M. F. Hokanson: First Swedish Pastor in Iowa

The Story of M. F. Hokanson is fascinating because of its historical pioneering character. It is made the more significant because no other individual better illustrated the dilemma faced when immigrant Swedes were met by competing religious denominations in their new homeland. Hokanson, it seems, faced them all.

Another year has proven fruitful and interesting in uncovering more about the Swedish churches in Iowa. Last year we made the visit northward to the Arthur/ Kiron region with Lorraine Lovain as gracious hostess of which we have already written. This insight into missionfriend and baptist roots served to whet our appetite to make a visit southward to the Essex Covenant church where our friends Jim and Karen Resigue serve (Karen and Eleanor grew up in the same church). We were not disappointed, finding a descendant of the Hultman clan there. J.A. Hultman, the "sunshine singer" and pastor of Omaha First came from the Fremont congregation nearby, now merged with Essex, as did his brother Frank who served Des Moines, Wausa, Stromsburg and Albeton (Sloan). Others claiming the area as home were pastors James Anderson and Elroy Anderson. We were assured that although the Fremont country church no longer stood, its former members were among Essex's greatest assets. Another member who greeted us proved to be a neighbor to the family of Ivar Larson, our friend and board member of Stromsburg Covenant Home who also hailed from here. But there was more. Nearby Stanton is home to a fine Swedish museum which we also visited that same day.

No book has been more insightful and revealing concerning the Swedish churches in Nebraska than that of C. Sandahl of Swede Home. Finding a similar book for Iowa has been our "holy grail." At the Stanton museum we met volunteer curator Don Peterson who opened for us a collection of books including the history of the Iowa Augustana Conference! He also proved knowlegeable at first hand of the people and places of interest to us. Stanton was named "the little white city" in an era before certain sensitivities to political correctness, when it was noted that virtually all of the houses there were painted white. Prominent on its highest hill stands the Mamrelund Lutheran church founded by pastor B. Halland and a group of immigrants from Burlington Iowa. Nearby is the Stanton Covenant church, served in the past by our friends Bud Swanson and Dick Lindstrom. But the Swedish heritage of the whole region extending from north of Stanton all the way down to Shenandoah was outlined in a book about the "Halland Settlement."

We began to encounter the largely forgotten role of the "railroad land agent" in reading about our home town of Wausa. There Augustana Pastor J. Torell promoted sales of land to Swedish believers in a most effective way. Wausa became a Swedish Lutheran and missionfriend stronghold. The Halland Settlement was an earlier and much larger example in which the promotions of Rev. Halland resulted in several Augustana and missionfriend congregations being formed in Stanton, Red Oak, Essex and a number of rural locations along the railroad. It should be noted that Halland acquired a 160 acre site of his own, but his abiding interest was to provide a site for his church and the children's home he dreamed of building. As the book describes, he achieved both goals. (In Wausa, Torell managed to acquire a half section of land. It later appears to have been donated to the Wahoo Luther Academy) We anticipate here the story of the Svea Settlement of Phelps County Nebraska under land agent and missionfriend Victor Nylander, which must await another time.

An Augustana annual Korsets Baner (Banner of the Cross) from a used book store search had some time ago given the tantalizing hint of a "barnhemmet i Stanton" (children's home in Stanton) with a picture of two brick structures. Of this we knew nothing, and hoped to find out more from this museum trip. Again we were not disappointed. Not only did Don Peterson know in detail its story, but panoramic photographs from the period were prominently displayed in the museum. It was a major achievement of its time, but now sadly lives largely only in memory. A similar fate befell the farm-based children's home at Phelps Center Nebraska but hopefully in each case the work of mercy was taken up by other church institutions in more urban settings. Since so much of my career was spent at a former Augustana children's home in Stromsburg (now Midwest Covenant Retirement Home), I have a special interest in such ministries.

What a day it had been! We eagerly brought back home our copy of the Halland Settlement history, written by the administrator of the children's home, and notes from Stanton, but knew more visits would be needed since we had only partially examined the books assembled in their library. On now to the story of pastor M. Hokanson and the New Sweden settlement.

