Bethel Theological Seminary
St. Paul, Minnesota

50th Jubilee of Swedish Baptists - Walker Hall, October 1, 1902 John Alexis Edgren, Bethel founder

An Extraordinary Heritage

    In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a remarkable group of women and men immigrated to the united States.  After severing ties with the State Church of Sweden, these spiritual outcasts came to America to pursue a more personal approach to their Christian faith,  Known as the "Bible readers," the were committed to the Scriptures, prayer and a lifestyle of obedience.
    These devout immigrants quickly blended into mainstream American society and became business owners and community leaders.  They reached out to other Swedish Americans by establishing churches, orphanages, and schools.
    America's intellectual community embraced the numerous scholars descending from these Swedish Americans.  Many of the scholars were associated with Bethel College & Seminary and the Swedish Baptist Conference, including J. Alexis Edgren, who founded Bethel Seminary in 1871; Carl Gustaf Lagergren, who served as seminary dean from 1889 to 1922; and Karl Karlson, dean from 1925 to 1948.

    The above account of Bethel's History is copied from a book written by the Baptist General Conference History Center.   

    The following is an historical account of the life of Bethel's founder John Alexis Edgren and the beginning of Bethel College taken from the book "Seventy-Five Years" of Bethel Theological Seminary.

    John Alexis Edgren was the founder of Bethel.  He was born at Östanå, Älvbacka, Värmland, Sweden, on February 20, 1839 and the eldest child in a family of five brothers and three sisters.  John grew up in a well to do home and was able to have a fine education.  He had an intellectually, socially and religious upbringing.  John had a University student as a private tutor in the early years of his life.  Later on he attended and completed the Elementarläroverk (similar to elementary school) in Karlstad.  John had an adventurous spirit and so with the completion of his schooling in the fall of 1852, his dream became a reality when he felt the roll of the deck under his feet, the sense of salt water spraying his face and saw the bulging of the sails that were to wing him to many a distant port.  During the next few months young Mr. Edgren sailed under five different flags, namely: English, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and American.  Between sailing adventures he continued his education either at his home or in the Navigation school in Stockholm.  In 1855 he passed the examination to become a first Mate, and then in the fall of 1859 he competed and passed the stiff requirements for the Captain's rank.  He received the highest honors that were given in the conferring of his new position.
    During a terrific storm while on voyage to America, Captain Edgren realized that he was a sinner with out hope, and he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior.  The following year, 1858, he was baptized and joined the Mariner's Baptist Church in New York.  Although Captain Edgren had accepted Christ he was not as yet certain of his call to a full time service for the Lord.  Because of this uncertainty he gave himself to further mastery of the technique of the sea by passing the examination as teacher of Navigation at Stockholm in 1862.  In this same year, in the midst of the Civil war in the United States, this Swedish sailor offered his services to the Union Navy, where he was honored because of his bravery as a soldier and his skill as a seaman.
    After a year with the Union Navy, Edgren resigned to attend the Princeton Theological Seminary, but in 1864 he again joined the navy to serve in a heroic and masterful way until the completion of the war in 1865.  Then he gave up the sea forever to answer the call of his Master to give his life in full time Christian service in spite of the fine offers to continue in nautical life for the United States Government.  
    In the fall of 1865 he enrolled as a student of theology in the Baptist Theological Seminary in Hamilton, New York.  The following year, Captain Edgren was called by the American Baptist Missionary Union to go as a missionary to Sweden.  Another major event, however, was to occupy his interest before journeying to his homeland: for on April 10, 1866, Edgren was married to Miss Anna Chapman.  Now Mr. and Mrs. Edgren, together with Rev. A. Wiberg and Colonel K O Broady, two of the pioneers of the Baptist work in Sweden, set sail for Sweden.  Once in Sweden, Edgren served the Baptists by teaching in the newly organized Bethel Seminary in Stockholm. ministering as pastor in Uppsala, and finally serving the church in Göteborg.  Because of his wife's poor health, Edgren was forced to return to America in 1870.
     Shortly after landing in New York, a call was extended to Edgren by the First Swedish Baptist Church of Chicago to become its pastor.  This call was not only a new venture into the great middle west for Edgren, but it signalized the dawning of a new day for the Swedish Baptists in America.  Upon request from the Union Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1872, Edgren opened a department for Scandinavian theological students in the fall of 1871 in the basement of his church for Scandinavian ministerial students.  When word came to the American Seminary of Edgren's plan, an invitation was immediately presented to Edgren of organize his work in collaboration with their institution.  Edgren now made ready to open his department in the American Seminary on the south side of Chicago.  This was the beginnings of what is now Bethel Theological Seminary.
       Besides his pioneering in education among the Swedish Baptists he edited a paper called "Zions Wäktare."  Shortly before the disastrous Chicago fire, in the fall of 1871, an announcement appeared in Edgren's paper, which reads as follows:

