Tribute to Henry Gustafson


by Phil Johnson

Henry Gustafson biblical scholar and outstanding Professor of New Testament died Monday evening, September 1, 2008. By report he was in a coma for about a day or so at the end, after a couple of weeks of treasured hospice time with family. I will have to let go of ideas of getting together with Henry when he moved back to Minnesota. He did move back and I missed the chance.

I have no special claim to knowing Dr. Henry Gustafson well, though I have had personal time with him and a definite experience of brotherhood and I probably never called him Dr. Gustafson. Many people, probably most people, with whom Henry had contact felt the same thing. If nothing else, though there was in fact very much else as Henry was a person who truly delivered the goods, he met us all personally, men and women, as the Christian brother he was.

I’m amazed at the extent of his ministry. I heard about him up in International Falls as a boy in the ’50s. He was sometimes mentioned because he was a teacher at North Park Seminary and, truth be known, my people thought he didn’t believe the Bible. Also, I was vaguely aware that our family was somehow connected either by blood or by geography —Minnesota and Iowa farm country. I am not clear as to the facts of the matter.

Henry Gustafson, so integral to North park and the Covenant and in the personal lives of students and colleagues for many years, has left this life. He is the same person who invigorated the life of United Seminary. He left life’s scene as a Presbyterian Pastor’s Spouse and a Sunday School teacher. Praise God. How the mighty and faithful rise and continue in service!

Henry’s faith and Christian walk was moment-by-moment, always in the present. Wherever he found himself, he did what he could, understood those around him, and listened to them and loved them. Henry did not seek the honored place at the table. But, sure enough, he was invited to the head of the table and to the place of honor many times.

After his tremendous, influential career at North Park, Henry did it all over again, teaching New Testament at United Seminary of the Twin Cities (UTS). His students and colleagues from United confirm that Henry revived Biblical study at UTS. Prior to his coming, faculty and administration were rather hard pressed to justify the relevance of Bible courses being required of students who felt the ministry that mattered was providing ministry of social justice and how did learning Bible and Greek help in that? I know this having been a student at UTS and having remained connected with the school and community for a number of years.

Well, Henry changed that. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of students from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of reasons for being at seminary, a majority by this time women, took Henry’s classes and were profoundly affected. At that time, Sandy Johnson, my wife, took New Testament from Henry in the process of completing a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies (MARS) degree. Of course she loved Henry and loved the course. It was a stretch for me to keep in mind that I had New Testament from him a decade earlier in Chicago at North Park.

During the North Park years I heard Henry speak of the notion that perhaps the Covenant was the seed that need fall into the ground and die to revive the larger church. Many Seminary graduates were taking churches in other denominations and it was likely more would follow.

Well, Henry, himself, showed the way and acted on his own vision — he launched out. It was not a surprise to me that he decided to minister to other denominations. He ministered so successfully that in 1985 UTS established the Gustafson Lectures and Dr. Krister Stendahl gave the inaugural lectures — magnificent lectures they were. I just received a brochure announcing the 17th Gustafson Lectures at United Seminary in October so Henry’s legacy continues.

We Covenant boys and girls, those who attended North Park in particular, celebrate you, Hank Gustafson! We United Seminary students celebrate you, Henry Gustafson. May love who is God bless your soul as we bless your life and memory among us.

You are remembered as the Apostle of Love and as Agape Henry. God bless you.

Memorials preferred in support of the Gustafson Lectures at United Theological Seminary, 3000 Fifth St. N.W., New Brighton, Minnesota 55112.

We will be posting notes and tributes to Henry Gustafson on this website as we receive them.

Henry Gustafson’s Memorial Service, September 5, 2008—a fine time

Socrates: Well, how were you occupied? No doubt [there was] a feast of eloquence.

Phaedrus: I’ll tell you, if you can spare time to come along with me and listen.

Socrates: What? Don’t you realize that I should account it, in Pindar’s words “above all business” to hear [of the memorial service for Henry Gustafson]?

Stillwater, Minnesota. Think of Moberg and The Emmigrants. Right here more than a century ago Swedes started cutting timber and clearing land in the wilderness along the beautiful, idyllic, Saint Croix River. This place provided the scene of Henry Gustafson’s official sendoff. Actually we were a bit up from the river but not the least lacking for that at the First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater.

Henry would have loved the music. Minnesota’s premiere musician, Philip Brunelle, played the organ. It was all great, but the postlude, “Toccata in F Major” by Charles-Marie Widor, was a triumphant knockout. Perhaps Henry knew the soloist, Tenor, Dan Dressen. If not, he would still have been delighted, especially, I think, by the singing of Mendelssohn’s “If With All Your Heart Ye Truly Seek Me”. It was powerful and lovely. Henry could hardly help but hear it. Maybe he was there like the spirits in Charles Williams’ All Hallow’s Eve or like Gil Gilmartin in Murther and Walking Spirits by Robinson Davies who hung around for a while after death.