Possibly our first introduction to Hokanson made little impression. The story was primarily about C.A. Bjork, founder of the first Covenant missionfriend congregation to be identified as such in America, Swede Bend Iowa. Bjork, who was later to lead both the Ev. Lutheran Mission Synod and the Ev. Covenant as president, was a fledgeling preacher who according to the treasured legend delivered his first sermon when someone hid his copy of Pietisten. Though he had intended to read a message from that popular missionfriend publication, his gift as a preacher in his own right was recognized by the faithful at that moment. The historian will have to deal with the fact that such a publication was admitted to an Augustana service and approval given to a layman to deliver it. Bjork's pastor at Swede Bend was based at nearby Swede Point (Madrid) and alternated at services in these locations of necessity. He welcomed Bjork's help and encouraged him to pursue his gifts of ministry. That pastor was M. Hokanson.

To give a full account of the ministry of Hokanson it will be necessary to give extensive background. The missionfriend movement in Sweden always gives prominent place to George Scott. He was the English Methodist pastor who made Sweden his field of ministry and founded both the preeminent Stockholm Church and the publication Pietisten. His successor in both ministries was C.O. Rosenius, a founder of the mission friends in Sweden. Methodists tend to describe the missionfriend movement in Sweden as the Swedish version of the Wesleyan movement in England. It validated experiential Christianity, the "warmed heart," the laymen meetings for devotional enrichment, the publication and study of devotional literature but especially the Bible. Members of this movement, remember, were called "readers" (lasare) and some were hired as tract and book distributers to visit homes and communities (colporteurs). Their mission was not just to sell literature, but to give personal witness to the faith (and in so doing, to promote the movement, one could fairly say). Would it be inappropriate to think of Jehovah's Witnesses at this point? Perhaps not if one thinks only of method. (Colporteurs, however, did not travel in pairs insofar as we know) Some have laid at the feet of the Methodists the innovations of "instantaneous conversion" and the "revival meeting." We probably are not quite at that point, ...yet.

The immigrant Bethel Ship in New York harbor is a story of its own and has at least one book to tell it, but it must be mentioned here. Jonas Hedstrom found in America a faith community that fulfilled all of his expectations for what a missionfriend church translated into the American denominational scene should be. To him that was the Methodist Church. That church welcomed his favor and sponsored his mission to arriving immigrants at the very portals. It was a mission destined to launch more than any other factor the Swedish Conference of the Methodist Church in America. But the influence of Hedstrom and his brother was not limited to the seaboard. Henry County Illinois also felt their presence. Disaffected members of the Bishop Hill Colony (the curious utopian communal experiment of the Swedes in Illinois) found a more moderate world view at the local Swedish Methodist fellowship to the irritation of their empirious leader, Eric Jansson. Even Augustana founder L.P. Esbjorn in neighboring Andover was influenced in the Methodist direction for a time. The argument that "the Methodists read Luther more correctly" than even the American Lutherans did, was made to good effect in Andover and across the Mississippi at the New Sweden settlement (initially known by the forgettable name, "Skunk River").

Hard times in Henry County and the hopes for better things over in Iowa had brought a group of Swedes to the banks of the aforementioned river under the guidance of the first Swedish Lutheran pastor in Iowa, M. Hokanson. According to L.P. Esbjorn in his "De Svenska Luterska Forsamlingarnas och Svenskarnas Historia i Amerika" (Stanton Library), Hokanson had what Augustana historians wryly call "many helpers." The first was none other than G. Unonius of Wisconsin. Briefly it can be recalled that Unonius founded a colony of Swedes in Wisconsin under the premise that the Episcopal church best approximated what a Swedish church in America should look like. His high churchly instincts may have contributed to the limited success he enjoyed in America, and he returned to Sverige. It should be noted, though, that some Baptists, Lutherans, and Covenanters also returned in disenchantment. Unonius scolded the Hokanson group for appearing "sectarian" and presuming to found a congregation without the validation and blessing of an apostolic bishop.

