Virgil Olson: A Faithful Disciple of Jesus Christ (G.W. Carlson) – part 1

Virgil Olson (1916-2013)
Virgil Olson (1916-2013)

As mentioned here last week, Virgil Olson, a longtime professor at what’s now Bethel University and the leading historian of what used to be the Baptist General Conference, died last Tuesday at age 96. His friend G.W. Carlson offered to share this two-part tribute with readers of this blog. (Previously, GW has contributed essays on Clarence Jordan and Paul Wellstone.)

On Saturday, June 8, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a memorial service for Dr. Virgil Olson at First Baptist Church in Cambridge, Minnesota. He had died four days before, at the age of 96. This memorial service was a marvelous experience. It began by defining the major characteristic of his life: the belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “one story worth telling.” This commitment was expressed in a story of a visit to a Perkins restaurant, where Virgil intentionally conveyed to the server that he was glad that “Jesus loves me.”

As a preacher, professor, dean, and administrator of world mission institutions, Virgil’s one desire was to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. In a recent article on Pietism he wanted to revive the value of experiential Christianity, which included “an emphasis on the born again experience, holy living and Läsare spirituality. It became part of the warp and woof of the pioneer Swedish Baptist immigrants. All of us today, he argued, still need to learn how to ‘truly walk with God.’”

One of the most significant aspects of Virgil Olson’s life was that he was a walking encyclopedia of Conference history.  During his lifetime he had instructed many Baptist General Conference pastors, worked with all the deans at Bethel with the exception of founder John Alexis Edgren, and played a major role in defining the importance of the denomination’s Baptist Pietist heritage.

Virgil Olson in 1968
Virgil in September 1968, at the beginning of his first year as College Dean – Bethel University Digital Library

After serving in several pastorates he became a professor of church history at Bethel Seminary (1951-1968), Dean of Bethel College (1968-1975), Executive Secretary of the World Mission Board of the Baptist General Conference (1975-1981), and President of William Carey International University (1981-1986).

In later years Dr. Virgil Olson was a major contributor to the Baptist Pietist Clarion, which I began to publish in March 2002.  Although it originated in the Open Theism debate within the Baptist General Conference, the basic intent of the Clarion has been to define and articulate a need to not forget our Baptist Pietist heritage. Virgil’s articles helped to define what it means to be a Baptist, to understand the history and relevance of Pietism, to explore the value of the “irenic spirit,” and to value the contribution of Bethel College and Seminary to Christian higher education.

I would like to suggest three ways in which Virgil Olson needs to be remembered.

First, Virgil Olson honored his Baptist heritage and attempted to persuade the next generations that it was still relevant.  He was saddened that “being Baptist” was under challenge and an appreciation of its contributions to American life and culture were being lost. He believed that some Baptist groups had bartered away their distinctives in order to be more compatible with the politically and theologically conservative mindset of the day.

Virgil wanted us to remember that the Swedish Baptists were born in religious persecution. These dangerous heretics championed religious liberty, which became the cornerstone of religious life in America. These baptized believers were driven with a “divine compulsion to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world.” In a 2003 article for the Clarion, Virgil outlined what he felt were the most significant Baptist distinctives.

1. As a Baptist I believe that the New Testament is the final source for theology, polity and mission, superseding all other Affirmations, Declarations, and Creeds. Baptist congregations and Associations have used Statements of Faith as a guide to understanding. But the New Testament is always the ultimate standard, the primary authority.

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

2. As a Baptist I believe in soul competency and liberty of conscience of a person to discern and decide for the truth as revealed in the Scriptures. James I of England threw a pioneer Baptist preacher, Thomas Helwys, into prison in 1612 because he would not conform to the church rules established by the King. Helwys wrote, “The King is a mortal man and not God, therefore hath no power over ye immortal soules of his subjects to make lawes and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.”

