Time has come to read the last document of the three, sent to me by my aunt Carin. The paper is slighly yellow, translucent but quite sturdy compared to the thin air-mail paper on which Robert noted the details about Dagny’s surgery.
It’s not dated, but it must have been written on the 25th of April 1930, as it is an obituary over Robert. He died from heart disease on the 24th, as he held his beloved wife Dagny’s hand as well as the hand of a loyal chinese coworker.
The document is typed in black, the heading reads “Missonary Robert Bergling dead.” It is quite a blunt heading – and it’s different from how the missionaries tended to talk about their colleagues passing. They often used euphemisms as “He was called Home.” Or “He is at Home in Christ.” Though the obituary is quite long, it was probably written in a bit of a hurry – as it was published so soon after Robert’s death.
The one and a half pages long text is signed “A.B,” which stands for August Berg, a missionary colleague who knew Robert well and had worked together with him. August went out as a missionary in 1890, two years before Robert set foot in China.
At the time, August Berg was the housparent at the missionary home Duvbo, where Robert’s son Rudolf – my grandfather – lived since a few years. Thus, August Berg was a sort of stand-in father to Rudolf. Rudolf had not seen Robert for three years, but his older brothers Martin and Vilhelm as well as his sister Dagny-Edla were in China at the time of Robert’s passing.
A well-used text
August’s text was featured in several publications – not least in the missionary paper “Sinims Land.” I also found a clipping from a Christian newspaper called “Svenska Morgonbladet,” where the same text was published on the 26th of April, and several other obituaries over Robert “loan” expressions and descriptions of Robert from this very text.
The missionaries in China had been stricken by four deaths within a time frame of 8 months and August had written about them all. He was indeed one of the elders and had seen many missionaries come and go, though it does not seem like he got used to writing about their final journey.
“On the table in one of the rooms in our home, lies a small book of remembrance, bound in Chinese yellow silk. We received it as a gift from our friends when we left China. Each one of them have written a few words in it as a remembrance. On the first page, the initiator of this loving gift – Robert Bergling – wrote the following:
It is not whithout a touch of melancholy, that two friends part ways,
though when this was what our Father wanted, we said: Thy will be done!
As the moment of farewell nears, it feels quite hard
If tears not burn on our cheeks, in our hearts they sting,
“On the 24th of April I received a telegram from Mrs Bergling saying her husband Robert was ill with heart disease. The following day another telegram arrived stating he had died later on the 24th.
When Robert Bergling passed, a long day of work ended, first in his homeland and then on the missionary field. In October 1892 Robert sailed from London to Shangahi, together with four other members of the Swedish Mission in China. At the time, he was 25 years old. Before he arrived, he had made sure he knew where he was going to work. Like Paulus he put an honour in being able to spread the Gospel where this had never been heard before.
He got his wish. He worked ardously – but with many rewards – in the towns of Hancheng and Hoyang in our northern district. This is where he has served faithfully all these years, with exception of the times he has visited his home country to rest. He is the only one of our missionaries who has not been transferred to another station, but instead he has stood firmly on the ground where he first commenced his work. The working day of Robert Bergling was as long as it was adorned with success. The district, where he worked, now has one of the larges congregations. The number of baptized amount to over one thousand. The industriousness, patience and dutifulness was rewarded. It would take too long to go into detail as to what Robert Bergling’s work entailed, but one must note that beside spreading the gospel, he also conducted an incredibly large opium asylum during 38 years. A Swedish man, who visited the field, later published a book, where Robert is called the “Swedish opium doctor.”
Robert was not a man one got to know immediately. He did not trust others quickly. But once his heart opened up, one found the richest of treasures therein. He was an intense person. He could not do enough for the Chinese. Time meant nothing. The hours of the night and the last penny in his pocket – he could sacrifice all of it, even at the cost of his own convenience and the comfort of his family. He was a slow thinker, but the result of this was that he did not have to regret decisions he made or actions he took.
Love and trust was bestowed upon him by the Chinese. When he moved from Hancheng to Hoyang – at the time Hoyang was a outstation to Hancheng – a large rememberance stone was raised in his honour, much against his will. But it stands there, bearing witness of how much he meant to them.
I vividly remember a meeting in the congregation in Hancheng. The matter at hand was if they should exclude a faulty member. I can still see it before my eyes – how Robert suffered at having to make such a decision. Yes, he was that kind of a man – a mourner of souls and a shepherd.
Tuesday the 29th, his dust will be consecrated to rest in Chinese soil. He was just about to come home to Sweden to rest. His rest came sooner than expected.
Robert Bergling was born in Forssa, in Södermanland, on the 29th of July 1867. He was united in marriage to Dagny Aass from Norway and left five sons and a daughter, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren as well as brothers and sisters behind. The great joy of seeing three of his sons and one daughter as missionaries in the field was granted him. And not least, his son Ville came back to the childhood home in Hoyang about three weeks before Robert’s passing. At the time, parents and son had been apart for about eight years.
In their mourning, the next of kin stand together with a great crowd of friends and thousands of Chinese. We thank God for the loan and grant our faithful worker both rest and rewards.
After Robert’s death, Dagny went back to Sweden – which must have been a comfort to my grandfather Rudolf. At least, now he had one parent present in his life and in Sweden. Following Robert’s death I have found some articles where Martin, Dagny-Edla and Morris write about their father, but they are not heavy with sorrow – instead they carry a more thankful and life appreciating tone. Morris – the eldest son – actually went out to China to work as a teacher at the seminar in Yuncheng, only a year after his father’s passing.
