Church Growing Steadily in Sweden

Contributed By By Laurie Williams Sowby, Church News contributor

  • 20 December 2013

Stockholm, Sweden. Since 1950 Church membership in Sweden has grown from 1,000 to 9,450.  Photo by Laurie Williams Sowby.

Article Highlights

  • While serving in seven mission presidencies, two stake presidencies, and as a bishop in Sweden, Håkan Palm has watched the Church grow steadily in Sweden over the past 40 years.
  • The first LDS missionary in Sweden was jailed, but prominent leaders in Sweden now honor the Church.
  • Håkan Palm helps strengthen members’ relationships within the community by organizing various community events.

“The tolerance now in Swedish society makes it easy for young people to talk about the Church. We are more accepted now.”— Håkan Palm

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

Håkan Palm feels blessed to live a mere four miles from the first temple in Scandinavia and the only temple in Sweden.

He served on the committee to find the wooded site about 15 miles south of Stockholm in 1981, and he was there for the groundbreaking. As an LDS public affairs director for the country and a member of the temple committee, he organized the open house, where an expected 2,000 visitors turned into nearly 50,000 before the Stockholm Sweden Temple was dedicated in 1985. Ten years later, he arranged for Sweden’s king and queen to visit the temple grounds and meet President Thomas S. Monson.

Despite the impressive resume, it’s the value of the temple covenants to his posterity that matters most to him.

Brother Palm, 64, has been active in the Church since he was 3 years old, when his parents joined and held branch meetings in their own living room. Gustav and Agnes Palm were unlikely converts in post-war 1953 Sweden—a former Waffen SS soldier and a Jewish woman who had lived in a concentration camp. But their posterity now numbers more than 125—counting Brother Palm, his wife, Barbro, seven children, and 13 grandchildren—who have the blessings of the gospel.

The Palms are among 9,450 Latter-day Saints in Sweden, a country of 9 million people. That’s a long way from the time Swedish seaman John Erik Forsgren was baptized in Boston, emigrated with the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley with the Mormon Battalion via California, then returned to his home in Gävle to baptize Sweden’s first convert in 1850—his brother Peter. Brother Palm recounted the history, noting that although Elder Forsgren was banished from the country, he managed to baptize 17 converts and organize a branch during the time he was waiting for the next departing ship from Gävle. Prior to 1950, Brother Palm explained, when converts were encouraged to emigrate to the United States where they could receive temple ordinances, thousands of Swedish Saints did so. (A total of 20,000 members from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden emigrated to Utah.)

Brother Palm has seen slow but steady growth in Church membership over the nearly four decades since being called as a counselor to President Richard Oscarson of the Sweden Stockholm Mission at age 26. Currently second counselor in the mission presidency under President Gregory Newell, a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Brother Palm has served with seven mission presidents as well as in two stake presidencies and as bishop of the Gubbängen Ward.

“He is highly esteemed by those who know him, including President Monson,” said President Newell. Brother Palm’s cheerful, warm personality makes him comfortable with everyone, from kings to kids. It has no doubt been a factor in his and his wife’s success in reactivating many members as they make dozens of visits throughout the mission each month.

He was called at age 23 to introduce seminary and institute and supervised the program for more than five years. He was serving as public affairs director for the area when President Monson presided at the groundbreaking and when President Hinckley dedicated the Stockholm Sweden Temple in 1985. Brother Palm oversaw the open house, which received positive publicity and yielded 1,200 missionary referrals. He also organized the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s appearances in Stockholm during its 1984 tour and, later, a performance by BYU’s Lamanite Generation, which drew a record crowd of 18,000 to an open-air stage in the King’s Garden in downtown Stockholm.

When he arranged for Their Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia to visit the temple grounds at Västerhaninge with President Monson in 1995, Brother Palm said that President Monson noted to his wife, Frances, the contrast between the first missionary to Sweden being jailed and the fact that the king and queen were now coming to honor the Church and visit LDS temple grounds there. Sweden has four stakes, 40 units (wards and branches), and around 50 meetinghouses, as well as a temple. The mission reaches above the Arctic Circle. Full-time missionaries number 184, including 16 couples, according to President Newell. His first counselor, President Håkan Stegeby, serves as the only district president in Sweden.

