“It is the heathenism we want to get rid of, not the national character.”
Born in 1840, Lars became one of the best known Norwegian missionaries. He was born to a poor family in a small town north of Lillehammer, a home of the Winter Olympics. In his youth, he became a heavy drinker and wild young thing. With some buddies, he robbed a bank and was arrested. Refusing to reveal his accomplices, he was sent to prison for four years.
At the time, the evangelist Hans Hauge was leading a revival across the Scandanavian countries. Hauge’s message spread to Skrefsrud in prison. The renewing and forgiving message of the Gospel broke through to Skrefsrud, and he repented of his wild ways. Anna Olsum, a girl he’d known before prison, visited him frequently, and encouraged his transformation. He began to feel called to ministry, studying voraciously, and he discovered a talent for languages, learning English and German while still in jail.
When Skrefsrud was released from jail, he sought to enter seminary but was rejected at every turn, being an ex-convict. Against the advice of friends, he went to Berlin with the hope of finding a theological education. In Berlin he became friends with Hans Peter Boerresen, a Dane who was studying at the Gossner Missionary Society, a Baptist ministry. Boerresen helped him to be accepted into training at Gossner, and he was a devoted student. He worked, studied, attended daily services, and fasted for two years, surviving on bread, cheese, and water. He was determined to bring his body into submission to God (remind you of Augustine?).
After graduating from Gossner, Skrefsrud was sent to West Bengal, in India, to join in missionary work with other German Baptists there. Boerresen joined him there a year later. At the time, however, war between Germany and Denmark made relationships difficult with their fellow German missionaries. They were “encouraged” to leave the Gossner mission in West Bengal. Not finding welcome from other German missionaries in the area, they came to know a Baptist missionary, E. C. Johnson, who helped them to establish themselves among the Santal tribe, and they would spend the rest of their lives serving the Santal people. While there, Anna Olsum joined him in his missionary work, and they married.
The Santals were a simple and vulnerable people who suffered persecution from their neighbors. Skrefsrud felt great compassion for them, and took it upon himself to strive to help the Santals overcome their adversity. With his gift for languages, he learned the Santal tongue and created a written langauge for them. With them, he translated the Scriptures and wrote them a hymnal that used their native songs. He valued their culture and traditions, and wanted to help them preserve their ways for future generations. As he and Boerresen needed financial support for their work, they re-embraced their Lutheran heritage in order to get support from Norway, taking pains to hide the fact that they had ever embraced Baptist traditions.
Skrefsrud was extremely committed to social justice. He sympathized with the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited. He freely helped to save the Santal people from money lenders, persecution from neighbors, and all who would take advantage of the Santals’ simplicity. He founded schools to teach the Santals farming, animal care, carpentry, and skills to help them thrive in their communities. While being a servant of Christ, he loved the people so much as to help them write down and preserve their traditional myths and rituals. And at the same time, he helped to establish a church that embraced their native ways, and that they would be able to continue and manage themselves.
His popularity grew, such that he came to represent the interests of the Santal people to the Indian and British governments. His mission grew into the modern-day Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (nelc.in), which counts over 150,000 members. The written alphabet he created for the Santals continues to be used today. In his last days, he suffered a stroke, and became incapacitated. He passed away on December 11, 1910.
Lord, today we thank you for the inspiration of your servant, Lars Olsen Skrefsrud. The powerful renewal of Your Gopsel transformed him from the ways of death to life, and he dedicated his life to bringing your message to the Santal people. He strove to help them survive and thrive, and his mission continues to serve you even today. Help us to understand Your forgiveness, and to believe in Your transformative power and grace, that is free to all of us. In Your name we pray, Amen.