Even though the children must of course have been very sad that Robert had passed, it could be that they saw him more as a leader of their faith, than as a father. They had not spent that much time with him over the years. All of the children, except my grandfather Rudolf, had been sent to Sweden to go to school when they were around 7 years old. After that, they had not seen their parents except for during the missionary vacations every seven years or so in Sweden.
Dagny-Edla wrote in a private letter, that she felt the day of her father’s passing was like a “wedding day” – she thought it was quite fantastic that her father now got to spend time with Jesus and all the old missionary friends that had gone before him to Heaven. I have not found any record of how my grandfather Rudolf took the news – but I assume he must have been quite stricken (with only 17 years old he was the youngest sibling), as he was probably eagerly awaiting the announced arrival of both his parents in the near future.
As the 24th of April nears and we count 93 years after his passing, my thoughts go to Robert, resting in China and August’s kind words “…once his heart opened up, one found the richest of treasures therein.”
I was moved by this post about Robert’s passing. Your family is so fortunate to have the original obituary paying tribute to the man and his work.
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Thank you Liz! Yes, it is wonderful to have this special document – all thanks to Carin, who was so thoughtful as to send it to me. I’m starting to have a small collection of family memorabilia by now, and am thinking about the best way to make it accessible to the rest of the family. Hopefully this blog can be a step on the way 🙂
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This post made me understand for the first time what huge sacrifices your ancestors made in being separated from their children for such long periods of time. I can’t imagine being separated from my parents for seven years as a child.
Coincidentally, I just started reading an interesting book: “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire.” The Sassoon family made much of their fortune by transporting opium from India to China, although they weren’t the first to do it and they had many competitors. Opium in various forms was legal in many countries, including the USA, into the 20th century. It had been used for centuries in China, but never on the scale that occurred in the 19th century, which came about largely a result of British colonial policies. The East India Company began importing opium to China as a way to pay for tea and silks, which were in high demand in Britain. Opium cultivation eventually became highly lucrative for the British government, which received tax revenues from it.
I mention all of this because Robert and Dagny were on the front lines in trying to deal with the consequences of these powerful global forces.
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Hi Brad! I am so happy you found this post interesting. And thank you for connecting the work of Robert and Dagny to these major historical events!
You are absolutely right – this opium trade was a huge problem in China. China had not managed to win over west during the 19th century opium wars and many Chinese were suffering greatly under the drug. It was hard to get rid of the habit. Smoking opium was at the time not forbidden in Shansi, where the missionary station was situated, but the growing of it was. Robert and Dagny saw the problem as Shansi was notoriously known for problems with addicted people – they robbed travellers, stole everyhting they could and went into prostitution to get money to smoke opium.
But Robert had at least two weapons against it. As the missionary station also served as a sort of “healthcare clinic” where they helped their congregation and others in need with everything from toothaches to wounds, they had medical supplies such as morphine. Robert gave the patients lost of morphine in the beginning, and then reduced it until they could do without. The patients were submitted to a special house called an “opium asylum,” and could not leave during treatment. His second weapon was, of course, his faith. As the patients got treated with morphine to get over the worst withdrawal effects they were simultaneoulsy subjected to Christianity – i.e. they had to visit mass, listen to sermons and get educated about the Bible. Usually it took 3-4 months to get rid of the habit and by then, many had converted as well – which was of course the secondary goal for the missionaries. These convertees not seldom started to work at the missionary station and became very loyal to Robert and totally free from their addiciton. Robert said that those who did not become Christians, could not resist the addiction for very long – he said the “the Gospel is the best medicine in the long run.”
Today, we know it is easier to kick a habit if you replace it with another habit – even if this does not have to be a faith of some sort. But for Robert and his patients, this was a win-win situation.
Dagny also worked hard trying to keep the spirits up amongst the patients. She used to go to the women’s asylum and talk and laugh with the women. She also saw to it that they could eat well. It was not unusual that they had around 80 people in the household, who needed food and care.
Many other missionaries also started opium asylums, but Robert’s was the largest one and very successful as well.
The book about the Sassoons seem very interesting – I’ll make sure to read it as well. Have a great Sunday!
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Your description of the opium asylum is fascinating. I didn’t realize it was such a big operation.
An acquaintance of mine is very involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. She attends meetings every week as a “sponsor” (supporter) of people who are trying to stay sober. She told me she hasn’t had a drink in 30 years. It seems to me that the meetings and the process of supporting others are like a religion for her. They give her life meaning and purpose, the way church attendance does for others.
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I think it could well be that your friend’s commitment to being a sponsor at AA has a religious feel to it. I know AA uses the twelve step metod and they refer to a higher power (for some that is God, for others it’s something else) and that is a big part of the method’s success paired with the group effort and support of course. Your reflection sets Robert’s work in the context of a tradition of how to work with additiction that is quite interesting. Thank you for making that connection!
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Fantastiskt att få läsa detta. Det mesta kände jag till, men så många detaljer och utförliga beskrivningar om allt som hände – jag är helt överväldigad!!! ( vet inte om jag använt rätta ord??)
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Så roligt att det kunde tillföra något till det du redan visste, Birgitta. Det gör mig mycket glad! Jag måste säga att det är något alldeles speciellt med dessa nära hundra år gamla dokument – tänk att de finns bevarade och att vi kan ta del av dem än idag. Jag undrar om Robert och Dagny kunde föreställa sig det? Varm kram från Thérèse