Suffering Loss, Making Meaning

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The historical evidence that survives constitutes a boundary that the historian can’t cross without leaving the domain of history for the realm of historical fiction. Unlike the fiction writer, the historian is constrained by the historical record. The more extensive the surviving evidence, the greater the constraint. — Tracy McKenzie, Wheaton College1

It’s been observed that the discipline of history has much in common with paleontology, whose practitioners must link “precise observation and description of what’s survived [i.e., bones, shells, and fossils] with the ability to imagine what life must have been like hundreds of millions of years ago.”2 Scholars in both fields must imaginatively recover the past, but only on the basis of evidence that has largely wasted away with the passage of time.

So the impressive skeletons of dinosaurs that draw children to science museums are based on a small percentage of actual fossils; the rest has been filled in by the educated imaginations of scientists. This wing of our digital exhibit features many such dinosaurs, if you will: 1914-1918 left behind precious few fossils from Bethel’s experience of World War I.

  • The archives include correspondence between Bethel Academy principal A.J. Wingblade and former students in the military, but that file is slender by comparison to its equivalents from the Second World War.
  • Only the year-end issues of the student newspapers (The Acorn, Seminarie-Posten, The Bethel Herald) survive, as part of the digitized yearbook series.
  • The 1919 annual makes several allusions to alumni donating battlefield souvenirs — bullets and a shell casing, an American gas mask, a French helmet, even a German rifle and officer’s cap — to a Bethel “Museum,” but such artifacts have long since disappeared.3
  • Little photographic evidence is extant to show us how the war reshaped the campus and life on it.
  • And our own lack of knowledge of Swedish prevents us from using most materials related to the history of the Seminary, which still conducted most of its business in the mother tongue of its faculty and students.4

To compensate for these problems, we have taken our few threads from WWI-era Bethel and woven them into other, richer tapestries: histories of immigration and nativism, of temperance and Prohibition, and of neighboring colleges and universities whose experiences of the war were wider and deeper than Bethel’s. For the last chapter in our patchwork story of Bethel at war in 1914-1918, we will attempt a similar tactic as we take on the final question of any such conflict: how did people grieve and make meaning of the lives lost?

Almost ten million combatants died in the First World War, along with millions of civilians. In addition, the war helped to incubate and spread a strain of influenza that caused one of the worst epidemics in history. As a high school and seminary whose students were not subject to the draft, Bethel was largely spared from the worst of the war. However, both the battlefield and the “Spanish Flu” claimed the lives of a handful of the Academy’s former students, male and female.

Somme American Military Cemetery

The Somme American Military Cemetery at Bony, France – Photo taken by Bethel professor Sam Mulberry during the 2013 debut of the Bethel travel course, HIS230L World War I

Like families, institutions such as colleges and churches hung “Service Flags” in 1917-1918. First raised on March 5, 1918, Bethel’s flag eventually included eighty-eight stars, one for each employee, current student, or former student in military service. Four of those stars were gold, indicating casualties. Red borders indicated that two were missing or captured; blue that two had been confirmed as killed in action.5

But we know the name of only one person from Bethel who died in combat during the First World War: August Sundvall.

Sundvall's death as announced on nationally published casualty lists in May 1918

Sundvall’s death was announced around the country the first week of May 1918. Here in the Ogden (Utah) Standard he’s the first name listed under “Died from Wounds.” To the right is the story of a German-American who had been tarred and feathered in California by the so-called Knights of Liberty. (The same group also attempted to lynch a tailor in Oakland.) – Library of Congress

Originally from New Richmond, Wisconsin, August Leo Sundvall had attended Bethel Academy early in its history, when it was located in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul. (The Academy had opened in 1905 at Elim Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Sundvall was a member.) After leaving Bethel in 1909, he went on to graduate from Franklin College and was studying for the ministry at the University of Chicago when he enlisted. After completing officer training at Fort Sheridan and being commissioned as a second lieutenant, Sundvall departed for France in January 1918 and was assigned to the 5th Marines.

Lt. August L. Sundvall (d. 1918)

Lt. August L. Sundvall (1889-1918)

American forces would not see significant action until the end of the spring, but on April 19th Sundvall was scouting German positions south of Verdun. A month later a correspondent for The St. Paul Dispatch reported the details of what happened:

Starting out at midnight, the patrol divided into two parties, each commanded by a lieutenant. Possibly Sundvall did not read his compass correctly for suddenly he and his men were greeted with a muttered order in German.

They found themselves in the midst of forty Teutons within thirty feet of the enemy wire. They had only time to throw themselves on their faces when a volley whistled over their heads.

No order came to them to fire as Sundvall had been riddled by three bullets in the first volley….

