Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lars O. Skrefsrud: Norwegian Santal Missionary

Who is the mystery man in Great Grandma's old photo album?

As with many photograph collections bequeathed to descendants, the happy (or hapless) recipient can become dismayed by a lack of proper dating and other identification on such family treasures.  Our past family members knew the full names, addresses, and daily habits of everyone represented in the images they so carefully collected and displayed.  Why would it occur to them--those common sense farmers and homesteaders--that someone a hundred or more years in the future would be tearing their hair out, trying to piece together the relationships and everyday details of their lives?  What a silly notion!  Yet, nearly every genealogist has had the experience of caring enough to suffer that very frustration.

That is exactly the way I felt when I ran across two of the many unidentified photographs in the Victorian-era cabinet card album owned by my great grandparents, Ole and Malla (Larson) Johnson of Leonard, Minnesota.  The two photos shown below did not fit the overall theme of family and friends.  For one thing, they were a bit too formal looking.  For another, the persons bore no family resemblance, at least that I could tell.

Photo A
 Lars O. Skrefsrud (1840-1910)
The signature in the lower right-hand corner was
 undecipherable without addition information.
Photo is dated 1894/95.

Photo B
Lars and Anna Skrefsrud, foreground, with
Rev. Hans Peter Børresen (1825-1901).
Photo is dated 1894/95. 

Links to photos A and B, along with the rest of my great grandparents' album, were posted on this blog in the hope that relatives might be able to help identify them.  Soon after, I heard from a cousin, Kristie Formolo of Wisconsin, who said, "The good news is that I have lucked into identifying two of the photos from your red Johnson/Larson photo album!  The bad news is... now you have another mystery to solve!"

Kristie collects vintage "dog and people" photographs and spotted a copy of cabinet card Photo B on eBay.  She purchased it, thinking that the unidentified photo was interesting, but before she received it in the mail she recognized it as identical to one she had seen in my Johnson/Larson Picasa Web album.  At first, she was shocked that I might be auctioning off old family photos.  But, she said she came to her senses quickly and realized I would never do that evil deed.  Instead, there was a second copy, and perhaps more, of this unidentified Johnson/Larson album photo floating around.  She immediately e-mailed the eBay seller; the reply came that the photo was acquired somewhere in southwestern Wisconsin, but no further information was available.  My great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, lived in northwestern Minnesota:  close, but not the exact same location.  The plot thickens!

Some time later, Cousin Kristie was again searching for the same type of collectible photo:
And now here comes the best part... A couple of weeks ago, I was once again looking for dog photos on eBay and Lo and Behold, the same exact dog and people cabinet card photo was listed...  ...The two gentlemen, and you are going to love this... they are not only identified, but they are actually quite famous!  One is a Dane and one is a Norwegian and together they founded the Santal Mission in India.

The identities of the two men were, therefore, confirmed as:  a Norwegian missionary, Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, and a Danish reverend by the name of Hans Peter Børresen.  Kristie's remaining question after her initial discovery was:  if the two men were living in India, what were they doing in Minnesota during the mid-1890s?  Both photos A and B were taken by a photographer Elias G. E. Dorge, who operated a studio at 1819 Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis from 1891-1914.  Now, that's quite a long way from India.  But, I'm happy to say I have solved the second part of the mystery, now that Cousin Kristie has solved the critical part concerning their identities.

Lars O. Skrefsrud was a renowned speaker and highly respected religious leader, especially during the 1890s.  N. N. Rønning, who wrote about Skrefsrud in a biography published by the Santal Mission in America, summarized that the respect was earned because he "went forth from poverty and prison and became one of the great missionaries of modern times."
He was a dynamic personality and powerful preacher.  'When [Skrefsrud] arose to speak, the land shook,' said a Santal elder.  'He was reared in the land of rocks and made a great contribution to Norway's shining saga at home and abroad,' wrote a Danish pastor.  'When he spoke, minutes sped as seconds, hours grew too brief; the fire in his eyes and the burning enthusiasm in his words captivated all who heard him,' declared a Norwegian educator.

Skrefsrud was born in 1840 in the parish of Faaberg, Gudbrandsdalen, one of the most picturesque areas of Norway.  His father is said to have been a man of initiative who was a skilled carpenter, blacksmith, and house builder.  His mother was a devout woman who often worried about her gifted, but "strong-willed and impulsive" son, Lars.  Despite his upbringing in a stable family environment and religious training as a youth, Skresfrud was swayed toward bad behavior after beginning an apprenticeship in Lillehammer as a coppersmith at about age 14.  After progressing from heavy drinking to burglary along with other young men, he was eventually arrested.  He spent one year under arrest, and was then sentenced to four years hard labor in an Oslo penitentiary.  Filled with true remorse, Skrefsrud experienced a religious epiphany while in prison.  His renewed faith gave him joy and motivation, but it also resulted in great happiness for a "devout and courageous" farm girl from Faaberg named Anna Onsum, who served as Skrefsrud's penpal while he was incarcerated.  Anna would later become his wife.  
Having devoted himself to God, Lars O. Skrefsrud immersed himself in preparation to serve as a missionary.  Prison officials supplied him with books and he began to study English and German, and memorized the entire New Testament.  When he was released from prison, he worked at a mechanical factory in Oslo, and bought Greek, Hebrew, and Latin grammar books with some of his first earnings.  The road toward becoming a missionary was challenging, for Skrefsrud first had to prove his earnestness and abilities to the Norwegian Mission Society.  For an ex-convict, this was not easy.  He was eventually sent to missionary school in Berlin, where he formed an affiliation with Danish-born Reverend Hans Peter Børresen, who became like a father to him.

