Happy Birthday, John Alexis Edgren!

Like many American colleges and universities founded in the nineteenth century, the place I work came into being thanks largely to the efforts of a pioneering figure who is as venerated within the school as he is unknown outside of it. For Bethel, that figure is John Alexis Edgren, whose 176th birthday our campus celebrates today.

Edgren's sketch of the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862)
An amateur artist, Edgren sketched the famous 1862 battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack – Bethel University Digital Library

Born in Sweden on February 20, 1839, Edgren became a sailor and, by age 20, a sea captain. After a conversion experience during a storm in New York harbor, he was baptized at Mariners’ Baptist Church in 1858. He served in the Union Navy during the American Civil War, motivated in no small part — argues my colleague G. W. Carlson — by his antipathy to slavery:

Later in a sermon John Alexis Edgren compared the liberation of Negros from slavery with Christ’s liberation of people from sin. Edgren had concluded that the American Civil War was a just and righteous war because it had removed the “shackles of four million slaves.” (Baptist Pietist Clarion, July 2013)

Having preached as early as 1859, after the war Edgren went into full-time ministry; “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel,” he told those who urged him to stay in the navy. (He had briefly left military service in 1863, in order to study at Princeton Theological Seminary.) A brilliant linguist who knew more than thirty languages (“Sixteen spoken and sixteen unspoken,” he told his son), Edgren studied at Hamilton Theological Seminary and later completed his doctorate at Chicago’s Baptist Union Seminary.

After a stint back in Sweden as a missionary, Edgren returned to America as the pastor of Chicago’s First Swedish Baptist Church. In 1871 he decided to launch a new seminary — just in time for the city’s Great Fire. While it grew from one student that first year to nearly thirty within a decade, what became Bethel Seminary had a difficult history in the Edgren years. The relationship with the larger Baptist seminary in Chicago was tense (in part because Edgren embraced premillennialism), and the Swedish department relocated: first for a year in St. Paul, Minnesota, then to Stromsburg, Nebraska, where the challenge of managing administrative and financial challenges and a theological conflict with a local pastor (and former student) broke Edgren’s health. After moving to California to recuperate, he resigned in 1887.

Edgren Dorm on Bethel's old campus
The Edgren dorm on Bethel’s old campus in St. Paul (Bethel University Digital Library). Today’s version is home to first-year students on the Arden Hills campus

Edgren’s latter years (d. 1908) are troubling ones, marked by poverty and usually left out of the more “usable past” typically promulgated within Bethel and its denomination. (For example.) Still, even in retirement he was celebrated as a leader of the Swedish Baptist movement, and after his seminary permanently relocated to St. Paul in 1914 and merged with Bethel Academy, the late Edgren quickly assumed the stature of founding father. (See this 1921 photo of Bethel’s chapel, where a large portrait of him occupies a central position.)

Which is not to say that he has been an uncontested figure. When a debate over open theism engulfed the Baptist General Conference and its college and seminary in the late 1990s, both sides tried to claim Edgren. Minneapolis pastor (and former Bethel professor) John Piper and his supporters formed the Edgren Fellowship to defend what they described as the “classical theist” position, quoting Edgren’s Fundamentals of Faith on divine foreknowledge: “God knows everything that ever was, everything that now is, and everything that is to be; all that is actual and all that is possible. Therefore God knows in advance all the free acts of all free creatures” (pp. 19-20). Their opponents began to publish The Baptist Pietist Clarion in 2002, with co-editor G. W. Carlson dedicating one article in the initial issue to combating the “misapplication of Dr. Edgren’s theological writings” and characterizing Bethel’s founder as a “very committed Baptist pietist who was opposed to creedalism” (March 2002, p. 4).

Portrait of an older Edgren
Portrait of an older Edgren – Bethel University Digital Library

But at Bethel Edgren is best known — and most widely appreciated — for the four core principles of his educational philosophy, translated from Swedish by Bethel historian Adolf Olson:

1. Those who are to be admitted into the seminary should be conscious of a real conversion and a call of God to the gospel ministry.

2. The preacher should have as good an education as possible, but of all knowledge the most important is to know the Bible. Therefore, we take up such subjects in the school as will contribute to a true Bible knowledge, while the Bible itself, from beginning to end, is studied as thoroughly as time will permit.

3. To cultivate the mind is important for the preacher, but to cultivate the spiritual life is even more important. Thus, while storing the mind with useful information of a biblical as well as of a secular nature, spiritual edification must never be lost sight of.

4. The relation between teacher and students should not be that of superior and subordinate, but one of real friendship and helpfulness, remembering that One is our Master, and we are all brethren.

The fourth in particular is often quoted at Bethel convocation and commencement ceremonies and in historical writings about the school. (And in our recent book on Pietism and higher education.) Its spirit animates the Edgren Scholars program, which supports faculty-student research projects like the one I’ve been doing with Fletcher Warren. (Still not quite ready for prime time, by the way — look for an early May launch of the final website.)

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