Jansson was born in Biskopskulla in Uppland, near Uppsala, the son of Jan Mattsson, a farmer, and his wife, Sarah Eriksdotter. Believing that he was miraculously cured of rheumatism, he became devoutly religious, and developed beliefs that conflicted with the catechism of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. He believed in the supremacy of the Bible and was arrested several times by the authorities for burning the works of Luther and others in public and encouraging his followers to do the same. From 1844, he claimed to be a true prophet speaking the word of God. After repeated brushes with the law in Sweden, and having outraged members of the Church of Sweden, he departed for the United States in 1846, condemning his homeland to eternal damnation and taking 1,200—1,500 followers with him.
A trusted follower, Olof Olsson, was sent ahead to locate a suitable place to settle in the United States. He arrived in New York on the Neptunus on 16 December 1845. There he met a fellow Swede, Olof Gustaf Hedström, who suggested that Olsson contact his brother, Jonas Hedström, who was living in Victoria, Illinois. Other followers were not so lucky as several vessels foundered during the voyage, consigning hundreds of Janssonists to the deep. Many others were killed by cholera during the trip, or soon after they arrived.
Jansson arrived in New York in June 1846 and with the help of 400 of his followers who had survived the journey, founded the Bishop Hill Colony in Henry County, Illinois. He named the colony after his Swedish birthplace. Although many died in the first winter, others continued to arrive from Sweden. The villagers lived as a collective religious colony for 15 years, from 1846 to 1861, tilling the soil, tending their animals, and building their settlement with bricks that they made by hand. Some local pioneers were amazed by their lifestyle and the relative success that it generated. Jansson sent nine of his followers to California in 1850, hoping that they would prospect successfully during the California Gold Rush. It was hoped that this additional wealth would help support their community.
But the idyllic life in rural Illinois was not to last. John Root, a Swedish immigrant who had married Jansson's cousin, Charlotta Louisa Root, had become disaffected with the commune and wanted to leave Bishop Hill, but the other colonists prevented him from taking his family along. On May 13, 1850, while Root and Jansson were dealing with unrelated legal matters at the courthouse in nearby Cambridge, Illinois, Root shot and killed Jansson. John Root was convicted of manslaughter, but was released after serving just one year in prison.
The village continued and prospered for several years, but suffered in the 1857 financial crisis. It was dissolved in 1861, after the American Civil War broke out, although court cases dealing with the division of the colony's property were not resolved until 1879. The village is now a state park. The surviving buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A brick museum building houses a valuable collection of Folk Art paintings by colonist Olof Krans.
While there had been several Swedish immigrant colonies earlier in American history, notably the short-lived colony at New Sweden in Delaware, the Janssonist emigrants were an early group of Swedish immigrants that triggered a larger wave of immigration in the latter half of the 19th century. Letters home from Janssonists to their friends and family, telling of the fertile agricultural land in the interior of North America, stimulated substantial migration for several decades and the formation of a distinct Swedish-American ethnic community of the American Midwest.
The transformation of the Bishop Hill Colony from religious sect in Sweden, to fledgling outpost, to prosperous economic engine, and finally to Swedish-American community, marks a unique pattern of Americanization and assimilation. Swanson (1998) has argued that this transformation and Americanization resulted from the degree of interaction between the colonists and the local citizens of Henry County: the colony was not insular, as the many documents held in archives of Bishop Hill demonstrate. The Bishop Hill Colony makes a useful contrast to the Mormons at Nauvoo, Illinois and the Amanas in Iowa, both rough contemporaries to Bishop Hill.
Descendants of Erik Jansson still lived in the colony of Bishop Hill until December 20, 2005 when Erik's great-great grandson and Bishop Hill volunteer fireman Theodore Arthur Myhre Sr. died south of the colony while on a fire service call. Other known descendents remain elsewhere in Nevada, California, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas. The pietist practices of Bishop Hill's founding father did not make a lasting impact on Erik's descendents nor remain in the practical lives of his followers.
- According to Nordisk familjebok, the birthdate was 19 December.
- The lower figure is from Nordisk familjebok, the higher from Barton, 16.
- Bishop Hill - Swedish Roots in Illinois Soil
- Sweden's Doorway to Illinois
- The History of Bishop Hill
- Barton, H. Arnold A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840—1940 (Southern Illinois University Press; 1994)
- Bishop Hill Heritage Association Nobler things to View: Collected Essays on the Erik-Janssonists, ("Those Crazy Swedes: Outside Influence on the Bishop Hill Colony" by Troy Swanson. Bishop Hill Heritage Association. 1998)
- Religious Freedom, by Rolf Strand of Edsbyn, Sweden