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Olof Gustaf Hedström (1803-77)

Missionary to Swedish sailors and immigrants to the U.S.

Olof Gustaf Hedström was born in the province of Kronberg, Sweden. At age twenty-two, he shipped as a sailor on a vessel bound for South America. It was diverted from its course and in 1825, it entered the port of New York where it was sold. On June 11, 1829, he married Caroline Pinckney and in the same year, under his wife’s influence, he was converted and immediately became active in Christian work. In 1835, he was received on trial in the New York Conference.

Peter Pergner, also a Swede and a zealous layman, became concerned for the spiritual welfare of Scandinavian sailors, thousands of whom visited the New York harbor every year. David Terry, then a city missionary, advised Bergner to correspond with Hedström, urging him to establish a Bethel Ship Mission.

Meanwhile, the Missionary Society purchased an old condemned brig, remodeled it as a meeting place, created a board of trustees to hold the property, and rechristened the ship “John Wesley.” In May 1845, the New York Conference appointed Hedström to the “North River Mission.”

The first sermon in the Bethel Ship was preached on May 25, 1845, to a congregation of more than fifty persons. A Methodist Society was organized which within a few months had a membership of forty-five, of whom twenty-three were seamen and six others were either wives or mothers of seamen.

Hedström’s custom was to meet all incoming ships from Scandinavian countries, distribute Bibles, sermons, and tracts, and invite the immigrants to visit the Bethel Ship. Hedström stressed the importance of temperance and frugality and it was estimated that within a few years Scandinavian seamen had deposited not less than one million dollars in the Seamen’s Savings Bank alone.

He so continuously counseled immigrants on where to settle that he has been credited with having no small part in determining the course of Swedish immigration. He made extensive missionary journeys to Swedish settlements in different parts of the country and was instrumental in 1852 in organizing Methodist Societies in Jamestown, New York, Candler’s Valley, Pennsylvania, and Chicago.

Of the immense immigration during the late forties, a large part of all nationalities entered through the port of New York. In 1848 the average was more than five hundred immigrants daily. Of these, the majority landed in the vicinity of the Bethel Ship, with the result that not only Swedes but people of almost all nations attended religious services at the mission.

Hedström continued in charge of the Bethel Ship Mission until 1875, when illness compelled him to retire.

Adapted by David W. Scott from Wade Crawford Barclay, History of Methodist Missions, Vol. 3: Widening Horizons, 1845-95. (New York: The Board of Missions of The Methodist Church, 1957), 271-273.

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