“Are You Loyal?”: Bethel as an Immigrant School in 1917-18

Because of their widespread pro-German sentiments at the beginning of the European conflict and outspoken support for American neutrality, up to April 1917, the Swedes and other Scandinavians in the United States faced a highly uncomfortable situation, causing many to overreact—or to keep quiet.

– H. Arnold Barton, A Folk Divided, p. 248

Both responses — overreact and keep quiet — may be found in the history of Bethel during the First World War.

Sixty-five years after the first Swedish Baptist church was founded in this country and almost half a century after its start as a tiny seminary in Chicago, Bethel remained largely an immigrant school when the U.S. entered WWI. Consider a few statistics gleaned from the class biographies in Bethel Academy yearbooks:

  • Between 1909 and 1919, just over one-third of the graduates of Bethel Academy were born outside of the United States.
  • All but one of those foreign-born students came to the United States as children from Sweden (or Swedish missionary families serving in Asia or Africa) or another Scandinavian country. (The only other foreign-born student was a Filipino who graduated in 1918.)
  • More were born in Sweden (43, plus another three Swedish missionary kids) than in all the American states not named Minnesota (38).
  • And almost all of those born in Minnesota had Scandinavian surnames.

So when the influential pastor Frank Peterson wrote in the 1915 yearbook that Bethel Academy had been founded ten years earlier because Swedish Baptists wanted to “establish a school of our own where our young men could secure the training needed for their life work and at the same time retain their loyal and sympathetic relationship with their countrymen and their denomination,” it’s not entirely clear whether he meant that Swedes or Americans were the “countrymen.” (Hint – here’s how he described what would happen if Bethel didn’t exist as an educational option: “Were we to send our young men to American Colleges, we would run the risk of losing them to the Swedish work altogether. Past experience had abundantly proven this.”)

The Bethel Academy Class of 1917

Of the fourteen students who graduated from Bethel Academy the spring that the United States entered World War I, five had been born in Sweden – Bethel University Digital Library

Fast-forward three years, to one of the editorials in the 1918 yearbook, and one gets a glimpse of what Barton means about Swedish-Americans perhaps overreacting:

So many ask us what attitude our school takes toward the present crisis of the world and toward the part our country plays in it. “Are you loyal?”—You bet we are!

Last week I looked back at how the concept of “loyalty” was used in Bethel’s fundraising efforts during World War II. By that point it was taken for granted that the people of Bethel were loyal to the United States, and patriotic slogans served primarily to reinforce loyalty to Bethel itself. But a generation earlier, writers like our anonymous editorialist — writing in a year when ten of the Academy’s twenty-seven graduates had been born abroad — clearly felt the need to make clear which side they supported in the Great War:

Most of us, being of Swedish descent, have inherited the peculiar characteristics of our Swedish forefathers. The Swedish people are very little inclined to shout and make noise about their inner feelings. They do not even go wild about their patriotism. They are quiet but sure and dependable as the deep fathomless waves which carry the uneasy and excited foam of the surface. The past history of our country shows the Swedish sons to have been patriotic to the very marrow, and the past is now repeating itself very satisfactorily.

The yearbook writer held up Bethel’s service flag, with its twenty-eight stars (one in gold). He noted that over fifty students were volunteering two hours every Wednesday afternoon to help the Red Cross (“the patriotic sentiment has not broken out into wild demonstrations as it perhaps has at other schools, but rather into active doings”) and that Bethel folk had raised nearly $2,000 for Liberty Bonds and Saving Stamps. Then he finished with a flourish:

Since being patriotic means to “love one’s country and zealously support its authority and interests,” the spirit of Bethel is in full harmony with the spirit that must fill every true and loyal citizen of this great country. The President’s cabinet itself cannot be more true American than our Faculty, and the two Houses of the Capitol cannot breathe patriotism with more loyal lungs than the students of the two schools of Bethel. God speed the day when right defeats wrong and the world is made safe for democracy, and democracy is made safe for the world!