        "A theological Seminary for Swedes and others who understand the Swedish language and who intend to devote themselves to preaching, will be opened in the near future in Chicago.  The school will undoubtedly be affiliated with the American Theological Seminary of this city and become a Swedish department of said institution, offering a complete course for such as desire to go directly into missionary work among the Scandinavians of the West, as well as providing a preparatory course for those who plan on continuing their studies at the American Seminary.  To our countrymen who feel called of God to the Gospel ministry we extend a hearty invitation to this school.  The Church in Chicago has promised to provide lodging for two students and board for one.  If our churches at other places can do as much for the support of the students, they need no longer be without well prepared ministers.  We believe that this arrangement will be an answer to the prayer that many laborers might be sent out to the fields white for the harvest."  J.A Edgren
In response to that call one student, Christopher Silene, made his way to Chicago to sit under the tutorship of this heroic man of faith.  After New Year's the second student, Nicholas Hayland, arrived.  This was a rather insignificant beginning from a numerical point of view; who but God knew the great results that would follow?  Our own Pastor Nicholas Hayland, in 1873, was the first graduating student of Bethel.  Christopher Silene, the first student at Bethel. He graduated in the class of 1875
    Because of poor heath he returned in 1972 to Sweden for a few months' rest.  On his return, in February 1873, he again plunged into the gigantic task of school work an literary endeavor.  Our own  was the first graduating student of John Edgren in 1873.  After some fifteen years it became evident, however, that Edgren no longer could continue in his labor at the seminary.  His health become seriously impaired by his tireless efforts for the Kingdom of God.  Retiring to California, Edgren spent the later years of his life writing books, translating parts of the Bible from the original, and spending much time in  painting on canvas some of the outstanding events experienced during his lifetime.
    In 1883 his Alma Mater in Chicago conferred on him the Doctor of Divinity degree.  Edgren was a Biblical student of world renown.  His Bible translations were notably reliable because of his knowledge of ancient language.  Some of them are as follows: Hebrew, Greek, Syraic, Egyptian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldean, Samaritan, Arabic, Assyrian, and Gothic.  Dr. Edgren's son testifies that his father new sixteen spoken and sixteen unspoken languages.
    The following incident illustrates his scholastic ability: "One day Dr. Edgren received a letter from some English scholars asking him to give them his interpretation of some recently discovered ancient inscriptions found on a monument in Egypt.  After a careful study he wrote out his translation and sent it to the Englishmen.  After some time he received a complimentary letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury with the information that the scholars, who had disagreed, finally were convinced that Edgren's interpretation was the correct one and that he was recognized as one of the foremost authorities of Egyptology."
    January 26, the Lord led his faithful servant into the Haven of Rest.  His body rests in the Berkely Cemetery with this inscription on the tombstone:

In Memoriam

    He was the founder and for sixteen years director of the Swedish Baptist Theological Seminary Morgan Park, Ill.  
    A true man.  A loyal naval officer of the Civil War.  An earnest student and teacher.  A loving husband and father,  faithful pastor and preacher.  An eminent theologian and author.  And above all a true and sincere Christian.

A brief history of Bethel Seminary Locations

    During the first six years the Seminary was located on the south side of Chicago, at the Union Theological Seminary, a department of the old University of Chicago, which had it campus on Cottage Grove Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets.  In the fall of 1877, the Seminary was moved to Morgan Park, twelve miles south of the center of Chicago, where it was located, except for one period of a few years, when it moved to Stromsburg, Nebraska in 1885 to 1888.  From 1888 to 1914, more particularly from the year 1892, the seminary  was located at the new University of Chicago to become a department of the Divinity school , until the school moved to St. Paul Minnesota , to its present location in 1914. 

Some views of Bethel today

The Benson Great Hall

Seminary Bells

 Community Life Center


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