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Three Swedish Churchmen from Saunders County Nebraska

The first of the three: S. G. Larson

Reverend S. G. Larson

S.G. Larson was born in Småland in 1833 and attended the Fjellstedt school. 1858 found him in America at the Esbjörn school in Springfield, Illinois. Sandahl reveals that, "Larson, because of his ability to handle the English language, was chosen as the spokesman of the student body. It may be said here that he was one of the very few pioneer pastors of the Augustana Synod who were able to preach in English." This noteably was an attribute true of all three of our Saunders County churchmen. His first church was Burlington, Iowa till 1863 when he moved to Knoxville. In 1868 the Augustana sent Larson on a "missionary tour" through western Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri to visit Scandinavian settlements. The result of his arduous trip was a call to take up full time work in Omaha and adjacent territory. Sandahl reports, "...on acount of the cold weather the ferry was frozen fast in the river. So Rev. Larson and his family walked across (Council Bluffs to Omaha) on the ice. (!) By the next year he was held in such confidence by the local Swedes that they selected him to lead a committee exploring homesteading opportunities to the west. "...after many experiences, the party returned safely to make a report, with the result that two or three hundred Swedes chose Saunders County for their future home" writes Sandahl.

He concludes, "He was a good preacher, sound in doctrine, and zealous for the salvation of souls...Being himself perfectly honest and upright in all his dealings, he believed everybody else to be so. In this respect he was more than once deceived, especially by some sanctimonious sectarian people, who took advantage of the confidence he placed in him." There can be little doubt that these words of Sandahl refer to Hallner and his followers.

We will have occasion to report this event in Hallner's own words, but here is the way Sandahl writes of it: "The people were all working harmoniously together for the upbuilding of God's kingdom in their midst. But then came the factional strife in 1876, there as elsewhere centering around the Waldenströmian doctrines. When the church would not be opened for the preachers of these doctrines, forty-three members separated, organized a Mission congregation, and built their own church just a little way south of the first one. Among the dissenters was Andrew Hallner, a gifted young man, who under Rev. Larson's direction had for some time been preaching to the congregation...Instead he became the leader of the local separatist movement, and pastor in the Mission Covenant.

Map showing proximity of Swedeburg Lutheran and Mission Churches

In the case of Mead Alma he writes: "But now comes the factional strife here too, simultaneous with that in Swedeburg and our other early settlements. The causes are the same all over, so also the excitement, the heated discussions, the unfriendly separations, and the hasty organization of opposition churches. The exact number that withdrew here and organized a Mission church in 1876 is not known to the writer. But there must have been quite a number, as the communicant membership, according to the synodical statistics, had dwindled down to 94 in 1877, from 151 in 1874. Rev. Larson resigned and moved to Sycamore, Ill., in 1878, having thus finished his ten years of pioneer work in Nebraska." The Saunders County settlement at Malmo had experienced a similar split.

Sandahl knew Larson as an old man, and was touched by this encounter: "I shall never forget how he talked about pioneer days in Nebraska. As he described the hardships he had experienced, the tears trickled down his withered cheeks into his snow-white beard. Whenever he came to a pause in his narrative about the hardships and dangers he had met with, he folded his hands and said, smiling through his tears, 'Even at that time the Lord helped me wonderfully, praised be His name'." He spent his final years on the old Mead homestead.

Sandahl is moderate in his appraisal, a more harsh observation is made by G. Everett Arden in his Augustana history: "When the Mission Covenant was organized in 1885, it comprised forty-nine congregations, most of which had been drawn from Augustana. At the same time, other Mission Friends who did not join the Covenant included, first, the congregations which became known as the Mission Free church, who looked to J.G. Princell as their great leader. This segment of Mission Friends numbered in 1885 seventeen congregations, composed for the most part of former Augustana members." From this point of view, Augustana had been simply plundered.

