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Reverend Gale and the Swedes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

During the decade of the 1840s, the Reverend George Washington Gale of Galesburg learned a lesson the hard way—too late.

In the spring of 1836, Reverend Gale had led a colony of New York Presbyterians and Congregationalists to the Illinois prairie. Here, in Knox County, they had established the town of Galesburg whose centerpiece was Prairie College, designed to train poor boys for the ministry.

Gale had decided to build a college in the Midwest in order to prevent the frontier from going over to the Roman Catholics. He had chosen remote Knox County to remove his students from the vices and commercial interests of river cities such as Rock Island and Davenport, where the rapid accumulation of wealth produced indolence. Let commercial towns make money, Gale said, "we will educate their sons."

Reverend Gale was understandably horrified when Swedish colonists began settling at nearby Bishop Hill. Their leader, Eric Jansen, claimed to be a prophet and the second coming of Christ. Jansen rivals the Mormon founder Joseph Smith in evil and even murder, Gale said.

In order to counter the influence of the Jansenists, Gale convinced the American Home Mission Society to bring a mainline Swedish pastor, Lars P. Esbjorn to Galesburg to attract Swedes away from Bishop Hill. Esbjorn became the father of the Swedish Lutheran Church in America. Other Swedes followed. In a short time, Swedish immigrants were inundating Knox and nearby Henry counties. After the Civil War, so many Swedes moved to the little Yankee settlement of Soperville north of Galesburg, that by 1900, American celebrations such as the fourth of July had been replaced by Midsomerfest, Santa Lucia, and lutefisk.

By the time Gale realized what he had done, Bishop Hill had dwindled away all by itself, while his good Swedes had gone on to establish a rival college fifty miles away in Rock Island, closer to the evil influences of civilization, perhaps, but also much closer to a steady supply of students. The Reverend Gale had learned his lesson—you can occasionally fight fire with fire, but never ever try fighting Swedes with Swedes.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.