St Paul MN – USA
Rosenius 200th Birth Annivesary Conference
Johannelund Theologiska Högskola, Uppsala
February 3-4, 2016
Rosenius in America: His Influence on American Religion, Historical and Contemporary.
It had been an experience of this writer, repeated numerous times, to visit some Christian congregation in the United States with roots in the great nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigration. When my hosts learn that I am a religious historian, with interests in the religious aspects of that immigration, they will often wish to show me around the church building and talk about its history. Many times they will say something like this: “We have some old books, somewhere, that you might want to see.” This usually means being dragged into some closet somewhere, where I am shown several shelves of dusty old books in the Scandinavian languages. Most frequently prominently displayed are volumes of Carl Olof Rosenius, editions of Pietisten, Epistelen till de Romare, Betraktelser, Samlade, and other various works. It is interesting to know that my hosts value these books, even though they cannot read them and aren’t really sure what they are about. Often in the church library are English versions of these same works, but it is not clear that they would know of any connection. Discernable to the trained eye, but much more difficult to detect, would be the lasting theological influences of Rosenius within the life and theology of that congregation; difficult, but I believe still powerfully present though unspoken.
The nineteenth-century leader of the Swedish religious awakening, Carl Olof Rosenius, lived and worked only in Sweden. But this does not mean that his influence was limited to that country, rather, through his writings and through the work of those he influenced, his religious and devotional work became known in the English-speaking world. This was primarily through the religious leaders within the Scandinavian migration to North America, those who founded Scandinavian-speaking denominations (Lutheran and others) in the United States and Canada during the nineteenth century. Though these religious leaders, the writings of Rosenius were printed in North America, initially in the Scandinavian languages, and then in the twentieth century, translated into English. Eventually the English-language versions would come to be disseminated beyond the Scandinavian-American world, and the works of Rosenius would enter parts of the wider American religious community. It would be an overstatement to suggest that Rosenius has had a major influence in America, but many of his works are still available to those who wish to explore them. As far as it is possible to tell, some of the works of Rosenius, especially his daily devotions (Betraktelser) have been in continuous publication in North America since at least 1860.
This study, then, will consider the influence of Rosenius in America, especially the history of his written legacy. First, to look at his direct contact with American Christians in the nineteenth century through his letters to the American and Foreign Christian Union, as published in its publication, The Christian World, between 1849 and 1864. Second, to examine his influence on the Scandinavian-American religious culture, especially through those religious leaders who brought the works of Rosenius to America, and had them published in this country in the Scandinavian languages. Third, to look at the efforts in the twentieth century to translate the writings of Rosenius into English, in an attempt to continue that religious culture that had been previously established. Fourth, to look at the legacy of Rosenius’ hymns in American hymnals, especially again to look at their translation into English. Finally, to think about the ways in which the writings of Rosenius have, through their English translations, have been disseminated into the wider American religious world.
The first instance of the influence of Rosenius in America came through his direct letters to an American religious organization, the non-denominational “American and Foreign Christian Union” (AFCU).i This group was one of hundreds of different mission societies founded by American Christians in the nineteenth century, whose aim was to support the dissemination of Evangelical Christianity, of a decidedly revivalistic-conversionistic variety, around the world. This group, led for many years by Presbyterian pastor Robert Baird, had as one of its main interests the “awakening” of Christianity among the established European churches (they considered these churches as nominally Christian, at best).ii The group cultivated and supported those religious leaders within the European churches who they believed would lead revivalistic awakenings within the churches. One such leader was Carl Olof Rosenius in Sweden, who was introduced to the leaders of the AFCU through his friend and mentor, the British Methodist preacher, George Scott.
