Religion in NE
Rev. K. G. William Dahl
Only meager information is at hand regarding the early life of the founder of the Bethphage Inner Mission at Axtell, Nebraska. And that is as he would have it. He was reticent in "Telling about himself," lest what he said would not magnify the name of his Lord and Master. Nor would he have any one else laud his merits, and hence a complete record of his childhood and youth was never given.
But K. G. William Dahl could not dwell among men anywhere without leaving such impressions as would long remain in the minds of those who came in contact with him and furnish material for a story that reflects a deep passion for serving others in the name and spirit of Jesus, our Lord.
His life was a battle from childhood. Perhaps he was never really understood in his parental home and in school. One thing is quite clear, he did not thrive in the social strait jacket of the conventions where he was expected to be modeled and formed into his assigned station. In certain ways he became a disappointment to his father, even in his early years. His father was a prominent clergyman (or rector) in Sweden, so was his grandfather, and possibly other forbears, In his own words, "My Father, Samuel Dahl, and Grandfather were strict followers of Henrik Schartau" and that meant strict adherence to doctrinal and dogmatic teaching. It meant also churchliness and respect for the office of the holy ministry - two virtues that never died in the heart of the son.
Rev. K. G. Wm. Dahl was horn on February 3, 1883, in Laholm, Halland, Sweden. He started to school at the age of five, and continued throughout the years at different schools in different places in Sweden. Finally ill health caused him to cease further study. Hence his often interrupted schooling became somewhat fragmentary in Sweden.
At the age of five he studied privately under his father's tutelage. The following year, together with his sister, he attended a Ladies' Seminary and the next year he was enrolled in a normal school in Laholm, his father being rector of that school. When Dahl was twelve years old, his father moved to Osby where he became rector of that church. Young Dahl was placed in a private school at that place. After two years of study there he entered the college at Kristianstad, and two years later the college at Mälmo.
Then followed a period of illness. At the age of nineteen came an irresistible urge to emigrate to America. He stated, "I had always been a dreamer, with strong inclination for everything romantic, often deeply melancholy at times--and hoping that 'getting out in the world' would help to dispel this troublesome mental disposition." Then, too, he desired to escape military conscription--and this, he says, perhaps was the chief reason for wanting to come to America. But I think many of us can see -- in view of his achievements later in life -- a higher force impelling him to move on toward the "land I will show thee" and the task he had been destined to perform.
Regarding his first years in America, he says, "From the start I met
with many difficulties. I was not accustomed to hard physical labor, but now I had to work in earnest, and there were weeks when I had to live on apples and water; much sickness had to be endured, and then one day one of my hands became injured in a machine." in the face of all these reverses, his frame of mind can easily be inferred. But God in his mercy would not let this young man perish, or go to wreck and ruin, instead lie caused him to be led by friends to the church and Christian people. Even though the first church he found was not the type or character that could satisfy him, who had a Schartauinian background and spirit, a dormant longing within was awakened that caused him to seek the church of his childhood faith. This he found in South Manchester, Connecticut. This church he learned belonged to the Augustana Synod which, he remembered, his father had mentioned as being the Swedish Lutheran Church in America.
With regard to this first contact with this church, the following story has been related. It was a Sabbath morning and he was walking down the street. He was very discouraged and almost despondent as he thought of the recent turn of events in his life. As he was walking, he heard music in the distance, it was familiar music--it was beautiful music to his ears--it was one of the responses of the morning worship service that he had so often heard in his homeland. The congregation were singing:
"All glory be to Thee, Most High,
To thee all adoration!
In grace and truth Thou drawest nigh
To offer us salvation.
Thou showest Thy good will to men,
And peace shall reign on earth again;
We praise Thy Name forever."
He decided to enter and worship with the congregation. That decision may well have been a turning point in his life. It was the return of a wandering son to the church and the faith of his childhood.
His contact with the pastors of the Hartford District, and especially Rev. V. P. Anderson, pastor of the Lutheran Church in South Manchester, Connecticut, had a wholesome influence upon him in his bewilderment, and encouraged him in his struggle to find peace with God. Here his attention was directed to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he matriculated in the senior class in September, 1903. It was there where the present writer first learned to know him personally, and to honor and love him as a classmate and brother in Christ from then on up through the years in the Augustana Theological Seminary.
