- · vol. 4 · no. 2 · January 2004



"[H]e assures Mama that his wife is pious, virtuous and god-fearing even so, and that 'she wishes soon to leave this Sodom for our old Sweden.' Shortly thereafter he implies that the Indians’ religion is deviltry, moving the location from Sodom to hell."

Cabinet of Curiosities

Overcoming Nausea:
The Brothers Hesselius and the American Mystery

Kenneth A. Lockridge

Part I | II | III | IV | Further Reading


He had never seen anything like Pennsylvania. He was nauseated by more than just the Indians. His first letter home opens with a conventional pastoral praising the beauty and abundance of nature in the new land, but when he depicts the people of Pennsylvania he makes no attempt to disguise his disgust. "The people here in this city are mostly sinful and ungodly, a mixture of many religions. The teachings of the Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Papists etc. are a hindrance for our pure religion among our Swedish, who could easily be seduced. Therefore the parsons must daily travel around to them and teach them. God help brother Andreas!"

It is not in character for a Swede to use an exclamation point. Faced with all the people of Pennsylvania, Gustavus employed several. And while he seems to be alarmed about religion alone here, he is really using code words to give us his reactions to Pennsylvania’s people and society as well.

Every European knew that the Anabaptists had taken over the city of Muenster early in the sixteenth century and transformed an orderly burgher town into a sty of mad prophecy and free love. Catholics and Lutherans had joined forces to take the city, slaughtering the leaders of the movement together with most of their followers and hundreds of innocent victims. "Anabaptism" became a code word not just for religious heresy–after all, the very Catholics and Lutherans who had united to kill the Anabaptists called each other heretics–but for the way unregulated religious sentiments always created deadly social anarchy. In Sweden a stable religion carefully regulated by the state was the fabric around which national identity was woven. To lack a state religion was to subsist without group identity on the borderlands of chaos.

But Hesselius’ fear of all of the religions in Pennsylvania save his own appears a little irrational even by the standards of the day. Only a few dozen Anabaptists lived in Pennsylvania at the time Hesselius arrived, so they were no immediate threat. The "Papists" and Presbyterians he adds to his epistolary list of horrors were not remotely as alarming to a European as the anarchists of Meunster. From a Lutheran perspective the additional presence of Catholics and Presbyterians was not good, but elsewhere in the world each of these churches was a stable state religion. Only a handful of Catholics had settled in Pennsylvania at the time, and they could lose their property whenever Britain decided they had become too active a force in the colony. There was no danger from the Papists. Why, then, did all of these religions alarm him?

What frightened Hesselius was they were all there, and others on the way, different religions behind which lay different social groups, some from disorderly areas of Europe. He was also troubled that amid such excessive diversity many persons lived outside any church. "The people here in this city are mostly sinful and ungodly, a mixture of many religions." "I have married a Calvinist," he told his mother in the same letter, as if he could not believe he had done such a thing. By then he’d been three years on his own. But he assures Mama that his wife is pious, virtuous and god-fearing even so, and that "she wishes soon to leave this Sodom for our old Sweden." Shortly thereafter he implies that the Indians’ religion is deviltry, moving the location from Sodom to hell. He all but tells her the smell of the Indians made him sick.

Swedish nausea was not unusual. Consider the Reverend Nicholas Collin, who arrived from Uppsala in 1771 to take up a rural Swedish pastorate and soon clambered his way up to the ministry of Gloria Dei, a Lutheran parish in Philadelphia itself. While he stayed on until his death in 1831, his attachment to America was chiefly conditioned by his ability to mingle with the elite of Philadelphia society, most notably in the ranks of the American Philosophical Society. As time went on his parish came to be surrounded by newer and poorer districts of the city. Collin reacted with violent distaste when the real diversity and "disorder" of America gathered beneath his window at night to wake him so he could marry them. He kept a special notebook in which he scribbled remarks furiously annotating the marriage records of his church, lamenting simultaneously the teeming "America" that came knocking on his door in Philadelphia and the revolution that had made it worse:

Came Margaret Power, who was married to John Martin, on the 22nd of December last, for a new certificate, as he had taken the first from her, and had left her on the very evening of the marriage. She was a widow, 27 years old, and he 26; natives of Ireland.

A Negro came with a white woman, who called herself Eleanor King, widow of a sea captain. They were refused.

Sunday. At night came a party, and with strong entreaties called me out of bed. On my refusing to marry the couple they went off in a vicious manner, throwing a large stone against the entry door.

A French captain of a privateer came with a young lady, from Baltimore. Begged very hard but refused.

A Swedish mariner came to engage my service in his intended nuptials: refused until he produced testimony of the woman’s character. Warned him not to forget his national character in this foreign alliance.

A Negro came with a white woman . . . I referred him to the Negro minister . . . having never yet joined black and white. Nevertheless these frequent mixtures will soon force matrimonial sanction. What a parti-colored race will soon make a great portion of the population of Philadelphia.

This wasn’t a population you could invite to a husfoerhoer.