Rosenius’ main connection to the AFCU was through his occasional letters to that group, detailed letters that outline his work in Sweden and the aspects of the religious awakenings that were happening there in the middle of the nineteenth century. These letters were printed in the periodical of the AFCU, The Christian World, and were address to Baird and his successors. The letters were often introduced to its readers as being from “Our Swedish Missionary,” and would likely have been the first introduction that many American readers would have had to Sweden, its religious life, and the awakening movements that were taking place there. There were 34 such letters written between 1849 and 1864; probably ending at that point due to Rosenius’s poor health (he died in 1868). These letters are descriptive of his work within the Swedish awakening, but do not really indicate in any depth his theological writings or positions. It would not be until the 1920s that English readers would be able to read the works of Rosenius in their own language.
The primary way that these works of Rosenius came to North America was through the religious leaders within the great nineteenth-century Scandinavian migration across the Atlantic. Between 1840 and 1914 an immense tide of Europeans immigration to North America, perhaps as many as 30-35 million people (depending on how many actually stayed and did not return to Europe). This massive migration included many Scandinavians, about 1.25 million Swedes and 1 million Norwegians, with lesser numbers of Danes and Finns.iii This was a major drain on the Scandinavian societies; perhaps up to 20 percent of the contemporary Swedish population, and 25 percent of the Norwegian. The result in the nineteenth century was the establishment of numerous and thriving Scandinavian communities in North America, primary in the upper Midwest region of the United States, and in the prairie provinces of Canada.
Although the main reason for this immigration was the migrant’s search for economic opportunity and advancement, there were significant religious factors involved as well. These religious factors were not the reason for immigration, but were certainly important factors in shaping the Scandinavian-American communities. The congregations and religious denominations formed by the Scandinavian immigrants were the largest and most important organizations within the immigrant world, and were the primary means of maintaining the language and culture of the homeland in the new North American world. The Scandinavian religious groups formed in the new world were organized and led by people who had been greatly influenced by the great awakening movements in nineteenth-century Scandinavia, by leaders such as Rosenius. These Swedish-American religious leader were, primarily, Pietists; they were not particularly happy with the spiritual state of the established Scandinavian territorial churches, and were not interested in replicating those churches among the Scandinavians in America. Rather, as many before them, these religious leaders saw America as a place where they could “start over,” and establish awakened or pietistic versions of Scandinavian Christianity, parallel to those being founded back home. As for the masses of immigrants, it is hard to tell; probably a good number of them had some sort of religious or social complaint about the established churches in Scandinavia, but the numbers of them who were directly influenced by the awakening is difficult to tell. But in North America the immigrants only had a choice between different versions of Scandinavian pietist churches, Lutheran or others; there were very few congregations in America that replicated the religious culture of the established Scandinavian churches. It will be helpful to briefly describe the nature of these immigrant religious denominations, first the Swedish American ones and then the Norwegian Americans.
Among Swedish Americans, the largest religious denomination was the Augustana Synod, which was self-consciously Lutheran.iv Though most of its leaders had been influenced by the awakening movement in Sweden, they were most closely associated with the conservative revivalists, like Rosenius, who wished to remain Lutheran and close to the Church of Sweden. The choice of the name “Augustana” reflected their interest in claiming a Lutheran confessional identity. To the other side of this religious world were the Swedish American Baptists and Methodists, who also came out of the revival, but who were influenced by Anglo-American traditions, and self-consciously rejected Lutheranism over issues such as baptism or sanctification. These were much small groups, and related closely to the Baptists or the Methodists in the United States. Between these two sides were awakened Christians who, following their colleagues in Sweden, increasingly moved away from a formal affiliation with Lutheranism. Many of these congregations and their leaders continued a general Lutheran ethos, but became more and more focused on the rights of the individual congregations and on a kind of ecumenical Biblicism. These congregations were related to the Mission Covenant movement in Sweden, but were unlike this group in two important matters. First of all, given the American context of voluntary religion, they were forced to develop their own separate and distinct denominations. Second, though they were alike in many ways, they could not agree on the parameters of this denominations, and the degree of organization involved. This movement eventually divided into two parts, the Swedish Mission Covenant Church and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church; the difference being as to the nature of power within these denominations and the degree of control that the denomination might have over the individual congregations.v
The divisions between these groups and the Lutheran Augustana Synod were formalized as a result of a bitter theological struggle in in 1870s and 1880s that mirrored similar struggles in
Sweden, especially the dispute over P.P. Waldenstöm and the doctrine of the Atonement. This battle was a sharp conflict within Swedish America, not so much over theological issue, but over the authority of the Lutheran confessions, the nature of Biblical authority, and the rights of the congregations as over and against the power of the denomination. Many of the members of “freer” Swedish-American congregations had originally been associated with Augustana congregations, but left (or were expelled) over such questions. The “freer,” congregationally oriented Swedish-Americans formed the Swedish Evangelical Free Church in 1884, while another group formed the Swedish Mission Covenant Church in 1885.
