An Educational Pioneer

by Elder M. Lindahl

Erik August Skogsbergh was born in Värmland, Sweden, on June 24, 1850. He was converted at age 19, and attended Mission Schools in Kristinehamn and Ahlberg for about two years. Lutheran Pastor, Dr. Olof Olsson, third President of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and Covenant leader and Scholar, Dr. P. P. Waldenström, were his life-long teachers and friends.

Skogsbergh was a small, intense, charismatic, bold, witty person whose sermons and style attracted great crowds. He weighed about 120 pounds as an adult. His extraordinary memory, incredible energy, and personal interest in people are legendary.

On October 10, 1876, Evangelist Skogsbergh arrived in Chicago in response to a call from the Northside Church. He soon came under the spell of D. L. Moody. He was intrigued by Moody’s style of ministry and his great success, and was called, “The Swedish Moody.” He also fell in love with a Svenska flicka, Mathilda S. Peterson, an immigrant who was a soloist at the Moody Church. They were married on May 21, 1879. Until their move to Minneapolis in January, 1884, Skogsbergh was a pastor on both the North and South sides of Chicago, as well as an itinerant evangelist.

Arriving in Minneapolis, he believed that both a newspaper and a school were necessary for the work of the church in the Northwest, that is, in Minnesota. He started a paper, Svenska Kristna Härolden (Swedish Christian Herald) which later came to be called Veckobladet (The Weekly). Concerning the need and arrangements for a school, he writes:

...Since a large number of young people arrived continually from the old country, it became clear a school for general education, and not least for learning the English language, would serve the young immigrants, even incorporate them into our church work. (Minnen och upplevelser, 204)

In the Spring of 1884, in the front room and the living room of his home, Skogsbergh set up the rudiments of that educational ideal. In those two rooms, heated by a large coal-fired stove which stood in between, he gave lessons to students in English, business subjects, Bible, and Christian service. Skogsbergh’s vision of Christian higher education, however, was restricted somewhat by his burning passion for gaining new converts for the Kingdom. To some extent, a church-related school was for him an evangelistic tool, a pathway to incorporate new immigrants into the Church. Just the same, the higher educational system of the Covenant begins with him.

After many years, with considerable growth and many political, theological, and pedagogical twists and turns, his school would branch into what came to be known as North Park University, North Park Theological Seminary, North Park Academy (no longer exists), and Minnehaha Academy.

Skogsbergh describes his early educational efforts in these words:

I began a school therefore out in my home under frugal circumstances where young people for a small fee could acquire new knowledge, even Christian education. It is true this came to encroach on the comfort of my family and without a doubt caused problems and extra work for my wife and the domestics. But necessity has no law. And since we were all young and full of hope, it went without murmuring. (204)

When the attendance in Skogsbergh’s little school grew to nineteen, it was clear, as he says, that a move was necessary. In January of 1885, he moved his school to the church at 4th Street and 8th Avenue near what is now the Metrodome. In the Fall of that year they moved into an old store building at Riverside and 25th Avenue, just east of what is now Augsburg College. Here the school work continued to grow, and a school society and board were founded. By the Fall of 1890, their seventh year, they officially took the name, “The Minneapolis Business School and Bible Institute.” Besides Skogsbergh, the faculty included from time to time: J. A. Lindblade, David Nyvall, Axel Mellander, and John Lindblom. It was an American version of a Scandinavian folk högskola, an affordable, non-credit institution designed to help young and old make their way in society.

At the same time in Chicago, education arrangements which the Covenant had with the Congregationalists at the Chicago Theological Seminary were not working well. In September, 1891, at Moses Hill Covenant Church in Nebraska, Skogsbergh’s school, now called, “The Northwestern College in Minneapolis,” was offered to, and accepted by, the Covenant.

A month later, on Thursday, October 1st, Skogsbergh’s school, now under Covenant auspices, moved into the basement rooms of the Swedish Tabernacle for more adequate classrooms. The curriculum of the school was enlarged to include courses in church history, general history, Swedish, nature study, bookkeeping, penmanship, English, music, Bible study, and theology. A library was established, and a decision was made by the Trustees and the Covenant Executive Board to have three departments: A theological seminary, a commercial department, and an academy.

