After my visit this summer to Strömsborgs Vilohem at Rådmansö, north of Stockholm, I’ve felt curious about the time my relatives spent out of China as well. In some ways, these years and months are not as well documented. Yes, they did write letters to their missionary colleagues in and out of China – but not as many. They also do not appear in as many articles in the mission paper.
I wonder how they felt about being back in Scandinavia. What they did here, how they were cared for by Dagny’s family in Norway and what friends she still had left is unknown to me at this time. I do know they decided to come home as Dagny was not feeling well. They arrived from China in September 1899 and stayed for 2,5 years. That must have been the longest stay they had in the Nordics during those 30+ years they worked as missionaries.
Praying for those on the field
There is one entry in a missionary paper in December 1899 where Dagny and Robert are sending their New Year’s greetings to their missionary friends. At the time, Dagny is pregnant with Dagny-Edla, who is born in June 1900. During this time in Scandinavia, Dagny will also give birth to her second son Hudson Adolf Vilhelm in 1901. Two years later, he died from diphtheria in China.
In the greeting, Dagny and Robert talk about how they are priviliged to be led by God – during the day with a “pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire”. It’s a greeting filled with prayer and wishes to be of service.
Perhaps they missed working on the field and spreading the word to their Chinese disciples. They don’t reveal anything personal in this short greeting. Instead they focus on trying to spread some comforting words. They must have been very worried about their colleagues in China – the Boxer rebellion was on the rise after having started in 1898. In 1900 the empress Cixi started to defend the Boxer’s stance. The hatred towards foreigners intensified and the Boxers were targeting foreign embassies, Christian missionaries as well as killing Chinese who they thought sided with the foreigners. Thousands were murdered – and many of them were missionaries.
This is also why Dagny and Robert did not go back to China for such a long time – they could not risk being murdered on arrival. In March 1902 the situation had calmed so much that they could finally return together with their three young children Morris, Dagny-Edla and Hudson Adolf Vilhelm (though they were straight away subjected to a very serious robbery that caused Dagny-Edla life-long injuries).
20 years on, Dagny and Robert are back at lovely Strömsborg, resting from trying years in China. This time, my great grandfather Robert is the one who has been ill. He is also very busy trying to find out what has happened to some carpets that were to be delivered to customers in Sweden. Apart from running the asylum for the opium addicted Chinese in the area, he had also started a carpet factory. It was a way to offer work to people in the countryside – something that would keep them from using opium. On the plus side for the mission, many of them became Christians and the mission finally had some money to spend on schooling and charity work in the region.
As I learned from earlier research, Dagny and Robert were invited to stay at Strömsborg by Lotten Hagelin, the founder of the resting home. Lotten Hagelin died on the 20th of September 1920, and my great grandparents Dagny and Robert just barely made it to her death bed. It was important to Lotten that she could ask their forgiveness, as she suffered from bad conscience because of how she had treated their daughter Dagny-Edla during the time she acted as her foster mother in Sweden. Read about that here.
Dagny and Robert had now been in Sweden since Lotten passed away. The first letter I have from after they left China in 1920, is from the steamboat Devanha. It’s written on the 30th of August. In this letter Robert writes that the journey is very slow (for those interested in steamboats, a picture of the Devanha can be found here). They won’t be in London until the 11th of September and after that, they don’t know if they can get on a boat to Sweden. He says he would rather get off the boat in Marseilles and go by train back to Sweden, but the cost for that is too high.
I now know Lotten sent them the money to do just that, as she knew she did not have much time left. In the letter Robert estimates his arrival in Sweden to the 21st of September – one day after Lotten actually passed away. In fact they got there just in time and could offer forgiveness and blessings to the tormented Lotten.
In the letter, Robert also wonders if the committee has organized any place to stay for him and Dagny. He says he would like it to be possible to have their children with them, as they have so little time they can spend together in Sweden. At Strömsborg they could catch up with many of their colleagues. Erik Folke, the founder of the missionary society, who had also taken the eldest son Morris under his protection, was no stranger to this lovely recreational home.
