Leland D. Peterson
Swedish American Society of Tidewater, Virginia, 4/20/97
 
 
 
 

                        THREE OLAFS

     Brief stories of a warrior king,  a non-warrior in a military setting, and a warrior commoner, all Scandinavians.  The first two came to bad ends despite their uncommon virtues; the third finished tolerably well, despite some intermediate difficulties of a truly intimidating sort.

                    The First Olaf

     Was called Olaf the Fat during his lifetime.  He used to be straight up and down before he got married, but after his marriage he enjoyed good Swedish cooking to an extreme, especially the creamy gravies, dressings, and cod casseroles.  He spent many an hour at the smorgasbord and pot luck dinners.  In his bachelor days he had had a big fight with Earl Sveyn at Nesjo in Norway (1016) and whipped him soundly and became King of Norway, the second Olaf to hold that position.  He proceeded to eliminate the petty kings, tamed the aristocracy, and began the enforced acceptance of Christianity by the Norwegians, which his predecessor had initiated.  He then had a tiff with the King of Sweden, humbled him and married the Swedish king's daughter, thereby uniting Norway and Sweden.  He then raided Denmark and had some successes there.  But many Norwegians were unhappy about his program to make Norway a Christian nation, so in 1029 they brought in Knut the Great and began a great insurrection under his leadership.  Seeing as how things were going, Olaf decided it was time to take a vacation in Russia.  He returned the following year, but discovered hostility to his rule undiminished.  He had it out with the Norwegian aristocracy at the battle of Stiklestad, but this time they stuck it to Olaf good, and he was dead on the battlefield.

     It was not long before miracles were observed at his tomb: the lame came and walked away; the blind recovered their sight; and many were healed of horrible, incurable diseases.  Finally, the Church in 1164 declared him the patron saint of Norway and his fame spread from Scandinavia to England, where parish churches were dedicated to him.  In 1847, Oscar I, King of Sweden and Norway, founded the order of the Knights of St. Olaf, and later in the century a liberal arts college in Minnesota was named after him, which today has an academic reputation better than middling to good.  Olaf II's career demonstrates that it may take a while for people to realize that you really were a very decent sort with the best intersts of the people at heart.
 
 

                    The Second Olaf

     Is the hero of a poem written by E. E.Cummings, "i sing of Olaf, glad and big."  The hero is a Scandinavian draftee in the American army in World War I and a conscientious objector.  Despite torment and torture by his comrades in arms and superior officers, he refuses to perform his official duties.  Beaten mercilessly, he does ceaselessly repeat two sentences: "I will not kiss your fucking flag," and "There is some shit I will not eat."  Eventually he dies in his army camp, a martyr of conscientious objection.  The conclusion of the poem is Cummings' high praise and admiration for the stalwart integrity of the hapless Olaf.

     During America's involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s, the poem became a popular anti-war statement.  It was reprinted in its native fullness (complete with offending vowels in the obscene words) in their newsletter by the Students for a Democratic Society at Old Dominion College in 1966.  The Administration moved immediately to ban the SDS and the offending newsletter.  At that time I was chairman of the newly established Faculty Senate.  As we were much occupied at that time in setting the parameters for academic freedom at ODC, we necessarily became involved on the side of the SDS.  The controversy was ultimately resolved when the Faculty Senate and Administration agreed on the adoption of a remarkably strong statement of policy on the freedom of the press at ODC.  In 1998, the Mace and Crown, the official student newspaper at ODU, printed an interview with a faculty member in charge of the film program in the Department of English.  One sentence included the work "f**king" voluntarily censored by the student editor.  So little and so much has changed in the past thirty years.  But more of this incident later.
 

                    The Third Olaf

     Was born on 6/13 or 16, 1816 in the village of Kirklyn, parish of Orsa, province of Dalarna, Sweden, one of the numerous villages around  beautiful Lake Siljan.  He was the third (or last) of four sons and two daughters in the large and prosperous family of Altidglad (all the time glad) Lars Anderson and Anna.  But Olaf's father died when Olaf was fifteen, undoubtedly traumatic for the young man.  As a younger son,  he had no future on the family farm, so  at age 17 he signed up in the Royal Dalregiment of the Swedish Army.  The regiment was stationed not far from home and did not involve full-time garrison life, as soldiers in the summer had leave for farming chores.