Gravestone placed by the Augustana Nebraska Conference, inscribed
"Pioneer pastor of the Nebraska Conference"..."I have obtained mercy"

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The second of the three: Andrew Hallner

Reverend Andrew Hallner

For Hallner we are fortunate enough to have the story in his own words: as translated by Sigurd Westberg, Covenant Archivist. We chose a few items from his early years, mainly to illustrate his intellect. "I was such a diligent student that I surprised both the pastor and the congregation, when at the age of five I was brought to the catechetical meeting and read some passages in the ABC book and knew some passages by heart." When after confirmation he began school full time he was made an advanced tutor. "When I told my father about these forward steps, he became very angry and said, 'Am I, who am poor, supposed to provide a teacher for the rich people's children? Then you will stay home'." After immigration to Carver, Minnesota, he took some classes at Gustavus Adophus college. He was sent in response to a land ad in Augustana's Hemlandet newspaper to scout out Missouri. Returning displeased, he found land to his liking in Saunders County, Nebraska, and claimed 160 acres there. The family became Nebraskans. "Pastor Larson, who was stationed in Omaha, organized a Lutheran congregation in Mead, and I was elected a deacon and led meetings, that is I read sermons on Sundays and conducted Bible studies and prayer meetings in the homes." "In the spring of 1875 I was elected to the Nebraska Constitutional Convention, where I as an immigrant attracted general attention, which caused my friends to urgently counsel me to choose law as my life's calling." He was indeed a signer of the Nebraska state constitution.

The original Nebraska Constitution, the "x" marks Hallner's signature

It was during Christmas Week that Hallner preached and led services at Swedeburg nightly, with the result that those gathered were moved in a remarkable and general way. This caused him to abandon his law ambitions and do individual visitation and counselling with these people who had been caught up in this way. "The report of the movement spread and I received many calls to preach and awakenings were reported everywhere. Consequently my law studies had to be postponed time and again. The report of the awakening in Nebraska came to the attention of even the leading men of the Mission Synod of that time, and so John Peterson, then pastor in Des Moines, Iowa, came for a visit...Both (he) and C.A. Björk came and preached powerfully so that both the older Christians from Sweden and the newly saved were carried away in their enthusiasm. But this could not be tolerated, and therefore the Swedeburg church, at the general consensus of the people in the community and on the wise counsel of the pastor, decided to close their church even to me. This decision wounded my spiritual children so deeply and an outstanding brother and older Christian from Sweden, Jöns Mårtenson, sent word to me to come and preach in his house the following Sunday. About sixty members of the Lutheran church came and shortly after that they organized a Mission Church and called me to be their pastor."

Fridhem; the Swedeburg country church

There we have the other side of the story. In another place more light is shed on the events. "But these people wanted to hear the Word of God, believe and be saved. I started the mission work among them in 1871 and spent all the time I could on the field, all the while without the least remuneration. Then we were visited by the Mission Pastor John Peterson from Des Moines, Iowa in the fall of 1875, and with him came the Waldenströmian theology among us. This resulted in my being expelled from the Augustana Synod, and a large number of the newly converted as well as several of the older Christians from Sweden accompanied me and requested withdrawal from membership. Three mission churches were organized among these people that year in three different settlements. They were the church in Swedeburg called Fridhem, Bethesda in the Edensburg settlement (Malmo) and Saron in the Mead settlement."

The Fridhem site today: many tombstones bear familiar Covenant names

When he described his being barred from preaching at Swedeburg in the first instance he attributes it to the "newly saved being carried away in their enthusiasm." In the second instance it is the "Waldenströmian theology" which came in the person of John Peterson. (Björk had also preached there) Both factors could be seen as contributing. Peterson had been in Chicago with its influence from the Moody style of evangelism; revival, lay leadership and independance. Augustana pastors steered away from this style, and with the "Galesburg rule" had by policy closed their pulpits to preachers of this stripe. Earlier they had been tolerated, if not welcome by all, but now there was a hardening which was a catalyst to separation all across the missionfriend community. Waldenström's doctrine of the atonement was a flashpoint and focus for the discussion. Augustana's leadership rallied against him and the missionfriend circles rallied around his name, perhaps without either understanding fully the fine points of doctrine involved. The Swedish papers carried the debate: Hemlandet against, Missions Vännen and Chicago Bladet in support.

