Kehila is part of a group of communities known as the Evangelical Covenant Church. While our story really goes back two thousand years to when a band of misfits started following an itinerant rabbi, who declared the arrival of a New Kingdom and proved it when he rose from the dead, the story of the Evangelical Covenant goes back to Sweden. The foundation for the Covenant emerged out of a movement called Lutheran Pietism.
The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885. Known originally as Mission Friends, the ECC has its roots in historical Christianity as it emerged in the Protestant Reformation, in the biblical instruction of the Lutheran State Church of Sweden, and in the great spiritual awakenings of the nineteenth century. Today the ECC is one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States and Canada and is one of North America’s most diverse churches, with more than twenty percent of its congregations classified as ethnic or multi-ethnic. The ECC experiences the strength that comes from diversity.
In the 1800’s Lutheranism was the dominant religious expression in Sweden. The Reformation was a movement within Christianity that sought to bring changes, or “reform,” to the Catholic Church. At the time of the Reformation, Catholicism was the sole expression of Christianity in most of Europe, at least in the West. Martin Luther, a young priest and scholar in Germany, became increasingly disenfranchised with the corruption and inconsistency he experienced within the Church. He challenged the leaders at the Vatican, which was the center of the Catholic Church in Rome, to make dramatic changes and he nailed a document outlining his demands upon the church door at Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago. The leaders did not want to acquiesce to his demands. In subsequent years the Catholic leadership did address this corruption, but not before it was too late. Ultimately, a new movement began and many groups started to break away from the Catholic Church. Those who followed Luther and his teachings, called themselves Lutherans.
The Reformers sought to distinguish themselves from the Catholic church. They elevated the importance of Scripture, which meant the Bible instead of Church tradition should function as the rule of life for the community. Kehila maintains this commitment. The Evangelical Covenant Church has six affirmations. The first is the Centrality of the Word of God. This affirmation stems directly from the commitments and values of the early reformers. This does not mean we do not value tradition. We value tradition, but seek to shape our lives according to God’s direction. We believe God speaks to us and guides us through Scripture. The Bible challenges us to evaluate every area of our life, even our tradition.
The other significant commitment by the early reformers was their elevation of the individual. At the time the church functioned on a strict hierarchy. Those without power or position were required to unquestionably serve and follow the Church leadership. The reformers attempted to democratize the faith and taught each individual Believer has access to God. They called this the “priesthood of Believers,” which simply means that God interacts directly with his people; he does not need an elite group of people, called priests, to function as intermediaries for the masses. The Evangelical Covenant continues to emphasize this aspect of our heritage. In one of our affirmations we affirm the reality of freedom in Christ. This simply means we believe each Believer is able to hear from God and follow God according to his/her own conscience. This would ultimately become one of the main rallying points for the movement that is today the Evangelical Covenant Church, because Lutheranism sought to establish a similar hierarchical structure and institutional control as the Church they attempted to reform.
Lutheranism soon took hold in Sweden, due in part as the result of the king’s, Gustave Vasa Erickson, support, because he believed the Reformation would allow him to take control of the church’s land. With the transfer, the crown now controlled the church and the Lutheran Church became the State Church. While the Reformation addressed some of the corruption and inconsistencies within the Church, the religious life remained an institutional expression, intertwined with the political scene. This environment produced the perfect climate for individuals within the church to push for continued reform. A new movement sought a more spiritual experience than was possible from within the institutionalized church. Soon a group began to search for a more authentic religious experience to have a real encounter with God.
The Rise of Pietism
Although the foundation of the Lutheran Church in Sweden had some dubious origins, a strong movement within the Lutheran Church longed for an authentic expression of their faith. This group became known as the pietists. Pietists reacted against the formal scholasticism, associated with Lutheranism, without an accompanying emotional component. A German pastor, Philipp Spener, sought to involve the heart as well as the mind in the Believer’s spiritual life. He introduced the practice of gathering in small groups to study Scripture, outside the auspices of the church. August Hermann Francke formed a college in Halle. Francke trained a new generation of Lutheran pastors by instilling pietists commitments. He also started an orphanage and sent Lutheran missionaries to Russia to work in Siberia with the Swedish Prisoners. These Swedish prisoners also adopted the pietistic passion. When they returned to Sweden a Lutheran pietist movement began to grow.
