The Swedish Baptists who planted the initial churches of the Baptist General Conference were fiercely independent. They had to be in order to leave family and country behind and travel to a new land. This independence was forged by the experiences of harassment and religious persecution that led to their immigration. They had fought in Sweden for the right to gather freely for Bible study, suffering jail and exile for their convictions. They had resisted the leadership of Lutheran Church preachers in order to seek the truths of the Bible for themselves. These early pioneers sailed from Sweden with a deep distrust of ecclesiastical and secular authority.
In America, they were free from such authority both by law and by circumstances. Many of the early conference leaders lived in remote, rural areas where they basically governed themselves, and where they established congregations that exercised complete freedom over their own affairs. “Religious dissenter that he was, the Swedish Baptist immigrant soon developed a robust and pronounced independence in faith and thinking, a characteristic which found fertile soil on the American frontier” (Olson, p. 71).
There have always been strong leaders in the conference, but due to this independent spirit, travel difficulties, and a lack of trust in authorities, the first leaders were solo evangelists working outside of any ecclesiastical structure. Slowly, churches banded together in loosely connected regional and state conferences. Finally, in 1879, a nation-wide conference of Swedish Baptist Churches was called at Village Creek, Iowa. “Many Swedish Baptists regarded the whole concept of a General Conference, a conference for the entire country, more or less skeptically” (Olson, p. 408). From this time on, there were gatherings of Swedish Baptists on the regional and national levels, but they were led by committed pastors and lay leaders, not paid leadership.
The earliest nationally recognized, employed leaders of the Swedish Baptists were the leaders of the Swedish Baptist Seminary that J. A. Edgren began in Chicago in 1871 and which eventually became Bethel University. From 1871 until Ragnar Arlander was appointed mission secretary in 1935, Bethel was the only place for Swedish Baptists to look for national leadership in theology and practice. There were also employed leaders for conference publications beginning in 1918, including Waldemar Skoglund, J.O. Backlund, Martin Erickson, and C. George Erickson, whose writings helped shape conference thought and direction. But with one three-year exception, neither the Bethel leaders nor the publication leaders gave formal administrative oversight and leadership to the conference.
The first paid employee of the Swedish Baptists was Christopher Silene, who had been the first student in Edgren’s seminary. In 1880, Silene, with help from the American Baptist Home Mission Society, became the first missionary of the Swedish Baptists, engaging in evangelism and church planting work until 1882. Over the next decades, there were a variety of attempts to employ mission leaders of this kind for the conference, but these offices would exist for awhile and then lapse. A.P Ekman (missionary, 1882-84) followed Silene; then there was a twenty-year hiatus until G. Arvid Hagstrom served as missions secretary from 1907-1909. Olaf Hedeen was missions secretary a decade later, serving from 1920-1928. Some recognition of the need for greater administrative leadership came when G. Arvid Hagstrom served for three years not only as president of Bethel Seminary but as secretary of promotion and finance and mission secretary for the conference (1930-33). After Hagstrom gave up his conference role to concentrate exclusively on his Bethel duties, Ragnar Arlander was appointed missions secretary, serving from 1935 to 1945. His responsibilities grew beyond a limited missions secretary role, which was good preparation for the conference re-organization in 1945.
With this re-organization, William Turnwall was elected as home missions secretary, replacing Ragnar Arlander, and Walfred Danielson was chosen to head the new foreign missions work. Turnwall continued where Arlander had left off, fulfilling both the duties of secretary of home missions and also some duties associated with overall conference leadership. But it wasn’t until 1953 that the authority-shy Baptist General Conference elected William Tapper as secretary to the Board of Trustees. Guston and Erickson, in Fifteen Eventful Years, state that “since other departments were functioning independently, it was decided that the conference executive secretary should be an office separate from any other board” (p. 227). Finally there was a leader for the whole conference work, but his title indicated that the conference still was unsure that they wanted a leader outside the Board of Trustees. Then, in 1959, Lloyd Dahlquist was brought into the office and his title changed to General Secretary of the Baptist General Conference. That title was also granted to Dahlquist’s successor, Warren Magnuson (1969-1987). When Bob Ricker was elected to succeed Magnuson in 1987, the position was renamed President of the Baptist General Conference and remained thus for the subsequent leader, Jerry Sheveland (2002-).
The conference, then, has been largely shaped over the years by pastors and laypeople who have served as leaders of boards and committees. To this day, these volunteers from the churches play a large role in directing conference ministry. The trend, however, reflected in the changing titles, is toward more centralized responsibility and a professional leader to direct conference life. Since 1953, the five men who have held this central role have been enormously important for the growth of the ministry of the Baptist General Conference. Their stories reflect the wisdom, dedication, and commitment to the Lord that God has used to build our fellowship into an ever more effective part of the greater Kingdom of God.
Publication Date: October 2007
The BGC History Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
Anderson, Donald, ed. The 1960s in the Ministry of the Baptist General Conference. Harvest Publications, Chicago, Ill.
Anderson, Donald, ed. The 1970s in the Ministry of the Baptist General Conference. Board of Trustees of the Baptist General Conference, Chicago, Ill., 1981.
Anderson, Donald, ed. The 1980s in the Ministry of the Baptist General Conference. Board of Overseers of the Baptist General Conference, Chicago, Ill., 1991.
Guston, David and Martin Erickson. Fifteen Eventful Years. Harvest Publications Chicago, Ill., 1961.
Olson, Adolf. A Centenary History. Baptist Conference Press Chicago, Ill., 1952.
Olson, Adolf and Olson, Virgil A. Seventy Five Years. Conference Press Chicago, Ill., 1946.
Wingblade, Henry. Windows of Memory. Harvest Publications, Chicago, Ill., 1961