by Stephen Chavez | 28 March 2023 |
Stephen Chavez, who worked with Dr. William Johnsson at the Review, wrote this life sketch for Dr. Johnsson’s funeral on March 25, 2023.
The advantage of preparing a life sketch for someone as prolific as Bill Johnsson is that many details of his life have appeared in the many editorials, articles, and books he has written.
From those we know that he was born in Adelaide, Australia, to Joel and Edith Painter Johnsson, the youngest of nine children. Bill credited his dad with giving him his most precious legacy, that of a love for reading the Bible. He would see his dad reading the Bible first thing in the morning, and he adopted that practice in his own life. Bill’s dad was an Adventist, his mother an Anglican. Bill began attending the Adventist Church as a teenager and was warned by his mother, “Don’t let religion become an obsession.”
Gordon, Bill’s brother, counseled: “We just want you to be sure not to rush into anything. Don’t make a decision until you at least turn 18.”
“He was too late,” wrote Bill. “I’d already been taking Bible studies from the youth pastor in preparation for baptism.”
His first test as a young Adventist came when Australia was pulled into the Korean Conflict. Bill applied for conscientious objector status. “The 98 days of boot camp were the loneliest periods of my life,” he wrote. He drilled without a weapon. He spent Sabbaths alone in the woods with his Bible. On Sundays, when his peers left base on leave, he worked in the officers’ mess hall, and later in the camp hospital.
Bill earned a degree in chemical technology, but at the age of 22 he felt God’s call into pastoral ministry. Wondering whether he should turn his back on his career goals to that point, he wrote: “My heart cried out, ‘Yes, Lord, I will go where you want me to go.’”
Where he ended up was Avondale College. At Avondale he met Noelene Taylor. “I was smitten,” writes Bill. Having seen her photograph, he remembered, “She was every bit as lovely as I’d imagined.” Love bloomed. Noelene’s parents thought marriage was out of the question until Bill had proved himself in ministry for a year or two. Then came a call to mission service in Southern Asia. They hadn’t applied for mission service; they weren’t married; but by that time Bill was used to saying “yes” to God. So two months out of college, three weeks after their wedding, Bill and Noelene were off to India. Their first assignment was Vincent Hill School, where Bill taught Bible and was the boys’ dean and Noelene was a school teacher.
They had been at Vincent Hill for a few weeks when the principal called them into his office. Apparently, they had been seen on campus holding hands, which was forbidden in public. Even, apparently, for married couples.
With that example of legalism, let me share a moment of grace. This comes from Les Anderson by way of Kermit Netteburg. Les, who had a craving for toast one Sabbath morning, jerry-rigged electricity in his dorm room so he could toast bread, which was forbidden because of the fire risk. As the aroma of toast filled the dorm, Les heard a knock on the door. He opened the door to see his dean, Bill Johnsson. Bill sniffed the air, looked at Les, and said, “Les, I need a tie to wear to church today, one that goes with this shirt. Do you have something I could borrow?”
Les said later, “I found out what grace was. I was wrong. I was caught. I deserved to be punished. I was given grace.”
Grace was a topic that Bill came back to year after year. It was a common theme through most of his books and many of his articles and editorials. But grace was something he had to learn. He remembered: “As a teen I fell in love with Jesus of Nazareth and decided to commit my life as a follower. But he admitted, “I was a law Christian, not a Spirit Christian. . . . I was a checklist follower of Jesus. I served Him as a servant, not as His child.”
From Vincent Hill School, Bill and Noelene moved to Spicer Memorial College (now Spicer Adventist University) in Pune, India. His favorite class to teach was Life and Teachings of Jesus. During his time at Spicer, Bill earned an M.A. in systematic theology from Andrews University, a Bachelor of Divinity from the University of London, an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in biblical studies. John Fowler, who knew Bill at Spicer, considered Bill one of the best missionaries to India ever. “He captured the Indian mind.”
