Bishop Hill was founded by a group of Swedish religious dissenters who emigrated from Sweden between 1846 and 1854. They were called Janssonists after the name of their religious leader, Erik Jansson. The Janssonists arose out of religious dissatisfaction in the part of Sweden from which they came, primarily the province of Halsingland, but also the provinces of Vastmanland, Gastrikland, and Dalarna, in northern Sweden. Most of the Janssonists were first of all Losare, or Readers, who met in their homes to have Bible meetings and hear lay preachers. However, it was against the law in Sweden to hold lay services like this. The Readers directed their protests against the rationalism of the state Lutheran church of Sweden, and preached a sort of fundamentalist or pietistic doctrine, renouncing the use of alcohol and advocating a return to the Scriptures as the source of ultimate authority.
Erik Jansson was a peasant born in Bishops Kulla in Vastmanland. He became interested in the study of religion early in life, and he supposedly experienced a miraculous recovery from crippling rheumatism, which convinced him that he was chosen by God to preach the “true word of God.” In his travels as a lay preacher he became acquainted with two brothers named Olaf and Jonas Olsson. They invited Erik Jansson to preach to their Reader following, and they became convinced that Jansson indeed had special favor with God. Then Jansson undertook extensive travels throughout Helsingland and neighboring provinces.
The movement began as one of many attempts to influence the state church and reform it. However, Jansson eventually repudiated all traditional Lutheran literature, the works of Luther and Arndt, and the Janssonists held several book burnings to demonstrate their belief that only the Bible that only the Bible should serve to guide their beliefs. As a result of the book burnings, however, the state church took drastic action against the Janssonists, persecuting them and arresting Erik Jansson. Finally, Jansson decided that he was “the Moses who would lead the persecuted Israelites out of the land of the Pharaoh.”
In 1845, Olof Olsson was sent as a scout to find a place in America which would be their New Jerusalem. In New York Olsson met a man named Olof Hedstrom, who was a Swedish Methodist and who had settled with his brother in Victoria, Illinois. Through this connection, Olsson came to the part of Illinois where Bishop Hill was founded.
In 1846, Erik Jansson and his family escaped from Sweden and came to meet Olof Olsson in Victoria, and then they together chose the site of the New Jerusalem in Weller Township of Henry County. There followed about four hundred Janssonists who arrived in late fall, 1846. They had no store of food and only a couple of log buildings for shelter. Therefore, they built dugouts into the ravine, which ran through the park and softball diamond currently found in Bishop Hill. These were shelters with log fronts which resembled the root shelters one would find in Sweden.
It is estimated that approximately 1500 people left Sweden between 1846 and 1854 to come to Bishop Hill. However, many were lost en route, during the first winter, and in subsequent epidemics. Some became dissatisfied and settled in Victoria, Altona, Galesburg and other areas, while others headed farther west. Probably about 1100 Janssonists lived in Bishop Hill between 1846 and the dissolution of the Colony in 1860-1861, although at any one time the population was probably never higher than 800, and in 1850 the census lists only about 400 people.
The Janssonists represented a cross-section of the Swedish population in terms of economic position and occupation. There were many craftsmen—blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, tanners, carpenters, etc., as well as farmers and servants. There were perhaps fifteen large landowners who sold their family farms or gardar and gave their money to the communal fund to bring the Janssonists to America. This was how the communal aspect of the Bishop Hill Colony began. Because not everyone could afford the cost of the voyage, it was necessary to undertake it communally. There were no passenger ships which could carry groups of 75-200 people, so they travelled on converted cargo vessels and at an expense much higher than that for a later immigrant. Although there were some who left husbands or wives in Sweden to come to America, virtually no one was, in fact, a loner. The groups who came were interrelated by brother-sister and marriage ties. In fact, it seems as if every attempt was made to bring as many of one’s immediate blood relatives as possible, and even more distant relationships sometimes became important.
The early years in Bishop Hill could be characterized as an attempt to build up an adequate base for sustaining communal life and establishing a way of life based on religion and hard work. These early years were spent in acquiring land and building the church and dwellings for the Colony members. The steam mill, bakery and brewery, meat preparation complex, and dairy building were all built prior to 1855, showing the preoccupation in the early years with fulfilling the basic needs of the members.