Cpl. [Wolcott] Winchenbaugh made it back to his lines, but then went back: “‘There are two others left behind and I am going back,’ he whispered. A dozen men volunteered to accompany him, but an enemy barrage dropped just as he left.

Winchenbaugh succeeded in rescuing Lieut. Sundvall, who died from his wounds at daybreak.6

A native of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, Winchenbaugh was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross for his attempt to rescue Sundvall, who died the next day and was buried in France at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery.

Memorial at St. Mihiel American Cemetery

Memorial at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt-Regniéville, France – Wikimedia

News of Sundvall’s death arrived in St. Paul in time for the publication of the 1918 yearbook. English teacher Henry Wingblade (later to serve as Bethel’s president during the Second World War), wrote a tribute to his former student:

Lieut. Sundvall is the first of the Bethel Academy boys to contribute his devotion to his country in the measure of a supreme sacrifice.

…How many more of our boys are to sacrifice their lives in this gigantic struggle for justice and freedom, the future alone can reveal. Lieut. Sundvall is the first.7

But there the story stops. Past the fact that Wingblade’s brother, the Academy principal, filed away a copy of the Dispatch article, we know little of how the community remembered or mourned Sundvall. Was he eulogized that week in Chapel, or later that spring at Commencement? Did students want to talk about him with their teachers?

Audoin-Rouzeau & Becker, 14-18Even if we had more documents, we should not expect to learn more about public grieving. French historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker have found that “Death and mourning were such completely repressed themes after the Great War, their existence was so pervasively denied, that they almost became socially invisible.” In a few cases, there was actually “a ‘show’ of mourning, so conspicuously was it displayed,” but this seems highly unlikely within the Scandinavian immigrant culture of Bethel.8 (As we point out elsewhere in this exhibit, one student writer explained away any apparent lack of patriotic zeal at Bethel by admitting that “The Swedish people are very little inclined to shout and make noise about their inner feelings.”9)

What is surprising is that Bethel does not seem to have erected any temporal or physical markers to prompt commemoration of Sundvall, or any others who served or died. The record suggests no annual rhythm of commemoration akin to the moment of silence still observed throughout the British Commonwealth at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. (In November 1937, with wars and rumors of wars everywhere in the news, a student newspaper columnist complained that “we came through Armistice day without hearing any thoughts on peace and war expressed in chapel or other service on the campus.”10) Even more glaring is the absence of any physical reminder of service and loss, given the ubiquity of such memorials.

(And given that a memorial is central to the biblical story that inspires Bethel’s name. According to Genesis 28, after Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, he “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel… this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house….”)

What cultural historian Jay Winter says of commemoration in Europe is also true of America:

The search for the ‘meaning’ of the Great War began as soon as the war itself. For some people that search goes on to this day. Visible evidence of that quest may be found in towns and villages throughout Europe. There are war memorials in virtually all of them: sculptures, plaques, or other objects that recall the 1914-18 war and the sacrifices it entailed.

…While ambiguities of iconography and ritual are undeniably present in war memorials, and while they embody and proclaim a host of commemorative messages about the war, they do not obliterate the simple truth that people die in war, and in the Great War their number was legion. That message may be direct; it may be indirect or muted; it may be drowned in sentimentality or lies, but between the lines of noble rhetoric, through the mass of figurative or sculptural detail, the harsh history of life and death in wartime is frozen in public monuments throughout Europe and beyond.11

U. Chicago WWI Roll of Honor

Sundvall is 8th from the bottom in the righthand column

Sundvall’s name can be found on a roll of honor — not at Bethel, but in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. A similar memorial still hangs in the Old Main building of Macalester College, just three miles down Snelling Avenue from Bethel’s former grounds. In between those two campuses, Hamline University recently dedicated a new memorial to its veterans of all wars going back to 1861 (plus those who engaged in other forms of public service). Across the Mississippi River, the University of Minnesota hosted the WWI memorial for the state of Minnesota: a new football stadium that opened in 1924 and was “Dedicated to the soldiers of Minnesota, who by their sacrifice in the World War made ever bright the glory of their native state.”12

Commemoration after 1945 was also muted at Bethel. For the rest of that decade, her home church in Pennsylvania did endow a small scholarship in honor of the Baptist missionary Signe Erickson, who attended Bethel Seminary in 1936 and died at the hands of Japanese soldiers in December 1943. But the school does not seem to have had a physical memorial (e.g., for the three Seminary alumni who died as military chaplains); nor did Bethel dedicate any of its new buildings as “living memorials,” unlike another of its St. Paul neighbors.13

But if the commemoration of those from their community who have served and died in wars has always been relatively restrained, Bethel leaders and historians have long been eager to make meaning of another death indirectly connected to the First World War.

