Farm story 18: The power and the glory

Bibles, books of Psalms and other religious books

When I came to Sweden in the 1980’s it came as a surprise when I discovered that established religion in the form of the Lutheran Church of Sweden was still a force to be reckoned with. This was brought home to me several years after I’d settled here when I discovered that, without being asked or even informed, I’d become a member of the Swedish Church. The same thing happened to our two children when they were born in the 1990’s. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the official link between church and state was severed.

According to a survey in 2020 Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world, along with the UK, Australia, and the Netherlands. And yet, out of a total population of 10 million (of whom only two million think religion is important) the Church of Sweden still has 5.6 million members in 2022. True, membership has been falling by about 50,000 a year, but old traditions are taking a surprisingly long time to die.

Because the Church is funded by taxes, graveyards are neat and well-maintained. In Rönnäng’s churchyard, a couple of kilometres from our farm on Tjörn, older headstones sometimes carry the occupation of the deceased. Unsurprisingly for an island community there are lots of skeppare (owners and skippers of small boats) and fiskare (fisherman), but one more modern grave states that the occupant was a sjukgymnast (a physiotherapist) and Taxi Erik, who drove Tjörn residents around the island until his death in 2009, left a cheeky final message to kör försiktigt (drive carefully).

Until relatively recently the Church used to be an unquestioned presence in everyday life. In the farmhouse there are no fewer than twelve Bibles or books of religion and I am reminded of how for centuries religion on Tjörn was as much a part of life as food or taxes. The books were and are still powerful reminders of the foundation on which the family on the farm, and millions like them, built their lives.

Several of the volumes are almost impossible to read as they are printed in what a layperson (me) would call Gothic script, but which I have learned is more properly called a blackletter typeface named Fraktur. It looks as if it was designed for writing magic spells and ancient treaties and as a style of handwriting was used in Western Europe from the 12th to the 17th century. When German was unified in 1871 the distinctive Fraktur typeface was adopted as a visible expression of the new nation - perhaps the authorities thought its old-fashioned look gave the brash new state some gravitas. Later, Hitler realised that what Germany needed was a typeface that its citizens could read easily, so in 1941 an edict was circulated to all publishers and printers stating that the more modern Roman typeface was to be the new standard. The (false) excuse was that the Nazi party had discovered that Fraktur was a Jewish invention so (naturally) it had to be dropped immediately. After the Second World War the typeface was still associated with German nationalism and so was seldom used, until (and isn’t life strange?) it was re-discovered by heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Motorhead, who used a form of Fraktur on some of their album covers.

One of the most interesting volumes in my pile is an old, decrepit Bible measuring 14 by 22 cm, 8 cm thick, and with pages swollen by damp. It’s a substantial volume in the worst possible condition and it smells musty, while the edges of the pages are black with mould. It’s impossible to read anything on the spine, while the insides of both front and back covers are so scribbled upon it’s almost impossible to decipher anything. Indeed, it’s even more difficult to read than the words in the law book I describe in Farm story 5.

However, a signature, which is new to me, can be faintly seen on the front cover. It says Johan Nils Son, and underneath, Mölnebo Nedergård . This was Olle’s great-grandfather who was born on Mölnebo Lower Farm in 1806 and died here in 1883. If we guess that he signed his name when he was about thirty and the Bible was new then, it means that it is 185 years old. No wonder it’s in poor condition. Both flyleaves are missing and in the margins some of Johan’s many grandchildren have scribbled or signed their names, but by that time the book was already around sixty years old.

But they didn’t confine themselves to writing. On one of the pages we discover that the middle son, Albin, was the proud owner of a rubber stamp which he plainly enjoyed using. He stamped A. Olson (note yet another way to spell the surname) six times in the book of Genesis, plus once upside down for luck. Albin was a seamen as a young man but we lose sight of him after 1906 when he was 25 and emigrated to the United States. Around 1.3 million of his compatriots did the same in the 19th and early 20th century, looking for the opportunities which were not available in their homeland. Let’s hope he got a job which required a lot of stamping as he obviously had a talent for it.

