Special Meetings

I come upon this curiosity in The Brooklyn Eagle of Wednesday, July 16, 1941.

Noted Swedish Minister to Speak At Tent Meeting

Rev. Lewis Pethrus of Stockholm Church at Salem Service Tonight

The Rev. Lewis Pethrus, pastor of the Philadelphia Church, Stockholm, Sweden, said to be the largest church in that country, with a membership of 6,700, will preach tonight at the Salem Gospel Tent, 718 50th St., the Rev. A.W. Rasmussen, pastor, has announced. The Rev. Mr. Pethrus is not only a widely-known speaker, but an author and world traveler. He has been in this country for the past two months, and had planned to make an extensive stay here but changed his plans when he found it would be impossible for his family, now in Sweden, to come here. He plans to return to his native land by clipper within a few weeks. The services tonight will be conducted in Swedish, They will start at 8 o’clock.

The visitor’s name was Lewi—not Lewis. A famous man, at a crisis point in his life. The story put about concerning his journey was the one that appears in this notice, the reuniting of a family in wartime, but there was more to it than that. Lewi Pethrus had in fact been running away from a spiritual crisis, a deep inner conflict, a crisis of confidence in his calling, in spite of his enormous achievements. He had gone to Chicago, which was a disaster for him, an annihilating defeat. But now, at the time of the Brooklyn tent meeting, he is on the way back to Sweden, to become one of the greatest figures in modern Swedish history.


I have written before about this Salem tent, with a picture of it as it was in 1939. It is inconceivable that at least one of my parents would not have been present at the Pethrus meeting; we lived directly across from the vacant lot where the tent was pitched, at the back end, on 51st Street. Even though at that time we were members of Ebenezer on 53rd Street. Special meetings were special meetings. Likely my father went. I was two years old that July of 1941. My mother was pregnant with my brother.

Lewi Pethrus and Thomas Ball Barratt
Lewi Pethrus and Thomas Ball Barratt

This was not the first time my father crossed paths with Lewi Pethrus. In 1900 the young Pethrus emigrated to Norway, and in 1902 became co-pastor of the Arendal Baptist Church, just about the time my grandfather, Johannes Jonassen, stonemason, returned to Arendal with his family, from Oslo. My father was three years old.

It was in Arendal, Lewi Pethrus later said, that he first spoke in tongues. He only learned afterwards what to make of it from the reports of the Norwegian, Thomas Ball Barratt, whose Oslo church, also called Filadelfia, was the seed from which Salem in Brooklyn sprang.


Lewi's Journey 2Per Olov Enquist’s novel, Lewi’s Journey, recounts the building of the Filadelfia church in Stockholm, and at the heart of it the tragic conflict in the personalities of the leading players, Lewi Pethrus and Sven Lidman, the first whose genius was system and organisation, the second whose genius was personal magnetism, and poetry. Which is only another way to frame the essential paradox of the movement. The promise of tribal continuity needs its builders. The imminent, ever-present, apocalyptic moment needs to flow in an emotional channel equal to the vision. For a time, Pethrus and Lidman complemented one another. Together they built a Pentecostal empire.

Enquist notices something else about the movement. It attracted young women. Shopgirls, housemaids, office workers, country girls adrift in the cities, some of whom discovered callings as evangelists, missionaries, prophetesses. An opportunity, and a danger. The enemies of the movement were quick to sneer, to sniff out the prurient element in this ecstatic female army, ululating gibberish, collapsing in promiscuous heaps, eyes rolling in simulations of orgasmic pleasure. It lent itself to caricature, and could destroy the movement.

Pethrus struggled for a long time with this dilemma. He was not a man to be bullied. Nor would he readily concede ground to his enemies. Furthermore, he had his eye always on the bigger picture, on the political potential in his movement, which was the emancipation of ordinary men and women from oppression and exploitation. He founded a newspaper. He would eventually found a political party, the Christian Democrats, a centre-right party whose key demands in coalition, to this day, involve improved care of the elderly and other progressive positions, including what would now be Green causes. Scandal, Pethrus well understood, could threaten these social and political objectives.

Thus was born, out of strategic necessity, and also out of a kind of cultural and psychological reaction or balancing, a new emphasis in the movement on personal purity. A war on filth, on pollution, on uncleanness.


This law of compensation had general effect in Pentecostal movements, as it had in the Pietist movements which preceded it. With particular, and poignant, resonance in Brooklyn. A port city, an immigrant community, a place of transience, a place where lonely men, like my father, tired of the life of the sea and then tired of rooming houses, found Jesus and married the often much younger women who taught Sunday school and spoke in tongues and were slain in the Spirit. It could end badly, but not always. The women were saved to a place of emotional gratification not otherwise on offer in their lives. The men were saved from the filthiness of their natural desires. It was all about sex, really. Their disappointments they kept to themselves. Washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Trusting in the Promises of God.

Lewi Pethrus wrote a popular hymn about this contract, about the Blood and the Promises. Löftena kunna ej svika, The Promises Cannot Fail, which Enquist says is the finest lyric of its kind in the Swedish language. It was always sung, I remember, when the Swedish tenors—Wærmö, Ekberg, Olivebring—came to Salem for special meetings.