Fort Riley soldiers with influenza in 1918

The first case of influenza at Fort Riley was reported on March 4, 1918. By month’s end 1100 were ill. While the initial mortality rate was not extraordinarily high, soldiers from those camps then spread the strain to other bases, where it continued to mutate – U.S. Army

Often — if misleadingly — called “Spanish flu,” the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed some 50 million people around the world, including as many as 650,000 Americans. Whether or not the pandemic actually started at Fort Riley in Kansas, the mobilization, training, and movement of large numbers of troops certainly exacerbated the spread of the disease. Cases began to appear on the Western Front in April 1918, as American troops like Sundvall began to arrive in France.

The first case in the Twin Cities showed up on September 27, 1918; it also had a military connection: a man who had contracted influenza while visiting his son at Camp Dix in New Jersey. The vast majority of early victims were part of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) unit at the University of Minnesota, leading the school initially to postpone the start of the fall semester until October 9 and then to take the more drastic step of barring all non-SATC students until the 23rd. The authors of a recent digital history of the pandemic note that

If female and non-S.A.T.C. students were inconvenienced, so were the cadets. Due to the growing epidemic on campus and in the wider community, all cadets were confined to the campus, with no leaves of absences or passes granted. Making fun of their plight, a large group of student-soldiers vented their frustrations by staging a mock funeral for “Old Man Influ Enza,” who they buried while singing “We’ve got Spanish Influenza… That’s why we can’t get out,” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

October 1918 influenza warning from a Michigan newspaper

October 1918 warning from a newspaper in Michigan – Michigan Tech University Library

Like the university, the city of Minneapolis moved fairly quickly to close public places, with all schools, churches, theaters, movie houses, and other gathering places shuttered as of midnight on October 12. (The order provoked a huge legal fight between the city and its school board.) Despite such precautions, Minneapolis had 3,000 cases of influenza reported within the week.

Across the river, St. Paul acted much more slowly, but with its number of cases also reaching 3,000 by early November, authorities finally issued closure orders. The Twin Cities didn’t reopen for business, schooling, and worship until November 15th. (A second, shorter wave of infection hit in mid-December.) Altogether, about 2,000 people died in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the fall of 1918.14 A final wave hit the Twin Cities in the winter of 1920, with a forced “influenza vacation” lasting into the second week of February.15

Unusually for such a disease, this strain of influenza tended to be most deadly for young adults, not children and the elderly. Nearly half of the victims were between the ages of 20 and 40, including three young women who had once attended Bethel Academy. Two were military nurses who died while trying to aid the sick: Alice Elinor Ostergren passed away in early October 1918 while on leave from the Red Cross to help out in a hospital; barely more than a month after she enlisted in the Naval Reserve, Anna Marie Dahlby succumbed to influenza and pneumonia in late November.16

Bethel yearbook dedicated to the memory of Olivia Johnson

Bethel University Digital Library

But by far the most famous Bethel victim of the Spanish flu — arguably, if we can stretch our boundaries a bit, of the entire war — was a civilian named Olivia Johnson (A ‘13), who died the same day that the Paris Peace Conference began.

Born in Strängmåla, Sweden, Johnson came to the United States in 1904. Two years later she graduated from a mission school in Chicago, but in 1911 she decided to continue her studies at Bethel Academy — paying for them in part by working as a nurse at the Fort Snelling Soldiers’ Home. After graduating, she became the first Bethel alum to serve as a missionary outside of North America, serving with the Women’s Foreign Mission Society in the Philippines. In 1914 issue she reported to Baptist readers how villagers in Iloilo greeted their arrival:

Of course they were dressed in their best, and I could not help but love them for coming that long way barefooted in the rain, their faces shining for joy that Miss [Anna] Johnson [a fellow missionary] was once more among them. If you have seen a mother after a long journey return to a big family of children, then you have the picture of Miss Johnson and her girls.17

(One of her Filipino colleagues, a young teacher named Juan Orendain, became the first student of color in Bethel’s history, graduating in 1918 at age 24. He worked as a journalist in Manila and later served as a press secretary for Filipino president Elpidio Quirino.18)

In 1918 Johnson returned to the Twin Cities to study at the University of Minnesota and to promote foreign missions in local churches. At some point during her furlough, she contracted influenza and pneumonia. The diary of Bethel’s president, G. Arvid Hagstrom, records her death as taking place at midnight on January 18, 1919. Eight days later he preached at her memorial service, at 1st Swedish (now Bethlehem) Baptist Church in Minneapolis.19

Commemoration of Johnson’s short life and sudden death began almost immediately at Bethel. The Academy’s 1919 yearbook was dedicated to her memory, and a year later the Olivia Johnson Memorial Missionary Movement was established in her honor. It seems to have broken up during the Great Depression, but the pioneering missionary continued to inspire tributes even after the next world war.

