Anders Persson, Den levande närvaron av Ordet. Åtta essäer om bilden av den rosenianska och den laestadianska väckelsen i norrländsk skönlitteratur, (The Living Presence of the Word. Eight essays on the image of the Rosenian and Laestadian revival movement in northern Swedish fiction) Skellefteå. Norma 2018, ISBN 9789172171138, 175 p.
In the northern Swedish regions of Västerbotten and Norrbotten, a strong religious revival movement arose in the late nineteenth century, driven by preachers such as Carl Olof Rosenius and Lars Levi Laestadius. Large numbers of people gathered in villages and towns to listen for hours to their great preachers. The meetings in crowded prayer houses were filled with lamentations and weeping, alternated with bright euphoria and joyous dancing. This revival was a Low Church movement. Sin was described, as well as the various steps leading to Conversion: from the joy of the calling, via the demands of God’s word, to the bliss experienced in the appropriation of forgiveness.
The revival spread like wildfire across the realm of desolate forests. The Word was at the centre of the revival. The Word of God. By listening to it and taking it to heart, man was guided through a spiritual struggle. The preaching of the Word led to a bitter realisation of man’s lack of trust. This deep-felt grief came from a kind of heavy, self-critical and often depressive longing. The explosive joy resulting from having received forgiveness was expressed in tongue-speech or crying. Christ was seen as the Great Forgiver. The Low Church evangelism was spread by great revivalist preachers.
By the early 2000s, this form of Christianity had by and large withered away, and has now more or less disappeared from the mental arena. In the same region, but a hundred years after the emergence of the revival movement, three excellent and internationally known writers emerged, PO Enquist, Torgny Lindgren and Sara Lidman, all three of whom experienced the revival tradition in their childhoods. They all lived in the core area of the popular revival and used the northern dialects in their texts. They have attracted a large readership, who—at some distance—are acquainted with strongly personal and intimate descriptions of the longing for God, the struggle against sin and the joy of forgiveness, with the harsh northern landscape creating a backdrop to the pious struggle.
In a recently published book, Anders Persson, senior lecturer in Literary Studies at Umeå University, presents a close reading of these novelists focused on how the locally spoken rustic dialect (Swedish bondska) features in their respective writings. He does not pay much attention to the authors’ lives but reads their texts closely. Initially, he shows how Jack London’s idealising wilderness motifs entered Bernard Nord’s writing, and also, to an even greater extent, that of the preacher and author Tore Nilsson. Nilsson, however, differs from London in that he tries to describe conversion in more positive terms. Here, Anders Persson, by skilfully closing in on the texts, shows how Tore Nilsson approaches the concept of doubt, a feeling of being abandoned by God, an expression of his hidden remoteness. This is interpreted by the author as the central idea of the revival movement.
In the second chapter, the view of doubt is deepened. It is seen as a kind of inner suffering shifting between, on the one hand, a strong feeling of emptiness or abandonment and on the other a quiet and gracious trust. Sara Lidman’s writing is presented in this chapter. She has a more descriptive and partly critical way of presenting the struggle as a kind of religious claim to power, and individual and collective distrust is at the centre of her writing. Her texts contain both sharp and satirical criticism of the harshness and intolerance of the revival, and at the same time a trust in grace and forgiveness which is strongly influenced by Rosenius.
A central chapter in the book presents a kind of close reading focused on the importance of the spoken word in the revival movement. The listening to the preachers’
words was a central element of the movement. Not least, the sermons were interpreted by the listeners through their own strong roots, not only in the word of the Bible, but equally in the local rustic dialects. Anders Persson calls this “the preacher anecdote,” i.e. short personal characteristics:
We children never got tired of listening to our favourite preacher Gabriel Andersson, the philosopher Zakrisson, the rascal Hällgren or the district’s loudest speaker, Viklund. When Anders Viklund cried out during his sermons, most people woke up. […] He began by speaking softly but raised his voice gradually until he roared like thunder. (pp. 68–69)
He did so in his zeal and desire to be taken seriously and to wake up the listeners from their sinful sleep. Even other preachers were moved to tears. Gabriel Andersson’s role model, Berglund, was known as Skråljanne. He preached and cried, and read from the Bible with tears flowing down his cheeks. The preacher’s nickname became the bearer of the Rosenian mentality. Another preacher, who smiled a lot, was given the name Fliir-Janne, from the local dialectal word fliir [‘smile’].
Another often recurring motif in the authors’ texts is dancing. All of the above writers have an ambivalent attitude to this frightening and at the same time fascinating phenomenon that the children of sin engaged in, and which the preachers saw as deeply suspicious. A dawning sexuality was removed from consciousness, but was nevertheless included in the authors’ narratives. Here, Anders Persson addresses a phenomenon that existed in the background, enticing and forbidden, not least in Sara Lidman’s texts but also in PO Enquist’s—the partly erotic secret. Distancing themselves from dancing became a sign that the listeners had taken a significant step and defined themselves as converts. Relapsing into erotic or sensual movements was apostasy. Being attracted to dancing was the beginning of a life beyond grace. So, watch your step!
Anders Persson’s book is extraordinarily original. He moves skilfully between literary science and theology, and the book is full of observations of how the solemn biblical world of ideas lived in symbiosis with the popular, festive and merry world. Persson’s research makes the book an important source of information for those who want to learn about how a religious folk culture was manifested in seemingly simple prayer house environments.
Dept. of Theology