George Scott raised money across Europe and the United States as he traveled to Sweden. His arrival in Sweden had a dramatic impact on the religious landscape of the nation. He trained individuals called colporters to travel throughout Sweden to distribute Bibles and religious literature. He also introduced new methods of sharing the message of Jesus with the nation. Scott’s message emphasized the importance of personal transformation. He started the first non-state church, Bethlehem Church in 1840 and also started a newspaper for the growing movement called, The Pietist, or Pietisten. A growing number of people felt compelled by his message, but soon those in power felt threatened by George Scott’s new religious movement and had him deported, because he violated a law outlawing religious gatherings not sanctioned by the State Church, known as the Conventicles Act of 1726.
While the authorities wanted to squelch this new movement, they were not able to stop the tides of change. Revival had started and Carl Olaf Rosenius took the lead after the forced departure of Scott. Rosenius was not a “trained” pastor, because he avoided the formal academic training, in favor of a more spiritually vibrant path. Scott personally trained Rosenius. Under Rosenius’s leadership the unsanctioned religious gatherings continued to grow. The State Church feared these gatherings, called Conventicles, because they were not within their oversight and their presence could potentially undermine their authority. Eventually the existence of the Conventicles started a contentious debate whether or not it was possible to serve communion outside the auspices of the Church. Not only did the revival flourish under Rosenius’s leadership, but Rosenius also develop a significant protégée, Paul Peter Waldenstrom, whose influence ultimately led to the establishment of what would become the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The pietists have left a lasting mark on both the Evangelical Covenant and on Kehila. The early pietists emphasized the importance of an authentic spiritual experience and a real encounter with God. The spiritual life is not about external appearances, but about an internal transformation of the heart. The Covenant’s affirmation of the necessity of the “New Birth” reflects the commitments of the pietists and how we remain dependent on their heritage. There are two traditional questions the Mission Friends asked one another, the predecessors of the Covenant. The first question is, “How goes your walk?” This question develops out of the Covenant’s pietistic heritage. We care deeply about developing an authentic spiritual life.
Paul Petter Waldenström
The second question the early Mission Friends asked each other was, “Where is it written?” This question developed out of their commitment to the centrality of Scripture. While many Christian communities believe the Bible is the foundational element in shaping their way of life, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s history makes our story rather unique. It begins with one man, Paul Petter Waldenström. He was a brilliant scholar and a protégée of Carl Rosenius. His ultimate influence centered on his alternative view of the atonement, the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He challenged the State Church’s view that Jesus had to die to change God’s attitude toward humanity. Rather, Waldenström believed God is always in a posture of love toward humanity. His view is not actually why he is influential. His impact stems from his willingness to challenge the traditional Lutheran position, because he believed the Bible, not tradition, should shape his view of God. His proposal concerning the atonement became quite controversial and the State Church accused him of spreading deleterious teaching. He simply responded by asking the leadership where they could find support for the traditional Lutheran view of the atonement in the Bible, because he appealed to Scripture as the basis for his alternative view. Waldenström’s commitment to the Bible and not tradition has had ongoing implications for the way we shape our community. For example, we believe God places both men and women in leaderships positions. We were not pushed into this position due to the changing cultural climate, but because we believe the Bible was directing us toward this position. We maintain our heritage by continually asking the question, “Where is it written?”
The Mission Friends
Waldenström’s view of the atonement was not his only controversial act that continues to have ongoing implications for who we are today. In 1876 he served communion to the Mission Society in Uppsala outside the confines of the State Church. This created a firestorm of controversy, because the State Church did not allow any individual to administer or receive communion outside an official church precinct. Waldenström maintained the commitments of the pietists and said that the church was any gathering of authentic Believers; therefore, it was acceptable for him to serve communion to any gathering of Believers, regardless of the location. His break from the State Church created the foundation for the ultimate establishment of the Mission Covenant in Sweden in 1878.This group of people commonly referred to themselves as Mission Friends. During the 1800’s the economic and political pressures of Sweden caused many of the Mission Friends to look for a better life in the New World. The Mission Friends spread across the Atlantic. They settled in the upper Midwest and started forming communities that would eventually become the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Their name reflects the ethos of the Covenant. First, the Covenant revolves around mission. The third affirmation of the Covenant is the Whole Mission of the Church. The Mission Friends united over their shared purpose. Their shared mission fueled their communities with zeal and a cause. We are fueled by our cause to bring hope to a broken world, to proclaim renewal through Jesus. Mission also includes the work of compassion, mercy and justice. Jesus not only calls us to go into the world and invite others to follow him, but he also commands us to radical love of both our neighbor and our enemy. Second, the Mission Friends cared deeply about being friendly. The Covenant values connection. At Kehila two of our core values are connection and cause; they relate to our heritage as part of the Mission Friends. The “cause” reminds us we are on mission. The “connection” speaks about our commitment to be friends. We want to be a community where each person can connect and be known for who they are.