     In 1840, age 24, he married Kerstin Peterson (Persdotter).  To this union was born three children: Anna, 1841; Kerstin, 1844, and Olaf, 1849.

     Olaf Larsson had a good aptitude for the limited opportunities of military life in times of peace.  Having chosen "Flack" as his Army name (the Army was trying to eliminate some of the confusion of multiple Larsons, Andersons, Petersons, Olsons, Ericksons and the like), he was promoted to Corporal in 1845 and was decorated with the Swordsmedal in 1851 despite some blemishes on his record probably due to his fondness for strong drink.  In 1846, the year of his mother's death, he was punished with three days of house arrest for an unauthorized absence from camp of one night.  The second blemish was nine years later (1855), when he was in house arrest for two days for failure to follow orders.  But in the main his career proceeded smoothly enough.

     His real troubles began in 1857, his twenty-fourth year in the Army,  when he was on summer leave to help with farm chores on his father-in-law's farm.  Kerstin told him she wanted time off one day to attend a meeting of some Baptists.  With great reluctance Olaf gave her permission to go.  When she returned, she told her husband that she had become a Baptist convert, which infuriated Olaf.  Army regulations were very strict about loyalty to the Church of Sweden and Baptist dissenters were having a bad time of it.  In the turmoil and tension of bitter arguments, Kirstin took the children (now 16, 13 and 8) and left Olaf, and it seemed that divorce was very probable.

     The separation must have lasted for more than a month, and finally Olaf decided that he would go to his wife for some kind of reconciliation.  He now began to wonder about his own spiritual health.  Overcome with guilt and remorse, he "fell on his knees and prayed for forgiveness and enlightenment, wherewith he felt an inspiration that he ought to be  converted and heard a voice cry out, 'believe on the Lord Jesus, and you and your house will be saved'."  For an entire week he was in great consternation; he had visions of beings quoting Bible verses to him.  He then went to a Baptist home gathering in late August, 1857, probably went through a re-baptism ceremony, and "now considered himself to be saved and happy and without further need of repentance."  He was then reconciled with his wife and his family was restored, though the family would suffer the loss of daughter Kerstin in the following year.  However, in October of 1857 he had resigned his rank of corporal and reverted to private, after twenty-four years of service in the army and twelve years as a corporal.  This could not have passed without some discussion and comment by his ranking non-coms and officer. Nevertheless, Olaf continued with his military duties, which included conscientious attendance at Sunday services in the state church at Orsa.

     But the voice of conscience could not be stilled, and the strain of leading a double life of dissenting Baptist and good Lutheran was too much.  On January 23, 1859, Sunday, in accordance with custom and Army regulations, he went to the door of the Orsa Mother Church, but did not go in.  Instead, he went to the home of one of the Baptist dissenters.  The following Saturday, January 29, he informed the company Sergeant Major that he was a Baptist and asked to be excused from the requirement to attend the services of the Church of Sweden.  A shocked company commander informed him that "in accordance with Chapter 3, Paragraph 75, of the military code, which is also stated in 6 (paragraphs  1 and 6) in the third part of His Royal Majesty's merciful  military laws...that in the absence of any valid hindrance they were to attend the regular divine worship service in the parish church except those who lived far away could be excused by the company commander."

     As Soldier Flack could give no satisfactory reason for absence from regular services beyond the fact that he was a born-again Baptist, he was ordered to attend.  But the next day, Sunday, he again could not bring himself to go into the Church and worship with the Lutherans.  The following Saturday, February 5, a special meeting was held in the home of Captain Freiberger with Sgt. Major Von Knorring and Sgt. Hedberg in attendance.  The appropriate regulations and penalties were read for Soldier Flack's benefit and he was given one more chance to come to his senses.  He was sternly ordered to attend services the following day.  He was now facing the extreme penalty for insubordination, which was death by either hanging or a firing squad.  Knowing full well the consequences, that Sunday morning he stubbornly stayed away from the Church of Orsa services. The next morning, Monday, February 7, he was arrested and brought to the County Prison at Falun where he was put in a cell to learn the miseries of solitary confinement.

