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Historical Sketch. The Baptist Mission Union of America

Due to economical and political conditions which existed in the Scandinavian countries and Finland at the beginning of the 19th century, immigration from these countries to the United States was at an all time high. It is stated that in the year of 1905 alone, over 18,000 Finlanders landed here. More were on their way and it was obvious that if the gospel were to be brought to these great masses of newcomers, most of whom were young people, it had to be done in the language they could best understand, and by their own countrymen.

The few Christian workers, mostly laymen, on whom God had laid the burden of bringing the gospel to these people, were working very tenaciously with little thought of their own comforts. Much of their work involved traveling from place to place preaching and testifying to the saving grace of God, very often without any salary. As a result, small groups of Christians banded together in various parts of our country. Regular services were held and revivals and large numbers of conversions were reported. In communities where our people lived in greater numbers, churches were organized and the work was carried on with the aid of a pastor or traveling missionary worker.

Rev. Matts Esselstrom was the first Baptist preacher to the Finns in the United States. At the age of twenty-one he came to this country from Finland, and it was in May of 1889 that he arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The first four years of his residence here were spent in secular work, but during these years he felt the Holy Spirit calling him to a greater work. He obeyed the call land in September 1893 he began this new work as a lay preacher in Bailey, Michigan. In his work as a missionary and pastor he felt the need for more education in order to better prepare himself for his great calling as a minister of the gospel. In the fall of 1896 therefore, he began a course of studies at the Swedish Baptist Seminary in Morgan Park, Illinois, and graduated in the spring of 1900. From that time on pastor Esselstrom was actively engaged in the preaching of the gospel, until his retirement in 1938.

Because of the natural bond of fellowship which exists between each race and nationality, it was felt that a union or conference of Swedish-Finnish and Finnish churches would be the logical group to carry the gospel to its unsaved countrymen. One of the most prominent in the work of organizing this mission project, was a young man also studying at the Swedish Baptist Seminary in Morgan Park. He was Edward Flemming, a very energetic and gifted young man with a burning ambition to win his countrymen for Christ. It seemed that God had laid this particular work as a special burden on Flemming's heart. The result was that after much prayer, and some hesitation, the Finnish Baptist Mission Union of America was organized March 31, 1901. Rev. Flemming was elected president; Dr. Albert M. Wickstrom (then a young medical student), vice-president; Mr. H. R. Schulz was elected secretary and Mr. Jacob Petersen treasurer. As the name implies, this organization was to be national in scope, with affiliating branches all over the United States and Canada. The primary aim and object of the Union at the very beginning was the sending out of evangelists and missionaries to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Finnish people, using both the Finnish and Swedish languages.*

There were many problems to be solved and many obstacles to overcome in connection with this new venture. No great wealth or political influence stood in back of this organization. The leaders as well as the group of friends who supported the Mission Union, were all of modest means, but they had courage and an unswerving faith in God, both of which were of far greater value than earthly possessions. The first and foremost question in their minds was where and how to find suitable laborers for this great harvest field - men who were true to Christ and the Bible doctrines, able preachers, and soul winners. Then the second question: What would be the source of money for their support? But while the Holy Spirit had laid this burden for the salvation of souls upon the hearts of these men, he also gave them a great urge to pray much that the Lord of the harvest might send laborers and provide the means for their support.

After one year from the date of the organization of the Finnish Baptist Mission Union, its first missionary was sent out. He was Mr. John Lindgren, a man well qualified for doing pioneer missionary work. He was born and raised in Finland with a fair educational background. His mother tongue was Finnish, but he also spoke Swedish, English and German well. Mr. Lindgren was an energetic and tireless worker, who constantly traveled and preached in mining and lumber camps, school houses, lodge halls and the like. He visited the sick and dying, in homes hospitals and jails. His simple sermons and testimonies brought sinners to Christ wherever he went.

Space will not permit, nor is the statistical information available of all the men and women who have labored under the banner of the Mission Union throughout the years. The following are missionary workers whose names have been gleaned from the pages of history. John Lindgren, our first missionary began in 1902 and continued until his death in September 1911. The major part of his work was among the Finnish people in the states of Michigan and Minnesota. Edward Flemming served as general missionary from the spring of 1904 to 1911. Flemming's work was principally among the. Swedish speaking Finlanders. John Koskinen served as missionary and pastor of the Finnish speaking congregation in Duluth, Minnesota, 1903 to 1905.

Alexander Laurikainen served first in Chicago and later in Hancock, Michigan, mostly among the Finnish speaking people during the years 1904-1908. J. H. Jäppinen served as missionary in Chicago from 1904 to 1906 after which he became pastor of the Finnish speaking church at Duluth, Minnesota, in which capacity he continued until 1907 when the church disbanded. Matts Mattson served on the Negaunee field from May 1906 to May 1907. A. J. Stormans served as student pastor in Chicago in the summer of 1906 and later accepted the call to become Bethel's first regular pastor. He served in this position until 1910.

Arvid Perala worked on the New York field from 1907 to 1913. At the same time William Malin labored in Hancock, Mich. J. E. Koskinen served as missionary in Massachusetts from 1905 to 1913 and later moved to Hancock, Michigan. Andrew Blomquist served as colporter and missionary in the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He began in 1908 and continued until 1931 when he servered his connections with the Mission Union. Axel Edwards was also carrying on missionary work in Felch, Mich., for some time. It must be pointed out that while some of these men worked as pastors they were wholly or partially supported by the Mission Union.

