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Historical Glimpses of the Baptist Mission Union of America - 1901-1925

J. I. Berg

People, saved by God's abounding grace, have one thing in common: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to men everywhere. The good news received from God, that bringeth salvation, has that urgency in it. It must be propagated, spread and shared with others. Our Saviour and Lord is recorded in all four Gospels to have commanded his disciples and followers: "Go ye" (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:15), and "ye are witnesses", (Luke 24:48). In John 21:15-17, he says: "Feed my lambs and sheep."

In Mark 16:20 we are told: "And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following."

As we read the book of Acts we see how they that believed went out preaching and teaching everywhere. God's Holy Spirit working with--and through them, as Christ hath promised. That has ever since been the work of all true Christians.

The Baptist Mission Union has through the past 60 years followed the same course. We shall endeavor to write briefly about what we have observed. But as the Apostle writes: "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part."

It is well known that the largest number of immigrants from the Scandinavian countries and Finland came to the United States between 1895 and 1910. It has been estimated that in the year 1905 alone, over 18,000 Finlanders landed on our shores, and these were mostly young people. Among these newcomers were also a goodly number of born-again Christians. It soon became evident that something had to be done so that these people should hear and understand the good news of salvation. I well remember words spoken in these matters at an annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention, held in Boston, Massachusetts at the beginning of the century. It was strangely emphasized that the work of God ought to be preached to all different national groups in their own language, and by their own countrymen. There were in most places a few Christians used by the Lord as a nucleus to interest and draw our people together to read the Bible and pray.

In most cases it was lay people who took upon themselves the responsibility to bring the gospel to our countrymen in their respective communities. God was pleased to bless these gatherings and saved souls. As a result small groups of Christians banded themselves together with the hope they soon would be able to organize regular Baptist Churches.

Rev. Matts Esselstrom was the first Baptist preacher to the Finlanders 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 and in September 1893 he began this new work as a lay preacher in Bailey, Michigan. In 1896 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.

At the turn of the century another young man of our people came to the forefront in this new Baptist movement, Edward Fleming, a very energetic and gifted man. He entered the Seminary in Morgan Park, Illinois in the fall of 1900 and graduated in 1904. He was endowed with a burning ambition to win and gather our people. Fleming was a native of Karkmo, Mustasaari in Finland.

He held meetings in many places in the East as well as in the Middle West.

The result was that after much prayer, and some hesitation, the Finnish Baptist Mission Union of America was organized March 31, 1901 Rev. Fleming was elected president; Dr. Albert M. Wickstrom (then a young medical student), vice-president; Mr. H. R. Schulz was elected secretary and Mr. Jacob Peterson, 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.

During the first ten years, 1900 to 1910, a dozen or more churches were organized, as the reader will find in another chapter of this book.

Looking over the history of the Union's activities during the first twenty-five years we meet so many persons who served so faithfully and diligently that we feel we should in humble remembrance thank God for them.

They began the work, and the beginning in any enterprise is always hard, uphill work. But prayerfully they counted the cost continuing in the mission God allotted them. May we be faithful and worthy followers in their footsteps, as God gives us opportunities.

Studious and friendly Dr. A. M. Wickstrom we will never forget.

Well-read in the Scriptures, it is said that he read through the Bible more than thirty times and memorized over a hundred entire chapters during his fifteen years of illness.

Dr. Wickstrom was born in Wassor, Kvevlax Finland September 15, 1872. From his childhood he loved books and had a burning desire for knowledge. Coming to this country in 1892, he continued his quest for learning. In June 1906 he graduated from the medical department of the University of Illinois with a degree of Doctor of Medicine. Immediately, he opened an office on the old north side in Chicago, where he practiced medicine and surgery with marked success for a number of years.

Wickstrom became a pillar and staunch supporter of the newly organized Mission Union, and he continued in this spirit until his death, a period of some 50 years.

What should we say about our literary-minded Matts Esselstrom--a real Prince among Brethren. He won the hearts of all that he contacted. A kindhearted leader and counselor that one could not help but love dearly. He became so well known by everybody through his 27 years of editorship of the Mission Post.

Edward Fleming, the expert organizer of churches, Ladies Societies, Sunday Schools and classes. Seemingly untiring in his zeal to travel and seek our people in some of the most obscure places.

Johan and Olga Berg (formerly Olga Stone) played a good part in our early history. Dear "Janne" with his mandolin and whatever other instrument at hand, performed very well. To see him in front of an old-fashioned stringband or an orchestra, how he could hold you spellbound for any length of time. Nor can we forget his poetical abilities. If all the poems and rhymes from Janne's pen printed in our publications would be bound up in one volume, it would make a good sized book.

Rev. Anders J. Stormans, a most wonderful evangelist of the old school, led revival meetings in many of our fields in the early years, when we saw many souls brought to the Saviour. His first visit to the East in 1907 to the annual meeting in Worcester, I will never forget. His nine years as editor of the Mission Post brought him near to us all.

Isak Roy's intense work during 14 years in the Bronx, New Fork church is an outstanding chapter in the history of that field.

There are many faithful workers, even yet, laboring in the Cypress Avenue Church that were brought to the Lord by Brother Roy.

John W. and Maria Carlson, devoting their time and lives mostly in our Chicago church will ever bring joy and thanksgiving to our lives as we remember them. Their home, a real Bethany, always open to God's servants and people. Besides their efforts in Bethel Church, they also gave generously of time and talents to our general work.

In 1912 Carlson, 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.

The Myhrman brothers, Herman and Anders, were used of the Lord especially in Duluth, Minn., and Felch, Mich. They had a mind for building. The church building on 40th Avenue West and 4th Street, Duluth was erected during Herman Myhrman ministry, also the one in Felch.

Albert Esselstrom's sweet way of singing gospel songs in our churches brought a rich blessing to all. I can still hear the echo of his voice, as he sang : "Ur Djupet Av Mitt Hjarta."

John A. Kallman and John Soderman graduated from the Seminary in Morgan Park in 1910 and served in our churches for shorter times. But Soderman went to Finland, where he ministered for some time. Kallman labored as an evangelist with marked success for a number of years, closing his day of service in our Gladstone, Michigan Church.

Axel Edwards ministered in Michigan most of his life. In the Fetch, Negaunee and Gladstone churches he served faithfully and commendably, bringing a rich blessing to these people.

John Hugo graduated from St. Paul, Minnesota in 1922. He was an ardent Bible student and his messages were impregnated with quotations from the Scripture. Both Edwards and Hugo passed away rather early.

Should we begin to write about all of the faithful and willing servants--men and women, we have had and have now in our churches, we would soon fill a big volume. We thank God for them, and their labor in love. Most of the pioneers are now "resting from their labors, and their works do follow them."

Published in Sixty Years of Christian Stewardship 1901-1961. Prepared in commemoration of the Sixtieth anniversary of The Baptist Mission Union of America. 1961, p. 4-8.

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