From Nazi prisoner to seminary professor: John J. Kiwiet dies

Jan “John” Johannes Kiwiet, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor of historical theology, emeritus, died Oct. 2.

He is survived by his bride of 55 years, Margaret, five children, Eva, Talitha, Nicoline, Henry and Pieter, and ten grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Broadway Baptist Church, 305 W. Broadway St., Fort Worth, at 2:00 p.m., Oct. 7. This will be preceded by a private, family burial service. There is no public or formal viewing scheduled. Funeral arrangements are being handled through Greenwood Funeral Home, 3100 White Settlement Rd, Fort Worth, Texas, 76107, (817) 336-0584.

Scholar, theologian, teacher and friend

Born in Wildervank, The Netherlands, on April 1, 1925, Professor Kiwiet obtained a bachelor of divinity degree from the European Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, a doctor of theology degree from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands, and a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Zurich.

He came to Southwestern Seminary in 1967 after teaching for five years at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Oakbrook, Ill. He taught theological French, theological German, systematic theology, and historical theology at Southwestern Seminary until his retirement in 1990. He was chairman of the Department of Theology for five years, and chaired the Division of Theological Studies for nearly two years.

“John Kiwiet was a man whose career began in a labor camp in 1943, and concluded with the fostering of theological education in former communist countries in the 21st century,” said David Allen, dean of the School of Theology. “In between, he managed to pioneer the first Baptist camp in The Netherlands in 1946, become an Anabaptist scholar, served as a pastor and interim pastor, here at Southwestern from 1968-1990, and write prolifically. Always with a heart for revival, John Kiwiet served the Lord faithfully, and like venerable Abel of old, ‘he being dead, yet speaks.’”

According to his colleague and friend Southwestern Seminary Distinguished Professor of Theology, emeritus, James Leo Garret, Jr., Kiwiet taught his students about the lesser known but influential figures in the history of Christianity.

“He was eager to teach his students about the Dissenters, the Reformers, the Pietists, and the Restorationists in church history over against the more triumphalist leaders and movements,” Garrett said.

Kiwiet was the author of some 17 books and dozens of scholarly papers, book reviews, scholarly indices and workbooks. He studied nine ancient and modern languages, spoke four languages and wrote in no less than three: Dutch, German and English. According to Garrett, three of Kiwiet’s works were especially noteworthy.

“In 1958 he published in German a small book on one of the more neglected leaders of the Anabaptist movement, Pilgram Marbeck,” Garrett said. “In 1985 he authored ‘Hans Küng,’ a volume in the series, ‘Makers of the Modern Theological Mind,’ and in 1993 he issued an English translation from the Dutch of H.U. Mayboom’s ‘A History and Critique of the Origin of the Marcan Hypothesis, 1835-1866.’”

Garrett said that Kiwiet and his wife were exemplars of kindness and approachability toward students. One of Kiwiet’s students at Southwestern Seminary was David Dockery, today the president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

“I will never forget when my son, Jon, was about two years old and was walking around the school with me that Dr. Kiwiet gave Jon the apple from his lunch that he was eating in his office. Jon thought it was so special,” Dockery said. “Another time after the birth of our third son in Fort Worth, and with my wife Lanese being completely out of energy, the Kiwiets surprised us by bringing dinner to our home. Lanese thought they were God’s special agents of grace that day.”

A life in motion

Southwestern Seminary’s magazine, “Southwestern News,” carried the following biographical account of Kiwiet upon his retirement in 1990. Reproduced in full here, it tells a remarkable story of God’s providence in the life of a Baptist scholar during one of the 20th century’s most trying periods.

“Since walking away from a forced-labor camp during World War II, John Kiwiet has never stopped.

“His journeys have taken the Dutch native through the war, across Europe and eventually to Fort Worth, where he has taught at Southwestern Seminary since 1967.

“When he retires as professor of historical theology July 31, Kiwiet and his wife Margaret will pack their books and head off on another pioneer adventure. But their next journey will take the Kiwiets back over familiar territory. They will move to Eastern Europe to work with Christians there.

“‘The chance to go is now,’ Kiwiet said. ‘I think the East is very important.’

“That pioneering spirit has driven Kiwiet since his early years. Born into a Baptist family in The Netherlands, he was in the middle of a new Christians’ class when World War II drove his church out of town before Kiwiet could be baptized.

“But he had learned enough through his training to know that the two most important things for him were ‘following Christ and gaining an education.’ Neither would be easy.

“By the time Kiwiet reached high school age his parents were opposed to his education because of what Kiwiet calls ‘a suspicion of education. I just ran off and went to high school in secret,’ he said.

“In 1943 Kiwiet, who was serving time in a labor camp, took advantage of a leave to escape.

“‘I escaped from the camp in a way,’ he said. ‘They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I’d like to go home and discuss my future with my parents, so they gave me a permit to go home and I didn’t come back,’ Kiwiet said.

“Kiwiet ran from farm to farm, living in haystacks for the next seven months. ‘You had to eat from the land because there was very little food,’ he said. ‘I ate turnips, carrots – whatever I could find.

“‘I also did some studying in the haystacks,’ he said. At night, he would go to a college professor who would teach Kiwiet Latin. It was also during the war that Kiwiet felt called to the ministry. After the war he helped develop retreat centers for Baptists.

“‘It was pretty radical,’ Kiwiet said of the newly-developed ministry. Each year, expansion occurred, with new property being bought, new kitchens put in, expanding the staff, and getting permits, he said.

“‘In nine years we went from nothing to four retreat centers, with 5,000 people coming every year,’ Kiwiet said. It was while serving on action committees in the retreat ministry that Kiwiet met his wife.

... “With a similar call to missions and ministry, Kiwiet married Margaret E. Barendregt.

“Soon the Kiwiets organized a variety of national and international conferences which resulted in the acquisition of the conference center, ‘De Vinkenhof.’ The center offered its facilities for the foundation of the first Baptist seminary in 1957.

... “In 1962 the Kiwiets moved to the United States where he taught church history at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago before coming to Fort Worth in 1967.

“Although the Kiwiets said they will miss Southwestern and the way it ‘widened our horizons,’ they are ready to move on.

“‘My life is basically in motion,’ he said.”

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