Most of these Swedish American denominations wanted, one way or another, wanted claim the spiritual legacy of C.O. Rosenius, particularly in the theological battles of the 1870s and 1880s. The Augustana Lutherans pointed out the fact that Rosenius had self-consciously remained Lutheran, and had his followers to follow his example. The Covenant and Free people pointed out that Rosenius had gone out of his way to draw all Christians together despite confession differences, and that Waldenström was Rosenius’ designated successor. In America this often meant a battle over Rosenius, and which group could properly claim his legacy in North America.
Though the Norwegian-American denominations mostly remained Lutheran, their institutional landscape was even more complicated than that of the Swedish Americans.vi The Norwegian-Americans were mainly pietist in nature, following the religious awakening in Norway begun by Hans Nielsen Hauge. But that movement was also fractured, both in Norway and especially in America. There were two wings and many centrist groups among the Norwegian Americans. The most confessionally Lutheran, and closest to the State Church of Norway was the Norwegian Synod (1853), while the “free, Haugeaner portion of the community was located in the Eielsen Synod (1846) and then the Hauge Synod (1876). The center of the Norwegian-American religious community was actually broken up into two separate groups, the Norwegian-Danish Augustana Synod and the Conference for Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Churches in 1870. A sharp battle over Predestination (or Election) in the 1880s fractured the Norwegian Synod, and several groups form the centrist United Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1890. Most of the Norwegian groups came together in a merger in 1917, but this occasioned smaller splinter groups in protest. Since these elements were different in nature from the Swedish-American denominations, Rosenius himself was not a major dividing issue, but there were ways into which Rosenius came; this shall be explored later.
Mark Granquist, “Swedish- and Norwegian-American Religious Traditions, 1860-1920,” Lutheran Quarterly 8(3), Autumn 1994, p. 301.
There were major rivalries between the Swedish American denominations over the legacy of Rosenius in America. Though the Swedish Baptists did not agree with Rosenius over his defense of infant Baptism, and the Methodists thought he did not go far enough on the question of entire sanctification, among both groups his devotional and spiritual writings were prized well enough. Rosenius’ works were irenic and biblicistic in way that these groups could appreciate, and many of his works found their way into congregations and home of these Swedish Americans. But the major rivalry over Rosenius came among the Lutherans and the Free/Covenant denominations.
The Augustana Lutherans prized Rosenius in that he both called for the awakening of the Church of Sweden, and that he stilled urged his followers to remain Lutheran, something that the leaders of the Augustana Synod also attempted to do. These leaders did not see the Augustana Synod as a replication of the Church of Sweden on American soil, but rather that it was a renewed and awakened Swedish Lutheranism in the new world. Still, it maintained a centralized polity (but not Bishops) and did not insist on conversion as a precondition for congregational membership. The Covenant and Free groups, on the other hand, criticized the Augustana Synod for being only partially renewed, and for clinging to confessional Lutheran theology rather than on the free Biblicism of the pietists. The struggle over the Atonement in the 1870s and 1880s was less about that doctrine and more about issues of authority and polity.vii
Since Rosenius died young, in 1868, it is impossible to tell how events would have worked out in Sweden and Swedish-America had he lived longer. In a sense, part of the battle here was a war over the legacy of Rosenius; had he lived, which side would he have supported?