Håkan Palm is among the 9,450 Latter-day Saints in Sweden, a country of 9 million people. Photo by Laurie Williams Sowby.

Like many other Swedish members who enjoy being entrepreneurs, Brother Palm does management consulting for major domestic and international industries and firms, including Mercedes and Nissan in Sweden, Volvo, ICA, and SEB. But he limited the size of his business in order to maintain balance. His wife helps with the accounting, and “we organized our work so we could spend free time with our growing family.”

“Everything forms a whole,” he said. “You can’t separate job, family, and church.” His business was closed when his children were out of school in the summer, plus Christmas and Easter, and the family traveled all over Scandinavia and Europe for six to seven weeks in a camper. Now they gather at a red wood-frame house, “Björkösund,” on Väddö, one of more than 24,000 small islands that make up the archipelago of Stockholm.

Brother Palm was at the site working on its construction eight years ago when he severed two fingers in a saw accident. Miraculously, despite blood loss and shock, he was able to remain conscious and communicate with the medical-helicopter crew and direct them to his exact location. Now, in typical Håkan Palm form, he jokes that he is one of the few who can count on his fingers the eight words God said to Joseph Smith in the First Vision: “Joseph: This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him.”

His parents’ extended family gathers for a reunion every two years. In 2012, it was held at the archipelago house with 95 family members joining in the fun. Family patriarch Gustav, 91 and a temple sealer, attended. (Agnes, 94, was bedridden in an elderly care center.) “Our church is a way of life centered on the family that makes it a little bit different,” said Brother Palm. That difference is appealing to Swedes.

The Palms have gone beyond Church-only activities to invite others to experience the joy of family. Håkan and Barbro Palm’s oldest son died in 1979 at age 5 from cancer; in 2008 the family started a road bike team to honor Magnus’s memory, named TeamMagnus. The family bought the same brand of bikes that Magnus had ridden and designed cycling uniforms. It wasn’t long before friends and strangers asked to bike with the Palm family and TeamMagnus.

Together with the Protestant Mora Church, they host an annual TeamMagnus Wall of Honor ceremony where “the light in death” is celebrated in words and music and loved ones are remembered. TeamMagnus cooperates with the Vasa Trampet road bike race in Mora for the 90-K (60-mile) race to demonstrate that life goes on after tragedy and loss. “It adds a quality to biking that is very special,” he said, telling how one of the previous year’s participants who had died was among those remembered this year as his son and 80 friends cycled in his honor and added a plaque with his name on it to the wall. “This experience is beyond our words. We feel it deep in our hearts and are so thankful,” said the widow of the deceased biker.

“It is the Spirit of the Lord they feel. But they express their feelings with other words, and we accept that,” said Brother Palm. “Everybody knows we’re Mormon, but we don’t say it; we preach by example in TeamMagnus. We want everyone to feel welcome. We have kept one thing as a part of TeamMagnus: We start every activity with a prayer.” TeamMagnus and the race continue to grow each year.

Another successful event in the Stockholm South Stake, the annual midsummer festival in Tyresta National Park, in Haninge, was started 39 years ago under Bishop Nils Lundgren and the Balck family as a ward activity. The festival day with Primary Run Race, tug of war, cross country run, and dancing around the midsummer pole highlights Sweden’s folk traditions. Now a joint effort between the National Park Authority and the Church, it drew 5,000 this year. Such public events, said Brother Palm, help the Church gain visibility as others get to know members as neighbors and friends.

“Many of the Church members in Sweden are firm as a rock,” he said. “You can trust the membership here. They do what they say they will.”

Brother Palm recalled how embarrassed he was in high school to be known as a Mormon, but said, “The tolerance now in Swedish society makes it easy for young people to talk about the Church. We are more accepted now.” His grandchildren freely invite non-LDS friends to their baptisms.

He expects to see the Church’s growth in Sweden continue, especially among immigrants from other countries. “Even though religion has lost its role [in society in general], the 1,000 members [in 1950] have grown almost ten times,” he said. “The Lord is hastening His work in this beautiful country. It seems Sweden is coming back to spirituality. When people think happiness is to be found somewhere else, they will not find it.”