Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Swede in the Mid-West

Eric Norelius, a Swede who emigrated to America and became a key figure in the Swedish Lutheran church there, was born 180 years ago today. He kept a diary from aged 15 which is considered of minor historical importance. Parts of this have been translated into English, but there are no extracts freely available online, just reviews of the published works.

Norelius was born in Hassela, Helsingia, on 26 October 1833, but migrated to the US in 1850. He was trained as a priest at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and was ordained in 1855. That same year he married Inga Peterson in 1855, and they had five children. In 1856, he moved to become pastor of a new Swedish-Lutheran congregation in Vasa, Minnesota, and then Attica, Indiana, for a few years before returning to Vasa.

In 1860, Norelius was one of the founders of the Augustana Lutheran Synod (which only merged into the Lutheran Church in 1962). He was its president from 1874 to 1881 and from 1901 to 1910. He is also regarded as the founder of Gustavus Adolphus College. In 1892, he was awarded a doctorate in theology. Throughout his ministry, he was active in publishing, launching and/or editing a variety of Swedish language publications. From 1899 until 1909, he was editor of Tidskrift för svensk evangelisk luthersk kyrkohistoria i Amerika, later called The Augustana Theological Quarterly.

The last years of Norelius’s life were spent researching and writing the history of the synod and the Swedish migration to, and settlement in, America. He died in 1916. Further information is available online from Wikipedia, the Augustana Heritage Association, the Augustana College or the Minnesota Encyclopaedia.

For much of his life, Norelius kept a diary. He used this extensively for an autobiographical work, published posthumously by the Augustana Book Concern: Early Life of Eric Norelius (1833-1862), Journal of a Swedish Immigrant in the Middle West. There are no extracts from this book online that I can find, although two illustrious journals gave it a brief review in 1935.

The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (Vol. 22 No. 2, September 1935): ‘In this autobiography of the early years of an outstanding leader of the Swedish people in America, the student of western history, as well as of immigrants, will find much of value. The volume describes Eric Norelius’ childhood on a Swedish farm and his migration to America in 1850, where he hoped to acquire the education he despaired of attaining in Sweden. [. . .] The autobiography, written in 1916 when Norelius was eighty-three years old, is based on his diaries, and parts of it consists of excerpts from them.’

In its review of the book, Minnesota History (Vol. 16 No. 2 June 1935) asks how reliable are the memoirs of an old man, and concludes: ‘Norelius himself answers the question: “There are many facts and events that we have seen or experienced in our childhood of youth which are remembered vividly. This has been the writer’s experience. Furthermore, I have kept a diary since the fifteenth year of my life.” ’

Some 30 years later, in 1967, Fortress Press published a more substantial volume - The Journals of Eric Norelius: A Swedish Missionary on the American Frontier - which was translated and edited by G. Everett Arden. Again, I can find no single quotation or extract from the book online, but Minnesota History Magazine (Vol. 40 No. 7) reviewed the book as follows:

‘Of the five sections into which these journals are divided, the first four, extending from Norelius’ birth in 1833 at Hassela, Sweden, to his ordination at Dixon, Illinois, in 1855, consist of Professor Arden’s translations of the “Minnesbok.” Norelius used this diary as the basis of autobiographical articles first published in Korsbaneret (1888-90) and Augustana (1930-31), which were translated by the Reverend Emeroy Johnson and published in book form by the Augustana Book Concern as Early Life of Eric Norelius (1934).

In these posthumously published articles Norelius usually elaborated on the “Minnesbok” versions, but sometimes the original is fuller. At times, as in the episode of the diarist’s meeting with the Baptist Anders Wiberg in 1853, there is immediacy (and in this case acerbity) in the “Minnesbok” which is lacking in the version written for publication. The final section describes a “Missionary Journey to the West Coast, 1885-1886,” which also originally appeared in Augustana.

Mr. Arden, whose work is well known to those interested in the history of Swedish-American Lutheranism, has provided a most useful introduction. In this he shows the place of Norelius in relation to religious developments in Sweden, to the beginnings of the Augustana Lutheran Church, and to the Swedish peopling of the Middle West - in particular Minnesota, which was the missionary’s permanent home from 1860 to his death in 1916. The editor-translator has also provided useful explanatory notes and an index, thus filling to some extent a gap left by Mr. Johnson in his work of 1934.

The most profound impression left on this reviewer by these journals is one of the comparative weakness of Lutheranism in the early years of the second Swedish migration, surrounded as it was by a mass of indifference to religion, and beset by competition from Episcopalians, Eric Jansonists, and (more notably) Baptists and Methodists, all of whom were in the field before the fathers of Augustana began their work.’


The Diary Junction

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