Adventism’s unlikely apostle

John Matteson worked tirelessly as a missionary to Scandinavians.

Yvonne Johansson Öster
Adventism’s unlikely apostle
John Gottlieb Matteson. Photo courtesy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Archives.

This article was taken from the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. The full article may be read at encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5CPX.


John Gottlieb Matteson was a minister, editor, and pioneer missionary in Scandinavia. Born into a nominally Lutheran family in Langeland, Denmark, he had the advantage of a good literary and musical education, where he also learned English and German. At his initiative he, his parents, and two sisters emigrated to the United States in 1854 with a group of 20 others.

In New Denmark, Wisconsin, the family built a log cabin on a 20-acre timber lot.1 Matteson was invited to a prayer meeting by a neighbor. From this connection he read a book that impressed him deeply; and asked himself: “Why can’t you too become a Christian?” Gradually this led to his personal conversion in 1859.2

Matteson worked with great enthusiasm as a lay preacher. He entered Douglas Baptist Theological College in Chicago in 1860. Following two years of study, he was ordained as a Baptist minister.3 He married Anna Sivertsen from Norway, and they left for Wisconsin, to preach the Baptist faith.4

In the spring of 1863 he met P. H. Cady, a neighbor. From him Matteson learned of the seventh-day Sabbath, which he accepted after meticulous Bible study. He gave a six-month series explaining his newfound faith in Seventh-day Adventism to his Baptist congregation. The entire congregation, apart from one family, followed him.5

Matteson became a powerful preacher of the Advent message with a special emphasis on the love of God. He conducted revivals and established churches among the Scandinavians in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas.6 A Danish Adventist church was founded by Matteson in Poy Sippi, Wisconsin. The first Adventist church building for a Norwegian-speaking congregation was built in Chicago because of Matteson’s revival meetings.7

Matteson prepared tracts, pamphlets, and edited a songbook in Danish-Norwegian. In 1872 Advent Tidende (Advent Herald), a Danish-Norwegian periodical, was launched, the first Adventist publication in a language other than English.8 When urgent appeals asked for a worker in Scandinavia, Matteson was reluctant.9 “It is a great sacrifice on my part to go,” he said. “There is no undertaking that I have been so slow to decide on as this.” Fearing the cause would suffer if he didn’t go, he trusted God would direct and bless the work.10

The first Adventist church was organized in Ålstrup, Denmark, in May 1878. Not only did his preaching establish small Adventist churches, but he also preached temperance with great success. Matteson’s fiery temperance speeches allowed for the organization of a temperance society in 1877, the first in Denmark. The Danish Conference was established May 30, 1880, the first conference outside the United States.

In 1878 Matteson proceeded to Norway. In Kristiania (Oslo) he started a series of lectures that caused a stir in the city. Matteson held regular meetings every Sunday evening for a couple of months, during which 1,000-1,200 listeners came. Matteson showed the Adventist faith as a successor of the Protestant Reformation.

On January 11, 1879, a small band of 34 signed a charter for a Christian church, the “First Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kristiania.”

In 1880 he issued a new publication, Sundhedsbladet, a health journal, the first of its kind in the country.  The state church required Matteson to acquire a property. In May 1885 a spacious church was built at Akersgatan 74, with treatment rooms on the basement level; the printing press was also housed there.

Matteson officiated at the organization of the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Sweden on August 28, 1880, in Grythyttehed. The Swedish Conference was established in 1882 in Örebro.11

In 1884 Matteson and Olaf Johnson held an evangelistic campaign in Stockholm. The lack of religious material in Swedish was great. Matteson tried to issue tracts and a periodical on health. Eventually his book The Prophecies of Jesus was printed in Swedish, first in the United States for Swedish-speaking Americans, and then shipped to relatives in Sweden.

One of Matteson’s goals was to increase the number of workers, which he succeeded in doing through mission schools, held a couple of months each year. Matteson realized that the prospect of spreading literature was greater in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway, so he arranged a branch of the Scandinavian publishing house in Kristiania to be set up in Stockholm.12 

When Ellen White visited Scandinavia in 1886 to 1888, she had reason to be impressed by the rapidity of the process Matteson had launched in all three countries. Despite few workers with knowledge, a conference in each country had been organized, the colporteur work flourished, magazines were issued, and people were won for the Adventist message. In Stockholm alone the membership rose from six to 60 in one winter of Matteson’s campaigns.13

The first camp meeting in Europe, in Moss, Norway, in 1887 was at the initiative of Matteson. The presence of Ellen and W. C. White, S. N. Haskell, and others made this the first important Adventist meeting in Scandinavia.14 

Matteson’s health was not the best, and in the spring of 1888 he and his family returned to the United States, where he held Bible schools in Chicago, was a traveling secretary, did extensive editorial work, and ended up the last three years of his life as a Bible teacher at Union College in Nebraska, where the Scandinavian American Adventists attended school. Some of Matteson’s students became future leaders in the church on both sides of the Atlantic, while some left for foreign mission fields.15

Matteson died on March 30, 1896, in Santa Monica, California, while visiting one of his sons to recover from feeble health.16 Ellen White commented upon his death, “Elder Matteson, who now sleeps in Jesus, united with his Savior as his helping hand, and organized a school of young men and women. And under his direction the students worked nobly. What a work has been done! What a multitude of books were sold. And how many there were who united with the church.”17

1 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), s.v. “Matteson, John Gottlieb (1835-1896).”

2 J. G. Matteson, Mattesons Liv (International Publishing Association, 1908), pp. 53-59. Photographic print, Dansk Bogforlag, 1972.

3 Ibid., pp. 73-81.

4 Ibid., pp. 82-86.

5 Ibid., pp. 98-104.

6 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), s.v. “Matteson, John Gottlieb (1835-1896).”

7 Matteson, p. 135.

8 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), s.v. “Matteson, John Gottlieb (1835-1896).”

9 Review and Herald, Apr. 12, 1877, p. 119.

10 Review and Herald, Apr. 19, 1877, p. 124.

11 W. A. Spicer, The Story of Our Missions (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1921), p. 110.

12 Matteson, pp. 264, 265; Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basle: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886), p. 189.

13 Matteson, pp. 256, 257.

14 Ibid., pp. 267-269.

15 O. A. Olsen, “Another Faithful Leader Fallen,” Review and Herald 73, no. 15 (1896): 234.

16 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), s.v. “Matteson, John Gottlieb (1835-1896).”

17 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), vol. 7, p. 315, in www.adventistarchives.org.

Yvonne Johansson Öster

Yvonne Johansson Öster is a retired college teacher and pastor. She has written numerous articles on Adventist history.