John Gustav (J. G.) Princell: A Free Church Father

Greg Strand – October 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Johan Gustav Gudmundson (also known as Gummeson, and changed to Gunnerson after they arrived America) was born in Smaland, Sweden on September 18, 1845. Johan and his family emigrated to the United States arriving in New York on July 3, 1856. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Princeton, IL.

When Johan departed for further education in 1863 he changed his name to John Gustaf Princell, out of respect to the town that had become his home, Princeton. We know him as J. G. Princell, and consider him one of the “fathers” of the Evangelical Free Church (Swedish).

Often we hear or know the great accolades of an individual, or the many gifts a person possesses, or the numerous ways the work of a person’s hands prospered. All of these matters would be accurate for Princell. But what is often missing from such a recounting of a person’s history is the kind, wise, good providence of God in preparing a person for those tasks. Although the former is true, without the latter it can almost become historical hagiography. The result can be that we end up making more of a man and less of God.

In the recounting of the lives of those who have gone before, there are few, if any, who are exempt from learning and growing through pain, suffering and sorrow. In fact, it has been said those God uses greatly are those who have been tested deeply. And by faith, they have come forth as God’s refined gold, vessels in the redeemers hand.

This is true for our beloved J. G. Princell. God used him greatly in the Free Church movement, which is why he is considered one of the fathers. He had a giant of an intellect, was a gifted preacher, and a strong leader. But that did not happen apart from God’s gracious sanctifying work in his life. Here are three painful life experiences, which are little known, but which God used for good, evidenced in the spiritual fruit that remained in his life and ministry.

The Death of Princell’s Brother. Three days before they arrived in New York, John’s younger brother died and was buried at sea. As a boy of 11, John was overcome with grief. Through his tears he said, “It was so hard to see little brother sink into the depths of the ocean!”

The Death of Princell’s Wife. J. G. was married to Selma Ostergren in the Gustaf-Adolph church in April 1873. After two short years of marriage, Selma succumbed to death. Upon exchanging vows, J. G. did not think his commitment “till death do us part” would be only two years. Interestingly, prior to Selma’s departure to be with the Lord, she informed J. G. about his remarriage upon her death. “I know who will be my successor,” she said, “because I have already talked to the Lord about it. She is Josephine Lind, and you may remember that there is no one who I would rather see in my place than she.” J. G., once again, experienced the depth of grief in the loss of his wife. What transpired between them prior to Selma’s death also says something about their relationship. J. G. and Josephine were married in 1876 in Boston, and they remained married until J. G.s death in 1915.

The Joys and Sorrows of Revival. P. P. Waldenstrom’s ministry in Sweden was used greatly of the Lord in the renewal and revival of individuals. Waldenstrom’s influence was carried by and flourished among Swedish immigrants in the United States. These immigrants studied the Bible and experienced revival. Princell was also influenced by Waldenstrom and the revival. This resulted in a commitment to the Scriptures and to spiritual reform in the church with an emphasis on “believers’ church membership and believers’ communion.” (There were other emphases, such as his view of the atonement that were problematic, but that is for another time.) This offended some of the members which resulted in a split in the Gustaf-Adolph church. This painful split led to Princell’s resignation from the church in 1879, and a formal and official suspension by the Augustana Synod at their annual meeting in 1879. Princell personally experienced both the joys and pains of revival.

In the midst of trials and tribulations, we trust in God’s good providence as he “causes all things to work together for good.” We are also assured it is these kinds of life experiences God uses to form and shape who we become, and from this character created by God, we serve others with an “aroma of Christ.” This truth was manifested in the life of J. G. Princell, and we are thankful.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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