Scarcely had Unonius departed with his disappointing appraisal than the Methodists arrived! According to Esbjorn, Hokanson "welcomed Jonas Hedstrom because of his association with George Scott." The notion that Methodists "read Luther better" was tarnished for Hokanson by Hedstrom's aversion to such things as the wearing of vestments and other trappings of more formal worship. But most disturbing was the notion of "syndfria fullcomlighet" (complete freedom from sin...sanctification?) promoted by Hedstrom. Now it should be noted that the historian himself had been associated with Methodism, so these are the eyes through which Hokanson's story is seen and told. Did Hedstrom embrace the Free Methodist teaching of "second blessing" in full bloom? Or was the case of Methodism "reading Luther rightly" the convincing argument? In any case, the seeds found fertile ground, and a Methodist congregation formed at New Sweden, only one-quarter mile east of Hokanson's church and composed of half of his membership. Next the beleagered pastor faced...the Baptists.

The name of Eric Norelius is central to this period of Swedish church history in Iowa. His writings and life illuminate the period and make it alive for us today. He tells of the classic immigrant tale: the oppressive conditions in northern Sweden, the surging impulse of religious awakening, the dizzying prospect of freedom in a new land. His group made their venture under the spiritual and temporal shepherding of one gifted and devoted man, Gustaf Palmquist. Norelius crosses paths with Hedstrom at Bethel ship. He is impressed but also ambiguous. He encounters Esbjorn, more nearly a kindred spirit. He enters ministry and becomes a pillar of the Augustana denomination. But he, too, is beleagered. His mentor and shepherd Palmquist becomes the preeminent Swedish Baptist on the American frontier. His brother Anders becomes a Swedish Baptist minister and his parents also embrace the Baptist faith in America. So it is with a great deal of ambiguity that Norelius must write the story of New Sweden/ Skunk River. It is from his pen that we first learned how strong was the impact of the Baptist mission to Iowa. The Baptists not only claimed to read Luther better. They claimed to read the Bible better!

Repudiating the baptism of a state church was always a perilous matter. In the radical reformation on the continent such an offense could be a capital crime. But to a new era of awakened believers whose baptism as infants was a coercive and civic function administered by often venal state priests, it would not be difficult to imagine their dissatisfaction. That well documented but unremembered event might easily be declared invalid and without worth. And for Swedish Baptists this was the case. Most Swedish Christians found a middle ground in a faith practice which did not involve the repudiation of their baptism however unsatisfactory it might have been. But there were two factors which the Baptists found compelling. One, the new movement was reexamining doctrine in the light of scripture. Later, mission leader P. Waldenstrom would sound the theme, "where is it written?" The Baptists applied the same formula. The second factor was the freedom of Christian conscience as found in the new world. There was no state church in America, no statutory stigma attached to being a Baptist. In this new freedom for a Christian, one's family could be baptised according to choice, and there were many whose choice was believers' baptism. Though surely preferred by only a minority, it can be noted that the legacy of this era is preserved in the Covenant's provision to include adult immersion as an accepted form.

Norelius was disappointed that Palmquist abandoned the kind of Lutheranism he espoused, but even he admired the man and his ministry. When we think of the hymn "I have a friend, so patient, kind, forbearing," we are remembering a Palmquist hymn, and might ponder how much the Swedish denominations had in common. Palmquist came to New Sweden Iowa, to Hokanson's congregation to preach and again a seed took root. Others of the same persuasion also were very active in this area according to Esbjorn's book, even Norelius' brother Anders, a brother Rundquist, and especially F.O. Nilson. It was this latter Baptist's aggressive presentation of the message that sent M. Hokanson into his study to find Biblical grounds for his more traditional points of view. And his convictions began to waver! Here we have the makings of a story that is told with slight and predictable variations by Baptist and Lutheran sources and so became somewhat legendary. Baptist sources claim that pastor was duly immersed in the murky waters of the Skunk along with many of his members. Lutheran sources are not so sure, and in any case point to a quick and remorseful recanting of the brother. Esbjorn's book contains the very letter from Hokanson (3/24/1854) pouring out this remorse, and even including the word "stupid." But such remorse would scarcely follow a mere contemplation of the deed. On this the Baptist historians are probably correct. The members of his congregation who experienced no such regrets formed a Baptist fellowship one-quarter mile in the opposite direction from the Methodists! Esbjorn also recounts the vignette in which Lutheran leader T.N. Hasselquist encounters Hokanson on his way to the river with a change of dry clothes in hand. When queried as to where he was going , he answers "to have a proper baptism." Hasselquist says words to the effect "may God go with you on your way." Esbjorn reports that Mrs. Hokanson (Anna) then parts company with her husband and accompanies Hasselquist away from the scene! ("som icke ville bli baptist" - essentially, she didn't want to be a baptist) The threat of division extended even to the Hokanson home! Esbjorn even reports that Mormon missionaries came to New Sweden in Hokanson's day. But he knew nothing then of days to come, when Bjork and the missionfriends would come into the picture up in Swede Bend.

