Academic journal article Material Culture

Swedish to American: Built Form at the Bishop Hill Colony

Academic journal article Material Culture

Swedish to American: Built Form at the Bishop Hill Colony

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Bishop Hill Colony, founded by EricJanson, built a new town on the Illinois prairie starting in 1846. This study demonstrates that the Colony's 15-year communal history can be divided into three distinct phases, identified by changes in leadership. Changes in type and design of the Colony's buildings can be correlated with these leadership changes and with the increasing degree of assimilation of the Swedish colony into the surrounding American culture.

Keywords: Bishop Hill, communitarian, communal, commune, Swedish American, Illinois history


The Bishop Hill Colony was a Utopian community, based on the principle of Bible Communism, founded by the Swedish religious radical, Eric Janson. Janson and a group of fellow immigrants left Sweden to escape religious persecution. They reached northwestern Illinois and the miles of open, slightly rolling prairie that made up newly-surveyed Henry County in July of 1846. By June of the next year, the immigrants had established their utopia on a minor fork of the Edwards River. A town had been laid out on the south bank of the river, and the first permanent structures were under construction. Construction of their built environment continued throughout much of the Colony's 15 -year lifetime, with the last new Colony building completed in 1861. The Colony continued its communal life until 1861, when it was dissolved. Today, part of the community makes up the Bishop Hill State Historic Site, and several of the Colony buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

This study is two-fold. First, it examines the history of the Colony and its internal socio- cultural environment and concludes that its history can be divided into three distinct phases, each one identified with a different type of leadership. Second, based on the author's examination of both archival material1 and the extant Colony buildings, the paper argues both that the type and design of the Colony's buildings changed dramatically during its fifteen-year history, and that the shifts in typology of the Colony's building production can be correlated with these three phases. Changes in design, while influenced by some of the same factors, are also shown to be tied to the degree of contact with and attitude towards the outside world. Changes in the physical environment are thus shown to be linked to changes m both the internal culture of the Colony and its increasing assimilation into the culture surrounding the Swedish immigrants' new home.

The History and Culture of the Colony

Eric Janson was the original, charismatic spiritual and temporal leader of the Bishop Hill Colony. He advocated an extreme form of Biblical fundamentalism; since he held that all the believer needs is true faith, and the Bible is the source of truth, all the believer needs to know is the word of God as found in the Bible. Texts by other authors, including the official Swedish Lutheran Catechism, he called deceivers; reading them, he said, was like carrying on "adultery with the Bible like a woman who is intímate with another man while her husband is still alive" (trans, in Elman 1976, 3). Janson's religious career began in 1835, when he began speaking as a lay preacher at gatherings of the Lasare, or "Readers" devotionalist movement. While at first this movement m no way challenged the state church of Sweden, there gradually grew up among many of the Lasare a new religious conception that was not reconcilable with the official teachings of the state church, a conception of the church as "a body of believers who were regenerated by the Spirit" (Stephenson 1969, 48). Eric Janson became a leading preacher of this new belief and eventually the prophet and leader of a radical faction dedicated to reforming even the Lasare reformers. This faction took its name from its leader, and their beliefs became known as Jansonism.

In early 1840's Sweden, as a result of Janson's highly visible and provocative challenges to the Swedish Lutheran Church, including public bonfires into which he threw the Lutheran Catechism, he was arrested several times and the Jansonists were harassed and fined by Swedish authorities. …

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