Philip J. Anderson: “On the Beginnings of North Park University”

From Philip J. Anderson’s “On the Beginnings of North Park University: ‘Risberg’s School’ and Covenant Ministerial Education, 1885-1916”:

Fridoph Risberg (image credit: CAHL 3880)

Fridoph Risberg (image credit: CAHL 3880)

Congregational aid to Swedish Mission Friends represented the coming together of varying degrees of cultural nativism and a growing conviction that these people were indeed Congregationalists, but, according to Scott, “there were no Congregationalists in Sweden to tell them so.” In 1867 The Chicago Association discussed how to reach immigrants and concluded that “the aim should be to nationalize them and gather them into our churches, rather than to establish churches exclusively of foreign elements.” Levi Cobb, superintendent of the AHMS in Minnesota, asserted in 1878: “To us nothing is plainer than this — that God has sent these people to our very doors for us to Christianize. We must do it, or they will make Europeans out of us.” The challenge to “Americanize, Christianize, Congregationalize” was summed up by Curtiss when he asked, “What have we, orthodox offspring of the pilgrim fathers, done to teach these children of Luther a more excellent way?” By the mid-1880s this nativism had developed into a rhetorical tradition justifying aid to Scandinavian free-church immigrants while glossing over inherent doctrinal and ecclesiological differences.

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This, then, sets the context for Risberg’s arrival at CTS in the autumn of 1885, a world of faith and education that must have seemed very foreign to him. While the Congregationalists were quite certain of the qualities that defined an American, such an identifiable species must have seemed highly illusive through the eyes of an immigrant initially. No doubt, CTS provided Risberg with a culture and context that allowed him to be a bridge among Swedish leaders and groups between 1885 and World War I, three decades that comprised the most critical period for issues of identity, self-differentiation, and degrees of ethnic consciousness, made all the more pressing by generational change.

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[Risberg’s] work at CTS was guided by the conviction that eventual assimilation into the American church would best serve the needs of the Swedish Mission Friends. In 1892 he wrote, “My opinion is that Every European who makes this land his home should think from the very beginning that he is to become a good American… It is because the training of Swedish preachers among Americans has a future before it that I willingly labor in this seminary.”

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Composite of Swedish Department students at CTU, Risberg and D. Nyvall in middle (CAHL 5295)

Composite of Swedish Department students at CTU, Risberg and D. Nyvall in middle (CAHL 5295)

Nyvall, however, vigorously disagreed with Risberg’s views of Americanization, saying that “in all things personal Risberg and I were one, but in school matters and in matters of denominational interests we did not agree.” His role in the unfolding stormy discussions of schools and possible mergers led to the conviction that the Covenant needed its own school if the denomination was to have a future and if Swedish-American people were to shape their own cultural and religious lives.

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David Nyvall and Axel Mellander, who in 1892 became dean of the Covenant school, anticipated the Covenant’s rejection of the overture. In January 1890 Mellander wrote in Missions-Vännen that the freedom of the Covenant “cannot be sold either for Congregational favors or American bribes.” A week later, Nyvall added, “we shall not be assimilated because we shall not be Americanized. By making the best of what we now are, we can best educate the nation in America… If we are good Swedes (in an apolitical sense), we are good Americans.”

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On the one hand, the distinctives that divided the Covenant, the Free, the Swedish Congregationalists, and the independents, come into sharp focus. On the other hand, one can also see the development of a pan-ethnic “Mission” identity that embraced all the Scandinavian free churches and fostered cooperation and hopes for merger, driven by religion and held together by ethnicity. The challenge was to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation.

Read the full article here.

Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection

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Mackenzie Mahon