In Memoriam: William Monsma (1942-2015)

Robert Osburn

Revised 7/21/16

I have only fuzzy, hazy memories of our first meeting on the University of Minnesota East Bank campus in front of Coffman Union almost 30 years ago.  I had just departed a part-time pastorate among farmers in the wheat fields of Western Kansas for a campus ministry amongst international students in the marketplace of ideas (or so I thought).  At any rate, bearded, lanky, and warmly engaging, William Monsma’s reference that day to Francis Schaeffer was all I needed to know that I had found a campus minister cut out of the same cloth.  I needed to get to know him and, perhaps, see what I could learn from him.

In those first few years ministering amongst the “world that had come to our doorstep,” I faced the intellectual challenges that come with campus ministry, among them the perennial relationship between faith and science. Thanks to a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Colorado that was married to his trademark combination of generosity, patience, and intellectual curiosity, “Bill” (as we called him then) helped me find answers, one leisurely conversation at a time. 

And not only me.  In one Winter 1988 breakfast conversation at the Perkins restaurant on Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis, he gently but clearly made the case to my young Chinese student friend who was pursuing faith in Christ along with a PhD in electrical engineering that God was the only one who could have ignited the Big Bang.  So, simple, so clear, so persuasive.  Weeks later, that student bowed his knee before the Savior.

William’s most enduring institutional legacy was surely the MacLaurin Institute, now a well-established 34 year-old Christian study center serving the University of Minnesota and other Twin Cities colleges and universities.  The idea that intellectual pursuits found their source and sum in the Son of God was, in the early 80s, almost revolutionary. A true visionary with a magnificently attuned sense that the time had come for Christian engagement with academia, William launched the Institute with prayer, a few dollars in the bank, and the support of Christian faculty like Dean Hal Miller, Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt, and geneticist V. Elving Anderson. That I write this on my way to the annual meeting of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (with more than two dozen member study centers) is testimony to William’s prescience. For eight years (1993-2001) we worked together at the Institute, and I was his immediate successor until 2009.  Neither he nor I were especially gifted leaders, and so he had reason, over these past six years, to rejoice at  how well the Institute has thrived under the leadership of current executive director Dr. Bryan Bademan.

At the end of the day, William was an intellectual craftsman (a disposition perhaps encouraged by his father who was, he once told me, an interior decorator for movie starts in Hollywood). You really understood William when you looked at his hands, and the way he held them---open, partially outstretched, always turned upwards.  As if they were an extension of his very essence, he understood that he was crafting ideas, molding and shaping them to better make sense of reality and the God to Whom we all owed allegiance and who alone could help us make sense of complexity.  He was, true to his craft, a perfectionist as well as insatiably curious about everything, and extremely attentive to small details (in the exploratory sense). But he was a craftsman who also helped craft others, and so as a mentor he extended himself so generously to people like me.   

And not only me and my students.  My wife Susan’s first memory of him is the time that he came over to our house to help our young sons at the time (all under the age of 10) discover the wonders of a solar eclipse.  He was mentoring others into the wonders of discovering God’s second book, nature.

One of the themes developed so well among Dutch Reformed thinkers is the concept of common grace, that is, the reality that God extends grace to all human beings even as they may reject the grace He has made available for our salvation.  That meant that evangelicals like him valued conversation with campus minsters at odds with our view of reality.  So, when he joined the Council of Religious Advisors (CRA) at the University of Minnesota in the 1980s, he expected that their arms would be as open as his to his fellow evangelicals. Even when more liberal members of the CRA eventually came to rue his welcome to evangelicals and split off to form a rival campus minsiterium, Bill, ever the bridge-builder, still maintained relationships with them. His was an incorrigibly generous spirit.

As the Christian study center movement develops momentum, William will be remembered as the founder of the third oldest Christian study center in the USA.  I will, however, remember him as the gracious mentor who helped me cultivate and develop a fully formed Christian worldview that made sense of reality.  And for that, my students and I will be eternally grateful.

William Monsma passed into the presence of Jesus Christ on Monday, June 15.  His memorial service at Hope Presbyterian Church of Richfield dis scheduled for 11 am on July 10.