Frida Strandberg was a preacher, a composer of hymns, an editor and a writer who generated enthusiastic audiences. She fought for the right of women to inhabit all posts within the church, particularly in Assembléia de Deus in Brazil, which was the world’s largest Pentecostal church during the 1920s.
Frida Strandberg was born in Själevad, just west of Örnsköldsvik in Ångermanland on 9 June 1891. Her formative years were spent in an environment influenced by Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (EFS, Swedish Evangelical Mission), of which she became a member. Her surviving diary from her youth reveals that she was interested in matters related to the holy blood and immaculate conception, implying that she may have been exposed to Moravian influences. Frida Strandberg received a calling to be a missionary at an early age. In 1914, then 23 years old, she made her way to Svenska Bibelinstitutet (now Hagabergs folkhögskola) in Södertälje where she attended an eighth-month course. She then moved to Vänersborg where she attended a nursing course at the local hospital. This training ended with a three-month course at Barnbördshuset (maternity unit) at Planterhagsvägen in Stockholm. She then intended to head out as a missionary on behalf of EFS.
However, her plans changed. When Frida Strandberg returned to Stockholm in 1916 she met Pentecostals from the Philadelphia church at Uppsalagatan 11. Their spirituality and their heavy involvement in social welfare enterprises, such as Räddningsmissionen, visits to sickbeds and orphanages appear to have appealed to her and on 24 January 1917 she allowed herself to be baptised within the Philadelphia congregation and became a member of that church.
Despite Frida Strandberg’s relatively recent arrival within the congregation her first article was already published within the Philadelphia congregation’s journal, Evangelii Härold by April 1917. The next month an article headlined ‘New work force for Brazil’ was published, which included a picture of a serious-looking Frida Strandberg clad in her nurse’s uniform. Although she had only been a member for six months Frida Strandberg had been accepted as the congregation’s first missionary, which was an almost unheard of development within the Pentecostal movement.
On 28 May 1917 Frida Vinberg departed from Stockholm headed for Brazil and the town of Pará (now Belém) via the USA. She arrived in Pará on 7 July that same year. Her first task outside the church was to, along with Lina Nyström, work amongst the prostitutes of Pará. In October 1917 Gunnar Vingren, whom Frida Strandberg had met in Stockholm, returned to Brazil from the USA. The couple appears to have already begun a relationship earlier as by 18 October they were married. Now Frida Strandberg took on the role of “a pioneer’s wife”, entailing both certain obligations as well as a certain level of protection.
Alongside these activities Frida Strandberg carried on writing. Now that she served as the Brazil correspondent the reports she produced took on a new aspect. They became more down-to-earth, descriptive, and contained more social analysis and portrayed the people rather than the enterprises in which the mission was engaged. During 1919 Gunnar and Frida Strandberg established a journal called Boa Semente to support the growing congregational movement known as Assembléia de Deus. The role of editor largely fell to Frida Strandberg. Although the first issue contained articles written by missionaries, the organ eventually served as a springboard for Brazilian writers.
In 1920 Frida Strandberg fell seriously ill with malaria. She hovered between life and death for a two and a half month period. Afterwards she was plagued with bouts of illness for the rest of her life. After surviving malaria she suffered from goitre and towards the end of her life she suffered psychological problems.
In 1922 Frida Strandberg became the first woman ever to write for the Pentecostal theological journal entitled Evangelii Härolds Månadshäfte, revealing the status that Frida Strandberg already enjoyed within the fledgling Pentecostal movement. Perhaps this was the time of her greatest success in Sweden.
Two years later Frida Strandberg and the family moved to Rio de Janeiro. Despite their financial struggles the work progressed. Gunnar Vingren was often away in the provinces on preaching trips leaving Frida Strandberg in charge of congregational work. Despite the opposition of her fellow missionaries Frida Strandberg took on all kinds of roles normally reserved for male leaders: she preached, she led gatherings, she took charge of male evangelists and she provided religious services. During Frida Strandberg’s time the congregation’s membership increased from a mere handful to around 2,000 individuals by 1932, making it one of the largest Pentecostal congregations in the world.
