First phrase of chorale by Philipp Nicolai
Svenska Psalmbok (1819), Nos. 55, 412.

O Gud! ditt ord och sakrament
Låt aldrig bliva från oss vändt …

— Svenska Psalmbok (1819), No. 412, v. 6

[O God, let your word and sacrament / never be turned away from us …]

No doubt it’s just a coincidence, but since I resolved my issues about receiving the sacraments during the coronavirus pandemic, basically by remembering that Martin Luther said “gospel and baptism are sufficient since faith alone justifies and love alone lives rightly” (I blogged about this recently, HERE and HERE), I’ve been making progress on my paper about Swedish Lutheran immigrants in Chicago.

I’m set to deliver it in October (probably on a socially-distanced virtual platform), at the annual Illinois History Conference sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Working title (a real thriller-diller): “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.”

I’ll get back to the Swedes in the garden directly. But first, I found something — quite by accident — that makes me think I’m on the right track considering something else Luther suggested, that studying the bible is a sacrament, i.e. a physical act that serves as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. (I’ve written about it HERE, and I’m seeing the whole business of reading the bible in a new light.) To my mind, a sacrament can be as outward and visible as a book and as inward and spiritual as, well, as grace.

So the other night after I’d whittled my manuscript down to 10,384 words (not counting footnotes), I was checking a reference in Carl E. Braaten’s Principles of Lutheran Theology. Instead of what I was looking for, I found a passage that ties the sacraments back to another issue I’ve been stewing about since the COVID-19 bug came to town — incarnation. (I’ve written about it, too, especially HERE, and it’s part of the same problem.)

It was in Braaten’s discussion of different meanings of the word of God, not only the written word but also the word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. A systematic theology professor whose writing reads like a seminary textbook, he puts it like this:

Every meaning of the Word of God has one center and norm: the appearance of Jesus Christ in history. For neo-orthodox Christians following this line, the ultimate authority in matters of faith and life must be the word of God who was made flesh, who died and rose again for the salvation of humanity. The honor of his name is mediated through Scripture and now lives through his Spirit in the Christian community today. The Word of God is not apart from humanity; rather, God uses human words and concepts, human hands and lips, human history in its glory and tragedy. The medium of his revelation is completely incarnational.

All of these issues have been tumbling around in my head, and occasionally colliding with each other, since the pandemic hit in March, we went into lockdown and I couldn’t go to communion any more. In the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve been reading up on the Lutheran perspective that the word of God is also a sacrament — and, to make a long story short, I think it offers a way out.

So Braaten’s musing about the incarnational nature of the Word of God gives me something more to think about. And to read up on! He has a chapter later on in the book titled “The Sacramental Principle,” and it looks like I’d better read it too.

In the meantime, the paper’s coming right along.

I’m actually a little ahead of the deadline I set for myself. Maybe a silver lining to sheltering in place during a pandemic? And when 2020 is too much for me, I get to spend part of my day 160 years ago in “Swede Town,” on what was then a marshy, windswept prairie on the north side of Chicago. (Of course they had recurring cholera epidemics to deal with, and a vaccine wouldn’t come along till the 1880s. So I wouldn’t want to trade places with them.) In many ways, including the cholera, they dealt with issues like ours.

Isn’t that the point of studying history, anyway? To see how how other people dealt with issues and learn from their experience?

Like how you “do church,” for example.

In Lutheran churches, now and in 1850 — and all the way back to 1517 — you can’t celebrate communion when you don’t have an ordained minister to conduct the service. So especially out on the Illinois frontier where there might not be a resident pastor, Swedish immigrants celebrated it less often and made do in between times by reading postils or books of sermons.

