RIP Virgil Olson

Virgil Olson in 1956
Virgil in 1956, as church history professor at Bethel Seminary – Bethel University Digital Library

This isn’t really how I’d like to come back to blogging after some time off, but… I’m sad to pass on the news that Virgil Olson, an important figure in the history of Bethel University (seminary professor, 1951-1968; college dean, 1968-1974) and the leading historian of its sponsoring denomination, Converge Worldwide (Baptist General Conference), died this Tuesday at age 96. (Here’s the obituary that appeared today in our local papers.)

In the next week or two, I hope to publish a eulogy here by one of Virgil’s many friends and admirers in the BGC. But if you don’t know who Virgil was, or why we dedicated our Pietist Impulse book to him, you might start by reading this December 2011 post on Virgil and how he helped (and still helps) those of us at Bethel understand the meaning of our Pietist heritage. (Actually, further research has convinced me that Virgil and his father Adolf pioneered the very notion of a “Pietist heritage” for the BGC and Bethel. Before them, Pietism was absent from that historiography.) Safe to say: whatever I contribute to a Pietist understanding of Christian higher education is built on a foundation laid by Virgil Olson.

Reading through that 2011 post again, I was struck by the conclusion. Virgil’s son Dan recounted his father’s response to some trying financial times for Bethel in the early 1970s:

At a time near the end of Virgil’s tenure as Bethel College dean, when finances were even tighter than usual, he admitted to his son that Bethel might even go bankrupt. “Doesn’t that bother you?”, Dan asked, surprised. Here’s how Virgil responded:

Well sure it bothers me. I’ve worked hard and committed many years of my life to Bethel…. [But] you have to remember that Bethel isn’t going to last forever. It’s just a human organization. Someday it will end. But ultimately I don’t work for Bethel. I do what I do because I want to contribute to God’s Kingdom. Bethel is my way of doing that. Bethel may fail, but God’s Kingdom is forever. (Baptist Pietist Clarion, May 2011, p. 18)

Given Bethel’s current financial predicament — if anything, perhaps more daunting than those of earlier decades, given the apparent restructuring of higher education that’s underway — those words ring all the truer. And Virgil’s counsel is missed all the more.

Peace be to his memory.


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