The Mind of the Scandinavian Immigrant
By George M. Stephenson (Volume IV: Page 63)
It is a singular fact that it is only within recent years that historians have become alive to the fertile field of investigation offered by the emigration of over thirty million human beings from Europe to the United States within a period of approximately one hundred years. Although reams and reams of paper have been consumed in volumes relating the story of the migration of individual stocks and their fortunes in the New World, only a comparatively few pages have been given to a fundamental inquiry into the causes underlying the phenomenon. It is comparatively easy to make a list of "causes "; and the erudite man may even divide them into "primary" and "secondary"; but with the accumulation of documents and the publication of monographs and articles it is dawning on us that the individual immigrant was the creature of a complicated environment, whose mind reacted to a variety of stimuli. If we could adopt the methods so popular in certain fields of human knowledge and place under observation several millions of immigrants, who knows but that the data thus obtained would not create a revolution? Unfortunately the most approved methods of solving the problems of human behavior were not in use in the years when the emigration fever wrought its greatest havoc, which fact makes it necessary for the historian who wishes to understand the mind of the immigrant to work out his own method, however unscientific it may be. Without slurring over the causes to which emigration is usually attributed and without eulogizing the individuals who made up the mighty horde of migrants as "God's chosen people," the fact remains that the immigrant was a "type," possessing certain characteristics that set him off from those he left behind. His mind reacted to stimuli that made little impression on the stay-at-home; at
least the reaction was not the same. Of course, there were thousands who were itching to go to America who were compelled to remain at home for various reasons; some even had their trunks packed when fate intervened. In any event, this type of stay-at-home had the "mind of the immigrant"; it was not his fault that the lure of the "dollar land" was defeated.
It is the purpose of the present paper to attempt a brief analysis of the mind of the Scandinavian immigrant, more particularly the man and the woman who left Norway and Sweden about the middle of the nineteenth century, -- an analysis based on a study of the "America letters" and propaganda literature, some of which is familiar to members of the Norwegian-American Historical Association through its publications. It is, of course, true that Norway and Sweden are not identical, and that the emigrants from both countries insist that there is a vast difference between their respective inhabitants; nevertheless, there is a remarkable similarity in tone and contents in the letters from Norwegians and Swedes in America to their friends back home. America made the same appeal to Swedes and Norwegians, and their criticisms of their native lands were rooted in the same grounds of discontent. Of the two countries Norway was the more democratic, but King Democracy reigns just as triumphantly in Swedish-America as in Norwegian-America. Making due allowance for individuals, the Swedish immigrant was bitten by the same germ of democracy as was the Norwegian, although the disease may have run different courses. If we may believe Johan Bojer, the returned Norwegian immigrant took fully as much satisfaction in keeping his hat securely on his head in the presence of the parish pastor as did the Swede who sojourned for a few weeks in his native land. In a real sense both were nonconformists in social matters, although there was possibly greater finesse in the nonconformity of the Swede.
With the exception of comparatively few which were the products of pens guided by ministers and other men who had imbibed more or less freely at the fountain of formal education, the great mass of "America letters" were written by men whose literary style and storehouse of knowledge had not been enriched by pursuing courses in institutions of equal rank with American high schools and colleges; indeed, few of the earlier immigrants had experienced the drudgery of the average American school boy, nor had they known many of his happy hours. The boyhood of the Scandinavian-American immigrant was spent amid the mountains, hills, and stones of a parish where life was a ceaseless struggle to wrest from a stubborn, soil and a fickle nature an existence that made little provision for play and recreation. The wonderful long summer days and the even more wonderful light summer nights were succeeded all too swiftly by the seemingly interminable drab and dismal winter months, when long evenings were given to home sloyd and perhaps to meditation before the open hearth.