Reading sermons was quite a thing at the time. One of the histories I read, a journal by a divinity student named Eric Norelius who later became a president of the old Swedish-American Augustana Synod, told of his experience in the summer of 1853 peddling sermons door-to-door in Pennsylvania Dutch country:

I met some people, especially old German farmers, who were eager to own Luther’s Postil — I read from it, and they liked it, but when we came to the point of doing business it was “Es kostet zu viel.” It costs too much. And how they could higgle and higgle and higgle! “Ja nimmst du einfünfzig, so kan mans kaufen” [if you’ll take a 50, a man can afford it], and in many instances I deducted my commission. It was not easy on a hot day to carry my load of books up hill and down, and I was glad to lighten my burden in some way. Furthermore I felt that I had learned a little more about the depths of human nature during my short career as a bookseller.

What you didn’t have (or couldn’t afford), back in pioneer days, you did without.

And when you had it, you appreciated it all the more. A few months later Norelius heard the Rev. Erland Carlsson, newly arrived from the old country, preach at the new Swedish church in Chicago:

It was a wonderfully precious hour when I could take part in a Swedish Lutheran service and hear a good, doctrinal sermon in the Swedish language, after being without this great privilege for three years. I felt as if I were no longer on earth.

Reading immigrant histories like Norelius’ journal, I get a strong sense of grief and exile. Sometimes in this year of pandemic, I feel like I’m in exile too. (Except I get to do it at home with Debi and the cats, and we get our groceries delivered, an option not available to cholera-racked Swedish immigrants in the 1850s.) Call ours at worst a modified exile, but still an exile. And when you’re in exile, you find new ways of doing things.

Back in March when we stopped going to church, I thought of it in terms of a Lenten fast. Temporary. Wham, bam, 40 days and back to normal. Now as the pandemic stretches on, it’s beginning to look — at least to me — more like the Babylonian exile. Or, perhaps more to the point, like the period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE when the Jewish people had to find new ways of practicing religion.

Out of that first-century realignment came what became essentially two new religions, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. What will come out of our COVID-inspired realignment?

When Eric Norelius came to Chicago in the fall of 1853, the Swedish church there had only been operating independently for a few months. Before that, Swedish immigrants worshipped in the Rev. Paul Andersen’s Norwegian Lutheran church on Superior Street, just north of the Chicago River. On Jan. 16 Andersen invited the Rev. T.N. Hasselquist, who had recently come from Sweden to serve a church in Galesburg, to organize a Swedish congregation in Chicago.

At the organizational service Hasselquist took the occasion to preach on Jeremiah 6:16:

Stand at the crossroads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.
But they said, “We will not walk in it.”

Hasselquist, who could be quite stern when he wanted to, also had a warning for the Chicago Swedes. The next day he wrote to Peter Fjellstedt, the director of a missionary institute in the Swedish university city of Lund, reporting on the the new congregation.

Yesterday morning I preached for the Norwegian congregation, and in the afternoon for the Swedes. At the latter I preached on “Christian caution with regard to unfamiliar religious bodies.” After I had spoken a few words based on Jeremiah 6:16, Pastor Paul Andersen with a view to the important matters before us, offered a gripping prayer which brought tears to the eyes of most. Then both of us went within the altar rail and submitted to the Swedes three resolutions concerning organization, the basis of acceptance into membership, and the Lutheran character of the congregation. Members subscribed their names, a resolution was made to call a pastor, whereupon the service was closed with prayer, benediction and the singing of Psalm (Hymn) 412:6 in the Swedish Psalmbok.

No. 412 in the Psalmbok or hymnal (the Swedish word psalm means both a psalm and a hymn) was a new year’s hymn “Vår tid är ganska flyktig här” [our time here is very fleeting], with words by Jesper Svedberg set to German hymnist Philipp Nicolai’s chorale melody WIE SCHÖN LEUCHTET DER MORGENSTERN (how brightly shines the morning star, or Var hälsad, sköna morgonstund in Swedish). It had been in Svedberg’s first Swedish hymnal of 1694, and it was, and still is, a beloved melody in the old country.

The sixth verse was especially appropriate to the occasion, too:

O Gud! ditt ord och sakrament
Låt aldrig bliva från oss vändt.
Sjelf din församling skydda.
Vår kristeliga öfvhet
Gif helsa, lycka salighet;
Bevara slott och hydda.
Låt sist, O Krist!
Oss i friden, Rätta tiden
Til dig fara.
Evigt nyår skall der vara!