Both Augustana and the Free/Covenant churches claimed that they were the true spiritual heirs of Rosenius, and that the other side had veered away from him. This goes to show the strength of the Rosenian legacy among Swedish Americans, that they all claimed his legacy.
Early in the history of Swedes in America, the works of Rosenius were circulated and then printed in their communities. Many copies of Rosenian works, especially bound editions of Pietisten were brought with the immigrants when they immigrated to the North America. Selections from Rosenius were standard fare in the early Swedish-American periodicals; as early as 1855 Augustana pastor and leader T.N. Hasselquist was printing such pieces in his newspaper Det Rätta Hemlandet. Another Augustana leader, Eric Norelius, wrote very positive comments about the piety and theology of Rosenius in an early (1878) American edition of the Betraktelser. Another Augustana leader, Olof Olsson issued pamphlets containing portions of Rosenius’ Romans commentary as ammunition in his battle against the “Waldentrömians” in the 1880s. Yet another Augustana leader of the next generation, Conrad Emil Lindberg, was described as a “staunch” Rosenian, and in his position as a long-time professor of theology at Augustana Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois, attempted to continue the legacy of Rosenian piety into the twentieth century.viii
Yet Augustana had no monopoly on the legacy of Rosenius. Many leaders of the Covenant and Free Church denominations also strongly prized the works of Rosenius, especially the Covenant leader C.J. Nyvall, who was described as an ardent Rosenian. These leaders emphasized that Rosenius was open to all awakened Christians (not just Lutherans), and that he prized the authority of the Bible above all else (even the Lutheran Confessions). It was a measure of his popularity that numerous editions of the works of Rosenius rolled off the presses of commercial Swedish-American printers in the late nineteenth century, especially Engberg and Holmberg in Chicago and Wall—- and Thulin in Moline, Illinois. These commercial printers were not taking sides in the theological and denominational struggles, but apparently there was a good market in the works of Rosenius, and they could sense the economic value of printing his works (if not the spiritual value).
Turning to the use and reception of Rosenius among the Norwegian Americans, the situation is somewhat different. The Norwegian Americans were not fighting to define the legacy of Rosenius between themselves, but rather were using his theological and devotional writings as a supplement to similar works produced in their own nineteenth-century religious awakenings. They perhaps differed among themselves as to their eagerness to do this, but not over which group got Rosenius “right.” For the roots of this history it is necessary to begin in Norway itself.
The acknowledged leader of the nineteenth-century Norwegian awakening was the lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge, who lived and worked a generation before Rosenius. Hauge was converted while plowing a field in 1796, and immediately came into conflict with Norwegian authorities for his unauthorized preaching. His preaching and writings however sparked a dramatic revival in Norway, and government persecution could do nothing to stop it. Hauge’s spiritual journey to conversion was troubled and agonized, and spiritual doubts continued to haunt him. The tendency was, then, for Haugean piety to mirror the spiritual struggles of its founder, and some have suggested that this type of piety is somewhat on the dark side, emphasizing that the struggle to find God and conversion can be long and difficult.
The next major revival in Norway occurred in the 1850s and 1860s, led by the theologian Gisle Johnson. Johnson’s approach to spiritual renewal has been characterized as being less dark and agonized than that of Hauge, and actually closer to the “one thing needful” of Rosenius himself. It is during this period of time that awakening leaders such as Johnson and Nils J.J. Laache (eventually a Bishop in the Church of Norway) began to import works of Rosenius (especially his devotional writings) and translate them into Norwegian. Rosenian piety thus became an important part of the spiritual awakening in Norway from the middle of the nineteenth century.ix
This piety was thus brought by Norwegians when they immigrated to North America, and numerous works of Rosenius, translated into Norwegian, were printed and distributed in the United States. The first edition of Rosenius printed in the United States, at least that this author has been able to discover, was a Norwegian translation of a Rosenius pamphlet on the Lord’s Prayer (Fadervor) printed in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1860.x Numerous other works were circulated in Norwegian-American religious circles well into the twentieth century.