In reading the Scandinavian "America letters" one has difficulty in keeping in mind that most of them were written by men whose education was meager. This fact is obscured by keen comparisons between the old country and the new and by the sound instincts of the writers. The spelling is faulty and the punctuation would not pass muster in an elementary course in rhetoric; but from these documents, grown yellow with age, one gains a very good understanding of the causes of emigration and of the hearts and souls of the immigrants. The writers must have thought deeply on the problems that confronted their communities as well as on those that concerned them individually. Unmistakably these letters were written by people of a race given to meditation and introspection, although frequently enthusiasm for the adopted land ran away with their better judgment. There is a certain bitterness, too, that crops out and gives a clue to the hardships and
injustices imposed upon them by an inexorable environment and social discrimination.
In spite of the fact that even the Scandinavian-American of the second generation is more or less a formalist in social intercourse -- America cannot work all her miracles in the span of one lifetime -- the welcome relief from the excessive formalism of the old countries which America afforded goes a long way towards explaining the immigrant's conception of the New World as a Utopia. It is true that there never was a feudal system in Norway and Sweden and that titles of nobility were abolished in the former country early in the nineteenth century, but the individual was bound by conventions and regulations which were intolerable once he had breathed the free air of the frontier or felt the breeze of it through the vents provided by the "America letters." Ole Rynning is hardly a "typical" immigrant, but what he wrote about freedom and equality is representative of what thousands of Scandinavians thought. "For the comfort of the fainthearted," he wrote in his remarkable little pamphlet, "I can, therefore, declare with truth that here, as in Norway, there are laws, government, and authorities. But everything is designed to maintain the natural freedom and equality of men. In regard to the former, every one is free to engage in whatever honorable occupation he wishes, and to go wherever he wishes without having to produce a passport, and without being detained by customs officials. Only the real criminal is threatened with punishment by law." Slavery was the great blot on the American escutcheon; but if a solitary individual had thought that there was the faintest possibility of being reduced to the condition of servitude, he would never have given emigration the remotest thought. If ever human beings were buoyed up by the hope of liberty, the Scandinavian immigrants were. The Scandinavian bonde in his respective countries is celebrated in story and song for his sterling qualities, and as a farmer in Minnesota and North Dakota he
retains them; but with all his good traits -- industry, patience, honesty, fortitude -- he is a hard-headed, stubborn, closefisted, and contentious individual, as many country pastors would testify -- in confidence. He is also proud, sometimes offensively haughty. There is a saying, "There is only one thing worse than a proud Swede, and that is a proud Norwegian.'' (The order is reversed in Norwegian circles, no doubt.) What a boon was America to that type of person!
This is the reaction of the Iowa frontier on the mind of a Swedish bonde, Peter Cassel, who at the age of fifty-five sold his property and recruited a company of immigrants to accompany him and his family in a venture which in the history of Swedish immigration occupies a position comparable to that of the "sloop folk" in the annals of Norwegian immigration. "Freedom and equality are the fundamental principles of the constitution of the United States," he wrote. "There is no such thing as class distinction here, no counts, barons, lords or lordly estates. One man is as good as another, and every one lives in the unrestricted enjoyment of personal liberty. A Swedish bonde, raised under oppression and accustomed to poverty and want, here finds himself elevated to a new world, as it were, where all his former hazy ideas of a society conforming more closely to nature's laws are suddenly made real and he enjoys a satisfaction in life that he has never before experienced." After reading this letter a fair-minded editor of a Swedish newspaper wrote that it gave an insight into the inmost thoughts of the average citizen of his country and in that quotation he found the magic formula by which the desire to emigrate to America was chiefly aroused. If the sentiment of Cassel were unique in the "America letters," we might be inclined to accept the statement of the editor as a bit of propaganda from the pen of a man interested in the liberal reform movement of his time; but we are overpowered by the evidence in many other letters that America was a "land of Canaan" which gave sustenance not only to the flesh but also to the inward man.