     It is obvious that Capt. Friberger and Sgts. Von Knorring and Hedberg had no desire to proceed to summary execution, which was  their obligation if they were to follow the letter of the regulations.  The idea was to let their good friend in the austere surroundings of a prison cell think long and hard about the consequences of insubordination and the folly of going to one's death merely over the matter of an hour or so each Sunday in an orthodox church.  Flack, on the other hand, had become very serious about his commitment to the Baptist version of Christianity.  As he had continued to attend regular Lutheran services for more than a year after his conversiion to the Baptists, it is likely he could have continued until his Army retirement as a nominal Lutheran but real Baptist.  At least two problems are evident: his Baptist friends must have at least hinted that the sincerity of his conversion was in question if he continued each Sunday to worship in the state church at Orsa.  Army regulations would not be a hindrance in their view of life's priorities.  Again, it is probable that another sticking point for him was participation in the Communion service of the Church of Orsa.  He must have known of the traditional warnings, that whosoever takes the bread and drinks the wine with anything less than total reverence and assent (unworthily) is in danger of eternal damnation.  It is likely that he, along with all the other Baptist dissenters, could not accord full respect to the state-supported clergy administering the sacraments, for more than a few lived lives far below the Baptist standards of true Christian living.  That the Church centuries earlier had pronounced the validity of the sacraments irrrespective of the worthiness of the ministrant they probably never knew nor would accept.  As Flack had told his superiors, the laws of the Swedish military were strict and severe, but the laws of God were even more so, and he would take his chances honoring the laws of God.  He would faithfully carry out all military orders given to him; if necessary, he would spend the rest of his life walking back and forth between Captain Friberger's home and the Orsa Church; he would render to Caesar what Caesar was due and remain faithful to the laws of God.

     For six weeks he endured his solitary confinement with prayer, Bible reading and occasional visions.  On March 19 he was examined by the prison physician, Dr. Carl Alfred Kusel, as to the state of his mental health.  If it could be determined that Soldier Flack was insane, he could not be held responsible for his insubordination in accordance with the rules of the Royal Military Manual as decreed on March 9, 1826; he could be dismissed from the service and kept in the custody of a guardian to prevent him from being a danger to the public.  But Dr. Kusel found Flack entirely competent, save that he was errant and eccentric in religious opinions.  However, Soldier Flack knew that he was insubordinate and by implication ought to suffer the appropriate penalties.

     This was not the diagnosis Flack's military superiors wanted to hear, for they obviously had no stomach for the execution of one of their own merely over the matter of church attendance.  Accordingly, they called in the Royal Health Committee, which thoroughly examined Soldier Flack and came to the conclusion that he was indeed a lunatic subject to the disposition ordered in  March 9, 1826 decree.  Now that a higher medical authority had pronounced Flack insane, his superiors were ready for the court martial.

     The court martial took place on April 9, 1859, in the Council Chambers of the Falun prison.  A special military tribunal sat as jury and listened to the testimonies of Sgts. Von Knorring, Hedberg, Captain Friberger, and of Flack himself, who, worn by the ordeal, broke down and wept at times during his testimony.   Flack was insubordinate and he admitted it was so.  The chair of the Court Martial board assured Soldier Flack that the tribunal, as was appropriate in a Protestant nation,  had no desire or intention to make him change his religious opinions, but only to investigate his failure to follow duly given orders.
 
      What that investigation would reveal was obvious weeks before, but the forms of justice had to be observed and the bureaucracy's unerring prosecution of the letter of the law upheld without being forced to the ultimate penalty.  The report of the Royal Health Committee was received and accepted by the Court Martial Board.  After much deliberation, the verdict of the Board was not guilty by reason of insanity.  As Flack had no money, the State would assume the court costs (payment of witnesses, etc.), and a guardian would be appointed for Flack to make sure that he would not be a public danger.  But Captain Tornbladh of the tribunal reasonably objected on the grounds that the regulation of 9 March 1826 decreed a guardian only for those who were dangerously insane, which was obviously not the case with Flack.  Let him be discharged without the expense or complication of a guardian.  And so the Board decreed.