This is not to say that Rosenius was equally well regarded by all sectors of the Norwegian American religious community. As we have seen, the Norwegian Americans were divided into at least three wings. Among the staunch Haugeaner in the one wing, Rosenius was viewed with some suspicion because they worried about the free and immediate nature of conversion in his writings; the older Haugean piety thought that this made conversion “too easy.” Some in the other wing of the Norwegian-American religious community, the strongly confessional Norwegian Synod, charged that Rosenius was confessionally suspect, having fallen into the error of antinomianism, or misunderstanding of the place of the law.
It was among the centrist groups, the ones who came together to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1890, that Rosenian piety received its strongest and most unequivocal support. Chief among these proponents of Rosenius was the Pastor Johan Nathan Kildahl, who served variously as president of the United Church and of its school, St Olaf College.xi A strong proponent of Rosenian piety, his attachment to this spiritual thought stemmed from Kildahl’s own personal experience; as a young seminary student he had faced a religious crisis, and found the way out of this struggle by reading the works of Rosenius. A popular and effective preacher, strongly Rosenian in nature, Kildahl even named one of his sons after the Swedish pietist, calling him Karl Olof Rosenius Kildahl (“Kork” to his friends and family).
The most popular and widespread edition on Rosenius in the Norwegian community was a compilation of selections from Rosenius’ works arranged by the Norwegian Lutheran Bishop Nils J.J. Laache. This work, entitled Klar och usvigelig Veiledning til Fred, was a series of daily devotions spread out over two months, leading the reader (hopefully) to peace with God.xii Judging from the publication history of this work it was immensely popular within the Norwegian American community, going through multiple printings and continuously in print through a 1929 edition printed by Augsburg Publishing House. Several of this authors’ colleagues at Luther Seminary (founded by the Norwegian-Americans) have told him that they were strongly affected by this work; one said that an older seminary professor suggested the book to him in the early 1980s when as a seminarian he was struggle with doubts about his faith (it worked!)
The Scandinavian-American religious groups produced a rich religious culture in the United States in the nineteenth century, and Rosenius was a definite part of this devotional culture. But this culture was swept away in less than a generation by the transition of all these groups to the use of the English language. It is quite startling to know how quickly this language transition happened; in 1918, the Scandinavian languages were predominant within the denominations, but by 1930 or so all that was swept away for the use of English. There are many factor involved with this. The First World War produced in the United States a zenophobic reaction against German language and culture, but really against anything foreign. Scandinavians were suspect because of their ties with Germany and their continued use of the Scandinavian languages. As a result, the Scandinavian groups all made immediate strides to proving their “American-ness,” including the use of English. As well, the war itself disrupted the constant stream of new immigrants, and strict reductions in post-war immigration, along with better conditions at home brought Scandinavian immigration to America down to a trickle. But probably most important, this language transition was a generational shift, with a newer, English-speaking generation taking over the reins of leadership from their parents and grandparents.
It was during this period of transition that the first two translations of Rosenius were produced, both in 1923. The first was a book entitled The Believer Free From the Law, produced by Augustana Seminary professor Adolf Hult.xiii The second one was a translation of Veiledning til Fred, the Norwegian devotional complied by Bishop Laache; this English translation was produced by George T. Rygh, a prominent pastor and professor, under the title A Faithful Guide to Peace with God.xiv Both were religious “how-to” books, using the works of Rosenius to guide the reader to religious certainty and conversion. Both these works were widely distributed, and are still in print today.
