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From Nazi prison to seminary prof: John J. Kiwiet dies at 81


FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Jan (John) Johannes Kiwiet, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor of historical theology, emeritus, died Oct. 2 of natural causes. He was 81.

Kiwiet was a member of the faculty at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary from 1967 until his retirement in 1990. He taught theological French and German and systematic and historical theology and was chairman of the department of theology for five years and the division of theological studies for nearly two years.

Born into a Baptist family in Wildervank, The Netherlands, he was in the middle of a class for new Christians when World War II drove his church out of town before Kiwiet could be baptized, according to an article in Southwestern News at the time of his retirement.

“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,” the article stated.

By the time Kiwiet reached high school age, his parents were opposed to his schooling because of what Kiwiet called “a suspicion of education. I just ran off and went to high school in secret,” he recounted in the article.

In 1943, Kiwiet escaped from a Nazi labor camp. “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,” Kiwiet said. At night, he would go to a college professor who would teach him Latin. It was also during the war that Kiwiet sensed a call to the ministry, subsequently helping to develop retreat centers for Baptists in the post-war years.

“It was pretty radical,” Kiwiet said of the new ministry as expansion occurred each year, with purchasing new property, expanding the staff and getting permits.

“In nine years we went from nothing to four retreat centers, with 5,000 people coming every year,” Kiwiet said. It was while serving with the retreat ministry that Kiwiet met his wife-to-be, Margaret Barendregt.

“I saw her for the first time in an American dump,” Kiwiet laughed, telling how they would search for tents and other equipment from the U.S. Army to use in the retreat centers.

Soon the Kiwiets organized a variety of national and international conferences which resulted in the acquisition of the conference center, De Vinkenhof, which offered its facilities for the first Baptist seminary in Europe, begun in 1957 and located in Ruschlikon, Switzerland -– and where Kiwiet earned his first degree, a bachelor of divinity.

Kiwiet continued his education at the Universities of Utrecht in the Netherlands and of Zurich in Switzerland, receiving a doctor of theology in comparative religions and a doctor of philosophy in the area of Anabaptist history and thought.

Kiwiet was the author of more than 17 books and dozens of scholarly papers, book reviews and workbooks. He studied nine ancient and modern languages, spoke four languages and wrote in no less than three, Dutch, German and English.

Southwestern faculty colleague James Leo Garrett Jr., distinguished professor of theology, emeritus, said 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.’”

“John Kiwiet was a man whose career began as a member of the underground, eluding German soldiers in Nazi Germany in 1943, and concluded with the fostering of theological education in former communist countries in the 21st century,” said David Allen, dean of Southwestern’s school of theology. “In between, he managed to pioneer the first Baptist camp in The Netherlands in 1950, become an Anabaptist scholar, serve as a pastor and interim pastor, teach here at Southwestern from 1967-1990, 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,’” Allen said.

Garrett noted that Kiwiet taught his students about the lesser known but influential figures in Christian history. “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.

Garrett said that Kiwiet and his wife were known for their kindness and approachability among Southwestern’s students. One of Kiwiet’s students was David Dockery, now president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

“I will never forget when my son, Jon, was about 2 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 recounted. “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.”

In addition to his wife of 55 years, Kiwiet is survived by five children, Eva, Talitha, Nicoline, Henry and Pieter; and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth at 2 p.m. Oct. 7, preceded by a private family burial service. Funeral arrangements are being handled through Greenwood Funeral Home in Fort Worth, 817-336-0584.