In 1912 J. W. Carlson of Chicago, who had been very active in the work of the Mission Union, started a small Book Concern which did a rather flourishing business at times. For various reasons, mainly lack of facilities, this concern was closed in 1928. During its existance this business had a gross turn-over of about $7,000.00.

Some of the missionary workers on the West Coast of recent years have been, Alfred Holmgren, who spent nine years, mostly among Swedish-speaking Finlanders. During the years 1935-44 missionary Holmgren made regular visits to various out-stations in the states of Washington, Montana, Oregon and California and during the summer months visits were made to the churches in the Mid-Western and Eastern states. Home visitation and the promotion of our publication THE MISSION POST was an important part of his work. In 1945 Rev. Nathan Esselstrom accepted the call to serve the Mission Union. His field was mainly on the West Coast.

Prior to the first World War, the Baptist Mission Union supported a native missionary in China, but during the war contact with this worker was lost. At present, our foreign missionary efforts are channeled through the Baptist General Conference of America.

In 1946 Miss Elaine Tikka, a native of Perry, Ohio, and a graduate of the Northern Baptist Seminary, Chicago, was appointed full time worker of the Mission Union. Her field was among children and young people mostly in Finnish communities both in the States and Canada. She continued in this work for several years. Rev. Edward Midura served as missionary and evangelist in 1947, conducting successful campaigns in a number of our churches.

The following have served as treasurers of the Baptist Mission Union: Jacob Peterson, 1901-1902, A. M. Wickstrom, 1902-1906; J. J. Fors, 1906-1907; John Fagerstrom, 1907-1933, John Carlson, 1933-1940; J. V. Waldenstrom, 1940-1946, and William L. Westerberg, 1946 to the present time.

We find our most needy field today among the Finnish speaking people of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Thunder Bay District of Canada. It is estimated that in one county in northern Minnesota alone, there are thirty-eight thousand Finnish speaking people. In that area there are many thickly populated Finnish settlements where gospel missionsaries who can speak to them in their native tongue are relatively unknown. This vast home mission field has only three full-time workers; Rev. and Mrs. Toivo Tervonen on the Minnesota field, and Miss Esther Rissanen on the Canadian field. "The harvest truly is plenteous, laborers are few."

With headquarters in Chisholm, Minn., the Tervonens visit eight or ten out-stations where services are held regularly every month. In addition to these services they carry on the Finnish Word of Life Broadcast. This is a half-hour radio program given in the Finnish language every Sunday over three stations, one in Eveleth, one in Duluth, Minn., and one in Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada. The combined coverage of these stations comprise all of Minnesota, half of Wisconsin, Northern Michigan, and parts of Canada.

At present two missionary pastors are partially supported by the Mission Union. Rev. T. Leonard Juntunen, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, Negaunee, Mich., conducts special services in near-by Finnish communities and carries on a weekly broadcast in the Finnish language over a radio station at Ishpeming, Mich. Edgar Berglund, student at the Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., serves as part-time pastor of the Baptist church of Oulu, Wisconsin. His work among the children and young people of this Finnish community looks very promising.

At the annual meeting in Duluth in 1949, two new projects were started, for the purpose of strengthening the all-over effectivenes of our missionary work. At a special session called to order by Rev. Floyd Ankerberg, the Women's Organization was formed. The following were elected to serve as officers for one year: Chairman, Mrs. E. W. Anderson, Chisholm, Minn.; Vice Chairman, Mrs. Herman Kasen, Gladstone, Mich.; Rec. Secretary, Mrs. L. Dailey, Chicago, Ill; Corr. Secretary, Mrs. C. Johnson, Duluth, Minn.; Treasurer, Mrs. O. Lund, Chicago, Illinois.

A memorial to the late Rev. Matts Esselstrom was also established at this meeting to be known as the Matts Esselstrom Memorial and Tract Fund. Suitable gospel tracts in Finnish, Swedish and English were to be provided from this fund and distributed to churches and individuals for free distribution. To serve as officers of the Memorial Tract Committee the following were elected: Gordon Johnson, Ruben Fagerstrom, Ruth Haglund, Rev. Toivo Tervonen and Mrs. Helena Tervonen. Rev. C. Wessman has later been appointed to serve on this committee.

Another project of the Mission Union is the film "Life or Death", taken by Sam Gronroos in 1950 for the purpose of promoting the work on the Finnish field.

In July 1945 Rev. Floyd Ankerberg, who was then serving as pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church, Chicago, was elected chairman of THE BAPTIST MISSION UNION. He has continued to serve faithfully as his time has permitted up to the present time.

*At the annual meeting in 1947 the word "Finnish" was dropped and the official name is now "The Baptist Mission of America".

M. Esselstrom
Edw. Fleming
A. M. Wickstrom
H. Schultz
J. Peterson
J. Lindgren
A. Laurikainen
H. Jappinen
M. Mattson
A. Blomquist
A. Edwards
A. Esselstrom
Alf. Holmgren
N. Esselstrom
Elaine Tikka
Edw. Midura
John Fagerstrom
Wm. Westerberg
Esther Rissanen
T. Tervonen
Mrs. U. Tervonen
E. Berglund
Floyd Ankerberg

These ladies were official representatives of The Women's Organization at the midyear board meeting in Chicago in 1950.

 

 

Pictured are members of the Memorial Tract Committee at work sorting and preparing tracts for distribution. These tracts may be obtained free of charge.

Published in Fifty Years of Christian Stewardship 1901-1951. Prepared in commemoration of the Fiftieth anniversary of The Baptist Mission Union of America. 1951, p. 7-15.

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