Krister Stendahl prays at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, April 22, 1993 (C-SPAN).

As I move on from my presentation on 19th-century Swedish immigrant churches for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, I’ve been cleaning my office — sort of like clearing the decks for a sea battle in the old Horatio Hornblower movies. Since my next project (I hope) will be an expansion of the ALPLM paper, I was intrigued when a hard-copy printout of an obscure commentary by a Swedish theologian turned up in a stack of books and papers on the office floor.

I know, I know — you’re probably thinking, “well, it certainly doesn’t take much to get him excited.” And you’d be right about that.

I’ll admit it it’s not exactly inviting at first glance.

The paper is by Krister Stendahl, a theologian who at various times was bishop of Stockholm and dean of Harvard Divinity School, and it’s a commentary on another paper that was presented during a 1997 symposium sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Its title: “Formation of Christian Folks in a Plural World: Response by Krister Stendahl to the Paper ‘Formation of the Laos’.” (I’d better explain. Laos, in this context doesn’t mean the country in southeast Asia — instead it’s part of the New Testament Greek phrase laos tou theou, and it means “people of God” in English. Wait, there’s more: The papers were delivered at an international consultation on the theme: “Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God.”)

Sounds like fun, eh? But to make a long story short, Stendahl’s remarks at the conference deal with a question that’s central to my historical research on the compromises that Swedish Lutherans made as they transitioned from a “state church” in the old country to a voluntary association competing with various Calvinists and frontier revival preachers in in the upper Midwest: What is the church, an institution that offers the sacraments to everyone or a gathered community of like-minded believers? And who gets to be in the church? Subjects of a Christian prince who are baptized into the faith as infants, or true believers who xxxx

Who gets to go to heaven?

That, in turn, led me to Stendhal’s tongue-in-cheek idea of what it must be like for Lutherans — or any other denomination — to get to heaven and discover they have more company than they thought they would:

It is the Judgment Day, or the Last Day. And there we are, the Lutherans up front through justification by faith. And it looks just as we had thought. There is God. There is Christ on the right side. As we look around, there is everybody else. There we are, all the humans. And if you love your dog very much, who knows, he might even be with you. I don’t know. There’s no Biblical basis for denying it. We look around. There are the Presbyterians. The Episcopalians. The whole menagerie. The Jews and the Muslims, and the Buddhists, who thought that there would be nothing. (Roots of Violence 33)

Both at Harvard Divinity and as bishop of Stockholm back in Sweden, Stendahl was big on ecumenical relations. His point, at least as I understand it: We shouldn’t get hung up on our own denomination or faith tradition’s way of knowing things to the exclusion of all others.

He made the same point in the paper I fished out of the stack of papers on my office floor:

Beyond and prior to all religious covenants that constitute communities of faith and of culture, there is the bond of common humanity, in the image of God, which should not be belittled in the interest of glorifying one’s own special revelation.

Fine, we’re all brothers and sisters. Nothing new there. But what does that have to do with Swedes on the North Side of Chicago and the prairies of west central Illinois in the 1850s?

Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden

Well, for one thing, there’s that reference to religious covenants. Typically, the Protestant churches in America considered themselves bound by a covenant, or agreement, with God and with other members of their church, which they considered a gathered church. They also tended to insist that church members be born again, that they document they were “saved.” Swedish Lutherans, who were baptized into a national church or folk church, thought they were saved at baptism and the rest of it was quite unnecessary. A profile of the Church of Sweden on the WCC website explains the difference:

The description national church (folk church) became popular in the 20th century as an alternative to state church. It denotes a church which embraces the whole country so that every part is in a parish with a local parish church; the Church of Sweden is not therefore a gathered church, ministering only to those who actively belong.

Some of the language in Stendhal’s title requires a little translation. “Formation,” in the context of Stendhal’s paper, is basically another word for religious education. And he wasn’t trying to be folksy — by “Folks,” he means peoples. While the term was used more often in the 1900s, the Church of Sweden was very much of a folk church when the immigrants began coming to Illinois. By way of contrast, a gathered church like the Baptists and Congregationalists that Swedish immigrants encountered here, is an assembly of believers.

