The founder of what was to become Bethel Seminary was an unusually gifted man. Born in Varmland, Sweden, in 1839, Edgren received a fine education in Karlstad. At an early age, he became a seaman and by the time he was 20 years old, he had achieved the rank of captain. During a terrible storm on a voyage to America, Edgren turned his life over to Christ. He was baptized in 1858 at the Mariner’s Baptist Church in New York City. He offered his services to the Union Navy in the American Civil War and was honored by the Union for his service and bravery.
Edgren took theological training at Princeton Seminary and the Baptist Theological Seminary in Hamilton, N.Y., before returning to Sweden as a missionary. He taught at Bethel Seminary in Stockholm, and served as a pastor in churches in Uppsala and Göteborg. His wife’s poor health prompted a move back to the United States.
Called to serve as the pastor of the First Swedish Baptist Church in Chicago in 1871, he immediately advertised the beginning of a Swedish Baptist Seminary, which soon became the Swedish department of the Baptist Union Theological Seminary. He completed academic work at the Baptist Union Seminary for his B.D. degree and was granted a D.D. by that school in 1883. At first, Edgren was the sole instructor and administrator of the new seminary. The school struggled with inadequate budgets and few students. However, in five years, all the Swedish state conferences had voted subsidies for the school and the American Baptists were assisting in finding financial supporters. By 1879, the Swedish Baptist Conference had established a school board. At the end of the first 10 years, the student body numbered 28 students, with more than 50 graduates serving churches in the rapidly growing Swedish Baptist Conference.
Edgren was a multi-talented scholar. He painted wonderful oil pictures as an avocation. He mastered 32 languages and was consulted by European scholars on the translations of ancient manuscripts. He was a friend of Professor Stafford, the outstanding astronomer on the University of Chicago staff, and often studied the stars with him. He published scientific papers of his own in the field of geology and began a Swedish language paper called Zions Waktare.
The relationship between Edgren and the Baptist Union Theological Seminary was not an easy one. Edgren had received a faculty appointment and some financial assistance, but his salary was still well below that of other professors. The school had grown to such an extent that there was little room for the expansion of the Swedish program. Edgren took issue with some of the other faculty on topics such as pre-millennialism as well as Christians becoming part of secret societies such as the Free Masons. Eventually, in 1884, the Swedish Conference voted to establish a seminary in Minnesota, and Edgren moved his students to St. Paul.
Now the seminary was called the Swedish-American Bible Seminary and was housed in First Baptist Church in St. Paul (now Trinity Baptist). The faculty consisted of seven full- and part-time instructors. However, after one year in St. Paul, the seminary responded to a generous offer from Swedish Baptists in Stromsberg, Neb., and moved the school there. The name was changed to Central Bible Seminary, and a large building was erected on 40 acres of land donated to the school. Doctrinal controversies around the issue of atonement arose between Edgren and the pastor of the Stromsberg church. These controversies and the heavy burden of the school that Edgren had carried for many years led Edgren to take a long vacation for his health in 1887. From there, he submitted his resignation in August and recommended that Eric Sandell be his replacement.