Henry Wingblade and Carl Lundquist

Henry Wingblade with his successor as Bethel president, Carl Lundquist – Bethel University Digital Library

Henry Wingblade was especially taken with Johnson’s story. Just after World War II, the Bethel president wrote to Agnes Erickson, an Army nurse stationed in Manila who hoped to attend Bethel and become a missionary:

We cannot forget our own Olivia Johnson, who worked her way heroically through Bethel, and then went out there for one period, laboring gloriously. Then she came back in the flu epedemic [sic], and was stricken, and as she lay there looking up, and as her classmate, a girl, wept by her side, she said, ‘Don’t weep. I am going up there to see how it is, but send three in my place.’ I don’t know that those three have gone out yet,—in her place.20

(Erickson did attend Bethel, then returned to the Philippines as a missionary in 1948.)

Some of those same words show up in Wingblade’s 1961 memoirs. In a book that doesn’t even mention the death of his nephew Robert (an Army Air Force pilot whose Flying Fortress went down in the South Atlantic in February 1944), one chapter includes his version of Olivia Johnson’s story — an “imaginative testimony” that ended with his rendering of her last words:

Some will remember how during those last days before the Lord took me, a very dear friend of mine was a nurse at my side, and she began to weep. When I saw that she was weeping, I said, “Don’t cry. I am going up there to see how it is; but be sure to send three in my place to the Philippines.” I sometimes wonder whether three have gone out there in my place yet. I hope they have.

If they could only see the light of joy in those dusky faces of the young people of the Philippines that I have seen, I am sure that many would want to go.21

Whatever liberties Wingblade took, “Send three in my place” was fixed as a part of Bethel lore; under that same heading, Johnson’s story was retold again — less imaginatively, but more believably — in Diana Magnuson and G.W. Carlson’s 1997 history of the school.22 In a more recent institutional history, the same historians again mentioned Johnson — less to argue for the connection between education and missions than to illustrate that women have played important roles throughout the history of Bethel.23

— Chris Gehrz


1 Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), p. 27.

2 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 45.

3 The Bethel Herald, 1919 “Annual,” pp. 30, 50, 52.

4 On the protracted transition from Swedish to English at Bethel, see Norris A. Magnuson, Missionsskolan: The History of an Immigrant Theological School (St. Paul, MN: Bethel Theological Seminary, 1982), pp. 76-78.

5 The Bethel Herald, 1919 “Annual,” p. 6.

6 Copy of story from The St. Paul Dispatch, [May 1918], in A. J. Wingblade Papers, box labeled “Principal Academy – A.J. Wingblade – Misc. 1916-1931,” folder labeled “Soldiers and Nurses, 2 of 2,” The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University (hereafter HC).

7 The Bethel Herald, May 1918, p. 22.

8 Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), pp., 177, 179.

9 The Bethel Herald, May 1918, p. 22.

10 The Bethel Clarion, November 1937, p. 2.

11 Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 78.

12 Learn more about the history of Memorial Stadium at the excellent digital exhibit produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries:

13 The Lutheran Memorial Center at Concordia University-St. Paul was dedicated in 1953 as a veterans’ memorial:

14 “Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and University of Michigan Library,

15 Letter, A.J. Wingblade to Carl Vingren, Feb. 6, 1920, A.J. Wingblade Papers, box labeled “Principal Academy – A.J. Wingblade – Misc. 1916-1931,” folder labeled “Soldiers and Nurses, 2 of 2,” HC.

16 Dahlby and Ostergren’s service records are among those in the A.J Wingblade papers, same file as the note above.

17 Olivia Johnson, “‘A Woman of Influence,’” Missions 5 (Sept. 1914): p. 746.

18 The Bethel Herald, May 1918, p. 15; The Clarion, Apr. 30, 1948, p. 4.

19 Diary of G. Arvid Hagstrom, Jan. 18 and 26, 1919, Hagstrom Papers, box 8B, HC.

20 Letter, Henry Wingblade to Agnes Erickson, undated [October 1945], Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 12, HC.

21 Henry Wingblade, Windows of Memory: Memoirs that Warm the Heart (Chicago: Harvest, 1961), pp. 176-77.

22 G. William Carlson and Diana L. Magnuson, Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion: Celebrating Bethel’s 125th Anniversary (St. Paul: Bethel College and Seminary, 1997), p. 30.

23 G. William Carlson and Diana Magnuson, “Bethel College and Seminary on the Move,” in Five Decades of Growth and Change, 1952-2002: The Baptist General Conference and Bethel College and Seminary, eds. James and Carole Spickelmier (St. Paul: The History Center, 2010), p. 48.

Further Reading

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