On this date 167 years ago, John Erik Forsgren was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Boston, Massachusetts by William McGhen. It was a Gospel he embraced with his whole heart. It took him to Nauvoo where he met the Prophet Joseph and other Church leaders, becoming particularly close to Heber C. Kimball. He began the westward move to the Rockies, then joined the Mormon Battalion (the only Swede to do so among the volunteers). He later willingly left his wife of just a few months and returned to Sweden to preach the restored Gospel there. He became President of the Scandinavian Mission for a time and then successfully led a group of Saints across ocean and land to bring them safely to the heart of the new Zion in the Salt Lake Valley.
He could not have known, given that dedication and enthusiasm, that he would later become disenchanted with this Church he loved. He eventually began to criticize the leadership of Brigham Young and then set up a large tent on the East Bench of Salt Lake City (at 4th South and 11th East) where he began preaching his own religion. A grand daughter - Alice Mariah Forsgren Eliason Hatch - wrote the following in her memoir of her family life (in answer to questions initiated by her niece Hazel): "Grandpa John Eric was an eloquent, fiery spseaker and became very prominent. He expected to be one of the Twelve Apostles and when Brigham Young chose Erastus Snow to be his apostle when a vacancy occurred, Grandpa became disillusioned and hurt. It was the cause of his leaving the Church and starting a church of his own. . . .
I remember hearing my Mother [Esther Ann Smith] tell me once: 'I only saw your grandfather John Eric Forsgren once. He was an old man then, and he paced up and down the room expounding his doctrine. He said that he would be taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot like the Prophet Elijah. I asked her how Dad felt about him. She said he always hated him.' I was always curious about Grandpa but could find out very little about him. It seems as if he covered his failures with delusions of grandeur - a useful and common device. I don't know why he came back to Brigham. He didn't stay."
I have recently wondered as well how the death of Heber C. Kimball affected him John. Heber and his wife Vilate "adopted" by sealing John Erik and his then wife, Mary Ann Hunt. That seems a significant act. Heber continued to be involved in John's early life and decisions once in the S.L. valley. It was he who suggested John take Heber's own step-daughter (by his second wife), Francis Noon Smith, a young widow to be a plural wife and it was he who performed their sealing. Heber believed strongly in the law of plural marriage and probably also hoped that John E. would care for his recently widowed step-daughter and her children. Other family stories indicate that this very sealing was the beginning of the end for John's marriage to Sarah Bell Davis. Sadly, neither marriage went well. How did John feel about that?
It has been stated in many histories about JEF that he died a non-member of the Church. I knew he had disassociated HIMSELF from the Church but sought evidence of a formal excommunication for which I had no dates. I spoke with a member of the Church Temple Committe in Salt Lake, who after a lengthy search, returned to tell me that they had no formal record on file of such an excommunication. He suggested that probably this information would be buried in the minutes of the ward or stake in which he lived but because I was not a direct descendant of John E (My line is through Peter Adolph, his brother), I could not have access to those minutes. I was not successful in finding a descendant who had the time to plow through several rolls of microfilm to find a church court proceeding for John.
I am indebted to Laurie Bryant of Salt Lake City (who was also doing some research on John Erik and other inhabitants of the East Bench area) for calling to my attention the following notice published in the weekly edition of the Deseret News, Feb. 12, 1879, p. 9. (A notice taken from the Deseret News Daily of Feb. 8th):
" The following decision was rendered, and unanimously sustained by the High Council, on Sunday, February 2nd, 1879, viz.: ' That John E. Forsgren is possessed of a lying spirit, is guilty of unchristian-like conduct, and that he be cut off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that this decision be published in the papers.' Wm W. Taylor. Clerk of the High Council."
I was grateful for the conclusion of an unfinished research goal. But since this is a blog of my feelings and thoughts as well, I must add that in reading the notice over and over again I was filled with great sadness and heartache. I yearned for this not to have happened. I felt stung by the frankness of the words used to describe the event. I am assuming the reference to his "lying spirit" had to do with his very open denunciations about Brigham Young and other leaders with whom he had quarrels. I wished that the events of his life had not brought him to this point.
Again I state that it is not ours to judge. The incredible work he did during the early days of his dedication and missionary efforts should not be ignored. We must look at his life in its totality and hope that one day we will all understand better what led to his unhappiness and disenchantment.
From the time I was a young child I have heard the stories of the Forsgren siblings: of John Erik's missionary journey back to Sweden, of how he found his very ill brother Peter Adolph whom he blessed and healed, of how his sister Christina Erika had had a vision that a man would come bearing books that she was to look at and pay attention to...and, of course, the very common reference to Peter Adolph being the first baptized convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in all of Scandinavia. The stories have been repeated in Church media for years, particularly on the anniversaries of various Scandinavian events.
John Erik Forsgren was a great force for good and growth for the early burgeoning church membership. It is stated by those who knew him then that he embraced the doctrine with great zeal and preached firm and fiery sermons. He led a group of Saints across the ocean and into the Salt Lake Valley, encouraging them and admonishing them all the way. He served in the Mormon Battalion.
It is also true that later in his life, for reasons we don't totally understand, he became disenchanted with the Church - or more accurately, with some of its leaders. He began to be very vocal in his statements against Brigham Young whom he felt had cheated him out of a land inheritance due him from his service in the Battalion. At this point people said of him that he became cantankerous and a religious fanatic. He set up a tent on the East Bench of Salt Lake City and began preaching his own form of religion. At first he had followers, but over time lost the attention of local residents and was ignored. Tragic events occurred in his life which are referred to in other blog posts. He died in great poverty after living for a time in Idaho, then wandering homeless in Utah - a nonmember of the Church he had earlier embraced with such zeal.
This part of the story is, of course, very distressing to his descendants who for many years did not want to talk about the last years of his life. But I feel that accurate history is honest history. Not addressing an unpleasant event does not change the event. What was, was. What OUR responsibility is is to not judge. We did not walk in his shoes or live inside his head. It is our job to look at the entirety of the life of this unique man, admire him for the incredible contributions he made and not be overly critical of things we don't know much about. John E. kept a huge journal of his life. The greatest tragedy for us is that that 720 page manuscript has disappeared and we can't know all that he related in it.
This blog was created for the purpose of setting forth all the information about John Erik Forsgren that I have been able to glean from as many sources as I could. It is very much a work in progress. It is my hope that his numerous and wonderful descendants might contribute, correct, question and help verify any data I have included here...and, that ultimately this be a means of reaching out to others who want to know more of this man. I have come to reverence and respect him as I have worked on details of his life and the individuals connected to him by blood and marriage. As keeper of the Forsgren Family Association Archives it is my great pleasure to offer up what information we have. Believe me, there is nothing that better "turns our hearts to our fathers" than researching details and events of their lives. Enjoy!
Adele Manwaring Austin, July 2010