Virgil Olson: A Faithful Disciple of Jesus Christ (G.W. Carlson) – part 2

GW Carlson’s tribute to the late Virgil Olson continues today. While the first part focused on Virgil’s understanding of the Baptist Pietist heritage and how it shaped the Baptist General Conference and Bethel College and Seminary, today GW turns to Virgil’s advocacy for missions and Christianity in the Global South. (Virgil headed the World Missions board of the BGC from 1975 to 1981.) On the same topic, see also this article from the July 1981 issue of the BGC’s denominational magazine, by Florence Jacobson, editor of world missions publications for the BGC. (Followed by a March 1982 letter from Virgil on his new work with William Carey International University.)

Virgil Olson in 1974
The front page of the Feb. 15, 1974 Bethel Clarion, announcing that Virgil Olson had resigned as dean to work for the BGC World Missions board – Bethel University Digital Library

A third feature of Virgil Olson’s life was his intense commitment to evangelism and missions. He was a frequent traveler to mission areas and wanted to effectively communicate what was happening on the field. Of concern for Olson was that missionaries consistently use methods that are research based and effective, value the necessity of empowering leadership at the local level and find ways to increase support from the churches in the United States.

It was interesting to read some of the letters that he wrote about his experiences. From January 3-March 25, 1967 he visited mission sites in Japan, Philippines, India, Thailand and Ethiopia along with trips to Israel and Lebanon.  He thanked the Lord for the work in Assam.

The closing Sunday in Assam I spoke at an associational meeting where the Paul Edwards are stationed. There were about a thousand people in attendance. I asked if they could sing, “How Great Thou Art.” They responded in a swelling chorus which I recorded on my tape recorder. As I played it back, I was reminded that it is not the greatness of America, the Baptist General Conference, our missionaries that will make the church stand in India — only the greatness of God is equal to the task. Praise the Lord.

Later in the trip Olson reflected on the changing roles for missionaries in the Philippines and Japan:

Our Baptist Conference mission work is at the threshold of a great new day. The planting of the church is over in Japan and the Philippines. There are organized church bodies with capable leaders. I have spent time alone with the national pastors, interacted with them. They have questioned me, challenged my statements, encouraged my points of view, and hailed our missionaries as great men and women in the task of mission. The big task now is to try and bridge the work from mission to church.

BGC world missions ad, 1956
From a story on BGC world missions in the October 30, 1956 issue of the Bethel Clarion – Bethel University Digital Library

When asked what Olson’s greatest joy has been during these six years, Virgil thought for a moment,

Well, I’ve certainly enjoyed my fellowship with the missionaries and staff, but then I had similar fellowship at Bethel. I would have to say my greatest joy has been the opportunity to get acquainted with Christian leaders in the Nonwestern world and to have the privilege of a global fellowship, realizing the wonders of the household of faith.

I remember encountering Virgil around the time of his 90th birthday. I told him that I had emailed God and asked God if I could have Virgil’s quality of life for my 90 years. These years were driven by an active mind, skilled writing, heartfelt loyalty to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and vigorous engagement of issues of citizenship. I told him that I had not yet heard from God and wondered whether he was using email. Virgil, with a twinkle in his eye, stated that the last time God had provided a written message to his followers was on a tablet.

Thank you, Virgil, for your contribution to the Christian church community. You continued to remind us that our Baptist Pietist tradition mattered and remained relevant for the debates of the 21st century. May we, like you, always believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a “story worth telling.”

Selective articles about and by Virgil Olson in the Baptist Pietist Clarion

Olson, Dan. “Tribute to My Father: Speech in Honor of Virgil Olson on the Occasion of his 84th Birthday.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, June 2011, pp. 1, 17-18.

Olson, Virgil. “Baptist Pietist Marks: The BGC as a Pietist Influenced Community of Believers.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, June 2007, pp. 3, 4-5, 20.

________. “A Brief History of Theological Struggles within the Baptist General Conference.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, March 2009, pp. 1,4-9, 14.

________. “History of Swedish Baptist Pietism: A Significant Influence on Early Leaders of the Baptist General Conference.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, June 2007, pp. 1, 8-11.

________. “One Step from Extinction.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, June 2002, pp. 1, 2, 8-10.

________. “Why I’m a Baptist.” Baptist Pietist Clarion, July 2003, p. 4.

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