Carl Christian Anton Christensen

The Pioneer Era’s Artist-Historian

This article originally appeared in Vol.66, No.1 (2019) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Bob Folkman

C. C. A. Christensen (1831-1912),Leaving Missouri, c.1878, tempera on muslin, 78 1/8 x 114 1/8 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of the grandchildren of C.C.A. Christensen, 1970.

The best-known artist of the Latter-day Saint pioneer era is undoubtedly the Danish handcart pioneer Carl Christian Anton Christensen. Throughout his life he was known as Carl to family and friends, but he is most often identified today by his distinctive signature, C. C. A. Christensen.

C. C. A. was bom in , in 1831, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1850, and emigrated to the United States and Utah with a company of mostly Scandinavian Saints in 1857. He and Elise Scheel, his Norwegian-born wife of less than a year, settled in Sanpete County where he made his living as a farmer, house painter, and handyman- even after his talents as an artist, writer, and historian were recognized. As he developed both practical and artistic abilities, his deeply-held testimony and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ were his primary motivations.

It has been suggested that C. C. A. Christensen was not an artist who painted historical scenes as much as he was a historian who used art to preserve a historical record. Twenty-two years after he and Elise crossed the plains with the 7th Handcart Company, Christensen hinted at his understanding of his artistic calling:

“The old generation who bore the burdens of the day in the persecutions in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois will no longer be with us a few years hence. History will preserve much, but art alone can make the narrative of the suffering of the Saints comprehensible for posterity?1″

Carl, the oldest of four sons, showed early promise in both writing and artistic expression. Although his parents were often in a state of poverty, they arranged for him to attend a combined boarding school and orphanage that had a good reputation. At age fourteen Carl was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker, but his artistic skills were noticed by a wealthy widow who sponsored Carl for admittance to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine . He was apprenticed there for five years to a landscape painter, Carl Rosent.

The Hill Cumorah, by CCA Christensen

In 1850 Christensen’s mother, Dorothea, a woman of lifelong faith, met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized. Her four sons followed her example shortly thereafter. In 1853, and at the age of twelve, her youngest son left for America with a company of Saints. Dorothea and two other sons immigrated to Utah in 1854, while Carl remained for a short time at the Royal Academy. Dorothea passed away in Salt Lake City in 1855 and is buried there. Carl’s father, Mads, remained in Denmark and died there in 1860.

After leaving the Royal Academy in 1852, C. C.A. served as a missionary in Denmark and later in Norway, where he first met the young woman who would become his wife, Elise Rosalie Stembiem Scheel, and where he also met and taught the gospel to the artist Danquart Anthon [Dan] Weggeland, who, like Carl, had attended the Royal Danish Academy. Dan joined the Church and came to Utah in 1862, where he and Christensen were frequent artistic collaborators. After serving these two missions, C. G A. married Elise in 1857 on board the Westmoreland, the sailing ship that would carry more than 500 Scandinavian Saints to the United States. After the handcart journey from Iowa Gty to Utah, the Christensens settled near two of Carl’s brothers in Sanpete County, first living in Fairfield, then in Mt Pleasant.

The demands of making a living and providing for his large family required most of Carl Christensen’s energy during his first decade in Utah, and indeed throughout his life. He and Elise had seven children by 1874. In 1865 he went again to Norway to serve a three-year mission. After returning to Utah in 1868, and while living in Mt Pleasant, he met Maren Pedersen who had recently arrived in Ephraim from Norway. She became his second wife in November. They had an additional seven children, ftve of whom lived to adulthood.

The Tarring and Feathering of the Prophet, by CCA Christensen

In the spring of 1870 Carl moved his family to Ephraim, where they remained the rest of their lives. But his farm in Ephraim was too small to produce enough to meet the family’s needs, leading Carl to acquire additional land in an inexpensive area called Manasseh, southwest of Ephraim. As opportunities arose he earned additional income for his family by painting homes and bams and by laying bricks. He and his friend Weggeland painted scenery for theatres—and murals for three pioneer-era temples, Manti, St George, and Logan.

