Joel Halldorf is a fourth-generation Swedish Pentecostal, so it was natural for him when he became a historian of evangelical religion and politics to take a strong interest in the most famous figure in his tradition: Lewi Pethrus.

Born in 1884, Pethrus was a tireless, creative leader of a relatively small religious group that received little notice at the time. After guiding the Swedish Pentecostal movement, Pethrus helped shape Swedish society by entering politics—something Pentecostals did not do back in the 1940s. Along the way, he founded a Christian newspaper and spoke out against secularism.

“If the church should learn one thing from Pethrus,” said Halldorf, “it is that there is no need to fear the loss of power, the loss of status, and marginalization. Because when you’re on the margin, you can do a lot of creative things as a church.”

Halldorf, author of Pentecostal Politics in a Secular World, spoke with CT about Pethrus’s lasting influence on his country, the impact of secularism on Swedish society, and the different political priorities of Swedish and US evangelicals.

Why was Lewi Pethrus such an important figure in Sweden?

When some people want to understand themselves, they go to a therapist. As a historian, I go to the past. Lewi Pethrus was a leading architect of the movement that shaped me, my family, and my friends.

He was a charismatic figure and public speaker, so the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including reports of healings and speaking in tongues, were an important part of his ministry. Not only did Pethrus establish contacts and friendships all over the Swedish Pentecostal movement, he also created institutions that became pillars of the Pentecostal movement such as Bible schools, a journal, songbooks, and conferences.

You talk about Pethrus’s surprising political transformation. How did that happen?

During World War I, Pethrus rose to become the most prominent leader of the Swedish Pentecostal movement. He viewed the war as a consequence of hedonism, arguing that people had turned away from God and society, and called on people to abandon the sinking ship of this world, join Pentecostal congregations, and await the imminent coming of the Lord.

When World War II broke out about 20 years later, Pethrus saw that secularization had dire and ongoing consequences for society: war, authoritarian politics, and lack of religious freedom. This propelled him into working for the political reform of Swedish society. He was perhaps the first Pentecostal leader in the world to move self-consciously into party politics at the national level.

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What are the notable institutions that Pethrus began?

In the 1940s, Pethrus started a daily newspaper, Dagen, as well as a radio station that broadcasted in Sweden. The country had very particular laws and a state monopoly on radio broadcasting. When Pentecostals were denied access to this state-sponsored radio, Pethrus challenged the law by pirate broadcasting, that is, broadcasting via an offshore boat.

Pethrus’s political work also helped lay the foundation for the Christian Democrat political party, which was founded in the 1960s. Today, the Christian Democrats are not only represented in the Riksdag (Swedish parliament) but several members of the party also serve as ministers in the government. While the party has Christian roots and many of its representatives belong to different churches, they have developed a more secular and right-wing profile in the last decade.

Additionally, I don’t think there have ever been as many Pentecostals in Sweden’s government as there are today. This fascinating connection all started with Lewi Pethrus.

As for Dagen, it is still Sweden’s major Christian newspaper and has an ecumenical readership.

How did Pethrus advocate for his positions?

In Pethrus’s time, Sweden was moving toward a rational, secular, Enlightenment posture, particularly toward an infatuation with what is known as the “Swedish sin,” a progressive posture toward sex and nudity. Pethrus publicly opposed sex, drugs, and rock ’'n’ roll, often debating his opponents in the media and writing books that planted the Pentecostal flag.

When it comes to politics, what distinguishes Swedish evangelicals from Americans?

Having lived in the US during my years as a student, I’ve experienced several US presidential elections and discussed politics extensively with US friends who are evangelical or Pentecostal. It’s a strange experience as a European. When you come to the United States, there is so much in common—you recognize the services, the style of sermons, spiritual expressions, the hymns. Everything is very recognizable until you start talking about politics.

European evangelicals tend to view the role of government, especially the welfare state, quite differently from US evangelicals. To understand why, one must go back 100 years and see that in Europe, many of the churches, including Pentecostals, Evangelical Free churches, Baptists, and Methodists, were part of larger social movements, such as the workers’ movement and the temperance movement. These movements helped change Swedish society and other European countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they moved from monarchy and the old regime toward democracy.

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Many of the evangelicals were in the liberal camp, working alongside the Social Democrats and against the conservative party, which wanted to keep power in the hands of the king. This created an alliance that continued through the 20th century. As a result, the politics of evangelical movements in Sweden are far more centrist. They are in the middle—not right-wing and not socialist or Communist, but fairly liberal politically.

The state churches in England and France and even the Swedish Lutheran church supported the monarchy. They would not get onboard with democracy. That led to a loss of credibility for Christianity.

There’s an important lesson here for Christians: If you, as a church, tie yourself to a political system or movement, and then that system loses credibility in society, as the monarchy did, you will go down with it.

US evangelicals have tied themselves very closely to one particular political party. If this party loses its public credibility, the evangelicals will lose their credibility too.

Where do Pentecostals and other Christians in Sweden align politically today?

There are three areas in which we can see distinctive Swedish Christian politics today as a legacy from Pethrus. First, they don’t want to have a small state. Swedish Christians generally believe there should be a strong welfare state that can care for the poor.

Second, Swedish Christians want to have strong morality in society. For example, they believe it should be difficult to get access to alcohol and drugs. They are more right-leaning on moral issues than on social issues.