The translation of Rosenius’ Betrakelser (Daily Devotion) had to wait another twenty years, but when it became available in English it came in no less than three different translation. The first was by a Norwegian-American, A.P. Lea, and printed in Decorah, Iowa, in 1943, under the title Rosenius’ Devotions: Strength for the Helpless, Lessons for All.xv Not to be outdone, the Swedish-American J. Elmer Dahlgren produced his own translation in 1945 in Lake Mills, Iowa, this one entitled Rosenius’ Daily Devotions.xvi Finally, in the late 1970s the Betraktelser was translated again by Mai-Len Hendricksson, and printed in twelve monthly volumes, entitled
Day by Day with God; this was printed in Bombay, India.xvii This author has not studied these three translations in any depth, but from a brief analysis they seem roughly similar.
The next major translation of Rosenius into English happened in the 1970s with a translation of his Romans Commentary in 1978. This is not a full and complete translation of the original Swedish version, because, as the author suggested, there was quite a bit of outdated and technical details in the book that did not need to be included in a devotional work. Other new editions of Rosenius in English have come out in small books, including The Forgiveness of Sin (2000), and The Prayer of Faith (2010). A major new work of Rosenius’ scholarship in English is a recent book by Mark Safstrom, a Scandinavian Studies Professor at the University of Illinois. This book, The Swedish Pietists: A Reader is subtitled “Excerpts from the Writings of Carl Olof Rosenius and Paul Peter Waldenström.”xviii These are short selections from the two pietist leaders arranged in a topical format, to illustrate their viewpoints. Mark has also issued a new English translation of Waldenström’s classic, Squire Adamsson (2013). Finally, also in 2015, this author published an anthology of nineteenth-century Scandinavian pietists and their writing, The Scandinavian Pietist: Spiritual Writings from 19-Century Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.xix This volume is a part of a much larger series entitled “The Classics of Western Spirituality.”
It is interesting that the locus of publishing of the works by Rosenius in English has changed over the last decades. Earlier in the twentieth century these works were published and distributed by some of the major church publishing organizations; Augustana Book Concern, Augsburg Publishing House, and Covenant Press. Currently their publication and distribution is located in smaller firms, and by individual authors. One such small organization is Ambassador Publications, the publishing arm of a small, conservative Lutheran denomination, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations.xx Another is Pietan Publishing, a small business in New Hampshire that specializes in older devotional work.xxi A number of vanity presses and reprint firms have also issued Rosenian works from time to time.
One aspect of Rosenius in America that must be noted are the hymns of Rosenius in English. The old Scandinavian-American hymnals in Swedish or Norwegian had many hymns by Rosenius; the Hemlandssånger of the Augustana Synod has perhaps a dozen or more of his hymns. When making the transition to English this number was reduced quite a bit, perhaps 3 or 4 in most of them. The most recent Covenant hymnals have maintained a few hymns, but it has not been so good with the Lutheran hymnals. This author has a colleague who was on the committee to form the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), and she related that it was a huge struggle for her to get even a couple of Rosenius’ hymns in that book. The most recent Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (200?) has no hymns by Rosenius. The most frequently printed hymn is “With God and His Mercy,” followed by “I Have a Friend So Patient,” “Wheresoe’er I Roam,” and “O Precious Thought.”
One last enduring influence of Rosenius in America is a group that has been producing a quarterly newsletter over the last 30 years entitled Pietisten.xxii This group, mainly out of the Evangelical Covenant Church, does include works by Rosenius and Waldenström in its issues, but also tries to carry out the spirit of its nineteenth-century inspiration by printing devotional and theological articles with contemporary relevance. It is a journal intended for lay people and written by lay and clergy alike. This society seems to capture the spirit of Rosenian piety most effectively, making it contemporary and relevant, and not antiquarian.
The larger question of the influence and relevance for Carl Olof Rosenius in contemporary America is still an open and unclear question. Certainly if people want to, they certainly can find works by Rosenius in English, and, as in the case of the Pietisten group a healthy dose of piety inspired by hymn. But on the other hand these books and other materials are not found in the mainstream of religious publishing, leading one to wonder how much influence they want. Still, recent publishing projects would suggest that it is possible to bring the works of Carl Olof Rosenius to a contemporary American audience.