3. As a Baptist I believe in the priesthood of all believers. Every believer in Christ has direct access to Jesus Christ through prayer. There is no need to go through other go-between priests, bishops, and popes. The believer has direct access to the Triune God.

4. As a Baptist I believe that the membership of the church should be made up of consenting, regenerate believers in Christ who have confessed their faith through baptism by immersion. I believe that baptism of a believer is an act of obedience to Christ’s rules of the Kingdom.

5. As a Baptist I believe that the local church is autonomous. No clerical hierarchy or church council or synod can exercise control over a congregation in matters of faith, ministry or mission. However, I believe a Baptist church enhances its mission outreach by associating with like-minded churches in an association or conference. I do not believe a completely independent church alone can adequately meet the needs of the world, close at hand as well as in global outreach. Cooperation is needed.

6. As a Baptist I believe that the membership of the local church has the final authority in making decisions. This would include decisions regarding the selection of leadership, the acceptance of budget allocations, the approval of ministries and programs, and the care, improvement, and sale of property.

7. As a Baptist, I believe in religious liberty. Baptists believe that each individual should be free to worship God, or not worship God, according to the dictates of his own conscience. This means that we not only guard our own religious liberty, but we also are willing to support others with whom we may disagree, that they, too, may have the right to worship or not worship the way they choose.

Baptist leaders in the Colonies were instrumental in working with James Madison in writing the First Amendment of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (“Why I’m a Baptist,” Baptist Pietist Clarion, July 2003, p. 4.)

Second, Virgil Olson was a major defender of the Pietist heritage. In several essays he attempted to define its historical roots, core characteristics, and impact on the Baptist General Conference. Here, from a 2007 article, is how he defined the central “marks” of the pietist tradition, as they were found in the Baptist General Conference’s core beliefs and approaches to Christian spirituality:

Virgil as a high school junior
1933 photo of the junior class of Bethel Academy: class president Virgil Olson is second from the left in the middle row – Bethel University Digital Library

1. A central mark of the early Baptist pietists was that the Bible is the final authority for faith and living. The Läsare accepted the Bible as being more authoritative than the Confessions and the Declarations of the Church. F. O. Nilsson stood before the high court of Sweden in Jönköping and declared that he followed the Bible, not the mandates of articles and confessions of the church…

The Bible was the final authority. I remember in the little Swedish Baptist Church, Bethany Baptist, where I was brought up, where my father was pastor during my boyhood years, the debates and discussions would always end with the appeal, “Vad sager odert?” (What does the Word say?”)…

2. A second mark of the pietistic church is that it was to be composed only of born again believers. In Sweden to be a Christian was the same as being a citizen of the Kingdom. For when a baby is baptized in the Lutheran church, the child not only is declared a Christian but also is declared a citizen of the Kingdom of Sweden. Therefore, when the Läsare and the separatist, like the Baptists, preached the New Birth in Christ, and that only born again believers should belong to the church, they were considered radicals….

The early Swedish Baptist Pietists were strong on having revivalist meetings. Many of the churches in Iowa and Minnesota were born in times of revival….

3. A third mark of the pietistic church was that it laid strong emphasis on living lives separated from the worldly life style. The Pietistic Läsare displayed a Christian life-style that was opposite to behavior of the general population in Sweden. One story is told about the early Baptist days in Sweden. Often the Baptist meetings in the homes would be broken into by the police, many of the people would be arrested and put in jail because they were worshipping as Baptists.

So, at least it is told of one Baptist group, that when they met around a table in a home for Bible reading and prayer, they would have whiskey and wine bottles under the table. When the police came knocking on the door, the worshippers would hide their Bibles and place the bottles on the table. The police became embarrassed when they saw the bottles, and said, “We thought you were Baptists meeting here, but you all seem to be Lutherans”….

4. A fourth mark of Swedish Baptist pietists was their strong feeling to be independent. The Läsare in Sweden separated themselves from the Lutheran State Church. In no way would they be dictated to or religiously and politically controlled by the approved church priests and hierarchy. And when the pioneers came to America, they carried with them this spirit of independent separatism….