At Fridhem: the Person family included Laverne, whom we knew from Princeton, also the Mostroms and missionary Arden Almquist

Hallner continued his preaching in the area until a remarkable telegram arrived in 1878 which was to change his life. He reports the contents: "Take first train for Moingona, Iowa. Conditions of greatest importance. Traveling expenses will be paid. Signed, C.A. Björk, J.Peterson... I went and upon my arrival the book of minutes and the other items belonging to the position of secretary of the synod were handed over to me. When the secretary, A.W. Hedenschough, shortly before the semi annual meeting, perceived that his departure was at hand, he gathered together all of the documents of the synod and tied them together and said: 'This must be turned over to young Hallner in Nebraska; he will be my successor as secretary of the synod.' This was seen by the brethren as the Lord's leading and will, and therefore I did not dare to decline, although I lacked the necessary instruction in the Swedish language." (Moingona is near Boone)

Björk: who issued the summons to Andrew Hallner

This is a remarkable report and an even more remarkable event. It would bring Hallner to the center of Mission Synod and later Covenant leadership circles. The loyalties of Iowa and Nebraska missionfriends to the emerging Covenant were cemented by the presence of Björk from Swede Bend and later the north side Chicago church, Peterson of Des Moines and later Oakland, and Hallner. Soon another event would give the latter not only a position but a voice with far-reaching significance. The Swedish newspaper published by members of this group had a vacancy at the top. Björk tells Hallner, "now it is your responsibility as secretary of the Synod to edit the paper until the next meeting of the synod. Thus one step led to another until I became bound to Missions Vännen for almost thirteen years; and my public career as a newspaper editor is so well known that nothing needs to be said about it."

It was well known in the days when Swedish was spoken, but today we need to be reminded that by 1894 under Hallner's leadership the paper had a circulation of twenty thousand and its Sunday school paper, Lilla Missionären, twenty-eight thousand! Profits from this enterprise were generously distributed in donations to the Covenant and dividends of 100% annually to its shareholders, with the announcement, "kon hade kalvet!" (the cow has had a calf). Later management of Missions Vännen would descend to criticisms and partisanship which Hallner decries. "...the paper did not maintain the high Christian stance and impartiality as before, more than four thousand subscriptions were lost in two years." But the influence of the papers among missionfriends in America can not be underestimated. I have sampled their rich records preserved on microfilm in the Covenant Archives.

Hallner goes on to detail contributions he was able to make to Covenant development as board member and editor. He along with Björk was instrumental in locating North Park at its present site near Swedish Covenant Hospital rather than at the proposed Belt City location as advocated by the Rylander-Järnberg land company. He personally conducted a fund raising tour in "my old mission field in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska" to sponsor the missionary career of Peter Mattson who otherwise could not have gone out.

Hallner's early Mead missionhouse survives as part of 420 Cedar St.

The rest of his story is equally fascinating, but takes us from our story to California where the Hallners found new frontiers in 1894. The scope of his contribution as one of our three Swedish churchmen from Saunders County Nebraska can be seen in this, his own statement with which we conclude his story (note the absence of the word "church"): "I have founded and built meeting houses in 12 mission congregations: Fridhem, Mead, Bethesda, Bethlehem (Waverly) and Omaha, Nebraska (of this we know little); Whitehall, Michigan; Paxton, Illinois; Kingsburg-Riverside, Fresno, Turlock, Hilmar and Arboga, California (north of Sacramento)."