The Formation of the Evangelical Covenant Church in 1885
In 1885 the Evangelical Covenant Church formed, initially under the name the Swedish Mission Covenant of America. It formed out of a series of meetings based in Chicago, Illinois. Carl August Bjork chaired these meetings, but other key individuals were present. Their primary concern was the direction of the movement in its transition from Sweden into an American context. The meetings were a gathering of Swedish and other Scandinavian Lutherans, who wrestled with identity and the formation of a new unified group. Although he was not personally present, M W Montgomery represents the invitation of the Congregationalists to the different ethnic Lutheran groups to join their ranks. Montgomery was a Congregationalist, who was impressed by the Scandinavian Lutherans and the revivalist nature of their movement. The Congregationalists represented both respectability and financial security in America. He offered to train their leaders at no charge. Waldenström was intrigued by this offer, but the Mission Friends were more skeptical. The Congregationalists did not have the same Lutheran ethos. Even though the offer for respectability and financial security was attractive, the Mission Friends could not accept the offer. This may be the one of the most crucial decisions made by the early Mission Friends. If they had accepted the offer by the Congregationalists, they would have forfeited the immigrant and ethnic identity from their Swedish roots. They chose to remain true to their identity and their convictions, instead of succumbing to the longing for comfort and respect. Even though we are no longer a Swedish movement, we share the same commitments. We do not want to be driven by financial security or social respectability. Like the early Mission Friends we are more comfortable interacting with those who have been marginalized and oppressed in our society.
Charles Anderson represents the Ansgar Synod. Although his commitment to the Lutheran confessions made him attractive to the Lutheran Foundation, his Danish roots made him somewhat less persuasive for the Swedish Lutherans. He did not want the group to abandon the Augsburg confession. He promised to give the group the basis for ordination and apostolic succession by joining with a pre existing American Lutheran Group, but many worried he would not be able to follow up with his promise. The Mission Friends did not accept his offer. This decisive decision kept the movement as a specifically Swedish movement. While it was a Lutheran movement, it did not follow the confessions as strongly as Anderson may have desired. Due to this decision the Covenant is not a Lutheran movement today.
Ultimately it was Carl August Bjork who took up the reigns to lead the unification of the remnant of the Ansgar Synod and the Mission Synod into what became the Swedish Mission Covenant of America. Bjork was born in 1837 as a Free Lutheran Congregationalist. By trade he was a cobbler, but was invited to attend a conventicle in 1862 during the Rosenian Revival. He went, but he was prepared to be assaulted by the revivalist to force him to convert. Surprisingly to him, he only encountered grace and love. The demeanor of the revivalists impressed him and he came to faith. Soon he became a colportuer. Although he was a great organizer, he was not necessarily a very good speaker. It was his organizational ability that allowed him to lead the new movement. He argued for a more middle approach. He did not want the group to be a formal and structured like the Lutheran Church, but he did believe there should be some organization and structure. He encouraged the group of churches to establish membership and to work together as an organization of churches. Ultimately he wanted the Swedes to maintain their Swedish identity and not join with another American denomination, as both the Congregationalists and Anderson argued. As Swedish Believers an organization was necessary since it helped unify the church, which was appropriate for the Christian Life. This was the beginning of the Covenant.
These issues continue to play a crucial role in the Covenant today. The Covenant chose not to follow the Congregationalists, because the impetus to make a decision cannot rest simply on financial expediency. The Covenant sought to follow the leading of the Spirit, not the lure of respectability. The Covenant chose to remain an ethnic movement. While it is not specifically a Swedish movement, it dropped Swedish from its title in 1936, it remains an ethnic movement. The Covenant remains committed to ethnic diversity, encouraging the various ethnic groups to maintain their ethnic and cultural uniqueness. While the Covnenat remains committed to the freedom of the Believer in Christ, the Covenant values a culture of kindness. We value unity over agreement, a value that continues to guide the movement. While we are a movement with Lutheran roots, we are not a Lutheran movement.