Elsa Cedergren was a prominent figure within both national and international Christian women’s organisations. She became well-known for her extensive ecumenical work as well as for her commitment to the peace and women’s movements.
Elsa Cedergren was born in 1893. She was the fourth child of Prince Oscar Bernadotte and his wife Ebba, née Munck af Fulkla. Her father was the son of King Oscar II and Queen Sophia. He had given up his right to the throne in order to marry a commoner.
Elsa Cedergren’s home environment was influenced by the low church revivalist Christianity which spread through upper social circles in Stockholm during the late nineteenth century. Both her grandmother Queen Sophia and her father Prince Oscar were deeply involved in this. Her mother was deeply religious and described herself as a “re-converted Christian”. Her father was also active in Kristliga föreningen av unga men (KFUM) (Young Men’s Christian Association) and served as its national chair from 1892 to 1943. Elsa Cedergren’s upbringing was heavily influenced by the family’s social standing and pious godliness. Both of her parents were abstinent, avoided worldly pleasures such as dance and the theatre, and controlled which books their children read.
After completing eight years of education at a girls’ school Elsa Cedergren was not given the option of continuing her studies. Like most other young women in her social group she took short courses in subjects like housework and sewing, and went on study-trips abroad to learn languages. She took the Red Cross assistant nurse course, audited classes at Sabbatsberg hospital, and from 1916 to 1917 she served as an assistant nurse on the so-called “invalid trains” between Sweden, Austria, Germany and Russia, an experience which impacted her deeply. In 1929 she married Hugo Cedergren, chair of KFUM. The couple remained childless. Elsa Cedergren said that they gave each other space for their own development and supported each other’s work.
From an early age Elsa Cedergren began to distance herself from the religious belief which separated people into believers and non-believers. However, she shared her father’s enthusiasm for ecumenism and was active within KFUM’s sister organisation for women, Kristliga föreningen av unga kvinnor (KFUK) (Young Women’s Christian Organisation). Her personal Christian faith was also influenced by her personal experiences. In 1942 she joined Vännernas samfund (the Society of Friends, or the Quakers) and from 1959 to 1961 she was the chair of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), the Quakers’ global advisory committee. In 1946 she requested to leave the Swedish church.
Elsa Cedergren held several positions of responsibility within the KFUK both in Sweden and in its international mother organisation Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She was member of the board for KFUK in 1922 and served as the chair of the national organisation from 1925 to 1942. She was active in KFUK’s Girl Scout work and from 1929 to 1951 she was the chief Girl Scout. From 1942 to 1952 she was the chair of the Swedish Girl Scout council. She also served as the Swedish representative on the YWCA’s global committee in 1924, was a member of the international executive committee from 1930 to 1951, and was vice-chair of the global association from 1938 to 1951.
Her activism in KFUK’s international work influenced Elsa Cedergren’s engagement with social issues, including the peace and women’s movements. She represented Sweden at the 1924 global committee’s international meeting in the USA and became acquainted with the YWCA’s extensive social work there, and subsequently she travelled with the organisation to Japan, Korea, China, and India. She not only became introduced to new cultures but also their religious traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. She gained an insight into the varied work of different Christian missions, some of which she was strongly critical of, whilst others she perceived more favourably.
In 1925 Elsa Cedergren was KFUK’s representative at the ecumenical “Stockholm meeting”, the Life and Work conference held in Stockholm, and thus participated in a decisive event within the developing modern ecumenism which placed current social issues at its core. Svenska ekumeniska föreningen became established in 1932 as a result of the Stockholm meeting and Elsa Cedergren became one of its board members.
Elsa Cedergren initiated the setting up of Kristna Kvinnors Samarbetskommitté (KKS) (the Christian Women’s Coalition committee), formally established in 1935. She believed that a coalition organisation was required to allow women from different churches and societies to meet and discuss social matters, generate formal standpoints, and thus contribute to the social debate “as Christians and as women”. In 1959 Sveriges Ekumeniska Kvinnoråd (SEK) (Swedish Ecumenical Women’s Council) was established by merging KKS and Svenska Missionsrådets Kvinnokommitté (Swedish Mission Council’s Women’s Committee). Elsa Cedergren served as its chair until 1971. The members’ magazine is still called Elsa.
Like many of her contemporaries Elsa Cedergren was active in both the women’s movement and the peace movement. She was a pacifist, a member of the Swedish section of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and during the 1950s she was active in Aktionsgruppen mot svensk atombomb (action group against a Swedish atomic bomb). She was also a member of the Fredrika Bremer Association. From 1942 to 1950 she was a member of Stockholm city council as a representative of Folkpartiet.
Elsa Cedergren died on 17 July 1996. She was 103 years old. Her grave is located at the Norra cemetery in Solna.