ended up working long shifts in the New England cotton mills that their family capital had built.

While I was still trying to make sense of all of this information, my 96-year-old mother suddenly passed away. Despite her age she had been in relatively good health and had even begun taking evening walks again for the first time since the pandemic struck. But one evening she began to suffer from chills and a fever and quickly passed away less than two days later. She had been raised a child of the Evangelical Covenant Church—confirmed in Chicago’s Edgewater Church, the wife and mother of Covenant ministers, a member of numerous church choirs, and a decade-long resident of Covenant Village.

On the day I received the news of her death I was engaged in my second career of providing childcare for some of my grandchildren. While I was rolling out a lump of Play-Doh with my three-year-old, she turned and looked me in the eye and said “Your mommy will come back to life.” When in shock I asked what she had said, instead of a hesitant shrug she repeated the quiet affirmation that “Your mommy will come back to life.”

And then, while the image I held in my mind was that of my mother and not the martyred Swedish songwriter, I heard the familiar refrain: “‘I never died,’ said he.”

As I see it, there is no conflict between Hill’s criticism of “pie in the sky” and his reputation as the man who never died. That legacy was coined in lyrics written by Alfred Hayes about a decade after Hill’s death, put to music by Earl Robinson, and made famous in concerts by Paul Robeson:

“‘The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
They shot you Joe’ says I.
‘Takes more than guns to kill a man’
Says Joe ‘I didn’t die’…
Where workers strike and organize
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill…”

And my mother is still alive for her three-year-old great-granddaughter. There’s obviously more meaning in the life everlasting than we can imagine.