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This Week in AG History -- Nov. 9, 1958

Arvid Ohrnell, a Pentecostal believer from Sweden, felt called to share Christ with inmates, which ultimately led him to become the first national prison chaplain for the Assemblies of God.
Arvid Ohrnell (1891-1963), who served as the first National Prison Chaplain for the Assemblies of God in the U.S., was born in Vadstena, Sweden. He was bullied in his youth, so he began lifting weights and exercising in order to defend himself. His plan worked, and he was able to escape further bullying. After seeing how children and grown-ups can be mistreated, he decided to dedicate himself to helping outcasts and the downtrodden. He committed his life to Christ at age 14.

In 1911, Ohrnell entered school at H. S. Enkoping and studied theology, psychology, mathematics, penology, journalism, and languages. He was baptized in water in 1915, and the next year he was baptized in the Holy Spirit.

In 1916, Ohrnell lived in Gothenburg and began preaching the gospel. The fall of 1917 he moved to Uppsala and opened a butcher shop. One day a man from Långholmen Prison in Stockholm came to the door. He had just been released from prison, and he was looking for a job. Ohrnell gave the man food and provisions to help his family and also helped him to find employment. This was his first contact with prisoners. He came to realize that it was very difficult for ex-prisoners to gain people’s confidence and to be accepted back into society.

Ohrnell attended Bible school at the Filadelfia Church, the flagship Pentecostal congregation in Stockholm, and was ordained there on Dec. 2, 1919. Soon after this, he pioneered churches in Gustafs, Borlange, and Palsboda, Sweden.

Next he felt called to pursue opportunities in journalism. He wrote articles for newspapers in Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Austria. He also was instrumental in the creation of a prison division for the Swedish Pentecostal movement. Because of his work in penology, he completed five books on prison work, two of which were used as texts in European universities. He published a number of pamphlets and booklets, including In the Evening of Time and Cell No. 3: A Prisoner's Life Stories, as well as several Bible study courses. His works have been published in English, Swedish, Norwegian, and Spanish.

His prison work carried him to Germany and eventually to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he was advised by a friend that he could have a much greater influence among outcasts and prisoners if he were to minister in a democratic society. So in 1925, Ohrnell immigrated to the United States.

He arrived in Chicago and began holding services for a group of Swedish people. Later he served as chairman of the Independent Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal group formed by Scandinavian-Americans) and was assistant editor of their newspaper. While in Chicago, he met Anna Astrid Larson, a Swedish immigrant herself. She was a 1924 graduate of Rochester Bible School. They were married in 1929. In 1933 he moved to Seattle, Washington, where he pastored the Philadelphia Church and also visited the local prisons.

By 1935, he had gained so much respect in the institutions that he visited, that the governor of Washington appointed Ohrnell as the state prison chaplain. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. As state prison chaplain, he was not content just to preach to inmates. He wanted to educate them while in confinement and help with their rehabilitation upon release. He took a personal interest in every inmate he met. He eventually interviewed thousands of prisoners and accompanied 32 men on their “last walk” to the place of execution. Twenty-seven of these had accepted Christ while in prison.

Ohrnell transferred his ordination to the Assemblies of God in 1937. After 16 years as chaplain for Washington State penal institutions in Walla Walla and Monroe, he accepted a position as the first national prison chaplain for the Assemblies of God in 1951. He saw this as an opportunity to extend his work to hundreds of prisons and thousands of inmates. He developed and expanded prison ministry in the Assemblies of God. He wrote extensive letters to inmates and their families, as well as to prison and government officials. He prayed and counseled with inmates in many states, distributed countless Bible study courses, and became a true friend to prisoners everywhere. Refusing to ever retire, he worked tirelessly on behalf of outcasts and prisoners until his death in 1973.

Sixty years ago, in an article titled, “Touring the Prisons,” National Prison Chaplain Arvid Ohrnell gave a report of visiting 11 state prisons, three county jails, and 40 Assemblies of God churches during a four-month period. Ohrnell left Springfield, Missouri, in May 1958 and did not return until the end of September. He preached, gave out hundreds of Bibles, as well as hundreds of Bible study courses, and Freedom leaflets, and a few Bible dictionaries. Glowing testimonies were reported in each place he ministered. Today, Chaplaincy Ministries are a part of AG U.S. Missions.

Read “Touring the Prisons,” by Arvid Ohrnell on pages 16-18 of the Nov. 9, 1948, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Also featured in this issue:

• “Israel’s 10th Anniversary,” by Louis H. Hauff

• “Turning the Wide-Angle Lens on Latin America,” by C. L. Carden

• “The Importance of Prayer,” by J. Bashford Bishop

And many more!

Click here to read this issue now.

Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Further information can be found in “Arvid Ohrnell: The Prisoner’s Friend,” on pages 8-13, 30-31 of the Fall 1997 issue of Assemblies of God Heritage magazine.

Glenn W. Gohr

Glenn W. Gohr is the reference archivist at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, Missouri.