In 1975 Bill was invited to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University to teach New Testament Theology and Exegesis. He assumed the role of associate dean of the Seminary three years later in 1978.
In 1979 Bill received a call from Neal Wilson, president of the General Conference, inviting Bill to join the staff of Adventist Review. After talking it over with his family and colleagues, Bill declined the invitation. A few months later, Wilson invited Bill to Washington, D.C., for another interview. This time Bill accepted the invitation to serve as associate editor of Adventist Review, joining the staff in 1980. When Kenneth H. Wood retired as editor in 1982, Bill became editor in chief.
Bill’s first editorial as editor in chief was a tribute to Kenneth Wood. In his second editorial, dated December 9, 1982, he wrote: “Readers have been wondering about the philosophy of the new editor of the Adventist Review: what changes, if any, should they expect? My philosophy is essentially a simple one and can be summarized as follows: I love the Lord and I love His people. . . . The Adventist Review in every issue intends to uplift Jesus Christ. . . . It holds that by keeping our eyes fixed on Him we will find strength for every day’s tasks and faith and peace amid the shadows of these last days.”
He also wrote: “The Review will continue to welcome reader participation. . . . We believe that the church can benefit greatly from the collective wisdom of God’s people.” Bill loved pointing out that the most popular feature in the magazine was “letters to the editor.” When we met annually to decide which columnists to retain, one of the criteria we used was whether their columns generated reader responses; not just positive responses, any responses. If they didn’t, we’d find someone who did.
Bill championed young writers. Every summer Adventist Review would take on at least one intern, sometimes two. Andy Nash, Jennifer Mae Barizo, Mindy Jamieson, Nathan Brown are just some of the young voices that were heard in the pages of Adventist Review. Andy Nash and Kimberly Luste Maran became assistant editors in their 20s.
As editor, Bill knew that readers looked to the Review not only for inspiration, but for guidance on how to address the major issues of the day. For example, he wrote: “Racism has become institutionalized in the culture, and the Adventist Church as well. . . . The eight regional conferences came into being some 60 years ago. They were not something demanded by Black Adventists; rather, they were imposed on Black members. . . . I have to question whether the current divided structures should continue indefinitely. Maybe it’s the best we can hope for, but it is surely far from the ideal that we should be one.”
In a 2006 editorial Bill admitted, “I grew up racist. Of course, I didn’t know it. If you had told me I was racist, I would have thought you were out of your mind. . . . But toward the native people of my homeland Australia, the Aborigines, I was racist. . . . The gospel has to be brought to bear specifically on poisons such as racism and social injustice.”
Thirty-five years ago Bill was part of the Role of Women Commission, not just as editor of Adventist Review but as a New Testament scholar. He wrote: “Can we not acknowledge that [God] may give any other of the promised gifts, including that of pastor, to a woman? If God calls a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, who are we to resist?” He was a champion of women in ministry for the rest of his life.
In his most recent book, Living in Love, Bill shared part of a conversation he had with Floyd Poenitz, president of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. “I shared with Floyd my journey, how I have grown in my understanding from seeing the matter of homosexuality as something that could be dealt with just on the basis of some texts in Leviticus and Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans. I now grasp that the matter is far more complex; to be honest, one must listen to gays and hear their stories and listen to the evidence from science and medicine.
“As I shared my journey with Floyd, I assured him that God loves him and all gay people. . . . Something happened as I spoke. . . . ‘Heaven came down and glory filled my soul,’ as the old gospel song puts it. The love of God overwhelmed me; I felt the warmth of the Spirit surround me.”
John Carter, who attended Avondale College when Bill was there, called him “the great conciliator. He brought people together. He was not a polarizing person.”
Lloyd Willis, who was a missionary to India with his wife, Edith, remembers: “Bill caught the vision for what the church should be.”
Alex Currie, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Bill, said, “The church has lost a remarkable member and leader who provided thoughtful balance, scriptural expertise, and a penetrating pen to the worldwide Adventist Church.”
