The trained mind and burning heart of Virgil Olson (1916-2013)

by Chris Gehrz

It was near the end of my sixth year at Bethel University when I finally met Virgil Olson, the dean of Baptist General Conference historians. I was helping to coordinate our research conference on “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity,” and Virgil had been convinced to make the drive down from Cambridge, Minnesota for the Saturday morning sessions. He served as one of eight panelists in a roundtable discussion of Pietism in the histories of the BGC, the Evangelical Free Church, the Augustana Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Covenant Church. As Mark Safstrom reported in the Summer 2009 issue of Pietisten, “One could liken the conversation to a reunion of siblings who had been separated at birth.”

The fraternal spirit prevailed to its very end, when my friend and fellow Covenanter Jim Hawkinson suggested that Virgil be the one to close us in prayer. (“The elder bishop,” Jim called him — probably appalling a few of Virgil’s fellow Baptists.) Having already eulogized Jim in these pages, I’m honored to do the same for Virgil, who passed away this past June at the age of 96.

Examples of what is owed to Virgil and his father, Adolf, are evident in that example: That Baptists were even part of that “reunion of siblings;” that their university was hosting a conference on Pietism in the first place; that Baptists write for or read this periodical (would that it were more often on both counts).

Before the elder Olson wrote the BGC’s centenary history in 1952, Conference Baptist historians emphasized their church’s continuities with Baptist movements in England, Germany, and the United States. But Adolf and then Virgil Olson introduced Pietism as an important influence on their ancestors, with Virgil describing it as a “God-breathed movement” that would arise again and again in reaction to any “superficial Christianity whether it be found in rotting formalism, a thinned-out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.”

So while firmly embracing the Baptist identity long after the BGC became “Converge Worldwide” and most of its churches dropped Baptist from their names, Virgil offered a history that could explain why Conference Baptists were never quite like their Southern, American, Regular, Primitive, and other cousins. To Virgil, Pietism reinforced Baptist concerns for regeneration and holiness, democratic church governance, evangelism and revivalism, and the authority of scripture, but also imbued the BGC with an “irenic spirit” that moved its people to seek unity in essentials, to protect liberty in non-essentials, and to extend charity in all things.

Writing on the history of Bethel Seminary in 1956, for example, Virgil argued that the legacy of Pietist christocentrism produced a “spirit of inclusiveness in doctrine as well as in practice.” In a separate article on BGC history published that same year, Virgil credited Pietism for the Swedish Baptists’ emphasis on Scripture above doctrine — with his “What does the Bible say about it?” sounding much like Waldenström’s “Where is it written?” When conservative pastors in the Conference attempted to introduce a definition of biblical inerrancy sharper than what was in the denomination’s affirmation of faith, Virgil refused to sign it. (BGC pastor Jonathan Larson mentioned that episode in his eulogy at Virgil’s memorial service. The eulogy is reprinted in the July, 2013 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion; Virgil himself wrote about the inerrancy controversy in its March, 2009 issue.)

One of the first Bethel faculty to hold a doctorate, Virgil was a living retort to the notion that Pietism is innately anti-intellectual. Throughout his multiple decades of retirement, Virgil’s faculties remained so sharp that our mutual friend and fellow historian, G.W. Carlson, frequently remarked that he hoped he would get “Virgil’s contract.”

At the same time, Virgil is famous around Bethel for insisting that “With the trained mind there must be the burning heart.” (Our current president has those words displayed in his office and paraphrased them in his foreword to our book on The Pietist Impulse in Christianity — a volume dedicated to Virgil Olson.) So I wish that I’d had the chance to know him well enough to write not merely with professional admiration, but friendly affection.

As someone who stands on Virgil’s shoulders every time I write or speak about Pietism and higher education, I can speak to the keenness of his trained mind, but his family and many friends can testify to the warmth of a heart that was devoted to God’s glory and his neighbor’s good. When given a chance to define Virgil’s legacy in a 2011 article, theologian Clarence Bass listed his “compassion for the less fortunate” and “prayer-related dependence on the Spirit” alongside his achievements as a historian and administrator. Or, to borrow once more from Jonathan Larson’s eulogy, I’ll close with this simple, affecting anecdote from near the end of Virgil’s life:

Virgil was in a restaurant, and the waitress asked, “How are you?” and Virgil gave a standard response, and then he called her back, and said, “I’m happy, because Jesus loves me.”

Chris Gehrz is a professor at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn., and member of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton.

See all articles by Chris Gehrz