“The Friendly Invasion,” Ensign, July 1974, 46
On Temple Square in the heart of Salt Lake City, the monument to the handcart pioneers stands as a symbol of the struggles and hopes of Utah’s early Mormon settlers. Appropriately, the sculptor himself was an immigrant, Norwegian Torleif Knaphus.
More than 21,000 of his Scandinavian fellows answered the Church’s call in the 19th century to “gather to Zion,” and presently, more than 29,000 Scandinavian emigrants have found themselves building the Church in a new land. Since children under eight years of age were not counted in these figures before 1927, there were actually many more emigrants than officially counted. (See Andrew Jackson, History of the Scandinavian Mission, Salt Lake City, 1927.)
The result of that friendly invasion can be seen today in the Salt Lake City telephone directory where Scandinavian names like Olsen, Hansen, Peterson, and Jenson abound (Andersen and Anderson outnumber everything but Smith); it can also be seen in the Utah Scandinavian strongholds of Ephraim, Manti, Brigham City, and Spanish Fork.
Considering the difficulties of learning a new language and making drastic cultural adjustments, it’s surprising that most Scandinavians became part of Mormon America so rapidly. While most of the adult immigrants lived out their lives in hard-working anonymity, some of them and many of their children were great contributors to the Church and to the community.
Sculptor Knaphus was one of the more recent Scandinavian immigrant artists. Born in 1881 and educated in Norway, he created the Hill Cumorah Monument and many monuments, busts, and friezes for temples of the Church. The painter Danquart Anthon Weggeland, another Norwegian, immigrated in 1861 and, through his encouragement to the rising younger generation, he became known as the father of Utah’s artists. Carl Christian Anton Christensen, whose work was rediscovered in 1970, was Denmark’s contribution. A poet, humorist, and missionary as well as an artist, Brother Christensen portrayed early Mormon scenes with an enthusiastic primitivism acclaimed in American art circles.
John A. Widtsoe, who emigrated from Norway as a boy with his brother and widowed mother, combined secular and religious leadership in an amazingly full career. He led irrigation and reclamation developments, pioneered the idea of agricultural agents and home demonstration agents, and served as president of Utah State Agricultural College (later renamed Utah State University) and of the University of Utah. Serving as a member of the Council of the Twelve for more than 31 years, he authored 30 books on Church organization, the priesthood, and gospel principles.
At 18, Anthon H. Lund emigrated from Denmark after having already been a leading missionary there. He served on the Council of the Twelve and in two First Presidencies. He was also Church historian for 21 years, superintendent of the religious classes of the Church, and president of the Salt Lake Temple. His fellow Dane, Christian D. Fjeldsted, was a member of the First Council of the Seventy for 21 years.
Although many outstanding individuals deserve our recognition, the greatest effect of the Scandinavian immigrants has been the day-by-day contribution of hard-working people. Many were farmers. In fact, records from the first dozen years of Scandinavian emigration indicate that even the Copenhagen Conference, Scandinavia’s most urban area, sent more farmers to Utah than those engaged in any other occupation. Early pioneer society, struggling for self-sufficiency, owed much to these tillers of the soil, and to the other skilled immigrants: shoemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, weavers, bricklayers, fishermen, wheelmakers, tanners, and millers. There were even furniture makers, goldsmiths, and watchmakers, as well as bookbinders, brushmakers, barbers, bakers, mechanics, ironfounders, schoolteachers, and even a pencilmaker.
With these skills, the Scandinavians also brought a sense of humor and the ability to chuckle at themselves, as this story from Ephraim illustrates:
In Church one Sunday, the bishop, after clearing his throat, said, “Brother Peterson, will you please offer the benediction?”
All the men in the congregation but one stood up.
“I mean Brother Peter Peterson,” the bishop amended.
One man sat down.
The impact of these early Scandinavian pioneers can also be measured by their posterity. In 1950, under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, John F. Oleson surveyed Utah wards and branches to determine how many Latter-day Saints were of at least partial Scandinavian descent. With 681 of Utah’s wards and branches responding, the results were:
Sanpete and Sevier Counties
Box Elder County
Salt Lake County
Average for 681 wards and branches reporting
(John A. Widtsoe, “How Many Latter-day Saints Are of Scandinavian Descent?” Improvement Era, June 1950, p. 471.)
The parents of Elder Mark E. Petersen, a member of the Council of the Twelve, and Elder Alma Sonne, an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, were all from Denmark. General Authorities who have Scandinavian grandparents include Elder Howard W. Hunter, Elder Thomas S. Monson, Elder Boyd K. Packer, Elder L. Tom Perry, Elder ElRay L. Christiansen, and Bishop H. Burke Peterson. A Norwegian immigrant girl became the mother of Reed Smoot, an influential U.S. senator from Utah and member of the Council of the Twelve.
Scandinavian Latter-day Saint immigration started tapering off in 1920 and completely stopped during World War II. But after 1945 came a resurgence that lasted several years. Spurring the immigration were a desire to compensate for the years of lost communication with Church headquarters, a desire to do temple work, and a desire for financial self-improvement. Interestingly, Latter-day Saint immigration declined about the time that President David O. McKay announced plans for construction of the Swiss Temple in 1952.
Immigrants have always contributed invaluable missionary service to the Church. Between 1880 and 1919, Hans Jacob Christiansen served a total of five missions to Scandinavia, the last a six-year tour as wartime president of the Danish-Norwegian Mission. Gideon N. Hulterstrom served five missions to Sweden after immigrating to Utah, as mission president for two of them. He also served a mission to the Navajo Indians and was called to place the Book of Mormon and A Voice of Warning in the Moskwa State Library in the Soviet Union.
But whether as missionaries or Church leaders, farmers or artists, the Scandinavian-American Latter-day Saints have been a leaven in the loaf of Mormon life.