Bishop Hill Reframed

Bishop Hill Reframed: Voices from the past was published by the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, Bishop Hill, Illinois in 2021 to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Bishop Hill. Funding: Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. Text: Lilly Setterdahl. Design: Stephan Setterdahl. Available at the Bishop Hill Colony Store. Hardcover, 25.00.

Review by Jordan Murray

I was brought up in the nearby town of Galva and went to school with many of the Swedish descendants of the Bishop Hill pioneers. Throughout most of my life, I wondered about the development of Bishop Hill as I was given just a taste of its history in Junior High school. During my childhood, I slowly picked up small details through books/documents of which I gradually put the parts together. But now, I was more mature and I had even more questions as I returned to my childhood home. As Lilly points out in the book, this book was written not only to celebrate Bishop Hill’s 175th anniversary but also to shed light on why a large group of Swedish immigrants decided to pool their resources and leave their native country to found a new settlement in Henry County, Illinois.” (I continually re-read her book as I find more details than before- too many interesting ones to list in this short review)

This 8-1/2” x 11” hardcover book’s front cover is a favorite photograph of mine as it shows the Bishop Hill dugouts and related buildings that were painted by Olof Krans. Olof never saw the actual dugouts as he was only a boy when he arrived in Bishop Hill in 1850. But because of a witness, he was able to produce a large painting based on the old timer’s memories. The back cover shows the stage curtain painting of Bishop Hill in 1855. The scene is of what one saw when entering the village from the north. Both paintings are on display in the state-owned art museum in Bishop Hill. In 1988, Sweden produced a postage stamp with both Olof’s portrait and the 1855 Bishop Hill image on it, it too is shown on the back cover.

An important section of this book also gives some insight into the religious prophet’s life and gives the reader the prophet’s farewell address (to Sweden). This translation explains why Janson (in his words) left in haste as his purpose was to search for his New Jerusalem and to take the place of Jesus “to save everyone who was willing to accept the atonement” -a doctrine that describes how human beings can be reconciled (reunited) to God. Janson thanked those who believed in him and was apologetic to the people he previously led to be “Born again” in Sweden and wanted forgiveness for his leaving. (At that time, he didn’t know where he was going.)

As with most projects, “People make things happen” and in the case of the founding of Bishop Hill in 1846, pioneering tenacity and grit made good things happen through Grace, hard work, and faith. Even though there were deplorable conditions and the untimely murder of the commune’s prophet and leader, things gradually improved in time. After the prophet’s murder and when the Trustees took over the governing of the commune, previous corruption was uncovered which eventually led to more greed and collusion. What was fascinating to me and pleased to learn was how much work and vision the women had in the development of the commune. There were many more women in the commune than men in the beginning but over time, the gender difference gradually evened out. Many of these women left their families behind in Sweden in order to follow a man to help search for a religious utopia in America. It was their assertive and responsible role in the commune’s development that helped Bishop Hill grow into an economic powerhouse.

The interesting Bishop Hill-to- Sweden letters (there are about 30 of them in this book) that Lilly translated for us basically described “a better life” in America as compared to the life the pioneers led in 19th-century Sweden. Not only were their living and visiting accommodations described but there are pertinent high-quality photographs sprinkled throughout the book for reference. This work was sorely needed because it proved that “a frenzy” and a chain reaction to migration actually happened because of these letters. (In my opinion, credit also should be given to the prophet in Bishop Hill for opening up immigration that eventually turned into a mass migration. This event resulted in an economic benefit for both America and Sweden, even though the prophet didn’t know what his leaving would mean.)

In researching a project, obtaining primary sources are highly honored. These personal and Civil War letters are considered primary sources and are highly collectible and sought after by many academics. Lilly and the Heritage Association have given us a remarkable gift.