The frequency with which national and racial differences are noted distastefully in these cases make it clear that Collin is not objecting simply to "disorder,"–though he definitely complains that bad laws from a weak state mean that there is no way to control a disobedient population–but that ethnic and racial diversity lies at the foundation of that disorder. He confirms this when he comments on his own marriage records: "From this will be seen," he observed disdainfully, "what multifarious intermixing takes place continuously." He continued the record obsessively, as if he were taming the disorder by condemning it in secret with his pen or leaving a record for God to avenge. In 1795, he wrote, "Oh, when shall I be cleared from this detestable place." He had thirty-six more years to go. He never made it back to Sweden.

Nicholas Collin traces a trajectory Gustavus Hesselius had started upon but, I believe, never completed.

Hesselius, Collin, and their Swedish compatriots were not alone in their dismay at Pennsylvania. Nor was such dismay a European monopoly. Immigrants from New England experienced a similar revulsion. One such immigrant who arrived a few years after Hesselius was Benjamin Franklin, who was acquainted with Nicholas Collin and inwardly shared his sentiments. In many respects New England was another Sweden.

Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut were also unitary societies with tribal governments. By the early eighteenth century, the Puritans had lost some of their original control of the colonial government in Massachusetts but still maintained a "New England Way" known for its tribal sense of identity. Only saints had the right to vote in church affairs or in colony elections. The rest of the people were presumably saints-in-waiting. Every tenth man, usually a saint, was a "tithingman," who supervised the morals of ten families including his own. Certain of these practices ebbed with time, but far into the eighteenth century reactionary Puritan tribesmen would dominate the lower house of the colonial government and control the established church.

In 1723 young Benjamin Franklin fled Boston, Massachusetts, to take refuge in Pennsylvania. The young man had displeased both Increase and Cotton Mather, the archdeacons of the Puritan world. He ran to Philadelphia in 1723 lest the Mathers put him in jail or make his life miserable. Franklin throve in his new home, but Franklin’s reactions to his new home were quite complex. At first, no one thought him a Puritan. He began as a simple tradesman and soon progressed to scientist, politician, and man of the world. The diverse society of Pennsylvania did not seem to bother him. Franklin became a needed mediator between the factions of a divided society quarreling within a disturbed government, and in this role it was useful to have a reputation for tolerance. But when things did not go his way he could call down vengeance on his enemies like an Old Testament prophet. His enemies were usually people who were different from himself. He hated the Scotch-Irish, whom he secretly despised as barbarians, and of all people the Germans, who had had the effrontery to vote against his candidates for the colony’s legislature. When the Germans failed to support him he used a published essay to lash back at them and at "dark skinned" immigration in general:

Why should the Palatine boors [the Germans] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will soon be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.

Which leads me to one remark: That the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawney. And in Europe the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only being excepted, who with the English make up the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers increased. While we are scouring our planet by clearing America of woods, and so making our side of the planet reflect a brighter light to the inhabitants of Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings darken its people? Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red?

Benjamin Franklin could leave Puritanism behind, but Puritanism–in the form of a desire for one people, pure and moral, under a single leadership–his–never left him. Nicholas Collin would have been insulted to be called "swarthy" but otherwise he and Franklin would have seen eye to eye. Nothing in their early lives had prepared them for Pennsylvania.

There were other reactions to the horrors of diversity. Consider Joseph Martin, an orphan boy raised in righteousness on his grandfather’s farm deep in rural Connecticut. In 1776 he left his simple but impoverished life as a farm laborer to join the revolutionary army. Private Martin marched with the army to camp in Valley Forge in the hard winter of 1777. His officers assigned him and other Connecticut lads to collect food for the army from local German farmers because the polite New Englanders were more effective foragers than the ominous "one-eyed men"–the eye-gouging Scotch-Irish–who had joined the Continental Army there in Pennsylvania and from points south. In the spring, when the British army evacuated nearby Philadelphia, troops from Pennsylvania joined Washington’s army to help pursue the British back across New Jersey and into New York. Martin came along but hung back, assigned to forage on the rich farmers of Jersey. While he was resting by the side of the road the American army’s "baggage train," as it was called, creaking along miles behind Washington’s regiments, caught up to him. Last in the line of wagons came Pennsylvania’s "baggage," a rowdy collection of teamsters, camp followers, wounded, and shirkers from every folk group in that colony. The one-eyed men were there; so was everyone else. Franklin would have named it Hell on Wheels. Martin was transfixed:

Our baggage happening to be quite in the rear, while we were waiting we had an opportunity to see the baggage of the army pass. When that of the middle states [Pennsylvania, New Jersey] passed us, it was truly amusing to see the number and habiliments of those attending it; of all specimens of human beings, this group capped the whole. A caravan of wild beasts could bear no comparison with it. There was "Tag, Rag, and Bobtail"; some with two eyes, some with one, and some I believe with none at all. They beggared all description; their dialect too was as confused as their bodily appearance was odd and disgusting. There was the Irish and Scotch brogue, murdered English, flat insipid Dutch [German], and some lingoes which would puzzle a philosopher to tell whether they belonged to this world or to some undiscovered country.

More fascinated than repelled, Private Martin had discovered America.

I’m not sure Gustavus Hesselius ever made it this far.

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