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Academic Studies | Bahá'í Faith | Oneness Pentecostalism

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1 Born February 7th, 1887 at Fort Dodge, Iowa, Fred Mortensen was the third son of an impoverished immigrant family. His parents, James and Johanna, had arrived from Denmark just a few years prior with the hope that James would find better work as a violinist. Sadly, this never came to fruition, and James was unable to provide adequate support for his family of thirteen children.1 Falling prey to the bottle, he gradually became a drunk, and, little by little, stopped coming home.2 By 1893, nearl
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   1Born   February 7 th , 1887 at Fort Dodge, Iowa, Fred Mortensen was the third son of an impoverished immigrant family. His parents, James and Johanna, had arrived fromDenmark just a few years prior with the hope that James would find better work as aviolinist. Sadly, this never came to fruition, and James was unable to provide adequatesupport for his family of thirteen children. 1 Falling prey to the bottle, he graduallybecame a drunk, and, little by little, stopped coming home. 2  By 1893, nearly six hundred banks and fifteen thousand businesses had failed dueto one of the worst economic depressions in American history. It was during this periodthat the Mortensen family relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Abandoned by theirfather, the Mortensen brothers quit school in order to provide for their family. Even at avery young age they managed to cope with what was available—stealing food or diggingthrough garbage cans behind restaurants. In time Fred and his two older brothers foundwork with the  Minneapolis Star  newspaper. Initially hired as menial labor, Fred soonbecame a mailer. However, he resented this position, and by the age of ten left the  Minneapolis Star  for the streets. 3  After a short time roaming the neighborhood, the Mortensen brothers soon foundtheir way into a local gang. Lacking the valuable guidance of a father figure, Fred beganto depend on his fellows for social acceptance. Yet while his peers were important, he feltnaturally their better. He had an innate sense of superiority, a feeling that he could easilybest those around him. Fred was unafraid to speak his mind, and possessed the physicalstature to back his words. Years spent on the streets made him hard and ruthless; he 1 Of these thirteen, four boys and three girls survived. The others succumbed to tuberculosis orconsumption. 2 From an interview with Fred’s daughter, Kathryn Penoyer: Oct. 20 th , 2003. Notes in author’s possession. 3 Ibid.   2became a confident, determined, and natural leader, claiming “. . . fighting was a realpleasure, as welcome as a meal . . .” 4  Fred and his companions spent their days engaged in all manner of recklessactivity. They would often roam the streets looking for trouble, and broke the lawwhenever the chance presented itself. He writes, “every day in every way I becametougher and tougher. And breaking a grocer’s window to steal his fruit or what-not was,as I thought, a great joke.” 5  In addition to such general mayhem, Fred and his friends spent many days in thesaloon, drinking heavily and brawling. He later recalled, “the great evil that did so muchto make us hard, was the saloon with its attendant evils.” In fact, Fred says, he came toenjoy brawling—an undertaking to which he found himself well suited. He and hisfriends found great pleasure in terrorizing the local populous, especially the Russianimmigrants and Jewish businessmen: 6 “Making the Jews feel that they were back inRussia was lots of fun. I can’t begin to tell you how we enjoyed persecuting them,stealing their wine, breaking their windows, in fact doing everything but setting fire totheir homes.” 7  Despite his mother’s objections and efforts to teach him a better path, Fredcontinued increasingly toward a thug-like lifestyle. He later recalled: “My dear motherhad done everything in her power to make me a good boy. I have the deepest love for her 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid. 6 Anti-Semitism was strongly displayed in all avenues of American culture at this time. Additionally, Anti-Semitic plots were causing great controversy in military and government sectors. Record numbers of immigrants were entering the United States. at this time from Russia and the Balkans. Russians were oftenviewed as associated with anarchism, which came under heavy attack after the assassination of PresidentMcKinley in 1901 by Russian anarchist Leon Czolgosz. 7 Fred Mortenson. “When a Soul Meets the Master,” srcinally published March, 1924 in the Baha’inewsletter Star of the West  , now out of print.     3and my heart has often been sad when thinking of how she must have worried for mysafety as well as my future well-being. ” 8 Though but seventeen, Fred had become anintolerant, aggressive, even violent youth.In 1904, Fred, his brothers, and other gang members decided to rob a local train.During the heist, Fred’s younger brother stole a large bag of mail. While his brother wasdoing so, Fred spotted a number of police approaching them, scattering the gang.Concerned that his younger brother was too small to carry the bag and run from thepolice, Fred took the bag and ran. While this spared his brother, it made him the target:“. . . in my haste to get away from them I leaped over a thirty-five foot wall, breaking myleg, to escape the bullets whizzing around about.” 9 He was then taken to jail, where aprison doctor improperly set his broken leg. As a result, Fred was left with a permanentlimp, the broken leg a bit shorter than the other. 10  The following months were spent in jail, recovering from his injury. It was duringhis incarceration that Fred’s life was changed irrevocably. Appointed to defend him wasAlbert Hall, an established lawyer well known for his willingness to defend the poor. Hallwas also, by this time, a well-known and respected Baha’i—later appointed to the Baha’iTemple Unity and President of the Executive Board. Besides handling Fred’s case, Hallspent many nights speaking to Fred about the Baha’i faith—an independent worldreligion devoted to building unity among all people. Fred would later recall:Albert Hall told me, hour after hour, about the great love of Abdu’l-Bahafor all His children and that He was here to help us show that love for ourfellowmen. Honestly, I often wondered then what Mr. Hall meant when he 8 “When a Soul Meets the Master.” 9 Ibid. 10 Penoyer interview.   4talked so much about love—God’s love, Baha’u’llah’s love, Abdu’l-Baha’s love, love for the Covenant, love for us, from us to God, to HisProphets, etc. I was bewildered. 11  Because Fred could not read at this time, Hall gave him a dictionary to use inorder to read a Baha’i book also provided by Hall. With the aid of these new books, Fredtaught himself how to read. For reasons even he did not completely understand at thetime, Fred’s experience in jail had a profound impact. However, as soon as he was able towalk, Fred decided it was time to leave. While in jail, he lured a guard close enough tohis cell to take him by the neck, strangle him to unconsciousness, and take the keys. 12  Fred spent the next four years as a fugitive. He fled first to California, where heworked for the Oakland paper. After experiencing the great earthquake of 1906—undoubtedly shaken by the ordeal—Fred decided the Midwest was a far safer region.He then toured the Dakotas, moving from town to town, occasionally findingemployment with local papers. 13 It was during this time that Fred rediscovered the book given to him by Albert Hall. Yet unlike four years prior—and somewhat mysteriouslyto Fred—his mind became fixated upon the words of Abdu’l-Baha. Though faced withpossible arrest, in 1910 he returned to Minneapolis to visit Hall—a district attorney—tolearn more about the Baha’i faith: “I returned to become more bewildered, so I thought;and I wondered why.” 14  Fred was in regular communication with Albert Hall who, despite his status as anattorney, did not turn him in to the police. This, combined with Fred’s surprise at a 11 “When a Soul Meets the Master.” 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 “When a Soul Meets the Master.”
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