Another book on the pile is a New Testament in a more modern font, which belonged to Augusta, one of Albin’s many sisters. She was the youngest of the nine living siblings and her father’s favourite. She was also the first in her family to go to college, her father Olof taking out a loan to finance her education. She became a teacher on the island and I’ve met an elderly lady who remembers meeting her when she was a little girl, and finding her very strict. However, when she owned this volume Augusta was a young woman and it contains her dashing signature written daringly, diagonally, across the page. But the most surprising thing about it is that she’s written Hudiksvall Brödraförenings Ungdomsförening (Hudiksvall Brotherhood Association) above her name – but the town of Hudiksvall lies 515 km north-east of Tjörn as the crow flies.

The second word Brödraförening gives the game away. It indicates that Augusta at some stage in her life was not only a member of the local Lutheran Swedish Church but was associated in some way with the youth arm of the non-conformist Christian Mission Brotherhood. Did she travel all the way to Hudviksvall to attend an evangelical meeting or had some bright young missionaries travelled south to save souls in Gothenburg or Tjörn?

The Swedish Christian Mission Church was founded in 1878 and the mission in Hudviksvall seems to have been particularly active. It had an exciting, radical evangelical profile, which must have been attractive to young people rebelling against the status quo represented by the established Church of Sweden. It carried out missionary work both at home and abroad and perhaps Augusta even had thoughts of becoming a missionary herself. In 1911, when she was 19, the Mission had 123 missionaries, of which 69 were women, so theoretically it wouldn’t have been outside the bounds of possibility. But by then her mother had been dead for two years and her father was in his late 60’s so she, as the youngest daughter, may well have thought it her duty to stay on Tjörn to help look after him.

Mind you, Gusta wasn’t the only one in her family to make small gestures of defiance to established religious practice. Until relatively recently, Sundays on Tjörn were decreed as days of rest when all activity except for church visits was frowned on. But on the farm, despite the family’s conventional and rather old-fashioned habits, Sunday observance had certain loopholes. Even on the Sabbath, Olle’s father Johan (the grandson of the old Bible signee) would go out to the vegetable patch to pull up potatoes for dinner. The family certainly respected religious tradition but they were also farmers and knew that vegetables needed to be eaten when they were as fresh as possible.

Of the religious volumes, four are confirmation gifts belonging to family members. Becoming a member of the Church of Sweden was an event to be celebrated and, in the days when children moved straight from school to work, it marked one of the stages you passed on your journey towards adult life. In the 1950’s it was more or less obligatory for all youngsters but by 2018 only 23 per cent of 15-year-olds in Sweden were confirmed. Before that, in the early 1900’s, confirmation groups in the south of Tjörn studied for six months over the winter when there was less to do on the farms. Classes met three times a week from 9 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon in unheated churches and every Sunday there was compulsory church attendance. Then, if candidates weren’t good readers or had poor memories, they might have to go through the whole tedious process again.

If he wanted, your priest could make your life difficult. You had to be confirmed before you could get married and one engaged couple from Skärhamn was said to have visited the priest 13 times for religious instruction, because the young man had not been confirmed. In the end he said that if they weren’t allowed to wed they would live together in sin, so finally the priest agreed to read the wedding bans in church, the process without which the wedding couldn’t take place.

My own limited experience of the Swedish church has been very positive and without exception I’ve been met by kindness and respect. But the past is full of warnings about the corrosive nature of unchallenged power, whether held by individuals or institutions, and the history of the Church of Sweden is no exception.

©Gwyneth Olofsson. 2023 See more pictures of the farm on Instagram: gwyneths_swedish_farm

References: • Bönor och Brännvin, Kjell Eriksson (Båtdokgruppen, 2012) • Museum på Tjörn - Tjörns Hembygdsförening (tjornshembygdsforening.se) • Swedish Immigration to the U.S./Svensk invandring till USA | Minnesota Historical Society (mnhs.org)

Story of the week
Previous farm stories
Introducing Gwyneth