Bill also made major contributions to interfaith dialogue between Adventists and members of other Protestant denominations. With Bert Beach, Angel Manuel Rodriguez, and others, Bill entered into dialogue with the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Lutherans, the World Evangelical Alliance, Mennonites, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. When Adventists hosted one of the groups at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, they invited the visiting delegation to attend Communion services at a local church, complete with foot washing. Bill recounted how much the guests enjoyed and appreciated the experience.
After Bill retired as editor of Adventist Review, Jan Paulsen, General Conference president, invited him to be assistant to the president for Interfaith Relations, to help those who are devoted to helping the world’s great religions know and understand something of Seventh-day Adventists. “It took me all of 60 seconds to decide,” wrote Bill. Paulsen suggested that Bill begin with Muslims, and he decided to begin with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With the help of a Pastor Abed, Bill met with the chief judge of Jordan, the final voice in matters of Sharia law. At the end of a 60-minute meeting, the judge said in Arabic: “I have been observing you. You are a good man.”
Bill’s Muslim contacts included Dr. Hamdi Murad, the chief iman to King Abdullah, and Dr. Moshe Labban, a leading Sufi Sheikh in Australia. Before he passed away, Labban would sign his emails to Bill: “Your friend and brother, Moshe.” In 2016 Loma Linda University Health created the William Johnsson Center for Understanding World Religions.
No profile of Bill Johnsson would be complete without a glimpse of the out-of-office Bill. He was essentially the same both in the office and out of the office; in both, his sense of humor was contagious.
Bill and Noelene opened their home to the staff and their families every year for a Christmas party. They would rearrange the furniture, bring in folding chairs for 20 or 30 guests and an evening of good food and fellowship, We used to go on staff retreats, where different members of the team would take turns preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Saturday evening event was always some variation of a “talentless” talent program. It often ended with Bill and Roy Adams offering what they called a “duet.” I don’t think any of us were that charitable.
No portrait of Bill is complete without mentioning his love of the shore. At least once a year, and on as many weekends as they could manage, Bill and Noelene would join friends Bob and Ellen Nixon, and whatever other friends and family who could fly in from various parts of the world, for a visit at Fenwick Island, Delaware. There, most often with son and daughter-in-law, Terry and Rene, daughter Julie, granddaughters Maddie, and Jacqui, they would enjoy the bounty of the Eastern Shore—sweet corn, tomatoes, watermelon, and cantaloupe, long walks on the beach, visits to Viking Minigolf and Oceanside Pizza. At least once a year, Bill was speaker for Sligo by the Sea in Ocean City, Maryland. Whenever he was, that day’s congregation would swell because of the opportunity to hear Bill speak.
To sum up Bill’s life requires no more than just one word: Christian. He and Noelene made it their purpose to reflect Christ’s character to as many as they could in as many ways as they could. They enriched others, but their lives were also enriched by those encounters. Bill and Noelene met Blair and Brenda Peace after their 20-year-old daughter, Julie, had been killed in a traffic accident. Their other daughter, Christine, was a child wrapped in a young woman’s body. Brenda and Noelene collaborated to provide Christine with a suitable Sabbath school experience. Blair, Brenda, and Christine were drawn into Bill and Noelene’s orbit. When Christine died suddenly and unexpectedly, Blair asked Bill to officiate at the funeral.
We all know Bill as a missionary, theologian, scholar, missionary, administrator, author, friend, and colleague. Only those who know him best know him as a pastor/poet. In his eulogy for Christine, Bill wrote:
“Green was her color. She was born in May when spring was in the full, when the trees wore silken jackets of green, when grass covered the fields and the earth throbbed with life and vitality. She fell asleep on the first day of April. Winter hung on late this year, but she lived to see the snow melt away, the first buds shoot out, and the greening of the land. Green was her color. . . . She knew love. She knew the love of Jesus.”
So, it seems, did Bill.
Stephen Chavez, retired after a career as a parish pastor and writer/editor, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.