It may be treading on uncertain ground to stress the influence of religious conditions on emigration, but to say that the Lutheran Church placed an indelible stamp on the soul of the immigrant is well within the bounds of truth. There can be no disagreement among historians on this point. Whatever may be said against the polity and practice of the established church, some of which was purely formal, certain very desirable and sterling traits were implanted in the people. The teachings of the Church emphasized above all else respect for God, Church, government, and superiors, and posited as one of the highest obligations of citizenship obedience to law -- something the immigrant carried with him to America, to the everlasting blessing of himself and to the immense profit of his adopted country. The clergyman was a very influential man in his community, his position commanding great respect even from men whose attitude towards religion assumed the color of indifference or hostility. The pastor was the cultured man in his parish and on numerous occasions came into personal contact with its citizens. In spite of its hierarchical character, especially in Sweden, the Church embodied certain democratic elements, such as allowing qualified citizens a voice in its government and in the choice of pastor. Once inducted into office, however, the pastor enjoyed a high degree of independence, which sometimes was abused. He would be a rash man, indeed, who would refuse to remove his hat upon meeting the pastor -- a luxury in which only a reckless returned emigrant would indulge in order to advertise the emancipation which citizenship in the American Republic conferred -- greatly to the astonishment -- and probably the envy --of the witnesses to the spectacle!
The church was the community center, a meeting place for all. The peasant rarely failed to attend the Sunday service, even though the church was some distance from his home. Here he would meet friends and acquaintances, learn the gossip of the parish, and hear read from the pulpit marriage banns,
notices of deaths during the week, official documents, and announcements of a purely secular nature. The services were long, and one cannot but marvel at the patience and hardihood of men, women, and children who sat through them in the days when heating apparatus were unknown in ecclesiastical edifices. The church usually stood on a commanding site and close by was the parsonage, where the pastor met his parishioners, who called upon him to perform ministerial acts at occasions full of import to themselves and their families. Americans familiar with these conditions understand why the rural landscapes of Minnesota are dotted with churches where services are still celebrated in the languages of Norway and Sweden.
It is not merely a coincidence that the stream of emigration from the Scandinavian peninsula took its beginnings at the time when a new day was dawning in its religious history. The Scandinavians departed from their homes with a rich religious heritage, and of those who retained membership in religious organizations the great majority were heirs of the Lutheran reformation; but not a few had already imbibed freely of faiths more or less divergent from the Augsburg Confession before casting their lot with the land where the adherents of all creeds were privileged to contend for the faith. Norway abolished her most obnoxious law restricting religious freedom a generation before her neighbor took similar action; but during the first twenty-five years of intensive emigration from the two countries, persecution or discrimination rooted in religious intolerance was a factor. It is highly significant that most of the leaders in the Augustana Synod, the largest body among the Swedes in America, have been openly hostile to a "state church" in every land and lukewarm -- to say the least -- toward the ecclesiastical system established by law in Sweden. It is almost ironical that the "official" relations between the churches outside of the Augustana Synod and their brethren in the faith across the water have been far more cordial than have the relations between the established
church in Sweden and its "daughter church" in the United States.
One of the earliest Scandinavian synods in the new country represents an effort at cooperation between like-minded Swedes and Norwegians, who had come under the influence of religious trends set in motion by pietistic pastors and lay preachers like Hauge, Rosenius, and Fjellstedt. Coming to America with liberal and "unionistic" tendencies, Paul Anderson, Ole Andrewson, and O. J. Hatlestad felt at home with L. P. Esbjørn, T. N. Hasselquist, and Erland Carlsson in the Synod of Northern Illinois and later, after the secession from that organization, in the Scandinavian Augustana Synod. Without entering into the details of the organization of the early Scandinavian synods and without differentiating between the various religious types represented by Eielsen, Preus, Anderson, Esbjørn, Hasselquist, Norelius, and a host of other clergymen and laymen, it is clear that their conception of the Church was at variance with the established church at home, either in theory or practice or both, whether of a liberal turn of mind in doctrine or not. It is to be noted that there were no bishops; and if Preus and his kind resented the strictures of Paul Anderson against the Church of Norway, the problems of both and their methods of solving them were quite different from those of the pastor of a parish in Norway. In similar fashion did the Swedish Lutheran pioneer pastors reply to the agitation of Baptist, Methodist, and Mission Friend preachers against the Church of Sweden; but their own ecclesiastical organization contradicted their own arguments, although the "free" pastors seldom admitted it.
