“A South Dakota Swede and the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 19–20
We may never know who deposited a copy of the Book of Mormon in the county library at Gettysburg, South Dakota (less than 2,000 population), but the Gettysburg Branch of the Church owes its existence to that book and the inquiring mind of a tall, thin Swede. He has influenced my life for thirty years.
Karl Ivar Sandberg left Sweden as a teenager to seek his fortune in the American northwest. But when he tired of the rough life in the lumbering camps and decided to venture into farming, he settled in Potter County, South Dakota, and for a time lived a secluded bachelor life in a “cook shack.” But he worked hard, prospered, and soon had a house and title to some land.
It was while watching the sprouting of his grain in the spring and the miracle of birth among his farm animals that Ivar began to wonder about religion. He turned to the Bible for answers. “It was customary with me as I worked around the place that perhaps several times a day, if the work was not rushing, I would run in the house and read for a while,” he said. “If I read fiction, I did not bother to take my cap off, but if I read the Bible, I would remove my cap, as I considered it a sacred book.”
Feeling the need to join a church in order to learn more about God and his works, Ivar visited the five churches in Gettysburg, about fifteen miles from his farm, and discussed religion with the ministers. But instead of being satisfied, he became discouraged. None of them measured up to his expectations of what the New Testament church was like. The doctrines they taught did not seem true. Driven in his search for truth, Ivar turned to the county library and read all the religious books he could find. Soon he despaired of Christianity, and decided to read the Koran. While the librarian was waiting to obtain it for him on interlibrary loan, she suggested that he might be interested in another “heathen” book, although some had found it dull reading. Ivar went home with the Book of Mormon.
“I started on the Book of Mormon, and naturally I felt I had started to read a book of fiction. I had not read many pages before I discovered I had found a most remarkable book. The tears started to run down my cheeks and the sweetest spirit seemed to be present. I had my cap on as I started to read the Book of Mormon, but before long I felt a man ought to read such a book with a bare head.
“As I remember it, I read the book in about three days, and it seemed to have the sweetest spirit with it. As far as I could see, the book could be true, but yet I had the feeling that by and by I would see where the book would contradict itself.
“I thought the book so remarkable that I took it to a religious neighbor of mine. I felt he would be very enthusiastic about it, but when I returned in three days, I found him scoffing at the book, saying it was all made up with a lot of names borrowed from the Bible. I returned it to the library and all summer I thought about it, and yet I could not see where the book contradicted itself nor the Bible.
“That year my brother Swen was working for me, and one Saturday evening in the fall as he was preparing to go to Gettysburg, I told him to go up to the library and ask the librarian for the Book of Mormon. He did so and the next morning, being Sunday, I started reading it as soon as I had my stock fed. That night before I went to bed I had read the Book of Mormon through. I was more impressed than ever. I read it through once more before returning it to the library, and I knew it was true.”
The library didn’t have any other books on Mormonism, so they referred him to the Deseret Book Store in Salt Lake City. Over the next two years Ivar ordered a number of books and became thoroughly converted and quite knowledgeable about the doctrines of the Church. He still had not met a single Latter-day Saint, and eventually decided he must go to Salt Lake City to be baptized.
The trip in an old Model A Ford across many miles of barren land in Wyoming was anything but encouraging, and often he stopped and prayed beside his running board for strength to go on. His first Mormon contact was an inactive service station attendant in northern Utah, and again he wondered whether to go on. But the next morning he drove into Salt Lake City, parked outside Temple Square, and told a watchman he had come to join the Church. That Sunday Ivar bore his testimony in the first Latter-day Saint meeting he had ever attended. “How I rejoiced to hear the Saints bear their testimonies,” he said. “I was at last among real brothers and sisters. After the meeting it seemed that almost everybody came and shook hands with me.”
Ivar was baptized October 1, 1934, and, wanting to remain in the city of the Saints, he worked for a while in Salt Lake City. But after being ordained an elder, he was encouraged to return to South Dakota to help establish the Church there. He left in time to plant his crop the next spring.
From the president of the North Central States Mission he obtained permission to hold a Sunday School in his home. He soon converted a lovely schoolteacher, Mildred Nelson, and married her. Later other neighbors began to accept the gospel. About this time, a neighbor told my father of the strange events transpiring about five miles from our home. My father thought most churches were like social clubs, where women went to show off their latest fashions and men appeared honest in order to help their businesses during the week. He accepted the challenge of “teaching this strange, uneducated Swede a few things.”
Our first meeting was in a one-room schoolhouse, with about twenty people present, half of them investigators. I could barely understand the heavy accent of this Swedish convert, but I did feel his spirit. It was warm and stimulating. My father and I had many discussions about it, and he was baptized within a year in a prairie pond. The rest of our family followed at later dates.
When the Gettysburg Branch was organized in 1948 with twenty-five convert members, Ivar Sandberg was its first president, fulfilling a promise made when he was confirmed a member of the Church many years earlier. My father was his first counselor.
This was the most unusual branch in the mission. While it was made up entirely of farm families, many had a college education. Almost always complete families had joined, usually the husband and father first. There was ample priesthood leadership, and nearly all the women could play the piano and lead music.
Typical of Brother Sandberg’s influence was the Thompson family from Texas. Both parents were highly educated, had taught high school and farmed on the side, and were active in a Protestant church. However, with five sons they had decided to obtain a farm in South Dakota. Driving down the highway they noticed a small chapel about eight miles from Gettysburg. Curious, and somewhat influenced by a dream Mrs. Thompson had had in Texas, they contacted Ivar. They wanted to show him the error of his ways, but in less than a year they were active members of the branch.
The entire Gettysburg Branch owes its existence to Ivar Sandberg and a copy of the Book of Mormon. On the day he died, as a result of a pickup truck accident in 1952, I was privileged to leave as the first missionary called from the branch. Since then, a number have filled missions throughout the world, including five of his own children and his wife, Mildred. Still a small branch, it now includes eighteen families and more than fifty members. But branch presidents, bishops, various ward and stake officers—all converted by Ivar and the message he bore—today live in other areas of the Church and continue to teach the gospel of Christ.