As his artistic stalls began to be recognized, Christensen received a commission from Dimick Huntington, who had been set apart as a missionary to Native Americans in the Utah Territory and who was the leading translator during interactions between Church leaders and members of local Indian bands. Huntington asked Christensen to paint a series of pictures of biblical and Book of Mormon events that could be used in teaching native peoples the restored gospel. Huntington wanted the pictures to be painted on a scroll that could be rolled to expose one image at a time virile Huntington or his fellow missionary, George Washington Hill, explained gospel principles to audiences. This relatively small vertical scroll, measuring eighteen inches by twenty- two feet, was used extensively by the two missionaries during the decade of the 1870s. While Christensen did not give a formal name to the scroll or its artwork, it is officially referred to today as Untitled {Huntington/Lamanite Panorama}. Its fascinating story is told in this issue of Pioneer in the articles “It is Priceless” and “Like Fire in the Dry Grass?

As a result of the effectiveness of this scroll- based teaching technique, C. C. A. Christensen developed a much larger scroll during the late 1870s that he himself would use to explain the history of the Church to audiences throughout the settlements in Utah and in neighboring territories—audiences that were often comprised of Scandinavian settlers whose knowledge of Church history was limited. C. C. A. earned a modest income from these presentations that were generally held during the winter months when little could be done on his Sanpete County farm. The dimensions of the paintings on this second scroll were almost mural-like at 7 feet by 10 feet and were painted on heavy linen. The resulting scroll, called The Mormon Panorama, was 175 feet long. One of Christensen’s brothers would travel with him to help manipulate the heavy scroll during the presentations where it was hung over ropes suspended between two portable tripods.

Both scrolls became “lost’5 —or more accurately “forgotten”—after the period of their primary use in the 1870s and 1880s. But while the historical importance of the paintings on the scrolls was not folly understood by their separate caretakers during these “lost” years, they were preserved for decades and eventually found their way into museums affiliated with the Church. The Mormon Panorama paintings are owned by the BYU Museum of Art; in 1970 the paintings were separated and mounted individually for an exhibit at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The Mormon Panorama is now widely recognized for its vigorous style and bright colors, the vitality of its human figures, and its unique portrayal of historical scenes from the settling of the American West.2 The more recently recovered scroll. Untitled, is in the possession of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City and is presented to the public in this issue of Pioneer by permission.

Nationally known art historian and critic Jane Dillenberger tried to put an exclamation point on the importance of C. C. A. Christensen’s paintings when she wrote, “Christensen’s significant paintings are as expressive to me as they are to Mormons. Indeed, I believe that I, and historians of American art, value them more highly than do the Mormon people for whom they were made.”3

Throughout his life, Carl Christian Anton Christensen was an intelligent and capable student; he became an equally capable writer, poet; and teacher. His articles in the Danish language periodical Bikuben were beloved by the Scandinavian citizens of the Utah territory, and especially in his home county of Sanpete, where as many as two-thirds of the settlers were from Scandinavia. His writing had a familiar, often humorous, and sometimes satirical ring, and a commonly heard phrase in his hometown was, “Jo, jo, CCA har sagt det,” which translates as “Yes, yes, CCA has said it.”4 He eventually became the editor of Bikuben. He wrote the history of the Scandinavian Mission with Church historian Andrew Jenson, translated English-language hymns into Danish, and wrote original hymns in his native language. It is reported that some of his Danish hymns are still in use in Denmark today.

Carl served a final mission to Denmark in 1887- 89, during which he edited the periodical Scandinaviens Stjeme [Scandinavian Star]. His testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ never wavered, and for sixty years, in both English and Danish, he was an inspiring speaker and writer on gospel subjects. During the last decade of his life he taught art and Danish at the Sanpete Stake Academy that became Snow College in Ephraim.

C. C. A. Christensen passed away in Ephraim in 1912 at the age of 8 land is buried there alongside his two wives, one of his brothers, and many other family members.

  1. C. C. A. Christensen, in Bikuben, 20 Mar 1879.
  2. Carl Carmer.’A Panorama of Mormon Life,’in Art in America, (May-Jun 1970): 54.
  3. Jane Dillenberger,’Mormonism and American Religious Art* in Reflections on Mormonism; Judaeo-Christian Parallels, 187-200.
  4. William Mulder,”Man kalder mig Digter C. C. A. Christensen, Poet of the Scandinavian Scene in Early Utah Humanities Review 1:10.

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