(The theme of Scandinavian-Americans feeling the sudden need to prove their patriotism in 1917-18 also shows up in the literature surveyed by Dorothy Burton Skårdal for her book, The Divided Heart: “In most books immigrant sons marched proudly to battle, daughters knitted and made bandages and nursed and collected money, parents took up again farm work too heavy for their years and over-subscribed their assessment in all kinds of drives” — p. 313.)

Other examples of conspicuous patriotism abound from Bethel publications in those war years:

  • The 1917 yearbook included this from Academy principal A.J. Wingblade : “What now we hold dearest—liberty, freedom, security—for these men fought and died, women wept and suffered long before we were born. In the flag of freedom we find mingled the red and the blue, the suffering of the patriot and the kindness of heaven.”
  • That same issue of The Acorn featured not one, but two student poems entitled “Our Country.”

    Patriotic student poetry in 1917 Bethel Academy yearbook

    Student poetry from the 1917 Bethel Academy yearbook, The Acorn – Bethel University Digital Library

  • The 1918-19 catalog boasted that the Academy’s athletic facilities “offer special advantages to our red-blooded American youth” (emphasis mine).

The “red-blooded” language hadn’t been there the year before, and would disappear the year after. But as late as 1931 (five years before the Academy closed), the school handbook included “The American’s Creed,” a WWI-era document that defined a five-fold duty to the United States: “…to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.” My colleagues Diana Magnuson and G.W. Carlson cited this example in support of their argument that one of the chief goals of the Academy was “Americanization,” or “assimilating its students to be effective participants in American society.”

Perhaps paradoxically, another goal was the “preservation and perpetuation of Swedish language and heritage.” But the fact that the Academy required its pupils to study Swedish actually suggested how much they’d already been assimilated; as GW and Diana put it, the goal of such studies was for English-speaking students “to effectively communicate with parents and grandparents, and to better understand Swedish services in the churches.”

(To illustrate the shift… According to surveys conducted in the 1960s, over 80% of Swedish-Americans born before 1910 still spoke Swedish to some degree; the same is true for only 45-50% of those born in the 1910s and 1920s, and then barely 10% of those born in the 1930s — see Nils Hasselmo’s chapter in the 1978 collection, Perspectives on Swedish Immigration. Slower than some other immigrant denominations to adapt, the Swedish Baptist General Conference suffered a net loss of about one hundred congregations from the beginning of First World War to the start of the Second, with most joining the Northern — now American — Baptists.)

On the same campus, meanwhile, Bethel Seminary remained resolutely Swedish under dean Carl Gustaf Lagergren, who insisted that it would be a long time before his seminarians needed to preach in English. It wasn’t until after Lagergren’s retirement that the English-language Bible and Mission Training School was established within the seminary, but students in the regular department were required to know Swedish until the mid-1930s, with the mother tongue remaining the language of instruction for Bible, theology, church history, and homiletics.

Bethel Seminary students and faculty in 1919

Bethel Seminary faculty and students in 1919, with Lagergren top row-center and Bethel president G. Arvid Hagstrom in the middle of the collage. A.B. Nelson, the student in the top-right corner, would go on to serve as a chaplain during World War II — Bethel University Digital Library

But if WWI failed to accelerate Americanization at the Seminary (which might actually evince something of the postwar “ethnic backlash” that Hasselmo found among some Swedes), it did perhaps produce the second reaction described by Barton: “to keep quiet.” As I noted in the previous post, during WWI all foreign-language newspapers published in the state of Minnesota needed to be reviewed by state officials if they addressed American foreign policy. I’m not sure that the Seminary’s publications — Seminarie-Posten in 1917 and half of the joint Herald in 1918 — were covered by this regulation, but my initial impression (limited by linguistic limitations — I’m one of those Swedish-Americans who knows almost no Swedish) is that writers stayed away from the war as often as possible. More on that in a later post…

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  1. […] experience of immigrants during World War I. And since most of the faculty and students at Bethel in 1917-18 were either born in Sweden themselves or the children or grandchildren of such immigrants, […]

  2. […] professors at Calvin College, and me concluding my series on what anti-immigrant nativism meant for the Swedish-Americans of Bethel during World War […]

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