If he was there, Henry was probably a bit embarrassed to listen with us to Marc Cox’s “Sacred Remembrances of the Family” but he has no reason to object. It was delightful and illuminating. Henry’s presence would enrich any family and, of course, it enriched his own family, a family full of promising young people and remarkable adults. Sheila, Henry’s widow, has been an outstanding Presbyterian pastor who recently retired from First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe. Son, Mark, teaches Classics at the University of Minnesota. His wife, Sarah Campbell is Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Daughter Joan is an accomplished artist and her husband, Marcus Cox, recently retired after a long and distinguished career at Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As Marcus was relating some of the wonderful family stories that revealed the uniqueness of Henry, a bug got onto his manuscript. He had previously made a puzzling blowing motion that did not accomplish the purpose. He picked up the page he was reading, gently blew on it, and said: “I have a companion.” Henry would have liked that.

A lot of Henry’s friends were there. Some folks hadn’t seen him for years—Rev. Robert Erickson for example. Bob roomed with Henry at Wheaton College. They both attended Wheaton after North Park Junior College. Colleagues and friends from United Seminary made up the larger portion of the gathered. The generation of UTS faculty contemporary with Henry is retired. I recall the vigor of these fine teachers when I first encountered them in 1968 and following. Don White, Wilson Yates, Jim Nelson, Bob Strobel, Paul Hammer, Jean Jaberg, Clyde Steckel, and others. United was the first seminary created after the merger of the Evangelical Reform and Congregational Christian churches in 1957. The school was formed in 1960 with the merger of Mission House Seminary of Plymouth, Wisconsin, and Yankton School of Theology in Yankton, South Dakota.

The faculty and school had a vision. They saw themselves learning in the context of actual urban life. Paul Hammer of Covenant background, first New Testament Professor at United and Henry’s friend, spoke to us students about the symbolism of the way the seminary building was built, portions of it jutting out into the world. He told us this intentional and represented the commitment of the school to the human community and social justice.

It is not surprising that a significant number of graduates of United became involved in social action and several significant Twin City social service organizations were created and guided by them, some to this day. Henry made the Bible live in that context.

The intellectual heritage of the Gustafson family has a Holmer side that provided much enhancement. Joyce Gustafson, mother of Mark and Joan, and Paul Holmer, Professor Emeritus of Yale Divinity School (http://www.pietisten.org/fall04/paulholmer.html), widely respected scholar and Christian thinker, were sister and brother. Clearly a lot of intellectual ferment came from that direction. Joyce has a reputation for being the outstanding hostess when she and Henry and family lived in the North Park Community in Chicago. Regrettably, Joyce has suffered a severe stroke and currently resides in a care home in Saint Paul. She is a long time faithful member of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and has sung in its great choir for years. Paul Holmer is deceased and his widow, Phyllis, remains alive, aware, and articulate. Joyce, Paul and Phyllis, and Henry have been regular readers of Pietisten for its 20-plus years of existence.

Before Friday evening, I did not know that Henry memorized a terrific amount of poetry or the extent to which it informed and blessed him and how he used it in his teaching and conversation. He also read a goodly amount of science and engaged scientists (for example, the Los Alamos scientists around Santa Fe) in conversations in which, as I understand it, Henry lifted up the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”

In his meditation Pastor Paul Gilmore said that Henry expressed eagerness for the next great adventure. Several family members confirmed this independently though Henry wanted to be present with his family to the very end.

The last verse of the poem “Shadows” by D.H. Lawrence printed on the back of the program goes like this.

“then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
He is breaking me down to his new oblivion
To send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

We experienced great satisfaction celebrating the life of Henry Gustafson, great Christian teacher and person, in Stillwater, Minnesota. We’re quite sure Henry enjoyed it, too.

Comments from Readers

Phil: Last year I sent a note to Dr. Gustafson, thanking him for his years at NPTS, and especially for his NT classes, which were wonderful — his lectures were superb. His reply was warm and gracious, as always. I remember how hard it was to take notes during his lectures, because he was spellbinding, profound and clear, and I didn't want to interrupt the flow with any writing. As a personal aside, he once said he could hardly believe that he was being paid to do what he would be doing anyway. He was a fine man, and we are all better for having known him. Robert D. McNaughton, [NPTS 1962], Actively Retired, Middletown, Connecticut.

Many thanks for relaying the sad news about Henry's death. What a truly fine
man and honest scholar he was. I wish that I could be present for his
service of resurrection celebration. Please greet the others whom I know
with a holy hug. Blessings, George Magnuson [NPTS 1960], Denver, Colorado.

Dear Phil, I'm profoundly saddened by this news. Henry was for me, as I know for many others of our era, a very formative mentor. I had always harbored the hope that I would again someday get to sit down with him and enjoy a conversation and a cup of coffee. It was not to be. But perhaps across the Jordan — if there is indeed coffee there.

I always felt we (the Covenant) were cheated out of the opportunity of having Henry continue to stretch us Biblically and theologically by some of the small-minded among us. But it may be that God had larger assignments for him.