After missionary school, Skrefsrud traveled to India, where he became interested in Santalistan, a district 160 miles northwest of Calcutta.  Skrefsrud's wife and the Børresens later joined him.  They secured possession of some land from the Rajah, and in September 1867, the missionaries began building huts of branches and leaves.  Børresen described the situation:  "Our neighbors," he said, "were tigers, bears, elephants, wildcats, and hyenas; our common household was composed of rats, snakes, and innumerable insects which visited us every night."  

View an image of Skrefsrud's house at the Santal Mission on DPLA
 (Digital Public Library of America).

During the years that Skrefsrud served as a missionary in India, phenomenal progress was seen. When he agreed to visit the Norwegians in America, his fame and reputation preceded him. Skrefsrud arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the spring of 1894, and invitations from Norwegian-American congregations began to multiply.  Over a fifteen month period, he traveled almost incessantly, speaking several times a day to capacity crowds.  It was during one of these events that my great grandparents must have acquired the two photos of Skrefsrud that were kept in their photograph album.  Exactly when and where they listened to Skrefsrud speak is not known.  What is certain, is the effect Skrefsrud's speech must have had on them.

N. N. Rønning, the author of the Skrefsrud biography referenced in this article, described his own experience while seeing and hearing the Santal missionary for the first time.  He was teaching parochial school in Grafton, North Dakota, and joined many others at the local Opera House, which was filled to overflowing for the event.

On the great day people came walking or driving from all directions... When I had been told that Skrefsrud could, as it were, hold large audiences in the hollow of his hand for two hours or more and make people laugh and weep at will, foolish young university student that I was, I made up my mind that he could not 'get' me...  Well, he 'got' me.  I have never before or since been so helplessly and hopelessly under the spell of a speaker, and that from the time he uttered the first sentence.  It was not only what he said, but the way he said it and the way he looked which had such compelling power.

Lars O. Skrefsrud returned to India and his missionary duties on September 25, 1895.  He died in 1910, after 47 years in India.  Upon his death, friends and acquaintances remarked:  "Skrefsrud was one of the most remarkable men in the Norwegian Lutheran Church.  By nature he was endowed with tremendous power and glowing enthusiasm..."  Also, "Skrefsrud was a powerful personality, cast in the mold of the Viking chiefs of old."  His legacy, as understood by common Norwegian Americans like my great grandparents, was a simple but powerful one:  he was a man whose outstanding characteristic was as a "sinner saved by grace."  Aside from Skrefsrud's great charisma and powerful speeches, it was more than enough to inspire a generation of Norwegian American Christians. 



--Minnesota Directory of Photographers:
--N. N. RønningLars O. Skrefsrud: An Apostle to the Santals (Minneapolis, Minnesota:  The Santal Mission in America), 1940.


Karen Lemelin said...

I also have this same photo in reverse labeled " Missionair Skrefsrud" . I literally have well over 100 unlabeled photos from my grandparents Karen and ErlingnKlabo from Mosjoen Norway. It was great to read his history.

Karen said...

My g-g-g-grandmother was Anna Skrefsrud, Lars' sister. Lars and his wife had one child, but he died during childhood. So, Lars had no direct descendants. A number of Lars' siblings immigrated from Norway to the States and settled in the LaCrosse, Wisconsin area. He came to the States to visit them sometimes. He must have come up to the Twin Cities on one such occasion. Thank you for posting this photo. It is not one I had seen of him before. :)

JonS said...

Hi Karen.. I was just doing some research and found this interesting article. I would like to state that Anna Skrefsrud is also my g-g-grandmother. I grew up around the Tomah, WI area. Lars Skrefsrud did visit the LaCrosse area when he found out his brother Johannes died from an accident when digging a well. This would have been in 1895

Anonymous said...

I an Eva Margaret Hansdak from Jharkhand, India. I am so pleased that you have posted these photographs. I am a Santal and I am a member of the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (originally Santalmisjon). There are very few photographs of Skrefsrusd and Borrsen - I have seen only one or two. Thank you for the photographs and forsharing.

Chery Kinnick said...

Eva - you are quite welcome; I'm glad you found these photographs online!

Sconnie said...

Thank you so much for these photos! I too am related to Lars (and apparently to Jon S and Karen as well!). My GG mother was sister to Lars and lived in La Crosse, WI (came here from Norway also). Her name was Ingeborg Olsen Skrefsrud. The photo with his wife I have not seen before and is the only one I have seen of his wife. Thanks so much!