The Scandinavian immigrants, whether they called themselves Lutheran, Eric-Jansonist, Baptist, Methodist, Mission Friend, or agnostic, were "America-minded" in religion, in spite of the fact that some of them lamented the dangers that threatened their faith in the new environment. In any
event, one finds little evidence that any considerable number would have voted in favor of establishing the ecclesiastical system of their native lands in the adopted country, assuming that such an establishment was feasible. America satisfied their yearning for a better religious and moral order, in which the common man could "witness" for the truth as well as the man who had taken holy orders. We need not visualize the immigrants as paragons of virtue in order to understand why many of them wrote pæans of praise for the American pastor and heaped condemnation on the pastor in the established church and why some of them even admitted that it was only after coming to America that they knew what it was to lead the life of a true Christian. They speedily fell in with the American spirit and adopted certain "new measures," of which the most important was the Sunday school; and synods and conferences adopted resolutions favoring the "Maine law" and other prohibitory measures, and most of the members "voted as they shouted" at the polls.
One searches the "America letters" in vain for expressions of condemnation with reference to the American political system. A government that could elevate men like Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson to lofty eminence was too good to allow any minor defects to cause disharmony in the song of praise. Citizenship in the Republic where all men were equal before the law was too great a privilege to reject. Norway in the nineteenth century experienced a renaissance of nationalism dating from the "Seventeenth of May," but the Swedish immigrant left his country when national feeling was at a very low ebb. This probably accounts in part for the greater solidarity among the Norwegian-Americans; there is no evidence, however, that the Norwegian felt greater pangs of remorse when he abjured allegiance to his former sovereign, who was also the king of Sweden, than did the king's former subjects in the other partner to the union. The broad acres
of his Minnesota or Iowa farm, perhaps a present from Uncle Sam, caused the Scandinavian to forget any favors that may have been showered on him in the days of old.
The industry of the Scandinavian is proverbial; but in some instances his mind reacted unfavorably to the hard work expected of him in America. It required some adjustment to get in step with the speedy army of American workingmen. "Many are under the impression that if they can only get to America everything needed will come as a matter of course -- but the opposite is the truth," wrote a journeyman blacksmith from Norway. "The work is harder than anything experienced in Norway: early and late one must work to earn one's bread." Others admitted that they never knew what hard work was until they stooped their necks to the yoke in America, but there was a certain pride in the admission. There was something about the great distances in America, the hustle and bustle, the "go-ahead" spirit, the rapidly growing communities and cities, plus the ownership of a farm and a bank account in the future, that buoyed them up and eventually made them victims of that American optimism which makes every town "the best town in the best county in the best state in the best country in the world."
The conservatism of the Scandinavian-American is a factor that every astute politician reckons with, although election statistics sometimes discredit the Norwegians in the eyes of the incurable standpatters. Even the Swedes on occasions have been known to furnish disappointment to old line Republicans; but through the decades in which the Scandinavians have been a factor in politics the radical has found their communities sterile soil for the propagation of his doctrines. The independence of the Norwegian and the sensitiveness of the Swede have probably upset the political bandwagon a time or two, but the memory compartment of the Scandinavian mind has no greater capacity than that of the average voter. When the
excitement of the moment has worn off, party regularity is again in order.
The spaciousness of America was a welcome relief from the cramped quarters of the Scandinavian parish. In America the immigrant felt that he was a part of something great and big; his imagination had free play, and the air castle he had built before the open hearth in the long winter nights was transformed into a substantial residence, surrounded by barns and sheds that housed scores of cattle and hogs and thousands of bushels of wheat and corn. And when he paid his taxes he knew that he was contributing to the support of a government that let him alone and did not besiege him with a corps of officious and perhaps superfluous officials.
The Scandinavian-American wrote about all these things to his former neighbors, and their minds were stirred to action. Many sighed because passage money was not in sight; many more worked, borrowed, and begged until the necessary amount was realized. Thus was the Scandinavian peninsula drained of hundreds of thousands of "America-minded" sons and daughters, whose imaginary picture of America proved to conform closely to the reality. If the lapse of time made the heart grow fonder for Scandinavia, a visit of six weeks in the home parish made it still easier to purchase a ticket to the "land of Canaan."