The Bishop Hill Society aims at spreading knowledge and interest for the Swedish utopian colony in Illinois, founded in 1846.
The Eric Jansonists and the Shifting Contours of Community
An impressive amount has been written about the Bishop Hill colony, surely more about any other place associated with the great Swedish migration to America. Yet behind the colony, with its tree-shaded streets and weathered brick buildings, lay a community of a different nature with a history of its own that has never been systematically investigated throughout its entire life-span: the company of those in both the Old World and the New who accepted Eric Jansson as their prophet and embraced his creed.
It seems natural to regard the one community as synonymous with the other, and this indeed is the usual assumption. But closer examination reveals that this was far from the case. The composition of the company of the faithful, from the beginning of Eric Jansson’s ministry in Sweden around 1840 down to the end of the end of the century, was in constant flux.
Many who had at first flocked to hear Eric Jansson preach the new dispensation in the old farmsteads in Uppland and Hälsingland or who had crowded around the book-burnings at Alfta, Söderala, and Forsa, were not prepared by 1846 to heed the prophet’s call to depart for the Promised Land across the sea, although some continued to revere him and his teachings. Of those who did cross to the other shore, many left the sect before ever reaching the New Jerusalem on the Illinois prairie. Moreover, from its founding in 1846, there were repeated waves of defection from the Bishop Hill colony.
Yet the sect at the same time won new converts over at least a decade and a half. The emigration of Janssonists from Sweden continued for eight years or more, and some souls even seem to have been gained—at least for a time—elsewhere in Scandinavia and in America. After reaching its low point by the time of Eric Jansson’s death in 1850, Bishop Hill’s population doubled during the next eight years, before the onset of its long post-colony decline.
The publicity in Sweden surrounding the Janssonist sect and its colony at Bishop Hill, as well as the dispersal of former adherents, both during and after the colony period, to other localities in Illinois and beyond, are meanwhile universally recognized as factors of prime importance in the wider history of the great Swedish migration to this continent. Ulf Beijbom summarized a consensus when he called the Eric-Janssonists the ”core” of the earlier emigration, while more recently Kjell Söderberg sought to demonstrate this concept in some detail. Yet there are still significant questions to be raised in this respect and new insights to be gained.
It would be of great interest to know more about how, when, and why the definitive decision was made for the sect to leave the homeland and seek its future in America. People in the Janssonist districts of north-central Sweden had become aware of America and its potentialities through a number of sources by the early 1840s. Already by 22 November 1845Hudikswalls Weckoblad reported that the Janssonists were talking of settling in the Mississippi Valley. Some three weeks later, on 16 December 1845, Olof Olsson arrived in New York to scout for a new home in America for his brethren in the faith. That same fall, the first small group of Janssonists attempted to sail to America from Söderhamn, but were shipwrecked near Öregrund and were forced to wait until the beginning of the following year to emigrate. Eric Jansson’s son, Captain Eric Johnson, later wrote that his father had prepared the entire plan for the emigration and colonization of the group in America, and had selected the leaders for this enterprise, before he himself secretly left Sweden in the winter of 1846. That spring, Olof Olsson purchased the first land for the Janssonists in Henry County, Illinois.
The reason traditionally given for the Janssonist emigration is the persecution the sect suffered in Sweden. Yet there is good reason to suspect another, no less significant, motive. The Swedish scholar Emil Herlenius expressed the view in 1900 that ”Eric-Janssonism would probably have declined at that time , since many had begun to regain their senses, had the idea of emigrating not combined religious enthusiasm with lust for adventure and the vision of a good land beyond the sea.” A letter written by Eric Jansson at the time of his departure from Sweden in March 1846 makes angry allusions to the ”hundreds” who had betrayed him. He beseeched that ”all hypocrites be rooted out of God’s holy congregation” and that ”God make a way for all the upright, that [they] may either come to America or go to the heavenly world.” This strongly suggests that the move to America was intended as an ordeal of faith, to separate the true believers from the faint of heart and thereby to vindicate the prophet’s authority over those who heeded the call. The rapid radicalization of Eric Jansson’s theology had doubtless caused may to have second thoughts. Seen in this light, the emigration was itself the first of the many splits within the Janssonist community, which figure so largely in its history and which account in such large part for its overall significance for early Swedish migration.
The mass exodus of the sect began with the departure of Eric Jansson, his family, and a few others via Christiania (now Oslo) in Norway in the spring of 1846 and continued over the next eight years, to 1854. Eric Johnson claimed that there were at the outset some 1,100 of his father’s followers who wished to join his new colony in America. Swedish clerical reports from 1846 indicate that around 1,030 persons emigrated that year from the Janssonist districts, mainly in Hälsingland, almost all of them undoubtedly Janssonists. This correlates quite closely with a careful reckoning by Carl Gustaf Blombergsson, the sect’s printer, that 1,001 Janssonists arrived in New York between early June in 1846 and 20 March 1847. Others thereafter decided to take the great step when favorable reports reached them from Bishop Hill. Meanwhile, proselytizing continued in Sweden for several years. By 1854, when the last organized group came over, the entire Janssonist emigration probably totaled around 1,500, the figure most often given.
It has been generally taken for granted that the Janssonist creed simply died out in Sweden when with the Janssonist emigration to America. Yet not all of those who still remained faithful to the prophet left Sweden. Among them were one of the prophet’s own brothers and certain others who had played prominent roles in the movement. Some had set out but turned back for family or practical reasons. Was Janssonist altogether dead and buried in Sweden after the departure of the last of the group in 1854?
This hardly seems logical and there are at least a few tantalizing signs that it long lingered on in a kind of concealed underground existence in certain localities and households. ”Down to our own day,” Emil Herlenius wrote in 1900, ”one or another member [of the sect] has lived on, who the whole time has preserved his faith in Eric Jansson that he was ‘the great light sent by God.'” By that time there were few, if any, who still openly professed the Janssonist faith even in Bishop Hill itself. Meanwhile, two Janssonists who left the group in Copenhagen in 1846 made a number of converts.