It is the 29th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1638.
Europe was entering the last decade of the Thirty Years War. The results were still unknown, but the post-Reformation nation-states were already looking beyond Europe. The three major Protestant powers were the English, the Dutch, and the Swedish. Their general alliance led to limited hostilities as the three nations sought to colonize the North East coast of North America for their own crown, for the faith, and for profit.
We know the general beats of the Mayflower story. In 1620 Puritans on the run had fled to the Netherlands but then found the liberty to be detrimental to their faith. And so they set out for the New World, land on Plymouth Rock, cold weather, natives, etc. and you may know that part of the reason it was so challenging was that the Mayflower went off course, too far to the north, and landed off the coast of Massachusetts in the Plymouth Bay. The rough land and unforgiving climate were not what they expected. Had they stayed on course, they would have likely entered the Delaware Bay and come up the Delaware River. This fertile land may have given these first English settlers a different experience that could have altered the story of these early colonies. The Dutch came up the Hudson where they settled modern New York and finally the Swedes who made their way to the fertile soil on the Delaware.
The smart bet would have likely been on the Swedes to expand their land, settle larger areas and become the most important Old-World power in the New World. Gustavus Adolphus was on the Swedish throne and established himself as the head of a large Nordic empire and as one of the leading players on the European stage.
And then Gustavus Adolphus was killed at the battle of Lutzen. It was a shocking death that would reverberate for over a century. The staunch Lutheran king and his dreams of New World glory were temporarily dashed. His daughter, the young Christina, was too young to rule, and so a regent, the half brother of the King, would be calling the shots. And he wanted the New World colonization to continue.
And so it was on this, the 29th of March in 1638, that the Swedes officially established the colony of New Sweden in the Brandywine Valley in modern-day Wilmington. They would christen their first establishment as Fort Christina. Unfortunately, it was Christina who had little ambition for the new world. She also had a war with the Danes to focus on, that and the aggressive Dutch lead the Swedes to abandon their new world project in 1655. There are two stories here for the purpose of Church history: One has to do with the tracing of Lutheranism in the mid-Atlantic and Penn’s new territory. Historians have stressed that while the Swedish colonies dried up, the people and their religious culture continued to thrive.
Then, there is something of a thought experiment: what would colonial and later American life looked like if it had been Lutheran Swedes instead of English Puritans that set the course for American Christianity? After all, this is what may have seemed likely for a time. The English Puritans were anti-hierarchy. They were not especially sacramental, and they saw their program as one of building a holy city on a hill.
The Lutheran Reformation in Sweden was a top-down affair. When the King and the magistrates converted, so too did their subjects. This is not to suggest that their faith was somehow less sincere but rather to reveal the Swedish acceptance of authority, even in issues of religion. The Swedish Lutherans were, like many Lutherans, especially Sacramental. One of the recurring themes in the letters back and forth from the Old World to the New was the desire for more pastors as the concern for the sacraments to be rightly and regularly administered was of the utmost importance. Lastly, Swedish Lutherans were not vocally arguing that the new land had some divine promise and goal. I’m sure we could elaborate on the benefits and determinants of this theology for early colonial American life.
As we mentioned, Swedish Lutherans did not disappear from the tapestry of colonial America. Still, the accidents of history would have the Puritan vision supplant what may have been quite a different Swedish settlement. And today, we commemorate the beginning of that short-lived but significant Swedish settlement of Fort Christina, which was established on the 29th of March in 1638.
The reading for today comes from the Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen. This is from his “The Faith of the Christian Church.”
“The Spirit assures us that God is not distant and that he is not, in reality, an extra-mundane being who sits enthroned in exalted eminence, and who from this eminence possibly sends a few messages down to the world; but, on the contrary, that God is near to us and that he is immediately and effectively active in our life.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who once spent four days lost inside an Ikea, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis, a pickled Herring connoisseur. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.