Lars Olof Jonathon (known as Nathan) Söderblom was born on 15 January 1866, in Trönö, 200 kilometres north of Uppsala. His father was a Pietist pastor and his mother the descendent of an Oslo bishop. Söderblom attended the University of Uppsala, where he took his bachelor’s degree in 1866 with honours in Greek and adeptness in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin. Upon graduation he entered Uppsala’s School of Theology, where he studied theology and the history of religion and served as editor of the student missionary review, Meddelanden, from its founding in 1888. In 1890, he travelled to the United States to attend the Christian Student Conference, which profoundly impacted him by spurring his desire for ecumenicity. After his ordination in 1893 and a brief stint as the chaplain to Uppsala’s mental hospital, Söderblom took over the charge of the Swedish Church in Paris, where he served as the minister for seven years. His congregation included many influential Scandinavians: painters, authors (including August Strindberg) diplomats and, perhaps most notably, Alfred Nobel. While in Paris he became the first foreigner to earn a doctorate in theology from the Sorbonne’s Protestant faculty. His time in France greatly shaped both his theological outlook and his conviction of the necessity of the church performing right action in the community.
Upon returning to Sweden in 1901, Söderblom took the chair of Uppsala University’s School of Theology, which he held until 1914. From 1912 until 1914, he simultaneously held the chair at Leipzig University. His influence in Uppsala was profound. He is credited, along with others, for initiating a theological revival in Sweden through his teaching and publishing. He wrote widely on religious psychology and philosophy, history and comparative religions. After C. P. Tiele’s death, he translated into German and expanded his Outlines of the History of Religion. Söderblom’s profound influence on Swedish religious life led to his appointment as archbishop of Uppsala, making him the primate of Sweden. For the first time since 1670, the king overlooked the two favoured candidates and appointed the one who had received less than 20 percent of the votes cast by the sixteen electoral colleges.
During the final seventeen years of his life, he energetically and actively led the Swedish church. Moreover, he enthusiastically pursued ecumenical relations between the Lutheran Church of Sweden and Anglican Church, inviting the bishop of Peterborough to participate in the consecration of Swedish bishops in 1920. His overarching desire was seeking the unification of Christian churches. In 1925, Episcopalian, Reformed, Lutheran and Orthodox Christians met in Stockholm and set the course of future ecumenical relations between these various groups. His contributions both to his native Sweden and of the rest of the world were widely acknowledged and confirmed in particular by his election to the Swedish Academy (1925), his Nobel Peace Prize (1930) and his call to deliver the Gifford Lectures (1931). Although he had planned to deliver two series of lectures over 1931-32, he was only able to deliver the first. He gave ten lectures between 19 May and 8 June, 1931. He died on 12 July 1931, soon after his return to Sweden.
Works by Söderblom include: ‘The Church and International Good Will’, Contemporary Review 116 (1919): 309–15; ‘The Unity of Christendom’, American Scandinavian Review 8 (1920): 585-92; Christian Fellowship: The United Life and Work of Christendom (1923); Kristenhetens möte i Stockholm, augusti nittonhundratjugufem: Historik, aktstycken, grundtankar, personligheter, eftermäle (1926); ‘Why I Am a Lutheran’, in Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926), 72-88; The Church and Peace (1929); The Living God: Basal Forms of Personal Religion (1933); Tal och skrifter (1933); The Nature of Revelation (published posthumously, 1966).
Some works on Söderblom in English: Gustaf Aulén, ‘Nathan Söderblom as a Theologian’, Church Quarterly Review 115 (October 1932): 15-48; George K.A. Bell, The Stockholm Conference, 1925: The Official Report of the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work (1926); Charles J. Curtis, ‘Nathan Söderblom: Pope John of Protestant Ecumenism’, American Ecclesiastical Review 156 (January 1967): 1–9; Charles J. Curtins, Söderblom: Ecumenical Pioneer (1967); Peter Katz, Nathan Söderblom: A Prophet of Christian Unity (1949); Ruth Rouse and Stephen C. Neill, eds., A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517–1948 (1954); Bengt G. M. Sundkler, Nathan Söderblom: His Life and Work (1968).