The Swedish Community
of Jefferson County, Iowa
It has been said that if the Swedish immigrants did not bring much money with them when they came to this country they certainly brought a lot of religion. This was true of Peter Cassel and his group who founded the first permanent Swedish settlement of the 19th century in America. When they came to Jefferson County, Iowa, in 1845 they brought with them a firm belief in the Bible and the Christian ideals of faith, repentance and regeneration. The minister and members of the pioneer American church in the area were kind and helpful, but in the whole territory of Iowa there was not one pastor who could preach to them or administer the holy rites in words they could understand.
After almost two years a young shoemaker, Magnus Fredrik Hokanson, arrived from Stockholm. He had been trained as a lay preacher and when he spoke at their home prayer meetings he so impressed the others with his sincerity and eloquence that when they formed their own congregation they asked him to be their pastor. Since he had not been ordained he accepted with great reluctance. Later he wrote: "Though I did not like the prospect at all, I found that this was the place the Lord had selected for me and where He wished to use me for His cause. The small and poor pioneer settlements in Iowa could not secure an educated pastor in the condition they were in. I was brought to the conviction that I must take care of them."
No minutes or formal record of that first meeting in January, 1848, or of the early years of the church have survived. Possibly no formal organization even took place. The people simply considered themselves Lutheran Church members and Hokanson preached and administered the sacraments as it had been done in Sweden. What is known of the years before 1860 is based on old letters, legal documents, and the writings of early pastors. Cassel wrote back to Sweden: "You all know me as one accustomed to hearing preachers of the pure doctrine and grounded in the correct doctrine of the atonement through Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer ... Our pastor is a disciple of the esteemed Pastor Sellergren and follows his precepts in doctrine as well as in conduct."
In 1849 a large number of immigrants arrived. Some came on to New Sweden while others stayed at Andover, Illinois. Among them was Lars Paul Esbjorn, an ordained Lutheran minister who, like the New Sweden folk, had been associated with the religious reform movement in Sweden. He organized the congregation in Andover and made a trip east to raise money for the construction of churches. This was the "Jenny Lind Fund" named for its main contributor the famous Swedish soprano, then on a concert tour in the United States.
Jonas Hedstrom, an immigrant who had been ordained a Methodist minister, visited New Sweden in 1850 and won over both Peter Cassel and John Danielson and about half of the Lutherans. Doubts about his right to act as a minister again troubled Hakanson. He tried to resign but the faithful Lutherans urged him to stay. When Rev. Esbjorn came to restore and strengthen the confidence of both the pastor and church members he arranged for the Joint Synod of Ohio, composed of German and Norwegian Lutheran churches, to grant Hokanson a preacher's license and pay $70 a year toward his salary, in addition he gave the congregation $300 from the "Jenny Lind Fund" to build a church. For six dollars they purchased one acre of land on July 8, 1851, and on it built a church of oak logs, 32 x 24 feet in size. One reference names John Almgren as the builder. Each year more immigrants arrived and church membership increased in spite of the high death rate from cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, pneumonia and other illnesses.
Another Lutheran minister, T.N. Hasselquist, arrived from Sweden in December, 1852, to serve new congregations in Galesburg and Henderson, Illinois. By now there were enough Norwegian and Swedish churches to organize their own Lutheran Synod of Northern Illinois. Within this Synod the Mississippi Conference was wholly Swedish. On April 10, 1853, this Conference was to meet at New Sweden but rains and melting snow washed out bridges and made roads impassable. Only Rev. Hasselquist was able to come. It must have been then that he helped the congregation proceed to a more formal organization and they adopted the short constitution he prepared. Since his arrival he had been giving Hokansan private instruction in theology and at the Conference meeting at the end of 1853 he was ordained a Lutheran minister.
A new problem arose the next year when four Swedish Baptist ministers arrived and began preaching to the people in New Sweden. Some of the Lutherans did become Baptists, among them Olaf Peterson and Charles Carlson who held the title to the Lutheran Church land. The Lutheran trustees Peter Palm and John Almgren promptly arranged for the incorporation of the congregation under Iowa state law. On May 8, 1854, the articles of incorporation were signed and title to the property transferred to the Lutheran congregation.
On December 1 of that year the congregation purchased two acres of land just west of the church. On it was a 16 foot square log house with a tiny loft reached by a ladder. This became the first parsonage. The pioneer era of New Sweden was drawing to a close now and in November, 1856, Rev. Hokanson moved to the frontier settlement of Bergholm (now Munterville) in Wapello County.
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