Baptist Church of Mead, later purchased by the Covenant Church

Swedish Baptist Church of Mead in its heyday, a $13,500 edifice in 1915

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The Third of the three: Fredrik Franson

Missionary Fredrik Franson

During the same decade that Larson labored in Mead and Hallner in Swedeburg, Swedish Baptists of the Hjältman, Wicklund, Franson and other families came to Saunders County. They located in the rolling land north of Mead and immediately envisioned a house of worship at a prominent site they called "prayer hill" (bönekullen). The Baptists had suffered more persecution in Sweden than any of their contemporaries, and the remoteness of this site suggests at the same time their separate-ness and the safety of the new land of freedom.

The 1932 marker locating the Estina Baptist Church

The inscriptions read: "Erected Sept 3, 1932 by surviving members of the original church still living in the community and Clarence R..., a pioneer of Fremont". And on the other side: "Estina Swedish Baptist Church, first Baptist church in this county. Stood 11 rods (182 feet) west. Organized Sept. 3, 1870. Church erected 1879. In use until 1917. Only eternity will reveal its results."

Franson's legacy is well documented as the websites referencing his name indicate and Torjeson's biographical work is very complete as well. He, like Hallner, was advanced to the position of secretary of his Scandinavian Baptist conference. He conducted revival meetings around the region. He traveled to Chicago to see Moody, and became associated with Moody Church. His study of Scripture convinced him to devote his life and considerable energy to evangelism.

Our local Altamont Church, site of Franson's Conference visits

We find him in the basement of John Martenson's Hall in Chicago, discussing lay communion. He conducts a mission to Swedish converts to Mormonism in Utah, and writes on this subject. On his way back he visits congregations in Denver and Phelps County, Nebraska, urging the Swedes there to form churches which could include Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist members without discrimination...based on New Testament principles only. He writes on this subject as well. Martenson's Chicago Bladet gives wide circulation to these ideas. The impact in Phelps County, for instance, was troublesome to the fledgling denominational efforts going on there and his ideals could only be partially realized.

Westmark in Phelps County..."our missionary founder" looks down on Greenwall wedding gifts

It was at Phelps Center that a service of ordination to a world-wide missionary enterprise was conferred upon Fredrik Franson and his global travels began. He held revival meetings in Sweden, Norway (where he is credited with founding the Norwegian Covenant), and Germany. He conceives of mobilizing a force of missionaries recruited from those awakened by his meetings. He envisions schools to train these volunteers (we might call them "intensives") and against all odds, they come to fruition. One such course was held at the Omaha Covenant Church where J.A. Hultman was pastor. The independant China Mission cooperated in sponsorship, but did not reckon with the numbers of volunteers that Franson was able to muster. The mission was remarkable, but not without growing pains.

And it all started here: Estina, an incredible survival

Franson would go on to travel virtually around the globe. His study of Scripture eventuated in the Swedish "adventism" that gripped many at the time. "Prophecy" conferences and preaching of the end times were part and parcel of the Franson legacy which surrounded particularly the Swedish Free Mission people. It is not unfair to say that the notion of the gospel being finally proclaimed to all nations would ring in the parousia in this view. The Scandinavian Alliance Mission was the institutional form Franson's movement took, and remains today in the form of The Evangelical Alliance Mission.

Chicago headquarters of Franson's Scandinavian Alliance Mission

With publicity spread by the Swedish press, support for the work came from all the readership; and that would have included Covenant, Free, Baptist, and probably some Methodists and Lutherans! The denominations, of course, had their own missions to support and may have chafed at what was certainly duplicated effort drawing from the same charitable resources. The Free Church historians acknowledge Franson as one of the founders of their movement...not mentioning that he was a Baptist.

"He is not here"...Franson's initial burial site at Estina

Though his friend Hjältman had provided the gravesite in the immediate foreground, number 1 east in the Estina cemetery, Franson's remains were transferred to Chicago. His memorial service at Moody Church filled that considerable hall according to reports. It might have been one of the last gatherings of "all the Swedes" to honor the man whose vision indeed did not respect boundaries.

Franson's final resting place in Chicago

Our trip to Saunders County and the sites of three Swedish Churchmen had been a success!

Continue: Western Saunders County, Malmo and Weston

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