“From the early Anabaptists to contemporary fundamentalists,” adds theology professor Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College, “the idea of a gathered church has commended itself to groups which believe that the faithful are a small company surrounded by a hostile, unreformable world.”

Swedes were familiar with free, gathered church groups. But the Rev. L.P. Esbjörn, first ordained Swedish Lutheran pastor in Illinois, spoke for many when he suggested he was tired of “external (Reformed [i.e. Calvinist]) noise and bluster” and preferred the “the Lutheran church teaches us to consider each one as good (since in baptism he has become a child of God) until the opposite is proved, whereas it follows from the Reformed doctrines that each one is accounted evil until he proves the opposite.”

I’m not sure Esbjörn was being entirely fair to the Calvinists there, and it seems to me — as an outsider looking at controversies more than 150 year ago — there was plenty of “noise and bluster” on all sides. Esbjörn was responsible for some of himself, in my opinion, as he squabbled with other Lutherans about what he considered the true meaning of the “unaltered Augsburg Confession” of 1530. But I think there was something fundamentally more welcoming in the Swedes’ outreach to all subjects of King Oscar I and the Lutheran doctrine that the church is simply where the word of God is preached and the sacraments administered. At the end of the day, being part of a heaven-bound elect didn’t enter into it.

Luther’s dear angels on the North Side of Chicago

xxxx I’ve been thinking about it a long time. got cut out of the ALPLM paper, but I’m not done with it.

December 25, 2019 (Christmas day!), in a post to this blog I headlined, “The dear angels’ song at Bethlehem and the presence of God in a well-annotated 1871 edition of Luther’s House Sermons”; and another post a week later. Dec. 30, reaffirming what I said under the headline: “Ebenezer Scrooge, Luther’s sermons and Swedish-American history: A New Year’s resolution (of sorts)” The resolution was to get cracking on the ALPLM paper, which — somehow — I did in the year ahead in spite of the pandemic.

Excerpt from Dec. 25 post:

A handwritten note in my copy of the book* says this sermon was preached in church on .Christmas afternoon in 1534, a time when we know that Luther and Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen sometimes shared the pulpit at St. Mary’s in Wittenberg. Luther says that Christ didn’t come into the world to save “geese, ducks or cows” (1:101); instead, the angels at Bethlehem proclaimed “that we men, who were formerly the devil’s servants, attain to such honor through this Child, that we are received into citizenship of the dear angels.” And this:

These [angels] are now our dear friends, so that for the sake of this Child we can trust that we have one Lord with the dear angels and they with us, and that we are with them of the same household.

They, the dear angels, might well be proud that they are so much nobler than we men, in the first place as to their nature and being, and then also in that they are without sin. But we see in them no pride; they do not despsise us men on account of our misery; nay, they regard us as being greatly ennobled and honored through this their Lord and our Savior, the Son of God. (1:105)



‘Holy Envy’

Stendahl’s three rules. Wikipedia’s outline, with its definition in the third bullet point, is as good as any:

  • When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  • Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  • Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)


Anyway, Krister Stendahl’s paper in Geneva gives me something to think about some more. He’s an interesting guy. Very committed to ecumenism, especially with Judaism. (The picture at the top of this post is a screen grab from his offering the invocation at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993.) xxx

And the World Council of Churches’ symposium gives me something to follow up on.

Technically it In this context, “Laos” doesn’t mean the country in southeast Asia; instead it’s part of the New Testament Greek phrase laos tou theou, and it means “people of God” in English. One of


Misc. notes on Stendahl and Works Cited

I’ve blogged about Stendahl before, including this overview when I first learned about him last last year; I headlined it “Krister Stendahl — a Swedish theologian on salvation, eternal life and the ‘coughing [of] mosquitoes’ (the last bit comes from where he compared Christian apologetics, or theological argument, to the “coughing of mosquitoes”). I also included a lengthy quotation from the World Council of Churches symposium in a Dec. 12, 2019, Advent meditation I headlined: “John the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven, a Swedish theologian and the duty to resist anti-Semitism.” I bit off way more than I could chew with that one, but I keep coming back to what Stendahl said at that symposium. So I’ll just copy that part of it here:

The Christian church, Stendahl said, functions as “an ‘Operation Headstart’ for the Kingdom of God” — fundamentally a Jewish concept (the kingdom and not Head Start), and one that John the Baptist preached. A powerful step toward “Christian self-understanding,” Stendahl said in at the 1997 symposium, would be the following:

  • To understand the church as a people — not an ideology, or just a means toward individual salvation.
  • To see the church, on the analogy of Israel, as a people chosen by grace and set apart for specific service.
  • To explore ways to express the relation between the church and the Jewish People, the people who coined the phrase.