The Augustana history has Methodist Smith and Baptists P. Kassel and A. Ericson visiting Swede Bend in 1850. We find that the latter sold land in Victoria Illinois and bought 80 acres in Swede Bend. Bjork's mentor Hokanson had come up to serve the congregations at Swede Point (Madrid) and Swede Bend. He departed Swede Bend in 1856 for Munterville. His successor in Swede Bend is C.J. Malmberg in 1867 or 1868. We read that Malmberg is "weary of trouble" and that "Methodists and other separatists" made life bitter for him. The attitude which culminated in the "Galesburg rule" may have been evident here (Augustana pulpits for Augustana pastors only). Bjork was no longer welcome in the pulpit. He and the other missionfriends of Swede Bend found their own fellowship, and when the Methodists outgrew their small meeting house it was purchased by the Bjork group. This is reckoned as the first Covenant church in America; 1868.

We tell all of this to portray M. Hokanson as an Augustana Lutheran minister who did not turn a Christian brother away and was willing to give a hearing to all who had a witness to bring. Surely Bjork would concur in this. We have tried to show how Swedish Methodists and Baptists had credibility among the immigrants. Hokanson's peers who were more quick to close the doors of fellowship and define more sharply the boundaries which one could and could not cross took another course. They avoided some of the pain and trouble that Hokanson experienced but they also institutionalized the fragmentation of the Swedish church in America. Whether that was worth the price paid is a question for the historian to ponder. The humble Hokanson, suffering servant, stands as an example to be considered.

Summer in southeast Iowa provides some delightful festivities for people from all over the midwest and indeed the whole country. If your interest is in antique farm machinery and steam engines, the Old Threshers meet in Mt. Pleasant is a Mecca. If antique airplanes are your interest, the Antique Aircraft Association flyin at Blakesburg will claim your attention. That word Blakesburg jumped out at me while reading the memorial page for Mrs. Anna Hokanson in an Augustana annual at the Stanton museum this spring. It seems that Mrs. Hokanson spent her final years in Blakesburg and was "buried in nearby Munterville." This was our first introduction to Munterville, and the map revealed it was very nearby. Needless to say, September found us making a visit to Munterville as well as Blakesburg. A quiet and peaceful country crossroads with a few houses and a tidy white frame Lutheran church make up Munterville (perhaps 50 miles west of New Sweden). "Bergholm" is the name of the Munterville church preferred by Augustana historians. Local people noted they were celebrating their 150th annniversary this year. Covered dishes were being carried in the back door on the early Sunday morning we stopped by. Another Blakesburg resident of Scandanavian descent admitted to making pilgrimages to Munterville for the great Swedish cooking. "But who do you know there?" was the question. The answer would have been overly long: "we want to visit the cemetary" seemed to suffice.

Adjacent was the burial ground, beneath a few ancient pines. We have a picture. There we stood before the grave of Pastor M.F. Hokanson and his wife Anna. There at Bergholm the Hokansons served for many years and hopefully experienced a peaceful time after the early storms. Munterville was certainly peaceful that morning. A brass placard affixed to their tombstone acknowledges "the first Swedish Lutheran pastor in the state of Iowa." What a story that entailed! The throes of the formation of the Swedish church in America in microcosm. What a moment it was!

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