Week-long ‘Big Tent Revival’ raises concerns over religious freedom versus public safety

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Lars Somero talks to New Ipswich Selectmen at a meeting at the town offices Tuesday night. Photo/Meghan Pierce

NEW IPSWICH, NH – New Ipswich Selectmen say they have no authority to stop a tent revival coming to town later this month, nor would they want to infringe on the rights of the residents hosting it.

Selectmen are, however, concerned about the public health risk the temporary influx of hundreds of people to the town and dispersing into other parts of Southern New Hampshire to spread the Gospel during the current pandemic would cause, they said at a meeting held in the town offices and over a Zoom call Tuesday night.

The religious gathering will be held on property owned by NH State Rep. Paul Somero, R-New Ipswich.

The “Wake Up America Big Tent Revival” is being brought to New Ipswich next week, Aug. 14, through Aug. 20, by controversial Danish evangelist Torben Søndergaard and his organization The Last Reformation. The Last Reformation has been accused of being a cult, something New Ipswich hosts of the tent revival deny. Søndergaard, who fled Denmark last year with his family to seek asylum in the United States, preaches faith healing.

The tent revival is taking place on land owned by State Rep. Paul Somero, R-New Ipswich. His son Lars Somero came before the Select Board Tuesday night along with Adam Haavisto and Marcus Rautiola as hosts of the event to answer questions and discuss safety precautions.

While speaking to Selectmen, Somero emphasized the faith healing aspect of the event. “This meeting is about Jesus and the good news. The Gospel is about healing the sick,” Somero said. “We have COVID and then we have Jesus and if we all stay at home we don’t preach the Gospel. We’re sharing love. We’re sharing Jesus. When he died on the cross he died so that all sickness could be rid of. … The message TLR is bringing is Jesus, what he did on the cross is so we could have life and we don’t have to fear this COVID thing.”

The Selectmen said they have reached out to state officials for guidance and said they learned there is no enforceable law preventing the event.

“Having a gathering is not illegal. Is that correct?” Somero asked.

Selectmen said he is correct, it is not –  but asked Somero, Haavisto and Rautiola to work with the tent revival leaders to encourage safety precautions, masks wearing and social distancing.

“We’re not trying to stop it. What our duties and obligations are is to look out for the benefit of the town. And I think as Christians your number-one goal is ‘do onto others as you would want done to you.’ Many people in this community are very concerned with this gathering and the potential of getting the COVID-19 virus. I hope you can understand that and appreciate their concerns,” Selectman David Lage said. “It is a serious pandemic that’s going around and we want to know what you are willing to do.”

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New Ipswich Selectman John Veeser Tuesday night talks to local hosts of a big tent revival that is attracting hundreds to town Aug. 14. Photo/Meghan Pierce

Selectman John Veeser said the concern extends beyond New Ipswich.

“We’re getting emails and phone calls from pretty much every town within a 10, 20-minute drive from here. People are very concerned about what is taking place in New Ipswich and how it is going to affect them in their town. I understand,” Veeser said. “I’m not against someone trying to preach the Gospel if any of you know me you understand that. … But I’m also here to protect the health and well being of the people of New Ipswich.”

Somero, Haavisto and Rautiola said it is unlikely the tent revival-goers would wear masks while out in public but said they would adhere to social distancing guidelines with the general public unless given permission to come closer than 6-feet of someone. The event is not just about attending the events on the private property owned by Somero, the men said. The revival includes sharing the Gospel by going out into communities and engaging with people. “It’s about Jesus and him going out into the community and sharing the love that he gave us,” Somero said.

The men said they didn’t know how many people would be attending the event, but said it could range from 200 to 500 people. And since New Ipswich is a small town without many public gathering places it is unlikely people attending would go out into New Ipswich to find people to preach to. Going house to house knocking on doors is not planned, they said.

“We’re talking Manchester and other areas and if it’s 200 people split up into 15, 30 towns it’s not like everybody is going out into the town of New Ipswich. It’s more Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts where people are going out to,”  Somero said.

Lage said the concern many have raised is that that people will be coming from out-of-state and will be going to public spaces, like shops and restaurants, where they could unknowingly spread the virus.

Many people at the meeting Tuesday said they are concerned that hundreds of people are coming to town from the Chicago area, where the organization most recently held a tent revival last week, and could be bringing COVID-19 with them. One woman said, “My kids work at the local restaurants.” Many asked if attendees and organization members from out-of-state would be self-quarantining for 14 days before going out into the public.

Somero said he is not aware anyone would quarantine and that he has recently spoken to the group’s attorney, who said members of the organization coming are healthy. Somero said he has no way of knowing the health of the attendees. Many responded saying someone can carry COVID-19 and not show any symptoms.

Above: A video posted by Sondergaard showing scenes from a recent tent revival in Illinois, “Next Stop: NH.”

The Last Reformation tent revival in Illinois last week was accused of violating a city mask mandate, according to coverage by the Des Plaines Patch last week. Haavisto said the controversy over the Illinois tent revival attendees violating the city regulations arose when those regulations had been changed after the event was already underway.

In an interview with Fox News last week Søndergaard said, “You can riot as much as you want with no social distancing, with no masks and no one stops you, but worshipping God is dangerous and suddenly you are spreading the virus,” and told Fox News it was religious persecution. “It’s very, very difficult to plan anything when guidelines and rules just change,” Søndergaard said. “We see this kind of religious persecution because there are some people who don’t want us there.”

About this Author

Meghan Pierce

Meghan Pierce is founder and editor of Monadnock Beat.