Long-time pastor knew audience

Published 10:25 am Monday, June 23, 2008

As Austin’s First Baptist Church celebrates its 150th anniversary, I think of the pastor who served the longest and is felt to have had the most unique ministry. Many feel his was also the most productive of all its 23 pastors. He was Leo Sandgren, Sr. (1891-1997), who was pastor here for the 21 years from 1932 to 1953. He told me he considered Austin his principal pastorate.

By anyone’s measure, Leo Sandgren was an old fashioned gospel preacher and folksy pastor. He was a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist in the days fundamentalists were still trying to define themselves, and he preached directly from the Bible as he understood it most literally. As conservative as was his theology, he was a master of innovative methods.

Despite no training in marketing, he recognized his probable target audience as well as how to reach it. He arrived in Austin with the country deep into the Great Depression and saw his flock through the Second World War. His tenure spanned over two decades of fear — first, fear of economic ruin and starvation, and then fear of global tyranny. His answer to these, and those fears more personal, was the Second Coming of Christ. In due time, he preached, Jesus Christ would return to earth and set up his Kingdom, and only by the Second Coming would the world find peace.

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Never did this preacher present such ideas as speculation or attempt any specific predictions. Most had always believed the Bible, but few had ever heard of what he showed them in the plain English of the King James Version. I have talked with many who visited the Baptist church out of curiosity and felt he had opened their eyes and they stayed. Church attendance as well as membership swelled to new levels that remain records.

Leo Sandgren was born in Niagara, N.D., on November 25, 1891 to Axel and Grunhilda (Halvorson) Sandgren. He was reared in the Salvation Army and even played the violin in its band. Salvationist teaching never left him, and he was curiously Arminian for a Baptist. He was trained at the Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, from which he graduated in 1918. During World War I he was a YMCA physical director in North Dakota.

His initial pastorates, all in Minnesota, were relatively brief. He was in Huntley for four years and in Detroit Lakes for seven. He had served in Parker’s Prairie for only two years when he was called to Austin. Nonetheless, when Austin deacons visited Parker’s Prairie and queried businessmen on its main street, they found him already popular and respected.

He married Esther in 1918, and she became an essential part of his ministry.

Few local pastors recognized the opportunities for religious broadcasting as soon as Sandgren. In 1937 he began the “Good News Hour,” a daily live broadcast on Albert Lea’s KATE. The program was continued by subsequent pastors, moving it to KQAQ in Austin, and in 1977 it was recognized by National Religious Broadcasters as the longest-running local religious broadcast in the country.

This pastor was also keen on elaborate printed programs for special occasions. If no occasion arose to be special, he invented one. He was a shameless promoter of his church and an entrepreneur in attracting crowds and building attendance. He determined to achieve a Sunday school attendance of over 1,000, and he did it by promoting a single event in the high school auditorium, which must have been attended by every businessman and community leader in Austin, despite the churches of which they were members. Most returned to their own churches, but he had reached his goal.

I met Leo Sandgren when I was teaching seminary in Tacoma, Wash., where he was living in retirement. We spent long hours chatting on the deck of his cottage on Puget Sound, and he was eager to prepare me to take his place in Austin. I returned from Austin to Tacoma in January 1979 and took part in his funeral.

Although Leo Sandgren was First Baptist’s pastor for only twenty-one of its 150 years, what he accomplished in those two decades has very much to do with the church reaching this significant milestone.