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Swede Child o’ Mine: Another Gift of Prophecy in the 1840s?

In Sweden in the 1840s, holding religious services in private homes was outlawed by royal decree. But royal might was temporarily conquered by an enthusiastic millennial fervor in which teenagers played a predominant role. Ellen Harmon was not the only teenager being “slain in the spirit” and given a message that the end of the world was imminent. Ellen Harmon of North America and Mary Swensdotter of Sweden had similar ecstatic experiences that prostrated them in the 1840s and led them to proclaim an imminent Advent.

An eminent physician observed that Mary Swensdotter’s convulsions started, while she was lying supine, in the tips of her fingers and toes, then advanced proximately up her limbs. (These symptoms were not uncommon according to medical literature of the day.) Finally, her entire torso began heaving and her lips began quivering. She appeared as if she was not breathing although she was crying out prophetically that the end of the world was at hand and claimed that she had had revelations directly from the Holy Spirit.

The physician firmly pinched her nostrils and lips for several minutes, but this did not asphyxiate her. Furthermore, the phenomenon was contagious. Large numbers of children who observed another child convulsing and prophesying mimicked the first child’s behaviors and thousands of people became convinced that the prophesying was from God. (Would you have been convinced?)  

Fifty years later while traveling in Sweden, Ellen White was told about this paranormal mass phenomenon and she then claimed that God put His Spirit upon children like Mary. (Does Ellen White’s testimony convince you?) What criteria should one use in evaluating such claims?

Leroy Froom dedicates a special section of his third volume of The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (1946) to what he believed to be the supernatural manifestation of the Gift of Prophecy in the persons of Swedish child preachers in the 1840s. In pages 671-686, he shares his conclusions based on the witness of a medical doctor who observed and reported on the paranormal phenomena firsthand, and on the following Ellen White “I was shown” statement, footnoted in his book:  

“Years ago, the work of the first [angel’s] message in these countries was presented before me, and I was shown circumstances similar to those related above. It was God’s will that the tidings of the Savior’s coming should be given in Sweden, and when the voices of His servants were silenced, He put His Spirit upon the children, that the work might be accomplished.”

Froom states that Ellen White “declared” that the children “had all the characteristics of those in vision from God and spoke with convincing power that carried great influence.” (Despite Ellen White’s affirmation, I am unaware of any Adventist authority ever endorsing the Swedish children as an example of the perpetuity of the Gift of Prophecy.) Froom cites an eyewitness who asserted that one particular female child preacher was “moved by an invisible power, and not by her own natural gifts,” and that she declared that “the hour of His judgment is come” (note the language from the Three Angels’ Messages). 

Froom writes that the mass movement started about December, 1841 in Hjelmseryd, Sweden when a “large number” of child prophets, generally between ten and twelve years old, spoke on the “approaching end of the world.” Children even six, eight, and ten caught “the disease.” 

“They claim to have received their revelations directly through the Holy Spirit and claim to have visited heaven, [like White], and hell and seen the condition and states of the dead,” Froom asserts.  They were known to “preach, lying down, with closed eyes, and as far as I could ascertain, entirely insensible and unconscious.”

It is well documented that Ellen White and William Foy were reportedly examined by doctors who determined that they appeared to be in a state of suspended animation, having no respirations. A Doctor Skoeldberg, a highly respected Swedish physician, was at first skeptical about the child prophets, but became convinced that a Lisa Andersdotter, aged sixteen, and a Mary Swensdotter, thirteen, who caught the disease from Lisa, were genuine because he found it “absolutely impossible” to stop her witness even by compressing her nostrils and lips. He described a typical scenario as follows: The “true voices” (referring to the child prophets),

“Lie in a stunned condition, sometimes for an hour, before the urge to call opens the mouth.  It is remarkable to see what happens to them, as soon as they fall asleep, how the convulsive motion begins in the fingertips and the feet, advances through the limbs to the chest, which begins to heave, and continues toward the lips. Some lie still, pale as a corpse, wholly motionless, only the chest heaving, until the call begins, a circumstance which takes place in all cases. Breath cannot be observed, although they doubtless must breathe. Of all these happenings the voices know absolutely nothing as long as the weakness and convulsion continue.”

Skoeldberg testified that Mary Swensdotter stated, “the world would come to an end in five years, although, at another time, she declared that the thousand years would begin,” there being no contradiction between the two thoughts. Skoeldberg concluded that “He who created the world has also sent this so-called sickness as a sign of the times,” and that the children affected by it “were no more responsible for what they had to speak than, was the son of the widow of Nain when he again received life.

Dr Skoeldberg was so convinced that the “voices” constituted a supernatural phenomenon that he compares it to a dead person being resurrected. Mary’s ability to survive her airway being totally occluded recalls the anecdotes related about Ellen White’s and William Foy’s similar abilities.How should one evaluate such reports?

The first thing any researcher should do would be to seek additional material that might possibly confirm or disconfirm Froom’s sources. I attempted to do a Google search for all of the particular identifiers in Froom’s account—from the names of particular individuals involved to general searches for child preachers in Sweden and was unable to locate any more informative data points—other than the fact that the children’s “voices” seemed to be part of a larger social protest against the anti-democratic, state clergy who attempted to keep a tight-fisted, monopolistic grip on power.

This was reminiscent of the socio-political conditions which fueled the French Prophets among the French Protestants which included children performing apparently supernatural spiritual gifts. [See CHILD of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White (2021) page 104 for a brief description of the Huguenot French Child Prophets.]  I note that Froom is reliant upon Swedish accounts translated into German none of which are available to me. Further Swedish accounts should be sought that may corroborate Froom’s sources.

However, Froom and Skoeldberg mention one dispositive piece of evidence. Mary Swensdotter declared that “the world would come to an end in five years.” Since the world did not come to an end in five years, the most reasonable conclusion is that Mary Swensdotter was not speaking for God when she made this prediction. Nor were any other of the many, no doubt very sincere, enthusiastic visionaries caught up in other millennial movements throughout the centuries.

Consequently, when Ellen White believed that she was “shown” that the “voices” of the Swedish children were delivering a prophetic message from God, she also was mistaken in what she thought she saw. 

She could see many parallels between her own psycho-socio-religious characteristics and the commission that the Swedish “voices” felt compelled to obey. She, like Froom, was impacted by confirmation bias. Indeed, both White and Froom were diligently searching for evidence which might confirm their interpretation of the Millerite movement and Ellen White’s role in its elucidation and aftermath. 

Having noted the similarities between her experience and the experiences of the “voices,” and since she was convinced that her prostrations had a divine origin, White was predisposed to believe that the Swedish “voices” had the same origin. However, the disconfirmed prediction that the world would end in five years is persuasive evidence that God was not the originator of this falsified prediction.  

Another significant difference in the Swedish child prophet phenomenon and the Millerite/Harmon phenomenon is that the Swedes developed no two-apartment, two-phased wedding, heavenly sanctuary doctrine to explain the failure. However, White offered her prophetic guarantee that Miller’s, Snow’s, and Crosier’s chronology and theology were “true light.” The Swedish children offered no allegorical, invisible, heavenly “coming” as an alternative to their original date-setting hypothesis. 

While the Swedish children’s failed prediction simply faded away in the mists of time, Ellen White succeeded in transforming the Millerite historicist eschatology (White had the benefit of centuries of historicist speculations that formed a larger, denser hermeneutical framework) into a highly developed hierarchical institution with two distinctive ecclesiological markers, Saturday sabbatarianism and the Gift of Prophecy, which authenticated the Seventh-day Adventist church’s claim to be the true remnant church.

About the author

Donald E. Casebolt studied in the MDiv program at Andrews University, studied Semitic languages and Protestant theology at Karl Eberhard University at Tubingen, Germany, and spent two years in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. He published Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White in 2021 and Father Miller’s Daughter in 2022. He is a retired nurse practitioner. More from Donald E. Casebolt.
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