Lewi Pethrus, the unofficial leader of the Pentecostal movement, agreed to attend a conference between missionaries and national pastors held in Natal, Brazil from 5–10 September 1930. He agreed to this despite being in the middle of a huge church-building operation in Stockholm. The main issue of the conference was officially a discussion about handing over the work of the movement to national pastors. This was just the pretext for another controversial issue: determining the actual role of female missionaries. Frida Strandberg’s activities, as well as those of her colleague Adina Nelson, who worked in Rio de Janeiro, blatantly lay behind this issue. Although the missionary corps was divided on this issue the majority turned against Frida Strandberg and Adina Nelson. Soon the two women only had the support of their own husbands. Even though there were other women who also played supporting roles in spiritual work alongside social welfare efforts, such as running children’s homes, it was, however, Frida Strandberg and Adina Nelson who ended up in the line of fire.
One consequence of the 1930 conference – during which the divide between missionaries and national pastors was resolved – was that both Pentecostal organs O Som Alegre and Boa Semente were merged into one and renamed Mensageiro da Paz. From 1930 onwards this organ was edited and printed in Rio de Janeiro. Frida Strandberg, who had been involved with Boa Semente from the outset, became a key figure during the early years of the new organ. Gunnar Vingren and Samuel Nyström were officially appointed as editors but it was Frida Strandberg who actually did the work.
In 1931 or 1932 Frida Strandberg fell in love with a young man with whom she worked closely. Her own world view did not allow for such a development to occur to a person who was as heavily involved in “God’s work” as she was. For practical reasons the young man even moved into the Vingren couple’s home. This allowed the two of them to spend more time working on the journal and to spend time translating hymns together. The young man was in awe of Frida Strandberg’s linguistic instinct, her drive, and her entrepreneurialism. They achieved a lot together. During 1930 alone Frida Strandberg produced 21 articles and three hymns, and during 1931 she wroe 23 articles and either wrote or translated eight poems and hymns, two of which were produced in collaboration with the young man. They also held successful meetings in town squares. The ensuing events allow us to assume with all likelihood that Frida Strandberg never entered into sexual relations with the young man but that their intimacy was enough to torment her conscience for the rest of her life and to place her further under the spotlight of and face opposition from fellow missionaries.
During the early autumn of 1932 Frida and Gunnar Vingren’s sixth child, Gunvor Vingren, died aged only four. This served as yet another hard blow to the already overworked Frida Strandberg. On top of that she was forced to hand over the journal to her adversaries and to return to Sweden. Gunnar Vingren was already seriously ill by then and subsequently died of cancer in June 1933. Frida Strandberg suddenly found herself entirely alone with five children to care for. When she attempted to return to Brazil she was prevented from doing so and when she protested about this she was banished from the very congregation which had been her life up to that point.
Frida Strandberg died in 1940, aged only 49, following various treatments at different hospitals and psychiatric clinics. Despite all of her achievements in both Brazil and in Sweden she never received any public recognition after her death, not even an obituary in Evangelii Härold. All of her important efforts in Brazil were silently overlooked. She had never existed according to the official records of the Pentecostal movement.
However, in Brazil she is still remembered. An obituary was published there in the Pentecostal newspaper in 1941. In 2016 Assembléia de Deus publishers released a biography of Frida Strandberg written by Isael de Araujo, Frida Strandberg – en biografi över en gudskvinna. However, the fascination with Frida Strandberg’s short but intense life’s work is not limited to the Pentecostal movement she belonged to and helped to found. At one of Sao Paulo’s universities a female researcher has written an essay on Frida Strandberg which elevates her as one of the significant women’s rights champions in Brazil!
In Sweden Frida Strandberg fell under the spotlight in 2011 when the journalist Kajsa Norell re-discovered her and her life story and subsequently wrote it up in her book entitled Halleluja Brasilien. Today Frida Strandberg is considered, even in Sweden, to be one of the women who – despite repeatedly beating her head against the “glass ceiling” – determinedly maintained the fight for her own and other women’s rights.
Frida Strandberg’s remains lie at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.