I especially like that. A people chosen by grace and set apart, called to service. God’s work, our hands, in today’s ELCA Lutheran vernacular. We even put it on T-shirts.

I haven’t begun to explore its depths, at least not in any organized, disciplined way, but there’s something else that Krister Stendahl said — referring to two other papers that were presented at the World Council of Churches symposium — that I want to keep thinking about.

So I’ll just quote it in one great big three-paragraph lump here, for convenient reference, copy it to my research blog and link to it below:

As Barbara Schwahn makes so clear in her reflections on “The People of God” (Document No. 6, p.10), the laos theology needs the full context of the whole creation as a corrective. Jesus’ choice of the Kingdom as the aim and end of the whole enterprise, i.e., the Mending of the Creation (what Jews call Tikkun Olam) is paradigmatic. The laos, when faithful and creative, is supposed to help in that mending not only of itself but of the world. And the imago dei, i.e. that all are created in the image of God, is the common bond of humankind, and a fact more decisive than the tarnish and brokenness that have occured subsequently and that varies in degrees according to various doctrinal traditions.

Beyond and prior to all religious covenants that constitute communities of faith and of culture, there is the bond of common humanity, in the image of God, which should not be belittled in the interest of glorifying one’s own special revelation.

Thus I hail Godlind Bigalke’s instinctive choice of the imago dei as the starting point in considering the topic for formation/transformation/yea restoration. To which I add the Lord’s Prayer, the extended cry for the coming of the Kingdom, the mended creation.

I copied the Krister Stendahl quote, with links, to my research blog Hemlandssånger at https://hemlandssanger.wordpress.com/2019/12/11/krister-stendahl-on-people-of-god/. And I tacked on an Works Cited list [and updated it] here. I think I need to keep coming back to this.

Works Cited

V. Rev. Fr Nicholas Apostola, “Opening Remarks,” in WCC, Common Understanding https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/towards-a-uncicommon-understanding-of-laity/laos-opening-remarks.

Conrad Bergendoff, Doctrine of the Church Bergendoff, The Doctrine of the Church in American Lutheranism (Philadelphia: Board of Publication, United Lutheran Church of America, 1956), 39-40. The parentheses are Bergendoff’s. Cf. the translation in Sam Rönnegård, Prairie Shepherd: Lars Paul Esbjörn and the Beginnings of the Augustana Lutheran Church, trans. G. Everett Arden (Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1952), 226.

Timothy Larsen, “The Dissenting Ethos,” Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart vierte Auflage, 4th ed., rpt. Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/larsen4.html.

Dr. Martin Luther’s House-Postil; or, Sermons on the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church-Year, trans. Matthias Loy. 2 vols. Rock Island, Illinois: Lutheran Augustana Book Concern, 1871. 1:101, 105-06.

Krister Stendahl, “Formation of Christian Folks in a Plural World: Response by Krister Stendahl to the paper “Formation of the Laos” [by Godlind Bigalke],” in WCC, Common Understanding https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/response-by-krister-stendahl.

__________. Roots of Violence: Creating Peace Through Spiritual Reconciliation. Brewster, Massachusetts” Paraclete Press, 2016. 33.

World Council of Churches, “Church of Sweden (Svenska Kyrkan),” Member Churches https://www.oikoumene.org/member-churches/church-of-sweden.

__________. “Consultation Statement,” in WCC, Common Understanding https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/towards-a-common-understanding-of-laity/laos-consultation-statement.

Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God. Geneva: World Council of Churches, May 7-10, 1997.

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