STOCKHOLM, Sweden — The flames of hundreds of thousands of candles combine to form a river of light in Sweden each year on “All Saints Day,” a national holiday held the first Saturday of November.
The celebration, which has both religious and traditional significance, not only honors those who have passed on, but also marks the beginning of winter in this Scandinavian country.
Visiting Sweden just days after the candles of “All Saints Day” filled local cemeteries — and their adjoining communities — with light, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland met with members and missionaries and spoke about the significance of Sweden in the history of the Church.
It would be hard for Latter-day Saints to look back on the lives of those who have lived in Sweden and not understand “what this land had meant” to the Church and to the posterity of early members, said Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The trip was part of a three-nation ministry tour that began in Germany and will conclude in Finland later this week. Elder Holland was accompanied by Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Marcia B. Nielson, and Elder Hans T. Boom, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Europe North Area, and his wife, Sister Ariena Johanna Boom.
Elder Holland said as missionary work took off in this area in the mid 1800s, many early converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left this land — and its beautiful landscapes — to gather with the Saints in the United States who were trying to build Zion. “Times were tough in Sweden and there was a hope that it would be better in Zion,” he said.
In a special meeting with missionaries in the country, Elder Holland asked the young elders and sisters which of them had family ties to this nation. More than 75% of the missionaries raised their hands.
There is no better way to pay tribute to them than through missionary service and devotion to the Church they sacrificed so much to join, Elder Holland said.
Sister Grace Eliason, a missionary from Rockville, Maryland, arrived in Sweden thinking of Anders Eliasson, her great-great-great grandfather, who lived in Alingsås, Sweden, on a large estate called Ennerkulen. “He had a dream one night and was prompted to read a scripture in the Bible,” Sister Eliason explained. “A few days later missionaries came to his door.”
There was a beautiful lake and a big rock on his farm. The missionaries taught on this rock and the people would gather together there in the forest to hear their message. “This rock was soon known as ‘missionary rock.’”
In 1863, after joining the Church, Anders sold his farm and moved to Utah with his family. He helped pay for more than 100 Latter-day Saints to also make the journey to Zion.
Before her own mission to Sweden, Sister Eliason had heard of “missionary rock.” Her grandfather had visited the sacred site with his own grandfather. “I have always wanted to see it,” she said.
Currently serving in Skövde, located about 90 minutes from missionary rock, Sister Eliason had the opportunity to visit the sacred site. “Some members of the Alingsås Ward were so kind and showed us around and told us of the history,” she said. “I am so glad I can come serve the people of Sweden here where my ancestors came from. I know they are here with me and are looking out for me.”
A missionary journal
Also a missionary in the Sweden Stockholm Mission, Sister Emma Pearson of Cedar Hills, Utah, has used her mission as an opportunity to learn about her ancestors, Ola Pearsson (born in Hörby, Skåne, Sweden in 1818) and his wife, Sissa Jonson Bengtsson. After joining the Church and traveling to Zion, their 11th child — Levi — was born in Utah. Two decades later, Levi served as a missionary in Sweden, keeping a detailed journal and recording his successes and his mission experiences.
Sister Pearson has read and reflected on his journal. “It is very similar today,” she said. “I am not walking everywhere as he was, but I am reaching out and building on the relationships of those early family members.”
Ola and Sissa were the only family in their parish that joined the Church. They converted others in the community. When they could not afford for the entire family to travel to Utah, they split up, with some family members staying behind to save for their own journey. “They experienced a beautiful reunion,” said Sister Pearson.
Sister Pearson thinks of them often as she walks this beautiful land and testifies of the work they sacrificed to embrace.
Blessings of determination
Local members also find great strength from looking back on the lives of early Latter-day Saints — the pioneers who laid the foundation for the Church today in Sweden. Suzan Vennerholm is a third-generation member in Sweden. Her grandfather, August Hedberg, joined the Church in the early 1920s, shortly after losing his entire family to the Spanish flu. He immediately traveled to Salt Lake City to perform temple ordinances for his lost loved ones.
“To see what he had to save to get there and the determination he had was inspiring,” said Sister Vennerholm.
His son, Arne Hedberg, born from a second marriage after returning to Sweden, served as a stake president, temple president and patriarch in Sweden.
In her lifetime, Sister Vennerholm has seen attitudes toward religion in Sweden soften.
Her life is easier because of the Church members who embraced the gospel during harder times. Her mother-in-law, Barbro Vennerholm, for example, joined the Church at age 17.
“She is a great example for our family,” Suzan Vennerholm said. “When I think about her at 17 years old. She was alone and met opposition. She is a very strong-willed woman.”
‘The gospel has the answers’
Sweden Stockholm Mission President Robert L. Davis said Elder Holland’s visit came at the perfect time for Latter-day Saint in the country.
“Over 40 percent of the people who live in Sweden live alone,” he said. “The pandemic isolated people further. We learned that not only were people searching for meaning in their life, but they were also experiencing extreme loneliness. The gospel has the answers.”
President Davis and his wife, Sister Tiffany Davis, both served as young missionaries in Sweden almost three decades ago.
After spending most of their time as full-time missionaries knocking on doors, the Davises have seen social media change the way missionary work is performed in Sweden.
What has remained constantly, however, is the Swedish commitment to family history.
That is reflected in the reverence and commitment they show for All Saints Day each year.
“You see all these lights, all these candles, and you know there is someone special behind each one of them,” said President Davis.
The Book of Mormon – the ‘greatest missionary tool’
While addressing members and missionaries in Sweden, Elder Holland reflected on his own memories of the nation; he served as president of the Church’s Europe North Area from 1990 to 1993 and made numerous trips to Scandinavia. Elder Holland also reflected on his own mission as a young elder to England.
“Everything that I cherish, somehow came through or was shaped by, or modified by, or encouraged by, or eliminated because of that decision. No one ever started with less and came back with more than I did.”
At the heart of that, said Elder Holland, was “my coming to know the Savior of the world.”
“So I suppose there has been a day in the last 60 years that I have not thought about my mission, I just do not know what that day would have been.”
Elder Holland bore his testimony of the Book of Mormon — the very book that lit the flame of conversion in early Latter-day Saints to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
“However much you are using [the Book of Mormon], you are not using it enough,” he told members and missionaries in Sweden. “This is the single, greatest missionary tool God has given to the Church or ever will.”