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Creation of an Ethnic Identity

Creation of an Ethnic Identity

Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860-1917

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Dag Blanck


Hardcover (Other formats: E-book)
280 pages, 6 x 9, 8 illustrations


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About the Book

Analyzing the development of a Swedish American identity

The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917 analyzes how Swedish American identity was constructed, maintained, and changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Augustana Synod, the largest religious-based organization created by Swedish immigrants in the United States, played an important role in establishing what it meant to be Swedish American.

In this study, author Dag Blanck poses three fundamental questions: How did an ethnic identity develop in the Augustana Synod? What was that identity? Why was an ethnic identity formed? Based on primary sources formerly unknown or neglected, The Creation of an Ethnic Identity examines the Lutheran Augustana Synod, Augustana College, and the Augustana Book Concern to provide insights into how ethnic identity is constructed within a major religious body, a central educational institution, and a major publishing house.

Starting from the concept of ethnicity as something created or invented, Blanck goes on to explore how it was possible for a white European immigrant group like the Swedes to use its ethnicity as a tool of integration into American society. The nature of their ethnicity, says Blanck, was both determined by their cultural origins and also the values and nature of American society as they perceived it. Becoming Swedish American was also a way of becoming American.

The volume, which is augmented by illustrations, integrates the most critical scholarship on immigration and ethnicity over the past half century and provides a strong argument about how ethnicity is shaped over time within an immigrant group.


Dag Blanck is an assistant professor at the Centre for Multiethnic Research at Uppsala University in Sweden and the director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.


The present book is a revised and updated version of Dag Blanck's Ph.D. dissertation, originally published in Sweden (1997). It addresses the question of identity formation within the Augustana Synod, the most im­portant Swedish American Lutheran body, from its founding in 1860 to American entry into World War I. Inspired by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's path-breaking collection, The Invention of Tradition (1983), and Benedict Anderson's equally important Imagined Communities (1983), Blanck sets out to inves­tigate how the leadership of Augustana actively sought to construct a specifically Swedish American identity. Furthermore, challenging the view that boundary main­tenance is more important for ethnic identity formation than the "cultural stuff" inside, Blanck analyzes what constituted this identity. Finally, Blanck grapples briefly with the question of why an ethnic leadership attempted-with considerable success-to foist its views of identity on the whole Swedish American com­munity.

In pursuing these objectives, Blanck follows three lines of investigation. First, he studies the educational system at the synod's oldest and largest educational in­stitution, Augustana College, investigating both aca­demic curricular developments and various extracurric­ular activities, such as student literary societies and ethnic festivities. Blanck also analyzes the makeup of the student body, most of whose members, it turns out, remained within "the Augustana sphere" throughout their careers, many of them as ministers.

Second, Blanck examines the activities of the Au­gustana Book Concern (ABC), in his view "one of the most important building blocks in the creation of a Swedish-American identity within the Augustana Synod" (p. 159). The ABC functioned as a cultural gate­keeper, importing many works of nineteenth-century established romantic authors from Sweden but exclud­ing others, notably those of modern writers considered immoral. The ABC also published books itself-almost half of them nondenominational-again informed by the synod's "special perspective." Among these publi­cations, schoolbooks figured prominently and are es­pecially worth analyzing, since they may be expected to mirror the leadership's ethnic ambitions.

Finally, Blanck explores the establishment of a Swed­ish American historical tradition within the synod. Finding inspiration in Orm Overland's concept of "home-making myths" (Immigrant Minds, American Identities: Making the United States Home, 1870-1930 [2000]), Blanck notes how a specifically Swedish Amer­ican tradition was created out of such elements as the early Swedish presence in North America, myths of ideological gifts (claiming Swedish American contribu­tions to the American Revolution and to the concept of freedom), and the celebration of "culture heroes" such as Civil War engineer John Ericsson and Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. The establishment of an annual "Founders Day" at Augustana and the celebration of the synod's 1910 "Golden Anniversary" helped sustain these traditions.

Blanck's main thesis is that the 1890s were pivotal for the establishment of a specifically Swedish American identity. Before that point, the Augustana Synod was dominated at both grass-roots and leadership levels by Swedish immigrants with strong local and regional Old World attachments, as well as powerful ties to nine­teenth-century Swedish low church revivalism, and only weak ideas about national identity. From the 1890s, with immigrants from an urbanizing and industrializing Sweden still arriving in America but many of them now displaying only limited interest in the Swedish Amer­ican community, the synod became dominated by sec­ond-generation Swedish Americans from the tradi­tional areas of recruitment in the Midwest. Under these circumstances, the leadership set out to construct a spe­cifically Swedish American identity out of Swedish, American, and Swedish American components: "This ... actively formulated ethnicity of the second phase was thus radically different from the unreflected upon and taken-for-granted sense of Swedish identity pre­sumed during the first period of the synod's history, and we can thus say that the Augustana Synod went from being Swedish to being Swedish American" (p. 194).

In this well-conceived study, a couple of points do invite criticism. First, Blanck distinguishes between eth­nic and religious identity, seeing a separate ethnic iden­tity developing from the religious roots during the 1890s. Since the concepts of religion and ethnicity over­lap, Blanck's alternative juxtaposition of the religious element with "cultural traditions" is more precise (e.g., pp. 7, 9, 68-69, and 192). Second, Blanck all but ex­cludes the contemporary political context from his in­vestigation, even though George M. Stephenson, in his classic study The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigra­tion:A Study of Immigrant Churches (1932), emphasized the Augustana Synod's powerful Republican sympa­thies and basic conservatism. A stronger focus on the political environment would have led Blanck to con­sider Theodore Roosevelt's xenophobic "anti-hyphen­ate" campaign in his discussion of a 1916 Swedish American article titled, "Shall We Do Away With the Hyphen?" (pp. 157-158). More critically, the ethnically virulent atmosphere is ignored completely in connec­tion with Blanck's crucial analysis of a Swedish Amer­ican schoolbook published on the eve of American en­try into World War I (pp. 145-150).

These points should not detract from the fact that Blanck has written a scholarly and well-argued book. Students and scholars studying ethnic identity forma­tion, as well as people interested in Swedish American and Scandinavian American history, will read it with great benefit.