Saturday, June 6, 2015

Early Scandinavian Converts


The earliest Scandinavian converts to Mormonism were won not in Europe but in the United States among the Norwegian immigrants in the storied settlements at Fox River in Illinois, Sugar Creek in Iowa, and Koshkonong in Wisconsin Territory, within missionary striking distance of Nauvoo, the rising Mormon capital of the 1 840s. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, hoped to recruit missionaries for Scandinavia among them who would lead their countrymen to settle in and around Nauvoo to strengthen Zion as converts from the British Isles were already doing. By 1843 the Norwegian Mormon congregation at Fox River numbered fifty-eight, including several of the famous "sloop folk" of 1825; Knud Peterson of Hardangar, immigrant of 1837, better known in Utah history as Canute, who would be one of the early settlers of Lehi; and Aagaata Sondra Ystensdatter, eighteen and also an immigrant of 1837, from Telemarken, who as Ellen Sanders Kimball, wife of Brigham Young's counselor Heber C. Kimball, would be one of the three women in the first company of Mormon pioneers to enter Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Norwegian congregations sprang up in Iowa and Wisconsin as well, and by 1845 one Lutheran minister lamented that nearly a hundred and fifty Norwegians in the western settlements--some eighty in the Fox River colony alone--had followed the "Mormon delusion."
After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young visited the outlying congregations of the Saints in quick succession trying to hold the pieces together. He called on the Norwegian Branch at Fox River in October of the martyr year and on a hundred acres northeast of nearby Ottawa "laid out a city," called it Norway, and "dedicated it to the Lord." Brigham Young declared that it would be a gathering place for the Scandinavian people and that they would build a temple there. But the Norwegian converts had to abandon that hope as the Mormons had to abandon Nauvoo. A hundred Norwegian Mormon families made ready to go west with Brigham Young, but the dissenter James J. Strang threw them into confusion with his counterclaims to the succession. Most of the Norwegian congregation eventually joined the reorganization under Joseph Smith III, son of the prophet, who in the 1 850s united many splinter groups and individuals adrift around Nauvoo following the "Brighamite" exodus.
Jens and Inger Jensen operated The Elsinore Hotel.
Brigham Young, meanwhile, did not forget the Fox River converts. In December 1847, back with news of fresh beginnings in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, he sent word from Council Bluffs to the Norwegian settlement urging them to come west. In April 1849 twenty-two Norwegians, Canute Peterson among them, left Fox River in six wagons headed for the valley. At Kanesville, Iowa, they joined Apostle Ezra Taft Benson's camp on the east bank of the Missouri River to become known in Mormon history as the Norwegian Company. Already on the grounds were a group of Welsh emigrants under Capt. Dan Jones. From Kanesville the companies traveled together, a mingling of tongues typical of Mormon migration. At the Weber River they encountered Apostle Erastus Snow and two Scandinavians, John Erik Forsgren and Peter Ole Hansen, eastward bound to carry the gospel to the old countries. After battling waist-deep snows in the mountains, the Norwegian Company reached the valley on October 25, in time to be numbered in Utah's first census, along with one Swede and two Danes. An early Gentile Scandinavian on the scene was Christian Hoier, a Norwegian forty-niner on his way to California, who wrote a letter to Bratsberg's Amtstidende about these Thelebonder among the Mormons--the first of many letters and travelers' accounts about Utah that would find their way into Scandinavian newspapers.
The Swede in that first census was John Erik Forsgren and the Danes were Peter Ole Hansen and his brother Hans Christian. John Erik and Hans Christian, both sailors, had embraced Mormonism in Boston in the early 1840s and had gone to Nauvoo. Hans Christian had written the news of his conversion to his younger brother Peter Ole in Copenhagen, who hastened to Nauvoo, where Brigham Young set him to work on a Danish translation of the Book of Mormon while Hans Christian entertained the Saints with his fiddle. After the fall of Nauvoo, Forsgren marched to California with the Mormon Battalion in 1846 and Hans Christian Hansen came west in 1847 with the pioneer vanguard, Peter Ole following soon after. It is a smiling coincidence of history that in these early representatives Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were all three "present at the creation," significant tokens of the important role the three kingdoms (and Iceland as well before the decade was out)4 were to play in the peopling of Utah, harbingers of the harvest to come from "the land of the north."

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