First Lutheran, Palo Alto, must be one of the very few congregations to have a pastor who was also a Knight and a poet. In July of 1929, the year before Eric Heurlin came to Palo Alto, King Gustav V of Sweden awarded Heurlin the title of Knight of the Order of Vasa, First Class, in recognition for his work with the Swedish Royal Vice Counsulate in Galveston. While there Heurlin helped Swedish nationals and Swedes at the Seaman’s Mission. At the same time, Pastor Heurlin also served full-time as the pastor of Zion Lutheran congregation.
Eric Julius Heurlin was born in Billinge, Skåne, Sweden, on April 12, 1878, the son of Anders Person Heurlin and Petronella Grahn. The family lived in the residential part of the local school where his father was a teacher. His father died when Eric was three years old, and his mother and siblings came to Wahoo, Nebraska, in 1882 and 1893 where his mother remarried in 1886 to C. J. Larson of Swedeburg, Nebraska.
Heurlin attended public schools in Wahoo and Swedeburg, was confirmed in 1893, and graduated from Luther Academy, Wahoo, in 1896. The next two decades included jobs in ranching, journalism, and mercantile businesses in several different places, graduation from Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas, in 1904, and marriage to Hilda Nelson in 1909. In 1915, he entered the Augustana seminary with his wife and three sons in tow, and was ordained in 1919 in Lindsborg.
During World War I, Heurlin served in the U.S. Navy as a translator of Spanish language cablegrams from Central and South America, which he censored or transmitted in English to Europe. At the same time, he served Zion congregation in Galveston as a student pastor. Once ordained, his calls included a short stint at Triumph in Kansas Lake, Minnesota, another term at Zion in Galveston, and a term at Philippi Lutheran in El Campo, Texas.
Pastor Eric Heurlin, his wife and four sons, arrived in Palo Alto on January 21, 1930. Pastor C. R. E. Friedstrom had departed the previous autumn, and the congregation had been served for three months by Carl F. Eliason, a student at Berkeley.
Pastor Heurlin’s official installation was delayed until August of 1930, when the congregation celebrated its tenth anniversary and the Northern District of the California Conference held its annual meeting in Palo Alto. The report of the conference, published in the Swedish-language newspaper, Vestkusten, goes into great detail about the gathering, during which eleven pastors participated in the installation. One interesting side-note was the comment of Pastor E. K. Jonson from Chicago who had flown from Seattle to San Francisco to bring greetings from the Synod’s headquarters. It may have been his first airplane ride, for he described it like “sitting in an ox wagon, so slowly it seemed we were traveling.”
In his summary of the year 1930, Pastor Heurlin reported that the average attendance at the Sunday morning service (in English) was 71, and the attendance in the Sunday evening service (in Swedish) was 53. An average of 45 children attended Sunday School each week. He went on to summarize the work of each of the organizations within the congregation. The California Conference still supplied $1,182.50 toward the pastor’s salary, while the congregation also contributed $828.80 to the Conference. But the pastor was quite concerned about the $7000 debt remaining from the building of the church five years earlier. He suggested a plan “by which part of the debt can be paid off each year. Our pledge system will take care of the current expenses of the church. The special envelopes given out to all our members will pay the entire obligation to Synod and Conference for the year. This leaves the way clear for the Ladies Aid to put all their work on the debt problem. Also the Thankofferings and the Birthday Festivals can be directed toward reducing the debt. If the united effort of the whole congregation sets it as a goal to pay off the debt in eight yearly installments, it can be done.”
In May of 1931, First Lutheran hosted a meeting of the Northern District of the California Conference. The account of the meeting concluded: “Pastor Heurlin who has for less than two years led the congregation, extended a greeting and a warm welcome and spoke at the conclusion of the meeting. Pastor Heurlin and his young sons have built their own home at 245 Dana Street, Palo Alto. Mrs. and Pastor Heurlin and the devoted congregation showed great hospitality.”
Pastor Heurlin often spoke at Conference and District meetings, frequently on a topic related to home missions and the wider church. He seems to have had a way with words and his sermons were described at times as evocative, satirical, or ironic. He wrote articles and poetry for various church publications, most notably a collection of poems called “Pen-Pictures of Jesus.” Like many of the earlier pastors, Pastor Heurlin sang solos or duets at various gatherings and led the group singing. On one occasion his musical rendering was described as “sensitive.”
Even though Eric Heurlin had left Sweden at the age of 5, he seems to have felt a longing for his mother country. In a report on the annual congregational meeting at First Lutheran in January 1931, he wrote “Even in Palo Alto there is a congregation of people who originated from the ‘lovely country in the high north.’ Skåne has contributed both pastors and congregational members, and even if English is the most practical language, Swedish is the God-given original language heard in many other halls and the love for ‘Mother Sweden’ and Swedish customs has not been extinguished. On occasions such as Mid-summer evening, there is the opportunity for a program of singing in the Swedish style, the rich literature of Swedish songs. Christmas, again, is the opportunity to worship God. Juletta, held at 5:00 P.M. on Christmas Day drew a large crowd to worship. A weekly worship service throughout the year gives us the opportunity to hear and use Swedish. We have a fine room for it, even in California.”
Pastor Heurlin officially resigned from First Lutheran on January 4, 1932, but stayed in Palo Alto until the end of March when he took a call to Bethel Lutheran in San Pedro, California. There he became involved once again in the Seamen’s Mission. In 1936 he became a traveling representative for the Swedish National Sanatorium in Denver, explaining its mission and raising funds to support the fight against tuberculosis. This institution has now become the Swedish Medical Center, one of two Level- One Trauma Centers in Colorado. It no longer has a church affiliation.
In his travels for the Sanatorium, Pastor Heurlin returned to the Bay Area several times to give talks. He was a guest at the Northern District meeting held at First Lutheran in September of 1936 and he preached at First Lutheran on the Sunday after Christmas that same year.
His final pastorate was a return to El Campo, Texas, where he retired in 1946. He spent his last years in Escalon, California, where he died on April 27, 1960, at the age of 82, and is buried in Burwood Cemetery, Escalon. His wife, Hilda, survived him by ten years.
Eric Heurlin read widely about church history and studied the Apochryphal Books of both the Old and the New Testaments, and the Lost Books of the Bible. In the final autobiographical data that he supplied to the Synod, Pastor Heurlin stated his hopes for the church:
“Correction of the horrible English mistranslation in the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed which sends Jesus to hell every Sunday morning.
“A complete transfer of emphasis from rampant ‘Church-ianity’ to penitent CHRIST-ianity.
“A reversal from the innovations of the ‘Back to Rome’ priestly adornment craze — back to the humility and simplicity that is in Christ Jesus.
“A thorough reform in our Church program; to turn our trust away from ‘men, means, and methods’ back to the WORD, the SACRAMENTS, and the POWER OF THE SPIRIT.”