Some years ago I came by the 2-volume Dictionary of Evangelical Biography (1730-1860) which I admit is a bit obscure. But I thought I’d trawl its pages for entries on Swedish Christians to learn more about its notable figures and history. We’ll take the series alphabetically.
Fredrik Olaus Nilsson (1809-1881) was a key figure in the development of religious freedom in Sweden due to his fierce commitment to the Baptist cause.
Born into a nautical family, when hard times struck FO turned to the sea. One one voyage down the Atlantic coast of the US, Nilsson’s ship was caught in a fierce storm and they feared for their lives and Nilsson turned to God for protection.
Surviving the storm and arriving safely in New York, Nilsson spent the next few years working for the New York Tract Society. In 1839 Nilsson returned to Sweden and began working for the American Seaman’s Friend Society as an evangelist to sailors in the port city of Gothenburg.
1845 would be prove to be a key year for Nilsson. He both married Ulrica Olson and was introduced to Baptist theology. In 1847 Nilsson travelled to Germany in order to be baptised. The following year Nilsson, who had made another trip to Germany to be ordained as a Baptist minister, together with his wife and a handful of friends started the first Baptist church in Sweden. This did not go down too well with the Lutheran establishment.
They were persecuted, imprisoned and in 1850 Nilsson was banished from Sweden. His exile, despite an appeal to the King of Sweden, drew the attention of the evangelical world and pressure began to mount for greater religious freedom in Sweden.
After a short stint in Denmark, Nilsson returned to America where he worked as a missionary-pastor among Swedish immigrants where they would spend the next eight years.
In his absence the Baptists had grown considerably and by 1860 when Nilsson returned to Sweden, they numbered some 4500. Nilsson again appealed to the crown and the new King ended his banishment and relaxed the laws on the church.
That year, for the first time, it became legal for Swedish citizens to leave the Church of Sweden, so long as they joined another Christian body acknowledged by the government, and only after they had met their Lutheran parish priest for counselling.
He spent the next eight years in Gothenburg and established the Baptist church in the city which is still in existence today and led by my friend Johnny Lithell. However he made one final return to the US and settled in Minnesota where he pastored but was caught up in controversy as he began to pursue unorthodox teachings. However writing to a friend just four days before his death in 1881 he said,
Have had great temptations to forsake everything in religion. But the Lord is faithful and will not let us be tempted beyond our strength. With him is grace and love. Jesus Christ is my only hope, on that Rock will I rest, who has saved me. May the Lord help me to the last.
Photo by Michael Fötsch