And the big Minneapolis/Chicago tug of war for the School’s location was on. The two “teams,” like Vikings and Bears, jockeyed to win the School for their respective backyards. Suggestions and proposals for possible specific locations were offered by both groups. Skogsbergh, who had hoped his academic gift would become a viable, growing Covenant educational institution in the Twin Cities, worked unsuccessfully to make a Minnesota location happen. Keenly disappointed and bitter when the Covenant decided to move “his” school to Chicago, he was not discouraged. He writes:

But now church politics surfaced with the consequence that the school was moved to Chicago. All the thoughtful and impartial among us took this as a colossal mistake, and that has since been verified. That meant that we in Minneapolis had to resume anew the school work which was not at all easy. (205)

To his credit, as historian Leland Carlson notes, Skogsbergh, commissioned by the Covenant to visit churches and solicit funds for the new Chicago school, carried out his assignment with interest, success, and zeal. “...The pioneer educator was not one to bear a grudge. His was not a struggle against peoples and powers, but against ill-conceived policies and questionable locations” (A History of North Park College, 83).

By the fall of 1894, Skogsbergh’s school, now named North Park College and Seminary, had moved into the newly-completed Old Main which stood majestically on what had been the Claus August Youngquist farm at Foster and Kedzie Avenues.

Skogsbergh and others regrouped and continued their educational efforts in Minneapolis. A new school was established and financed and became Minnehaha Academy. This little school would not be given to the Covenant, but rather would be owned and operated by the Northwest Conference of the Covenant.

Skogsbergh was involved in much more than schools. He was the pastor of First Covenant Church, Minneapolis for 25 years, a traveling evangelist, a land developer on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, founder of the Fairview Covenant Church, “builder” of several tabernacles in Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle, leader in founding the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis, and much more. Herbert E. Palmquist paints this word picture of him:

Skogsbergh was a great master of congregations. To hear him lead a packed church in the singing of “There’s a land that is fairer than day” was an unforgettable experience. Like a captain on the bridge of his ship he directed the congregation in their singing, giving commands to the musical instruments to stop while he spoke the most intimate and appealing words of concern and invitation, which everyone in the church felt were directed to him as an individual. No one of the writer’s acquaintanceship has matched him in platform generalship. (Wit and Wisdom of Our Fathers, 96)

Of special interest and significance is the Knox farm property on Lake Minnetonka which Skogsbergh bought and subdivided into lots in the 1890s. The picturesque point of that property, called Skogsbergh’s Udde, became a kind of Chautauqua.

I was invited to Skogsbergh's point recently, and as I walked to the end of the dock, I tried to imagine the many visitors arriving by steamboat for the various seminars, meetings, Bible conferences, and programs which Skogsbergh and others held in this setting. Although there are several homes built there now, one can envision the huge grassy space existing between Skogsbergh’s “rambling white house on the hill” and the shore. It covers an area about the size of two football fields end to end. A large choir would sing, accompanied by a portable reed organ, just to the North of where he and other speakers stood on an improvised platform.

Erik planted small basswood saplings near their home in honor and remembrance of their children. Together they had eleven children, five sons and six daughters. Today, five of the nine basswoods which Skogsbergh planted survive as mature trees in a closely knit clump. Two children were born after they left the Point. In this picture, the former summer kitchen of Skogsbergh’s home can be seen to the left of the trees.

Mathilda Skogsbergh passed away in September, 1931 at the age of 71. Her obituary reads: “Mrs. Skogsbergh was an ideal minister’s wife, a loving mother, a true friend, and a willing worker. She was unsurpassed in friendly hospitality, and everybody was welcome to her home.”

Palmquist tells a story which gives some insight into Skogsbergh’s practical theology. The North Park Seminary students asked Prof. Nyvall to invite Skogsbergh, his brother-in-law, to the Campus to speak on Bible prophecy. Palmquist admits he did not remember much about the prophecy talks, but did treasure a comment Skogsbergh made about the danger of being overly dependent on God, of trying to cover one’s own lack of effort and industry with prayer. “Some people,” Skogsbergh said, “expect God to stick his head out of the clouds and say, ‘All right, Yohnson, go ahead.’” (Wit and Wisdom of our Fathers, 91)

Skogsbergh himself did not sit around waiting for Divine signals from the clouds. He used his own creative capacities to accomplish many enduring projects. His name, Skog (forest) and bergh (mountain), reminds me of his life, one lived in harmony with nature and the power of growth in all things. His planting of the basswoods testifies to his vision of the potential in tiny seeds and to the wisdom of planting them in hope and expectation of the future.

Skogsbergh departed this life in 1939 at the age of 89. Tack ska du ha, Erik.

Elder Lindahl is a retired North Park University professor living in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl