Part III: Religious and Social Institutions of Swedish America promote stability and security...
The Importance of Being Swedish
Part III: Religious and Social Institutions of Swedish America promote stability and security...
The promise of higher standards of living inspired millions to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Once in the United States, a sobering reality met Swedes and other groups that vied for prosperity. In facing the diverse challenges of immigration, groups found strength in numbers and often banded together as a way to promote stability and security, characteristics which helped make progress possible.
Did anything really change? What is the women's organization SWEA other than a way to find commonalities and security among like-minded? Or modern day crayfish gatherings? Or men's social clubs such as "Ärtans Vänner" NYC? /Ed.
Read more on The Fundamentals of the Swedish Immigration
For many of the early groups the Church played a key role in providing a focal point in the community, while others gathered together in social organizations. Since the Swedish government of the time failed to recognize the potential benefits and merits of Swedish emigration, it generally neglected investment or infrastructure in Swedish America. This meant that the responsibility of organization fell upon various other groups dominated by the migrants themselves.
Kathleen Neils Conzen of the University of Chicago has long championed the scholarship of the “actual contours of a particular culture,” which for her are represented by “… the socially produced structures of meaning engendered by and expressed in public behaviors, language [and] institutions.” The functional structures of Swedish American institutions reflect a new, more pluralistic experience produced by trade-offs between strong ethnic identity and survival.
The state church
One of the hallmarks of 20th century immigration to the United States was the religious institutions that followed migrants to the New World and helped shape the demographic landscape of the country. Indeed, the vibrant and extensive presence of the Lutheran Church in the United States is a testament to the large groups of Scandinavians and Germans that crossed the North Atlantic. As discussed previously in Jansen’s examination of early immigration of Swedish Americans, religion played a key role. As the Kingdom of Sweden maintained a state-church religion, most Swedes had understood the Church of Sweden to be the singular authority on religious life. In the United States, Swedes were more freely able to practice other Christian denominations and worship through other Churches and religious traditions. This presented the Swedish Church in America several challenges in keeping its integrity along with the opportunity to develop and change.
One of the main challenges of the Church of Sweden in the United States has always been attracting adequate numbers of worshipers while maintaining a distinct cultural identity. This sets the stage for what H. Richard Niebuhr calls the tension between accommodation and competition, manifesting itself in the adherence to a formal liturgical structure and the appointment of clergy from the homeland. As Scott E. Erickson puts forth: “The immigrant church in America would also seek to define those distinctives that would help preserve its character as a church with ethnic priorities.” In other words, the Church must be a social adhesive for the immigrant community while estranging its congregation from the wider American society.
This challenge especially presented itself in the use of Swedish in church activity and services. Erickson argues that initially “one had to speak Swedish to belong to the Covenant Church.” Part of the reason there was not a sizeable, established Swedish Church presence in America was that both the Swedish state and “the ecclesiastical authorities in Sweden remained firmly opposed to emigration.”
Accordingly, even though Swedes had flowed steadily into the United States since the 1850s, Kastrup points out that until 1870 the Swedish state church had only provided six pastors, two of whom returned. In response to this neglect, Swedish Americans took it upon themselves to further the Swedish Church: in 1860, at Jefferson Prairie on the Wisconsin-Illinois border, Lars Paul Esbjörn helped create the synod of Lutheran congregations of immigrants from the united kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. The name Augustana was taken to honor the Augsburg Confession of 1530, which set the religious creed of the Protestant Reformation.
As Dag Blanck observes, the lack of attention afforded by the Church of Sweden to the Swedish Lutherans in America can best be expressed by P. J. Swärd, who upon receiving Bishop von Scheele in 1893 at a major celebration in Rock Island, Illinois, grumbled, “The Church of Sweden has paid ‘very little attention’ to the [Augustana] Synod and its important work among the Swedes in America.” Though there came to be a substantial positive exchange between Augustana and von Scheele’s home province of Gotland, it seemed clear that the Church of the homeland would never come to view the Swedish American Augustana Synod as an equal, but rather, as synod president Norelius puts it, ‘the daughter church.’ Sadly, the endeavor ended in 1962 when the synod merged with three other church bodies to form the Lutheran Church of America and lost much of its unique Swedish character.
Perhaps one explanation for the Church of Sweden’s inability to adapt and embrace the new immigrant communities in the U.S. is the basic structural organization of the state church. This organization was rigid and centered around the Swedish home parishes. These parishes were free to govern themselves and their organs as they saw fit. Above these were the dioceses, which were in turn overseen by the bishop. Only after several decades did the Church begin to address the need for reform. The Church Assembly, a policy-forming wing of the Church, was “an organ of the State rather than the Church.” In many ways the Church of Sweden, as it stands today, is the result of a series of conferences that sought to better establish strategies for the institution to survive in the modern era. The ideal of “a people’s church” was heavily influenced by the political and social reform movements of the 20th century.