I appreciate you letting me know about his passing and I will indeed pass on your email to our colleagues out here and in the diaspora in which we now find ourselves. Shalom, George Elia [NPTS 1964, Retired Pastor and Superintendent of the Covenant East Coast Conference], Yarmouthport, Massachusetts.

When we lived under Henry (symbolic of the way I felt about him) his wonderful smile (gold tooth shining in the sunlight) made me feel safe, as though we shared the protection of Heaven by just being under the Apostle’s roof. I once recall that he said about David as a baby. "We strained to hear him cry, but you and Jackie seemed able to talk him out of it." I have another memory that comes up again and again. Henry was invited to Kauai, Hawaii to be our Theologian in Residence. During his stay we spent several days and hours together. One evening we were invited to Katherine Baldwin’s wonderful home near the ocean. Katherine was well known on the Island for her wisdom and talent. She was a renowned artist of seascape paintings. One evening my brother Ed, Henry and Joyce, Jackie and I, and a few other Island people were invited to her beautiful home near the ocean for dinner. The evening was full of conversation. However, after dinner I commented on Katherine’s meal. “That has to be the best fish I have ever tasted.” Katherine informed me that it was chicken. Henry tried to cover up my mistake by engaging Katherine in a conversation. And then my brother Ed asked Katherine, this wonderful artist, if she had ever tried “finger painting?” Everyone at the table broke into uncontrolled laughter. Finally Henry threw up his hands and said, “That’s it! I’m through trying to cover up for you Mampels.” I'll have to sort through my memories of this compassionate man and respond to his life as I remembered it. Jackie has her own personal memories of Henry. I’m sure she picked up things I passed over. But from my point of view he ranked high among the great men I have known. Art Mampel [NPTS 1962, Retired UCC Pastor], Seattle, Washington. [Art and Jackie lived in the basement apartment below the Gustafsons when Art was at North Park Seminary in Chicago]

Phil: Your tribute to Henry Gustafson is a wonderful testament to a life beautifully-lived. I had Henry as a teacher at UTS and learned what students at North Park had known for years. Henry was a gifted teacher, a wonderful scholar and an even better man. I turned to him for counsel many times over the years following my graduation from UTS in '71; we shared an occasional lunch, discussed our lives and solved the problems of the world. Thank you Pietisten for providing this opportunity to say good-bye to my dear friend Henry and share my thoughts and prayers with Henry's family. He leaves an enormous hole in lots of hearts. Ted Meads [UTS 1971], Tonka Bay, Minnesota.

Thanks for the news about Henry's death. I will always remember him as a great New Testament teacher, a good friend, and a sincere Christian. Those of us fortunate to have studied under him are truly blessed. Dave Wilder, Portland, Oregon.

Thanks for the sad note...I assume you are going to the memorial service...I bought my house from Henry and we use to play "handball together" at the Irving Park YMCA with Werner Lemke. Melvin Soderstrom [NPC 1960], Chicago, Illinois.

Brother Phil, Henry was one of my most memorable professors. I will never forget the depth of his quiet passion for the Jesus style of life/living. The last time I saw him was when I went with you and Sandy to a seminary class Sandy was taking. I quoted often sentences he spoke. More than that, I put into practice, in practical ways, things he taught. He was one of the most loving and compassionate persons I ever met. He lived what he said. "Well done good and faithful servant". Peace to Henry's memory. Ralph Sturdy [NPTS 1965, Retired Pastor from Covenant and UCC], Lincoln, Nebraska.

Thanks for your tribute to Henry. He and Fred Holmgren And Don Frisk were the most exciting teachers I remember from NPTS. (And by this I don't wish either to follow quickly!!) He was a great teacher and I will always remember him - and that wonderful smirk. Henry was one of the kindest people I have ever known. Don Johnson, East Greenbush, New York.

I have said it many times throughout my life...Henry Gustafson, perhaps more than any other one person, is the reason that I rediscovered or probably for the first time discovered faith. I began my doubting at some point in high school, and my questions grew during my college years. During my senior year at the U. of Minnesota, I traveled to Chicago and talked with Dean Eric Hawkinson about entering seminary. Essentially I told him, "If I could be convinced to be a Christian, I want to be a pastor. But at this point I am not convinced!" Dean Hawkinson wisely counseled me to come to Seminary and "spend some time with us." I'm sure that others enabled my pilgrimage toward a "thinking" faith, but no one was more influential than Henry Gustafson. I still remember his positing a possible explanation for how prayer works (quite unorthodox, by the way), and how that made so much sense to me. As so many have said, he was a marvelous example of one who thought deeply and courageously and yet lived the life of servanthood. Henry didn't erase all doubts--they all too stubbornly cling even into my 70s—but he made enough sense to keep me exploring from inside the fold. In many respects, I owe my life to him. There were few like him, and like others, I had hoped some day again to sit down and tell him all this. There would have been a touch of irony if I could have done that in the town in which I was born--Stillwater, Minnesota! Perhaps life on the other side includes reading other folk's email, so now he knows what I needed to tell him and maybe much more! Alden Johnson [NPTS 1964], Belfast, Maine.