In June 1921, Robert writes to him from Strömsborg, trying to work out some details before Erik Folke and his wife Mimmi arrive to stay there as well. Apparently Erik and Mimmi are going live in the house “Elim” when Dagny and Robert go back to Stockholm or visit other relatives in Sweden and Norway. It seems Robert has had some trouble knowing where to put his stuff away:
“Dear Erik! Peace
As you know, Dagny, Rudolf and I took our refuge here from the 6th. The climate has done me good.
Except for clothes and such that we took with us, we left to the ones staying here to arrange for your arrival. Regarding the ottoman and the leather resting chair: they belong to my brother. I called him and payed him two visits to ask if he had anything against us letting them stand as they are for your possible guests to use. I could not get hold of him before leaving, which is why I asked Morris to place them in his own room together with some other things. I heard from Dagny, that Mimmi would have wanted four rooms, but we very much needed a room for our things and I was not strong enough to arrange otherwise. We also wanted a small space to spend the night as many of us will go back and forth to Stockholm during the summer.“
Running the business from afar
Robert also writes to his missionary colleague Martin Linder, concerned with how the carpet manufacturing and delivery is going. It is apparent that Robert has been ill during spring in Sweden:
“I received your letter 14 days ago. Many thanks! I was by then back in bed with a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius.
Since the 6ht of June we live in beautiful Strömsborg, in our old “Elim,” that is large, light and pleasant. The best of it is that we have fresh air from the sea and the possibility to go swimming – that is for the rest of the family. Myself, I have not bathed more than once. So far, we have not had any heat this summer and I have only 20 days left until I have to leave. I must arrange clothes for my children and on the 15th of August, we have to be in Holsby to take part in the continuation course. After it’s finished, Morris and his fiancé will go to England. Regarding the carpets, I understand you have trouble finding the right, dependable colors and problems organizing the work. Send the finished carpets with American Express Company in Shanghai. That is the most capable agency in the East.”
It seems Robert was thinking a lot about the missionary station in China, even when he was on vacation in Sweden. His stand-in Martin got many letters with instructions on how to run things. And even though he was at home to rest and regain energy for another seven years in China or more, he still attended courses on religious matters – like the one he writes about in Holsby.
Gathering together with all their colleagues and friends in China. Dagny and Robert to the left (No 3), Erik Folke smiling, third from the right, bottom row. The second photo is the same, only color enhanced. In the middle August Berg, with his hat on his knees. Second row, first on the right, you see Elna Lenell behind Ingeborg Ackzell (bottom row). Elna was sadly murdered in 1948 (by then most missionaries had left China due to the civil war).
I don’t know if Robert or Dagny had any friends outside of the missionary society. They had their respective families, of course, but they too were vivid missionary friends, Naturally, it was important for them to come back to Sweden whenever possible. Not least because they had their children at the missionary home here and their retired colleagues as well, but did they they also visit others? So far, I have yet to find references to other people than missionaries in their letters.
Perhaps they lived in a missionary filter bubble of their time?
Robert sounds very driven.
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True, Liz! Even though he’s apparently weakened and supposed to rest, he keeps checking in with his stand-in in China and wants to do right by his brother with the furniture and so on. Driven is a good word for him, indeed!
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That’s very sad about Elna Lenell and Hudson Adolf Vilhelm. If I had been in Robert’s shoes, I wouldn’t have taken my family back to China. Obviously he and Dagny had very strong ties there, which remained intact during their long absence. And the mission was their calling, their life’s work.
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I think they were very trusting in their faith. It must have been very hard when H.A.V. died from diphteria – especially since they had recurring health issues that could not be cured in China, and when he got sick, they probably did not have access to capable doctors. This was also before antibiotics and many died if they caught diphteria. That they did not go home when he died, and later when another of their children – Helfrid – passed away, is very hard to unerstand. Especially since they could probably have worked for the mission in Sweden. And with all the turmoil in China – they were robbed and held at gunpoint so many times – their work there must have been their number one priority. When they went back to China in 1922, it was the last time for both Dagny and Robert. Robert was still not feeling well. He had some heart issue that caused his death in 1930. I can only come to the same conclusion as you, Brad, their work in the mission surpassed everything else. It was their life – whatever it took and gave. And as Liz commented above – they were very driven people – which often includes to keep persevering through very hard times…
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