[In English, as translated by Herr Doktor Professor Google: “O God, let your word and sacrament never be turned from us. Protect your congregation. Our Christian powers give to us health, happiness and bliss; preserve palace and hut. Let us finally, O Christ, go in peace at the right time: Eternally shall there be a New Year.”]

God’s ord och sakrament, word and sacrament. You just don’t get away from it, no matter how far you go. Nor would you want to.

The church, according to the Lutherans’ foundational Augsburg Confession, is “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” By singing that verse of the old Swedish chorale, the Chicagoans were getting back to basics. Teaching the word and administering the sacraments. Even in the exile of a new immigrant community in what then was a raw, cholera-ridden boom town on the edge of the frontier.

So what can we make of all this today?

  • Those old Swedes were tough birds. In an Augustana Synod history he wrote in 1890, Norelius recalled an immigrant party from Värmland that arrived at Chicago’s Michigan Central Station during the 1853 cholera epidemic with five corpses on board, adding that “17 members of the party were stricken, were brought immediately to the hospital, [and] more than half died before morning.” Pastor Carlsson, whom young Norelius had heard preach, “was occupied early and late in giving comfort, counsel, and help not only to the sick and dying but also to those who survived, but in sorrow, poverty, and need.” Out on the prairie in Andover, Ill., the walnut timbers that were supposed to be used for a steeple were sawed up for coffins instead.
  • Buffeted not only by cholera but also the usual challenges of getting a stakehold in a new country, they sought comfort in the religion they brought with them from the old country. But they adapted it as needed. In 1860 they formed the Augustana Synod (named for the Confessio Augustana or Augsburg Confession) with Swedish theology and liturgy, but a typically American form of church organization. They also established a Swedish-style läroverk or post-secondary school to train pastors. Initially meeting in a Chicago church basement, the school would morph into two Augustana colleges, one in Rock Island and one in South Dakota, and a full-fledged seminary in Rock Island that in later years would merge into today’s Lutheran Theological Seminary of Chicago.
  • When the Swedes in Chicago sang a chorale asking God, “ditt ord och sakrament / Låt aldrig bliva från oss vändt [let your word and sacrament never be turned away from us] on Jan 16, 1853, they affirmed what Lutherans consider the means of grace and the foundational principle of the church outlined in the Augsburg Confession. And as Pastor Hasselquist preached on a text from Jeremiah — “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths” — he proclaimed the word of God in a new land. I’ve always liked his account of the organizational meeting, and I incorporated the chorale they sang into a presentation I did for an Augustana Synod Founders’ Day celebration in Andover. It gets down to basics.

I’m not enough of a theologian to pontificate on what the history of an ethnic Lutheran church on the North Side of Chicago has to do with Carl Braaten’s idea that the revelation of God’s word is incarnational. But more and more, I’m coming to realize the incarnation is not a one-shot deal, and the means of grace are not limited to bread and wine (or grape juice) in church on Sunday morning. When you’re in exile, you find new ways of doing things.

Works Cited

Carl E. Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007. [pp. 26-27]

Peter Ellertsen, “Pastor Esbjorn’s Singing School: Notes for a workshop, on the 155th anniversary of the Augustana Lutheran Synod,” Augustana Lutheran Church, Andover, Ill., April 25, 2015

Eric Norelius. Early Life of Eric Norelius, 1833-1862, trans. Emeroy Johnson. Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1934 [pp. 202, 215]

__________, The Pioneer Swedish Settlements and Swedish Lutheran Churches in America, 1845-1860, trans Conrad Bergendoff. Rock Island: Augustana Historical Society, 1984. [pp. 149, 160-61]

Den svenska psalmboken: af Konungen gillad och stadfästad är 1819 … Stockholm: P. Palmquist, for Church of Sweden, 1880. Google Books. [Nos. 55, 412]

One thought on “Word, sacrament, a Lutheran chorale and reading the bible: Lessons from a Swedish immigrant church in Chicago during a time of cholera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s