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“Children of the Heavenly Father” – A Swedish-American Hymn

  • Ted
  • November 30, 2016
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During Swedish opera star Jenny Lind’s America tour in the 1850s, the pastor of a church out on the Illinois prairie hit her up for a donation.

Known as the “Swedish nightingale,” she had a reputation for supporting good causes, and Pastor Lars Esbjorn definitely had a good one. His church had set aside enough lumber for the roof, but a cholera epidemic swept through his little prairie town of Andover, Illinois, and the lumber was sawed up for coffins instead.

Jenny Lind contributed $1,500, and the building is still known as the Jenny Lind Chapel.

About the same time, when songwriters Oskar Ahnfelt and Karolina Sandell couldn’t afford to publish a collection of their gospel songs back in Sweden, Lind fronted the money for the first edition. With that boost, they went on to publish hundreds of gospel songs that sparked a pietist revival throughout Sweden.

So out of Jenny Lind’s generosity, came a nationwide Swedish-American church organization and a beloved hymn called “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

With lyrics by Lina Sandell set to a tune by Ahnfelt, the song appeared in later editions of their songs and became a favorite American hymn, especially in the Midwest. We’ve been playing at sessions of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, our amateur club in Springfield, Illinois.

Music was important to the Swedish pioneers who settled in the Midwest, bringing with them an old-country heritage of congregational singing. And Pastor Esbjorn was no exception. Before he had the new roof completed on the Jenny Lind Chapel, he reported he held “a singing school once or twice a week, in order to teach our people a correct and harmonious way of singing hymns.” He brought with him from Sweden a psalmodikon (a musical instrument that looked – and sounded – a lot like a one-string bowed dulcimer), and psalmodikons are still on display today in the chapel museum and the nearby Swedish colony at Bishop Hill, Illinois.

From those beginnings, Esbjorn and other Swedes went on to found an Augustana Lutheran synod and Augustana College in nearby Rock Island. As more Swedes and Norwegians poured into the Midwest after the Civil War, they established Lutheran synods, choral societies and colleges. And at Augustana, St. Olaf and a half dozen other Scandinavian-American colleges, world-class a cappella choirs contributed greatly to the American choral repertoire.

Playing a psalmodikon at Bishop Hill, Illinois

But the immigrants also had a strong pietist movement back in Norway and Sweden, which stressed piety and personal experience in religion, along with a lively tradition of gospel singing.

“Children of the Heavenly Father” came out of that movement. The text was written in 1858 by Lina Sandell, who lost her father in an accidental drowning, and the comfort she found in her religion finds expression in the song. Later it was set to a catchy Swedish folk tune in 3/4 time by Oskar Ahnfelt, a gifted melodist who accompanied himself on the guitar and was known as Sweden’s “spiritual troubadour.”

Together, Ahnfelt and Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (to give her full married name by which her songs are often indexed) are considered Sweden’s most influential gospel hymn writers of the 19th century.

In America, “Children of the Heavenly Father” was translated in 1925 by Ernst W. Olson for an Augustana synod hymnal. Hymnologist Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary, who has translated hymns herself, notes that Sandell’s text is “devilishly hard to translate” and credits its popularity in America partly to his graceful text.

“Olson’s brilliant [phrase] ‘Children of the heavenly Father’ is nowhere to be found in the language of the original Swedish, though it is there in spirit,” Grindal says. “His recasting of the original into fine English poetry caused the song to become a favorite of non-Swedish singers as well.”

At any rate, the hymn now appears nationwide in a variety of Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical and other denominational hymnals. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, successor to the old Augustana synod, even has it in its latest hymnal both in English and Swedish. It’s a special favorite wherever Scandinavian immigrants settled in the upper Midwest, and the Augustana College Choir has made it a signature piece.

“I once sang the bass line of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ in a room with about 3,000 Lutherans in it,” says Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion radio show. “And when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

Jenny Lind Chapel, Andover, Illinois

The hymn is usually sung softly.

“It’s almost a lullaby, and to me it just sounds like a children’s song,” choral arranger, composer and conductor Alice Parker said during a 1998 hymn sing at Gettysburg Seminary. “How childlike can you make your voice? How gently can you sing, as if you were indeed rocking a baby in your arms?”

But it isn’t a dirge, even though it’s often heard at funerals in the Midwest. The arrangement in an 1894 Swedish-American hymnal called Hemlandssånger (songs of the homeland) sets its tempo at a fast walking beat (andantino) and pays close attention to dynamics, ranging from soft (piano) to very loud (fortissimo). Swedish pop and Christian contemporary artist Carola sings it with hushed but passionate intensity, beginning softly then swelling to a crescendo backed by an organ and a gospel choir.

With its simple Swedish folk melody, it’s a perfect song for the mountain dulcimer.

Mike Thomas of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, our club in Springfield, has arranged it in DAD for dulcimer, and we’ve been playing it for several months now. His arrangement lends itself to several styles of chord-melody playing. And I’ve tried playing it with a fiddle bow since I’m interested in the psalmodikon, improvising a little riff when I’m tuned to DAD and can’t bow the C# in the last measure. In DAA (my preferred tuning anyway), I can play all the notes on the melody string, and my dulcimer has almost exactly the same timbre as one of those old psalmodikons.

Want to hear different interpretations? Available on YouTube are several performances, including Carola’s and a full-throated version by Swedish baritone Bertil Boo (search for both under the Swedish title, “Tryggare kan ingen vara”). The Augustana College Choir is well represented, too, singing a contemporary arrangement by choir director Jon Hurty. Be sure to watch their imprompteau sessions in Sweden’s Lund cathedral and the church in Oslättfors where Lars Paul Esbjorn served as pastor before he emigrated to Illinois. And Alice Parker’s presentation at Gettysburg, including hymns and commentary, is available on CD from the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.

Pictures of Jenny Lind by Eduard Magnus and Jenny Lind Chapel Creative Commons.

Pete Ellertsen and Mike Thomas coordinate meetings of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, a beginner-friendly club for all sorts of acoustic instruments in Springfield. Photo by Mack Hucke of Jenny Lind Chapel and reproduction by user PKM of Jenny Lind portrait by Eduard Magus under Creative Commons license. Photo of psalmodikon by Debi Edmund-Ellertsen.

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