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Perfect Swedes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Illinois prairie air must have been especially invigorating back when this was still frontier. How else to explain the fact that back in the 1840s Henry, Knox, and Rock Island counties set a record for the highest number of perfect Swedes in one place at the same time. Three. Well, actually, two and one-half.

Swedes did not typically come to America perfect. They were Lutherans with a good dose of original sin. They looked on the American frontier as the Puritans did—as a howling wilderness which needed to be subdued. A metaphor for their own hard hearts.

But a few saw in the Illinois prairie another possibility: could one build a new Garden of Eden here, in which men and women could shed their sins and become new Adams and Eves?

The first of these visionaries was Jonas Hedstrom who followed his fiancé to Illinois in 1838 and helped found the town of Victoria in Knox County. He had been born again during a stormy Atlantic crossing. By the time he reached Illinois he had gone all the way toward perfection and become a Methodist lay pastor. "If one would be holy," he claimed, one must be free of sin." In Victoria, Pastor Hedstrom founded the first Swedish Methodist church, preaching that the Lutheran Church was dead, and that "the Methodists are the true living Lutherans under another name."

Hedstrom was followed eight years later by the Swedish prophet, Eric Jansson, who founded Bishop Hill in Henry County, as a new Eden where sin, disease, and death would be unknown. His theology suffered a small detour when Jansson himself was murdered in 1849. His followers waited three days for him to rise from the dead—until it became apparent that he would not.

These two perfectionists were joined in 1850 by Pastor Lars P. Esbjorn, who led a small congregation to nearby Andover Illinois, and founded the Augustana Lutheran Synod there in 1850.

Esbjorn was tempted toward perfection by a conversion experience and by contact with American Methodists, but in the end, he only went halfway—the other half remaining Lutheran.

Reverend Esbjorn went on the found Augustana College in 1860. There is still some debate about which half was responsible: the sinner or the saint.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.