There was something about this tall and lanky young man that attracted attention at once. His countenance radiated kindliness the moment one's eye met his and a broad smile spread over his face as soon as a personal contact was made. Yet, caught off guard, unconscious of being observed, his face showed a solemn expression and his eyes gave evidence of being fixed on something far beyond the present. Even then something potential was working its way toward the front of his mind - was it "those in bonds," whose cry his inner soul could hear from the distance? Who knows?
Dahl was not a philosopher but a dreamer, or rather a seer and a
prophet. He did not seek to reach his objective through the process of logical deductions but by faith "as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." He laid his plans not on logic but on faith in God and Christian people. His heart was big and so were his plans. The ordinary forms for Christian work as he found them in the church were too smug, and the progress made was too slow - it was as if he felt that his day was too short, hence he must hurry and dare to undertake big things, even when it caused the ordinary conservative churchmen to shake their heads in doubt, and say, "He means well, but he is a dreamer."
DahI did good work both in college and seminary but showed no unusual ability as a scholar, when measured by "marks." Others excelled him in the classroom and in the examinations on prescribed courses, but on graduation day he was more versatile than the "pluggers." He had more than book learning, he had culture. He was well read in the classics and in history, yet, all the way through his ambition was to analyze life as he saw it outside of the classroom window -his special interest was "the forgotten man" and "the down and out."
Dahl was popular at school from the beginning. He received the honor and distinction of representing the senior class in the annual Swedish oratorical contest. The subject that he chose, "Tankens Fäglar" (The Wings of Thought) was characteristic of the man. He was a fine writer and a master at writing ditties on the spur of the moment. Any amusing thing in the classroom, whether it involved a classmate or professor, would be given form in a ditty by Dahl. Two things from his student days show, even then, his readiness to help others in the face of need and also how absolutely void of selfishness he was when he acted. One summer he donated most of his salary to the church he served, in order to help that particular church purchase pews. In addition he gave the church the proceeds from a book he had published. The book referred to was "A Colony of Mercy," a translation into Swedish of the story of Bodelsehwing's Bethel Institute of Bielefeld. And in this connection, it might be well to note that Dahl prevailed upon his classmates to give financial help in order to make the translation and publication of this book possible. Later each one was reimbursed either by taking a certain number of copies of the book or money. But DahI's generous heart caused him to give away more books than he sold. This book, nevertheless, paid a great dividend to "those who are in bonds." Its contents set his own soul on fire and later a visit to this colony of mercy did much in shaping the plan for the great and final goal of his ministry, the creation and the organization of the Bethphage Mission.
While in the Theological Seminary Dahl acquitted himself always as a Christian gentleman and a sincere candidate for a high calling. Yet, even though his influence upon his associates and fellow students was that of a Christian in every respect, he never assumed the role of a leader, or had any particular following. He was loved and respected as a Christian brother by all who knew him, but his great passion, was kept within his own soul while in Rock Island. It bloomed later in the career of his ministry.
He received the holy orders as an ordained minister of the Gospel in New Britain, Connecticut on June 16, 1907. His first field of labor was
the Augustana Church at White Rock, (now Rosholt) South Dakota and from there he became assistant director at the Immanuel Deaconess Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. His three and a half years stay at the Immanuel Deaconess Institute was undoubtedly an apprenticeship to his future work. Here he made daily contact, not only with ordinary hospitalized patients but the feebleminded, the epileptic, and deformed. In his article on the Bethphage Mission in KOESBANERET (Vol. 39, p. 101) Dahl states that the background of the Bethphage Mission dates back to his experiences with certain cases in Rock Island, Illinois, to the Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and especially to a patient at the Immanuel Institute, whom he designated as Gust.
He arrived at Axtell, Nebraska, in December, 1912 to take charge of the small and recently organized Bethphage Lutheran Church. Axtell was a mere village and the surrounding prairies for miles and miles spread out before the eye like a straight blanket. The place was often raked by hot winds that consumed the verdure everywhere. The winters were bleak and biting and did not impress, even the men with whom Dahl consulted, as a proper place for people who sought health and healing. Sunny California was at one time uppermost in Dahl's mind as the place for the institution he wished to build. But his "innermost guide" soon convinced him that Axtell, Nebraska. 'is the land I will show thee and to which I have brought thee."