One of the positive aspects of this reform was that the Church Assembly came to be a gathering point of both clergy and laymen to address the Church’s problems, which later developed into a “permanent institution” within the established Church. Throughout decades of meetings, the Church orientation was adjusted to “a pluralistic society, in which the status of the Church was called into question.”
As Lenhammer describes, “The Swedish people’s church had been a recurrent theme in the assembly’s programme.” The results of these assemblies can be observed in the relatively liberal church reforms, which include the influx of women, the recognition of voluntary support for the church, and the focus on wider and international issues facing society. These reforms came as recognition that the focus and influence of the Church could be adapted to attract potential groups not traditionally included in the historical structure of the Church. Whereas the Augustana Synod merged, the Church of Sweden adapted.
In the early immigrant communities, the Church was not the only organization that catered to the needs of Swedish Americans. Social organizations competed fiercely with religious groups over influence in the daily life of immigrants; social orders, professional associations and musical groups each claimed to embody the vital characteristics of Swedish life. Eschewing even contemporary Swedish culture, these groups played more into nostalgic, Norse and regional identities. Though these groups were inherently founded on Swedish principals, they were geared to help Swedes better fit in amongst both Americans and other immigrant groups. Ethnic identity and the need for self-preservation had challenged the religious intuitions, and social institutions were equally pressured.
Many of the major social organizations, including the Independent Fraternal Order of Svithiod were initially all-male and sought to cultivate uniquely Swedish American culture, but would later be forced to become more inclusive.
In 1880, the Independent Fraternal Order of Svithiod was founded in Chicago to promote and preserve the heritage of the Swedish people in the United States. The order was exclusively open to men and sought to “unite in bonds of fraternal harmony and benevolent cooperation men of Swedish birth or extraction.” The name Svithiod refers to an Old Norse name for what is today part of Sweden and is indicative of the nostalgic tendencies of early Swedish American communities.
The Vasa Order of America was, similarly, “a benefit fraternal society for Swedish immigrants to the United States.” It is interesting to note that the objectives of this organization in its formative years were primarily to encourage successful integration through the education of English.
Both Vasa and Svithiod provided social meeting points for Swedes, well-established and new. Out of these endeavors came balls, dinners, concerts and the celebration of traditional Swedish festivals such as midsommar. These groups were essential in shaping a Swedish American identity as they taught and reinforced cultural values. Below is a chart of some of the major Swedish American social institutions at the time:
Svithiod, founded 1880
To promote and preserve the principles, traditions and heritage of the Scandinavian people in the United States.
American Society of Swedish Engineers, founded 1880
To complete education, to learn English, to seek new opportunities.
Vasa Order, founded 1896
Fraternal organization to encourage Swedish integration, maintain Swedish traditions.
As Swedes became further assimilated, the relevance of these groups was put into question. In contrast to modern Swedish-American institutions, the early-formed groups note a stark difference not only in functionality, but also in goals and attitudes towards being “Swedish.” Years of improved standards of living in Sweden and tightening of American immigration laws had a profound influence in changing the types of Swedes that came to America and the groups they established. Generally speaking, the earlier organizations focused uniquely on the Swedish American community and sought to help immigrants assimilate, find work, and integrate into the wider American society. Swedish American institutions established after World War II, however, point to a largely commerce- and business-oriented nature, and focus on an international Swedish community that seeks to maintain and promote strong ties between the United States and Sweden.
Future articles will explore some of the groups discussed and explore what this reveals about the differences in the two distinct groups of Swedish immigrants.
By Carl Löof
Huss, Einar, “Några data om nutida Svensk industri”
, svenska idustrin vid kvartalsekelskiftet. Stockholm. 1925. p87.
Janson, Florence E. The Background of Swedish Immigration, 1840-1930
. The University of Chicago Press. 1931. P 2
Beijbom, Ulf. Tradition och Kultur bland Amerikas svenskar
. Utvandrare och invandrare i Sveriges historia 1846-1996
. Migrationskommittén : Svenska emigrantinstitutet, 1997P. 39. Eftersom bosättarna I det agrara homesteadområdet så ofta representerade kedjeutflyttning från samma hembygd gick det provinsiella före det nationella
Scott, F.D. Trans-Atlantica
. Migrations in the Dynamics of History (reprinted from World Migration in Modern Times), Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968. p172
Carl Lööf is a Swedish political and cultural commentator. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Carl also holds a diplome from l’Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). His prior work experience includes serving as a congressional aide and policy adviser to two Members of the U.S. Congress as well as working as a research assistant at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Carl grew up in London, England and Boca Raton, Florida but maintains strong ties with Sweden and the Swedish community abroad.