     On May 13, 1859,  Private Flack was given a distinguished discharge from the Army in recognition of his twenty-six years of faithful service.  We can well imagine the joy and celebration (without alcohol) among the Baptist faithful when he returned (from the dead, almost) to family and friends in Orsa.  His prison ordeal had lasted 96 days, and we can imagine a gaunt and haggard Olaf returning.  The Flack case was reported and discussed in numerous newspapers throughout Sweden, all of whom deplored the imprisonment and the reasons for it.  Loyal to the Church of Sweden, they could not bring themselves to admit the necessity of executing heretics from the state religion.  Of our three Olafs, Flack is the only one who survived, and only because his crime occured in 1859, and not in 1759 or earlier.  It is most unlikely that any soldier in the Army of Charles XII would have survived a challenge to regulations such as Flack made.

     He spent the next ten years in Orsa preaching, praying, farming and saving money for a trip across the Atlantic to the United States and Minnesota.  Most Swedes had no desire to migrate while the United States was in the throes of a Civil War, but in addition to the Baptist missionaries from England there were also railroad agents from Minnesota distributing fliers and spreading the good word about the availability of a fabulously fertile new land waiting for able bodied and industrius farmers.  This would also be a powerful incentive for younger sons born in Sweden on farms of limited acreage, even if they were good Lutherans loyal to the Church of Sweden. In 1869, now forty-three years old,  Flack with Kerstin and his family, which now included in addition to his twenty-year-old son Olaf,  his son-in-law, Gref Hans Erickson, who had married daughter Anna in 1860, and three grandchildren, Anna (8), Kerstin (4), and Hans (2) departed from Gothenburg for England and an arduous six-weeks journey across the Atlantic.  These eight were among the 32,000 Swedes who departed that year for the American shores

      I am a great-great grandson of Olaf Flack, for his granddaughter Anna Erickson was my grandmother on my father's side.  When he came to Minnesota he bought land in quantities for his son Olaf, who took the name Lindgren, and became very active in the Stanchfield Baptist Church.  Many stories are current in the several histories of the Stanchfield Baptist Church about Olaf Flack's devotion to prayer, Bible reading and singing in church.

     Perhaps he was not St. Olaf, but he was about as close to that state of sanctity as Baptists are willing to recognize.  I enthusiastically recognize his canonization, for my church, Roman Catholic, has a special place in its hierarchy for the sanctified.  Though his grave was not located in the Stanchfield Baptist cemetery, his decendents two years ago erected a monument to his memory in that cemetery.  My headstone is already in place in that very same cemetery where, for some centuries to come, I will honor my father, mother, grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents.  My older brother already reposes in that family lot, and his headstone indicates that he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor (in  the Philipines) during World War II.  Next to him is my father, who had a very brief career in the Army Air Corps in World War I.  But also in that cemetery is my cousin Robert, a gunnery sergeant shot down in a B-24 Liberator over southern Europe in 1944, and my uncle Reuben, who left a placid Minnesota farm in July, 1918, never to return after he suffered shell shock in the Vosges Mountains and spent the last seventeen years of his life in veterans' hospitals.  I have an indelible memory of a trip to St. Cloud about 1935 with my Dad and  sister Donna to visit the intensely suffering Reuben, who sat on the edge of his cot with his hands to his ears, making strange buzzing noises through clenched teeth.  God made us and loves us too, especially those who gave their lives for the well being of the immigrants and their descendents in the United States in two great wars.  Numerous descendants of Olaf Flack have served their time in the military, but none, to the best of my knowledge, has ever sacrificed a military career in the interests of religion or suffered as a conscientious objector.  The Olafs are gone, but what a splendid mark they made during their brief passages through this world.
 

Most recent source for information about Olaf Flack:  Joyce Blosberg, 3315 Filmore St., Minneapolis, MN, a descendant of Olaf Lindgren.  I received the Blosberg material from Dean and Merrie O'Brien, indefatigable compilers of our family history.