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July 28, 2006

Dissenters—then and now

Thoughts of work don’t typically get packed for a weekend away—especially when the particular work is already completed. But on a recent visit to Bishop Hill Colony, a state historic site in western Illinois, I did think about our July cover feature, which included an article “A history of dissent: Our heritage is woven from both schisms and mergers” by H. George Anderson, a scholar of church history and former ELCA presiding bishop (1995-2001).

Here’s why. This beautiful collection of homes, shops, community buildings and a church were built on the prairie by dissenters who left Sweden in the 1840s, following Eric Janson who had clashed violently with state authorities in his homeland for his preaching that was not authorized by the state—Lutheran—church. He wasn’t the only one dissatisfied with the state church, according to the brochure, which tells that at the time there were “many Lutheran clergymen who desired to reinvigorate what they saw as the dry, spiritless formalism of the state church.” But while the latter started a “readers” movement that had people meeting privately for Bible study, prayer and worship, Janson burned church books and preached publicly, even prophesying “a fiery doom for Sweden and its unbelieving leaders” before sailing for America in 1846 with 400 followers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia: American freedom. Turns out that without the state church to rail against, well, the charismatic leader couldn’t hold the group together—and apart from others—despite their prosperity from farming and trade. He was murdered during a disagreement with a fellow colonist in 1850, and soon the Bishop Hill settlers had more and more to do with their neighbors. By 1861, when the Civil War began, they dissolved the colony and formed a “Swedish Union Guard” to fight as Union soldiers.

They also called a Swedish Methodist minister to town. Today the church Janson built is a museum—a white wooden monument to the impossibility of a faith founded isolation and human perfection. The Methodist church constructed some 50 years later by some of the original settlers and their descendents still is a place of welcome and worship.

City folks, like me, are drawn to Bishop Hill because it stands in the midst of the quiet countryside where the warm summer air carries the sweet smell of hay. That’s why it ranks high on lists of weekend getaways. And if you’ve got Swedish heritage or, like we did, visitors from Sweden—well, it’s a must see. There’s a charming bed-and-breakfast now in the Colony Hospital (where we stayed) and several restaurants, also in original buildings, that serve tasty fare.

But what’s most memorable for me is the insight into this particular experience of religious dissent—and how the fervor of separatism faded in the open space of freedom. Utopia for the Bishop Hill Swedes wasn’t about being right and pure in belief, cut off from outsiders who think differently. Is it ever?

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