It is not our province to trace the development of the Bethphage Mission from its beginning to the present, our task is to present the man, the founder, others will give an account of the institution - yet, the man and his work are so inseparably interwoven and entwined that the story of the one will be a part of the story of the other. DahI worked fast. Already a few days before Christmas 1912, he suggested to a group of pastors and officials the idea of erecting a separate home for epileptics and the feeble-minded -in California! However, the objections raised by these men led him to decide on Axtell. February 19, 1913, was the day of the founding of the Mission and it was incorporated March 23, 1914. From then on things, which sometimes seemed radical to the minds of his associates, began to happen. From here unfolds a story that challenges anything known in the history of inner-missions in our country.
The Lord, whom he followed so closely, chose to give him five years in which to found this great institution; and indications are at hand that show that Dahl had a premonition that his years would not be many. This spurred him on to work fast and hard night and day up to the very last.
He bought a tract of land near Axtell, erected buildings, received patients - with no funds on hand. Others asked, "Where will we get money for all of this?" Yes, where did the money come from? If the United States postal service has ever served the Lord directly, it did so and has done so in the history of the Bethphage Mission. Letters have come from the East, West, North, and South, each the bearer of monies in smaller and larger denominations - sometimes very large the donors having read Dahl's appeals in GULDAX and other papers. These folks whom God's Holy Spirit moved to act in favor of Bethphage were DahI's reserves; God's bank, always solvent and reliable. The key
to this bank Dahl possessed; an implicit faith in God and incessant prayer. Friends, it works!
Dahl went to his eternal rest Sunday morning at 10:30, September 9, 1917. How appropriate? Sunday -- the day of rest in the Lord! And at the age of thirty-four.
Dahl met Miss Lillian Hurd at Augustana College, where both were students. They were married in June, 1907. She, too, belongs to this story. She played an important part in her husband's short and illustrious career. Together with her son and daughter she was left to witness the realization of her husband's "dreams." But DahI was more than a dreamer; he was a man of God, he knew God, and trusted Him, and followed as He directed him.
-- Geo. A. Fahlund, D.D.
B. J. Sakrison
As I wander about in the sanctum of sacred memories, I discover on these walls of retrospect a new canvass; upon it I fasten my gaze and I am loathe to leave it. What do I see? There I contemplate the happening of a sacred moment, painted with the shades of eternal seriousness and illumined with a heavenly gift of grace.
On Saturday evening, the eighth of September, the workers of the Bethphage Mission were gathered about their dear housefather and shepherd, Pastor Dahl. They were with him, to celebrate together the Holy Communion, Pastor DahI's heart trouble had again caused him to return a few days to his bed of illness. He perceived now that within a short time he would be called from his homes of mercy below to those above; he would soon be parted from his coworkers at Bethphage. For that reason he had arranged this gathering in the presence of the Saviour.
It was really a moment of farewell; for of those present only one, his dear wife, was to look into his eyes again before they were closed in death. And, O what an unforgettable moment! It was surely filled with eternal seriousness, and beautifully illumined with the heavenly light of grace.
Heavily labored the heart of our sick housefather, but we all heard him lay down his sin-burden at the foot of the cross. In our souls we had the blessed assurance that he who suffered was at rest,"Safe in the arms of Jesus.
Safe on His gentle breast.'
After that sacred rite had been observed, our sick friend spoke a few words of admonition and trust to us. He asked our forgiveness; but who among us had any such claim? Who did not rather feel the need of pleading from this tired servant, who labored so hard for all of us, his forbearance, yes, his pardon? At last, he expressed his desire that we
sing the song that he always used to sing with his fellow-workers on Tuesday evenings. With a strong voice he sounded forth:"Blest be the tie that hinds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above."
He led the first verse, but then he tired and Pastor Edlund, who had administered the sacrament, continued the melody and all of us did our best to sing. When we reached,"When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain,"
our eyes were filled with tears, and deeply we felt the pain of parting, which we realized was at hand. In those moments we saw strength in weakness and a power that comes from above. He that was waiting momentarily for the angels, who were to carry his soul from the shore of this life, gazed calmly and confidently over the river of death. His eyes were not blinded with sorrow; he beheld with the clear eye of faith the lights of the New Jerusalem on the other shore.
His soul preceded us as always, and was already resting trustingly in the next words:"But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again."
When we had sung this song, our sick friend gave us his last greeting. Quietly, and downcast, we left the sickroom. From this sanctuary, we took with us an inexpressible, beautiful, holy, and uplifting memory. For me, and I am sure for all who were present, this sacred memory will remain an unforgettable moment.
(Translated from an article appearing in GULDAX shortly after the death of Pastor Dahl.)
© 2002 for the NEGenWeb Project by Pam Reitsch, Ted & Carole Miller.