Swedish-American Episcopalians and Lutheran-Episcopal Relations in North America, 1850-1935

Article excerpt

During the massive nineteenth-century European immigration to North America, religious leaders of American and immigrant denominations came into contact with one another, both intentionally and unintentionally. Sometimes these contacts were fruitful and led to longstanding relationships, but more often they caused friction and hostility, as each side had real and imaginary complaints against the other. In the case of Swedish-American Lutherans and native Episcopalians, there was a great deal of conflict. The discordancy was actually four-sided, involving the Lutheran Church of Sweden, the Augustana Synod (the Swedish-American Lutheran denomination), the American Episcopal Church, and a small group of Swedish-American Episcopalians, who sought to form an Episcopal ministry within the Swedish-American community. Tensions among these four groups were largely responsible for an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that marked the relationship between the Swedish-American Lutherans and Episcopalians well into the twentieth century.1

To understand these tangled relationships, it is necessary briefly to explore the nature of Swedish immigration to the United States, and especially the religious aspects of the movement. In the nineteenth century, Sweden had an official Lutheran state church, the Church of Sweden, which had maintained the episcopal form of ministry as a carryover from the Roman Catholic Middle Ages. No dissenting congregations were allowed in Sweden until well into the nineteenth century, and even after the situation changed, there was considerable pressure against non-Lutheran groups. During this century, however, there was a wide-spread and influential revival or awakening of religious life within Sweden, largely along the lines of pietism and other evangelical groups, such as the Methodists. Many Swedish Lutherans and dissenters, unhappy with the formal structure and worship of the Church of Sweden, sought other forms of religious expression, which incurred the wrath of state church officials.

When large-scale migration of Swedes to America began in the 1840s and 1850s, many of these immigrants were unhappy with the Church of Sweden. Although there were numbers of Swedish immigrants who left Lutheranism for Methodist, Baptist, and free church denominations, the large majority of Swedish-Americans who associated with immigrant congregations joined the Lutheran Augustana Synod. The Augustana Synod was different in many important respects from the Church of Sweden. By design it had no episcopal organization; at the same time it possessed a piety that reflected more the evangelical awakening than that of the Swedish state church. There was an attitude of mutual suspicion between the Church of Sweden and the Augustana Synod that improved only gradually through the course of their relationship.2

Like those in other Protestant denominations, many American Episcopalians viewed the nineteenth-century immigration as both a problem and an opportunity. The arrival of so many non-English speaking people threatened to overwhelm a carefully cultivated Protestant America, but the new immigrants (especially Northern European Protestants, such as the Swedes) were also a source of growth and new membership for American denominations. Through the course of more than eighty years, American Episcopalians sporadically sought to reach out to and to cultivate relationships with the new immigrants, with mixed results.

Although many Swedish newcomers to the United States decided to affiliate with the Augustana Synod or with one of the other immigrant denominations, there were some Swedish arrivals who rejected evangelical or pietistic denominations, and who sought in America a fellowship they thought more akin to the Church of Sweden. Some of these "dissenters from the dissenters" found their way to the American Episcopal Church, believing the episcopal structure of that denomination to be the closest equivalent to the Church of Sweden. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.