RIP Olaf Olsen

Dr. Olaf Olsen, who taught history at Bethel College from 1958 to 1982, passed away November 15th, at age 98. His student-turned-colleague, G.W. Carlson, wrote this essay in tribute to Dr. Olsen.

Olaf Olsen
From Dr. Olsen’s obituary

This Saturday I had the opportunity to reflect on the life and teaching career of Olaf Olsen. (That is Olsen with an “e” not an “o.”) He was born in Kristiansand, Norway and came to the United States when he was seven in 1922. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Eastern Baptist College and Seminary, graduating in 1943.

It was interesting to listen to the stories of his early life as part of a Norwegian immigrant family going through the crises of the Great Depression. He always remembered those stories, and they were reflected in the topics he chose to discuss in his history classes: watching the “ragman” go by the house, declining an early scholarship to find a job to support the family, and cultivating relationships with immigrants from numerous European backgrounds.

After pastoring a number of small Baptist churches and teaching junior high history he started a PhD program in history at the University of Colorado, which he completed in 1953. After teaching several years at Alderson Broaddus College in Philippi, West Virginia, he accepted the post of European historian at Bethel in 1958.

His wife Margaret and three children Stanley (born 1944), Judy (1949) and Rob (1953) lived in Roseville, Minnesota and played a major role in the Christian work of Calvary Baptist Church. Margaret tragically died in 1971. Olaf married Sara Holliday after he retired from Bethel in 1982. Sara died in 2010 and Olaf’s last years were impacted by a serious car accident in 2010. He died on November 15, 2013.

Dr. Olsen made several major contributions to Bethel during his tenure as a professor. First, he was a chronicler of Bethel College and Seminary history. In his essay “Higher Education in the Seventies” (part of The 1970s in the Ministry of the Baptist General Conference, available from Bethel’s Digital Library as an e-book), Olaf identified several of the major developments of this era: the move of Bethel College from the old Snelling Avenue campus to the new Arden Hills location; the emergence of the 4-1-4 curriculum for the college (it attempted to address some of the issues raised by the debates of the Sixties with the rise of what would be called “concern” courses); the closure of Vancouver Bible College; the addition of the nursing program; and the significant growth in both faculty and students at the college.

Dr. Olsen concludes this essay on by reflecting on a “silver anniversary report” given by Dr. Carl Lundquist in June 1979. Lundquist stated that three controlling ideas had inspired his leadership:

  1. Education is the cutting edge of the church.
  2. A denominational school should strengthen the whole church of Christ.
  3. Bethel merits continued existence only if it is pervasively Christian.

Olsen affirms that these were significant during the 1970s and that Bethel would only continue to advance if it remained true to “the authority of the Bible and the lordship of Christ.”

Olaf Olsen in 1974
Olaf Olsen in the March 1, 1974 issue of the Clarion, where he was interviewed about his sabbatical trip to Scandinavia – Bethel University Digital Library

Second, Olaf Olsen consistently articulated the need for Bethel to retain its Scandinavian heritage in an age of growing ethnic diversity. From his early immigrant experiences he greatly appreciated the contributions of the new immigrants to American life and culture. He developed a History of Scandinavia class, traveled as an educator with musical groups who toured Europe, and used his sabbatical to travel to Scandinavia to upgrade his knowledge and understanding of that region’s history and culture. For over three months he traveled extensively in “order to get an appreciation of the people of Scandinavia, their outlook, their spirit.” He studied at several universities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway and was amazed at the economic development and the general affluence. He spoke fluent Norwegian and understood most Swedish. He was pleased that many spoke English.

Olsen also wished to explore the role of Christianity in the Scandinavian communities. This got expressed in an important essay “Civil Religion and Christianity in Sweden,” which was eventually published in Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference of Faith and History).  Two themes emerged in the essay: the dangers of the state church for the vitality of faith, and the rise of the dissenting church congregations (such as the Swedish Baptists) who were often persecuted for the beliefs and sometimes forced to immigrate to the United States. He explored the role of the faith tradition in an era in which “church-going” and Christian identity was in a slide. He concluded that while the Church of Sweden may have ceased to have much religious significance in the old sense of the term, it “does still have at least a residual political function: it helps to maintain the stability of the state.”

Third, Dr. Olsen played a significant role in the development of several major educational reforms and initiatives on Bethel’s campus. According to his family one of the things he was most proud of was his role in helping to establish the nursing program at Bethel. Olsen was also instrumental in the development of the curriculum reform, grading policy, and accreditation renewals.

Dr. Olsen was a gentleman scholar in the best sense of that word, and an effective teacher. His use of such works as Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine showed his commitment to isolating the dangers of the totalitarian state, whether in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. He cared about the dispossessed, emphasizing both the immigration patterns in the twentieth century and the rise of democratic welfare state. He saw World War II as the triumph of democracy and celebrated America’s involvement.

Olaf was really pleased with the two European historians that replaced him: Dr. Neal Lettinga and Dr. Chris Gehrz. He was constantly supportive of Bethel and rejoiced with his children and grandchildren when they enjoyed their experiences there. Included in the funeral program were a number of sayings that went under the title “What My Grandpa Taught Me.” Several were:

You’re never too old to learn something new.
Read books. Join a book club. Visit the library.
You are an artist. Develop your gifts.
Education is valuable and a life-long process.
Learning from history can hold great power in understanding the present.
There is great value in sitting quietly.
Be a good listener. Think before you speak.
Pray with reverence.
Cherish your heritage.

Thank you, Dr. Olaf Olsen, for your contributions to Bethel.  You have set a good example for all of us as we try to continue to advance Bethel into the 21st century.

– G.W. Carlson

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