5.  A fifth mark of the pietists was their strong emphasis on the atonement, especially stressing the blood of Jesus. The Pietists had a strong view of sin, so the story of the “old rugged cross” was always appealing. The Swedish Baptist Pietists loved to sing the gospel songs, “There is power in the blood,” “There is a fountain filled with blood,” “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Many of the gospel songs had been translated into the Swedish language….

6. A sixth mark of the Pietists was that prayer was an important part of their spiritual life. Bönemöte, the Prayer meeting, was an important part of the Swedish Baptist church life….

Frank Peterson [a distinguished Swedish pastor] related a prayer meeting as a young boy he attended at the Village Creek Swedish Baptist Church in Iowa:

“At prayer meetings it was sometimes customary to remain kneeling while one after another, as the spirit moved them, led in prayer. This would be kept up so long that the knees would ache until the worshipper would change from one position to another, and at last, he could think of nothing else but his aching knees and feel unpleasantly impatient of the long winded petitioners”….

7.  A seventh element of pietism principles was a commitment to the “irenic spirit.” Pietists generally were committed to the “irenic spirit.” The irenic spirit or attitude, did manifest itself among the Läsare in Sweden because the Pietists believed strongly that Christ had admonished them to be disciples of love. However, because they were often beaten, imprisoned for their faith, challenged in their beliefs, the early Baptists became formidable debaters, defending the Bible and its teaching about being born again, being baptized by immersion upon confession of faith, and forming separatist congregations, where they could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience as they believed they were led by the Holy Spirit. This defensive posture did not always lead to an irenic spirit.

The Baptist Pietist Clarion logo
Motto of the Baptist Pietist Clarion

The irenic spirit was the Pietist’s response to brutality of the religious wars, persecution of religious belief by political institutions and incivility of the theological wars. It was expressed in the phrase “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”….

…I feel that Carl H. Lundquist embodied all of the best features of Pietism….

When Carl Lundquist came to Bethel, he became the leader and teacher of the devotional life. He preached a separatistic life style for members of the faculty, staff and student body. His spiritual concern for the seminary students led him to conduct a class on the devotional life of the pastor. And during the later years of his time in office, extending on through some of his retirement years, Carl, often with Nancy his wife, would lead in spiritual retreats. He and Nancy visited centers of spiritual renewal in Europe and the United States to learn more about the life of Piety. A final act in this ministry of spiritual renewal was his establishing the Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart….

Carl Lundquist wrote: “We would like to keep alive in our time the experience of Celopas and his comrade on the road to Emmaus when they exclaimed after their walk with the risen Christ, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us when He talked with us on the way and when He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32)

Based upon this text, Lundquist suggested some “progressive dynamics essential to Christian spirituality, all of them implicit in the Lukan account.” I close by listing the three essentials to Christian spirituality taken from this manuscript.
1. Christian spirituality is a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. Christian spirituality is a living relationship with Jesus Christ nurtured by spiritual disciplines.
3. Christian spirituality is a living relationship with Jesus Christ nurtured by spiritual disciplines shared with a soul friend.
(“Baptist Pietist Marks: The BGC as a Pietist Influenced Community of Believers,” Baptist Pietist Clarion, June 2007, pp. 3, 4-5, 20)

Virgil (and Carl Lundquist) in the 1939-40 Bethel Male Chorus
The Bethel Institute Male Chorus for 1939-1940: Virgil is in the back row, 6th from the left; future Bethel president Carl Lundquist is third from right in the front row – Bethel University Digital Library

GW’s tribute to Virgil Olson will conclude tomorrow, with a focus on work Virgil did after leaving Bethel, in world missions.

4 thoughts on “Virgil Olson: A Faithful Disciple of Jesus Christ (G.W. Carlson) – part 1

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