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Waltner, Erland (1914-2009)

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Mennonite Weekly Review obituary: 2009 Apr 20 p. 1, 6

Birth date: 1914

text of obituary:

Pioneer of unity
Seminary president, leader in movement toward MC-GC merger, dies at 94

By Mary E. Klassen

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary


GOSHEN, Ind. — Erland Waltner, a pioneer of inter-Mennonite cooperation through the founding of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and a church leader in many roles nationally and internationally, died April 12. He was 94.

“No one did more than Erland Waltner to bring together the two largest Mennonite denominations in North America,” AMBS President Nelson Kraybill said.

Waltner played a key role more than 50 years ago in bringing together Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the General Conference Mennonite Church seminary in Chicago, and Goshen Biblical Seminary, a seminary of the Mennonite Church in Goshen.

“Erland Waltner might very well be the most influential GC leader of the 20th century,” said Rich Preheim, director of the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee. “But his influence went far beyond that to things like Civilian Public Service and Mennonite World Conference.

“The role he played in the creation of AMBS was absolutely crucial to the creation of Mennonite Church USA. I think he can safely be called a grandfather of the denomination.”

The Joint Administrative Committee of AMBS, leading the work that brought together Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Goshen Biblical Seminary in 1958, consisted of, from left: Erland Waltner, president elect of MBS; S.F. Pannebecker, former president of MBS who became dean after the move to Elkhart; Harold S. Bender, dean of GBS; and Paul Mininger, president of Goshen College.

Kraybill said Waltner was “a teacher and mentor to hundreds, and could still preach a resounding message of conviction and hope in the last year of his life.”

Waltner served the seminary and the church in many roles, including not only with AMBS but also with Mennonite World Conference, the General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Health Association and Mennonite Medical Association.

Over a span of several years in the 1950s, Waltner tested the possibility of an association between the two seminaries and negotiated with Harold S. Bender, dean of GBS, and with others for the establishment of AMBS in Elkhart. Then as president of MBS beginning in 1958 when it relocated to Elkhart, he helped guide the cooperative program to maturity. He retired as president in 1978 but continued to teach at AMBS until the 1990s and to provide spiritual direction to students.

Seminary led the way

Cooperative work between the two denominations preceded AMBS, but the association of MBS and GBS was a new level of collaboration. Pastors from the two denominations studied together, first by traveling between the Goshen and Elkhart campuses. Then, after the GBS move to Elkhart in 1969, the two seminaries also shared worship services and campus life.

Ross T. Bender, dean who served both seminaries, once called this close association the point of the plow that opened the way for the MC-GC integration, which culminated in 2001.

Waltner’s life of ministry began in 1935 when he served as summer pastor of Wisner (Neb.) Mennonite Church. From 1938 to 1949 he was pastor of Second Mennonite Church in Philadelphia and then Bethel Mennonite Church in Mountain Lake, Minn. In 1949, he responded to a call to join the faculty of Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., where he taught for eight years.

When Waltner joined the board of MBS in 1948, he already had a strong friendship with Bender, growing out of contact with Bender during his graduate study and continuing through trips the two made for Mennonite Central Committee to Europe.

In addition, Waltner had made visits to CPS camps, another venue of inter-Mennonite cooperation. Then in the summer of 1954, when GBS and MBS held their first joint classes, Waltner was one of the instructors. All of these experiences were influential in his vision for additional inter-Mennonite association.

In addition to AMBS, Waltner served the church in other significant ways. He was a member of the GC Board of Education and later of the GC Board of Missions, and president of the General Conference Mennonite Church from 1956 to 1962. He was a member of the presidium of MWC from 1957 to 1963 and then president of MWC from 1963 to 1973.

Later he became involved with health organizations, serving as a member of the board of Mennonite Health Association, including one year as president in 1983-84, and as executive secretary of Mennonite Medical Association from 1979 to 1992.

A promise to God

Waltner was born July 7, 1914, to Ben J. and Emma P. Waltner of Hurley, S.D. He had early leanings to church work, beginning already when he was 7 years old. A younger brother had pneumonia, and in an era before penicillin, Waltner prayed for healing, promising to serve God in some way if his brother recovered. His brother did recover, and Waltner kept his promise.

Waltner attended Freeman (S.D.) Junior College and Bethel College. He earned a bachelor of sacred theology degree from Biblical Seminary in New York in 1938. He earned a master’s degree in theology in 1940 and a doctorate in theology in 1948, both from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Waltner wrote numerous articles for church publications. For several years he was a columnist for Mennonite Weekly Review. He wrote the commentary on 1 Peter in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series.

Waltner preached more than 4,000 sermons, being called to speak all across the continent. In later years his vision was hampered by macular degeneration, but he continued to preach, relying on memorized Scripture.

Strength of character

Waltner’s leadership and administrative gifts were significant, but those who knew him well say that his greatest strength was his character.

Preheim said the collaboration of the two seminaries became possible because Waltner helped the two denominations understand each other.

“His incredible graciousness, deep spiritual convictions and the fact that he was not a theological liberal helped MC leaders trust GCs,” he said. “He was safe, even if he didn’t wear a straight coat.”

On the other hand, Preheim said, Waltner made MCs acceptable to GCs, helping them to understand the diversity that was present when, as Waltner explained, GCs tended to see the stereotypes of “prayer coverings and straight coats and autocratic bishops.”

June Alliman Yoder, AMBS professor of communication and preaching, said: “It was the quality of his person rather than the positions that he held that made him important to me.”

She and Waltner team-taught preaching when she joined the AMBS faculty in 1981.

“He was ‘former president of everything’ and I was the new kid on the block,” she said. “But he made room for me in his courses and gave me respect beyond what was my due. He was a New Testament professor first of all, and from him I learned the importance of reaching into the Scripture first and faithfully.”

In 2002, AMBS honored Waltner with a festschrift, The Work Is Thine, O Christ, edited by Yoder. At that time the seminary’s main administration and classroom building was christened Waltner Hall.

Waltner married Winifred Schlosser on June 5, 1939. She survives. Also surviving are four daughters, Mary Adams of Oceanside, Calif., Irene Nadon and her husband, Alan, of Elkhart, Kathleen Waltner-Toews and her husband, David, of Kitchener, Ont., and Rose Graber and her husband, Dan, of Red Hill, Pa.; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

Waltner was a charter member of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart.

The funeral service was scheduled for April 17 in the AMBS chapel, with burial at Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart.

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