One of the oldest extant churches in Nebraska is in Burt County. The Salem Evangelical Covenant Church, constructed in 1877 is located off Highway 32 between Oakland and West Point.
According to unofficial church historian Gaylen Anderson, a Swedish immigrant by the name of Olof Magnus Nyman provided the motivation for the establishment of a church in the area.
“He was a strong believer,” Anderson said. “He became an itinerant preacher.”
As related in a Dalakarl newspaper column, the 1912 Nebraska Mission Friends (the predecessor of the Evangelical Covenant Church) anniversary credits Nyman “as being the first witness among the Swedes of Burt County.” The history states that the devout Swede journeyed from Hjorthed congregation in Kalmar län in 1868 at the age of 36.
As Anderson’s said, he would venture out from his homestead sodhouse to preach in the manner of the Swedish colporteurs to his countrymen.
After a few years of going house-to-house preaching, Anderson said Nyman decided to contact John Peterson a preacher in Iowa. Peterson was a prominent pastor in the region. The Dalakarl said he was serving in Des Moines.
Another prominent Swedish immigrant in the area at the time was Andrew Hallner of Swedeburg, Iowa. He credits Peterson with being the first to bring the Waldenströmian doctrine to the region.
Peterson visited Oakland in 1875, said Anderson. He would return the following year to much enthusiasm. “Peterson is coming!” was the excited cry from the area’s Swedish population.
It was during this visit that the underpinnings for a church were established, Anderson said. Evangelical Covenant Church historians say that Hallner joined Peterson and the congregation was underway.
The original church structure was built in May of 1877. Anderson said that they hired Peterson as their first pastor. –
“He served from 1878 to 1902,” he said. “Except for two years he went to Omaha to establish the Covenant Church there. Nyman served as the pastor during that time.”
The Oakland church formed the cornerstone of a chain of churches that Peterson would go on to found. These became known as the Logan Valley Mission. It included Oakland Salem, Oakland, Pender, Wakefield, Wausa, Bristow and Randall Valley.
As part of Peterson’s contract with the Oakland church, the congregation agreed to purchase a ¼ section of land to provide farming and horse raising income for the pastor, Anderson said. The land was located across from the church. Except for 10 acres given to the parsonage, it is still in the Peterson Family today, he said.
When the church was first built it was basically a one-room school house, Anderson said. So, someone donated an acre of ground near the original site and the church was moved to that acre. In the course of the move, the building was actually sawed in half and more room was built into the middle for a larger seating area, he said. During the Depression, the building was lifted and a basement was dug for it and a steeple was added.
“All the work was done by the members of the church,” Anderson said.
Other additions have been added – one around 1985 and another in 2002.
“The building has been highly modified,” Anderson said. “If you go upstairs, you can see the wiring and the original gas light tubing.”
In 1930, the church started a Vacation Bible School. Most years they have around 50 students participate in the Bible School. Some years as many as 100, Anderson said.
“2020 was the first year since that no Bible School was held,” he said.
While slowed down due to the COVID situation, the 143-year-old church is still very active.
“The church serves the community in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “We used to house the Burt County Food Bank.”
The congregation is also lively. They have had three young men enter the ministry and have done missions to Mexico.
For more information about the Salem Evangelical Covenant Church, visit their website at salemcovenant.net/.