The Legacy of Bengt Sundkler

By Sharpe, Eric J. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Bengt Sundkler


Sharpe, Eric J., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


When Bengt Sundkler died in Uppsala, Sweden, on April 5, 1995, at the age of eighty-five, he left behind two incomplete manuscripts. One was his long-promised book A History of the Church in Africa (since completed by Christopher Steed and published in 2000 by Cambridge University Press). The other was to have been an autobiography. Although not yet ready for publication, the text--partly written at the very end of his life, partly compiled by a close friend from articles, letters, diaries, and personal reflections--is both informative and moving. [1] Especially in his last years, the only thing Bengt Sundkler really wanted to do was to write. He wrote constantly, almost always with a fountain pen in a none-too-legible longhand on small sheets of notepaper. Another indispensable item of equipment was the 3 x 5 inch index card, of which he must have filled many hundreds of thousands during the course of his writing career.

In a letter written in 1982 Sundkler confessed that to him writing was a therapeutic process not unlike prayer. But citizen of the world and accomplished linguist as he was (how many European and African languages he read and spoke with ease and fluency no one now will ever know), his mother tongue was Swedish, and it was in Swedish he expressed himself best. All his professional life he was somewhat at the mercy of translators and tidiers-up where his English texts were concerned; in one case the process almost spoiled an important book altogether. In Swedish he was, like his mentor Nathan Soderblom, clear, crisp, and lucid.

Sundkler, the Family Name

Bengt Gustaf Malcolm Sundkler was born on May 7,1909, in the little town of Vindeln, in the north of Sweden, not far from the Gulf of Bothnia. His father, Gustaf Fredrik Sundkler (1881-1958), owned an all-purpose store; his mother, Lilly, nee Bergman (1883-1963), came of a large and cultured family. The family name "Sundkler" sounds slightly odd to most Swedes, and it sounded odder in the years before Swedish surnames could be more or less freely invented. "Sundkler" is actually a swedicized form of the Scottish family name "Sinclair," Sinclairs from Scotland having been members of the Swedish nobility since the 1770s. But there had been irregular liaisons along the way. Bengt Sundkler's father was in fact the illegitimate son of Count Carl Gustaf Sinclair, and in 1919, greatly daring, he had changed his family's name to something like Sinclair, namely, Sundkler. [2]

Also in 1919 the family moved to the coastal town of Umea, where Bengt attended high school and developed a passion for the history of literature in general, and Scandinavian literature in particular. The family home had been in a district in which pietist revivalism had taken firm root, though the family had held fast to its links with the Lutheran Church. Bengt in these early years gained an instinctive understanding of "vernacular religion," the intense, deeply felt faith of the ordinary people of Sweden--and in due course, of Africa. [3] This gifted young man soon began to carry off prizes and to assume a leadership role in the local student Christian movement. It had been decided by this stage that he would study theology at the University of Uppsala, with a view to a career in the ministry of the Church of Sweden. What else the future might hold, he had not the slightest idea.

Student in Uppsala

Early in 1929 we find Sundkler already well established in Uppsala (he may have arrived in the previous fall) and deeply immersed in biblical studies. The book that influenced him the most, he afterward wrote, had been the Dane Johannes Pedersen's massive and masterly Israel (2 vols., 1920; in English 1926; 2nd ed., 1934). Then came a wholly unexpected invitation to lodge in the home of Professor Anton Fridrichsen (1888-1953), Norwegian by birth, professor of New Testament exegesis in Uppsala since 1928.

These days, the name of Fridrichsen is barely known to non-Scandinavians, and there is little enough that can be done here to explain his position in the "biblical theology" movement. …

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