Third, polls have shown that evangelicals in Sweden are actually more pro–environmental politics, pro-migration, and pro-pluralism than secular voters. If you ask Swedish voters, “Do you think Muslims should have the right to build mosques in your city?” evangelicals will be more likely than other Swedish groups to say yes, because they believe that religious freedom is vital for their own existence.

Modern Swedish society was created largely by the workers’ movement and the Social Democratic Party, with a strong religious undercurrent. Now that we are experiencing some post-secular revival in Sweden, religion is talked about and debated more. Pentecostal movements from Brazil and Africa are growing here, and Syrian Orthodox have entered the country.

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What is it like to be an evangelical in Sweden today?

There’s a very complex picture here. We can see what sociologists call depersonalization, which means people are moving away from religious traditions. It has become difficult to raise children in religious households, because secularization is accelerating. But we also can see a countermovement, because modernity has failed to fulfill its promises.

The promise of modernity was utopian societies with robust communities and a rich culture. While modernity has brought blessings, today we also struggle with social fragmentation, increasing mental illness, an endless cultural war, and a wave of shallow entertainment. I believe this has awakened a spiritual longing in which people are turning back toward religion and Christianity. However, this longing could be utilized by politicians looking for something they can use as a tool to fill in the gap that religion seems to have left in society.

Would it be fair to think of Pethrus as Sweden’s Billy Graham?

The existence of Billy Graham is a sign of how mainstream evangelicalism was in America during his time. This evangelist built close relationships with presidents and could be called “America’s pastor,” as his biographer, Grant Wacker, has written.

Even though Pethrus shared many of the visions of Graham, the Swedish public square did not have room for a Pentecostal pastor, or even an evangelical pastor, to take that position. If there was a religious figurehead for society, it would be a representative of the Church of Sweden, the state church.

But also because he lived in such a secular nation, Pethrus was always “the other” in Swedish society. He never belonged to the majority culture. On the one hand, he appreciated this position, since it gave him the freedom to challenge the mainstream and turn the Pentecostal movement into an alternative counterculture. But on the other hand, Pethrus longed for social respectability. He loved to quote professors and prominent politicians who said good things about the movement. He wanted to shape Swedish society beyond his own particular movement—much like Billy Graham did in the US. But Pethrus could never be a Swedish Billy Graham.

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Right now, Pethrus is in the news because antisemitic comments he made in the 1930s have surfaced. What should we know about this controversy?

While Swedish Pentecostals were troubled by the rise of Nazism, ideas related to this movement seeped into the revival. Pethrus was, for instance, interested in the fate of the Jews, and saw the growing migration to Palestine as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Accordingly, he understood the persecution as part of God’s plan, since it increased this migration—and he even suggested that the persecutions were a consequence of the sins of the Jewish people. This was a bad case of victim blaming, in other words, and one that shows that antisemitism can be an integrated part of Christian Zionism.

Pentecostals put a great emphasis on ethics, and when Pentecostals go into politics, they sometimes do this with the ambition to create a society that reflects their biblical norms. But when this is done through censorship, laws, and restrictions, they might end up close to fascism.

In January 2004, a prominent Pentecostal leader in a religious community called Knutby sexually abused his young nanny and convinced her to murder his wife and their neighbor (who survived). How did this incident affect your faith, the Pentecostal church, and the Christians around you?

During the 1990s, there were a lot of renewal movements within Swedish Pentecostalism that attracted young people, and the congregation in Knutby was one of these. What first appeared to be an isolated and tragic happening turned out to reflect a deeply unsound and sectarian environment, where a murder was orchestrated by the local Pentecostal pastor. The leadership of the Pentecostal church in Knutby manipulated their congregation through references to special revelation and esoteric interpretations of the Bible, and thus created a cesspool of sex, violence, humiliation, and even murders.

I was never personally part of these charismatic and experiential groups, but several of my friends were involved. Even if none of them went to Knutby, the events there showed how wrong things can go in sectarian groups who separate from the mainstream and try to be, shall we say, theologically innovative.

How did it affect the Pentecostal movement in Sweden overall?

It gave Pentecostalism a bad reputation. I remember how local schools canceled their visits to an Easter play our congregation put up. These things happened all over the country.

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Within the Pentecostal movement, it resulted in a strong coming together. One of the legacies from Lewi Pethrus was a rejection of denominational structures, but Knutby made the need for an organization and some kind of oversight over the congregations apparent.

Around this time, Karisma Center, one of the more controversial congregations in Stockholm, also collapsed, which helped tamper some of the charismatic fervor from the 1990s. The mainstream stepped up and tried to create order.

What type of impact can you still see today?

The tendency in the Pentecostal movement has been to emphasize that the events in Knutby were exceptional and reflections of the psychological setup of a corrupt local leadership. And, of course, this is in some sense true. But there are still questions that need to be asked: Why did Knutby attract so many young Pentecostals, and how can the risks for manipulation that biblicism and charismatic authority bring with them be addressed? There has, unfortunately, been a reluctance to have these conversations.

What has the influx of immigrants meant for the church?

This has meant a lot for the Pentecostal movement in Sweden. To begin with, many churches worked together with local authorities to find housing and help for those who came. By playing a constructive role here, relations with other local organizations were created, and some of the trust that had been lost due to Knutby was rebuilt.

Pentecostal churches have also been able to add groups of Pentecostals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to their congregations—and they have also reached new converts. This has given new energy to the churches. But, of course, pluralism of this kind also has its challenges.