Sara Holmsten came from the Baltic island of Åland. According to her own description of her life, she bore witness to – among other things – the “Russian ravages” suffered by the island during the early 1700s.
Sara Holmsten was born in 1713, the daughter of a farmer on Åland, according to herself. We know of her life today since her story is preserved in the Evangelical Brotherhood’s parish archives in Stockholm.
The Moravian Church movement (Evangelical Brotherhood) that came to Sweden in the 1740s belongs to the Swedish 1700s that are also interesting from the perspective of women’s history. The Moravian Church had a radical attitude to women’s position in the congregation — during certain periods, women were allowed both to preach and to hand out communion. It is probably no coincidence that Thomas Thorild and Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, both supporters of gender equality, had Moravian Church piety in their backgrounds, and that the independent Anna Maria Lenngren grew up with a father who was a Moravian Church member.
The Evangelical Brotherhood can be described as anti-intellectual, since they put emotion and imagination in the centre of their relation to the deity and faith. This resulted in the subject, the self, having a central role in the movement’s practices. It is the deity seen and emotionally experienced by the inward-looking self who is central. God moves into the self’s normal psychological processes, into fantasies and into dreams. The consequence is that autobiographies become important religious documents, because in them the path to God is described, and in them testimonies are rendered to meetings with the deity in the images of the inner vision.
All members of the congregation in the Moravian Church were therefore obliged to write their “life stories”, which were then read out at the member’s funeral. In the Evangelical Brotherhood’s congregation, these life stories are still preserved today. Apart from Sara Holmsten, 35 life stories written by women during the second half of the 1700s have been preserved.
Åland suffered greatly during the 1700s from the so-called “Russian ravages”, among other occasions in 1719—1721. After one of these, Sara Holmsten and her family were driven from their farm, and she had to survive by begging. This is how she remembers the ravages:
“One night, I lay with my mother and brothers on a thickly forested hillslope, totally starving, in the morning 4 Russians came across us and took away our clothes, so that my mother was not allowed to keep more than her winding cloth and a skirt, they threatened us with death if we did not show them where more people had hidden in the forest, they drove us before them with cuts and beatings, till my mother fell down out of powerlessness and had not the strength to walk any further, then one of them made as if to murder her with his sabre, but another of them stopped him.”
She became a nurse at a crofter’s home, but when the baby had died she came to another crofter who however “was a hard man, who struck both me and his wife and child, when he was drunk”. She moved to Stockholm where she supported herself as a maidservant and factory worker. During the 1750s, she came in contact with the Evangelical Brotherhood and became a maidservant at the home of one of the congregation’s leaders. She served there for ten years. After that, as a 60-year-old, she was only able to manage lighter service, and was taken in at the age of 68 by the Johannes poor house. She was 72 years old when she wrote her life story. This is how she recalls her path to her saviour:
“In 1752, I was strongly awoken by a sermon on the passion. The night after that, I dreamed that I and many others beat and flagellated the Saviour; after which I woke up in a terrible state of weeping and wailing. […] Nevertheless, lack of faith took me over once again and caused me many moments of distress and dark times, for many times it crossed my mind that it was all my own imagination. […] Sometime after that, I heard Magist: Gren preaching about how Peter denied the Saviour; then it seemed to me, that I was the same; […] I was tormented by this grief for a whole week, but at length the Saviour showed himself to me in my sleep, how he also for my sins was made pale.”
Sara Holmsten has probably written down this story herself — the handwriting in the manuscript is not very skilled. However, her memory was good and she describes her terrifying childhood experiences and agonies, and also the conversion process of her adult years in clear, concentrated and expressive language.
Sara Holmsten died in 1795, at 82 years of age.