Clara Ahnfelt wrote the lyrics for Swedish sacred songs of the late-1800s. She left significant traces in Swedish society through her contributions to the evangelical revivalist movement as well as the practical, spiritual and psychological support she provided to her famous husband, the singer, composer and preacher Oscar Ahnfelt.
Clara Ahnfelt was born in Vimmerby on 18 February 1819. Her parents were Christian Fredrik Strömberg, a military accountant and magistrate, and Beata Christina Björklund. The family remained in Vimmerby until 1822 when they moved to Skänninge, and then two years later they moved to Stockholm. As a young woman Clara Ahnfelt worked in fashion. We know nothing more about her: the little that has been written about her focuses on what became her life’s work, namely her involvement in the evangelical revivalist movement.
The introduction of baptism in Swedish society in the mid-1800s, led to the emergence of a kind of counter-movement from within the Lutheran sector, a movement whose roots lay in pietist, Moravian tradition which dated from the preceding century. One branch of this movement was the so-called new evangelists whose main proponent was Carl Olof Rosenius. In 1856 he belonged to a group that founded Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (EFS, the Swedish Evangelical Mission). Clara Ahnfelt, like her husband Oscar Ahnfelt, was in regular contact with Carl Olof Rosenius. Oscar Ahnfelt was often asked to sing during Carl Olof Rosenius’ gatherings.
Oscar and Clara Ahnfelt married at Midsummer in 1844. For a time they were members of the Jakob church congregation before moving to Västerlånggatan and joining the Storkyrkan congregation. They had two children, Oscar Jonathan and Maria Elisabeth, both of whom died young. In 1851 the couple moved to Karlshamn where, for a time, Oscar Ahnfelt worked as a tutor. In 1860 the couple purchased the so-called Cronholmska farm at number 70 in Drottningholm. On the top floor of their home they set up a meeting hall to hold prayer meetings and give sermons. In this hall, on 9 March 1867, Karlshamns Missionsförening was established as a branch of EFS. The association expanded and by 1868 a mission building had been constructed. Given that Clara Ahnfelt’s husband Oscar was often away preaching and on singing-tours throughout Sweden she became the leading figure of the enterprise. She took over the running of a Sunday-school and set up and ran efforts in support of the seamen’s and China missions. Her home became a centre for conversations and spiritual care and accommodated many of the travelling preachers who came as guests of the association.
Oscar Ahnfelt, when away on his tours, sang his own melodies using lyrics primarily written by Lina Sandell-Berg, as well as those written by Clara Ahnfelt, to accompaniment on his twelve-string guitar. He met with great public success. 200 of these songs were gathered into a series of 12 pamphlets, entitled Andeliga sånger, published between 1850 and 1877. Some of these publications were made possible through funding received from Jenny Lind, who was also very influenced by Carl Olof Rosenius. This printed collection was widely disseminated.
Clara Ahnfelt’s output is quite limited. As far as is known she did not published anything before 1859. Her lyrics reveal a strong need to emphasise the influential role of conversion and faith in life, which can probably be taken as typical of contemporary revivalist songs. Clara Ahnfelt’s lyrics, as with those written by others, were also subject to the unwritten demands of pietistic culture and an aesthetic view in which simplicity in form and artlessness were considered a guarantee of authenticity. Clara Ahnfelt’s songs are characterised by a strong trust in God and are written using simple and easy-flowing language. These songs are quite plain in their arrangement, often using an antithetical pattern cleverly bound together by a main thread.
In 1859 three of the texts she had written were published in the fifth pamphlet of Andeliga sånger along with three verses of a hymn called I djupet av mitt hjärta, penned by the Danish bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson. Clara Ahnfelt’s first verse began with the words “Jo du mig visar vägen” (Yes you show me the way). The song became one of the most widely disseminated songs of Swedish hymn- and song-books up to the late 1900s. In Den svenska psalmboken, published in 1986, Clara Ahnfelt’s lyrics have been replaced by a translation provided by Anders Frostenson.
Oscar Ahnfelt, following a period of severe depression, died from a stroke on 22 October 1882. This was the toughest period of Clara Ahnfelt’s life. She herself died of pneumonia on 19 March 1896. They lie buried beside each other at Hvilans cemetery in Karlshamn.