Leading Adventist Missiologist Gottfried Oosterwal is Dead
November 18, 2015: Dr. Gottfried Oosterwal, who gave his life to the global mission of the Adventist movement, passed away last week near his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He grew up in Rotterdam during World War II, was educated in theology and anthropology at Cambridge University and earned a PhD from the University of Utrecht in 1956. He was an Adventist missionary in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and taught at Philippine Union College, an Adventist institution.
In 1968, Oosterwal joined the seminary faculty at Andrews University, the denomination’s leading academic institution. He had a key role in the creation of the World Mission Institute which prepares missionary families for cross cultural assignments. Later, after retiring from full-time teaching, he also founded the Center for Intercultural Relations which helped people to understand ethnic diversity both at home and abroad.
“As he aged his bright red hair faded, but the sparkle in his blue eyes and his sense of humor were a constant to the end,” wrote Dennis Tidwell in a newsletter for missionary veterans. “Even with slurred speech from his stroke last Thursday he was joking with the doctor and teasing his nurse.”
Tidwell recalled that Oosterwal “enjoyed music very much. He was quick to join in song, always singing at the top of his lungs. In particular he liked to play the piano and started giving lessons to other children in the neighborhood as a teenager.”
Oosterwal “travelled into the interior of the island jungles [in PNG], sharing the word of God and studying tribes for the Dutch government,” Tidwell recounts. The book The Island of Forgotten Men by Tom Davis told many stories of nearly being eaten by cannibals, being stranded in a crocodile infested river when his dugout canoe capsized and other adventures. Oosterwal’s doctoral dissertation, “People of the Tor,” was about a tribe in PNG.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Oosterwal travelled the world visiting locations where it was impossible to contact home for weeks at a time. With his Dutch passport, he was often in nations inaccessible with U.S. travel documents.
In 1972 his most important book, Mission: Possible, was published by Southern Publishing Association, the old Adventist publishing house in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first book to examine Adventist missionary activity in terms of late 20th century realities and scholarly perspective.
Tidwell remembers that Oosterwal collected many mementos from his vast travels. “His sense of humor was evident as he displayed many penis gourds on the shelves of his office. He would recount with a laugh how at times people unfamiliar with New Guinea would mistake them for flutes.”
Oosterwal enjoyed his collections. “His home is filled with clocks, African statues, Delft pottery, pewter, chess sets, and most of all, books. He had bookcases everywhere and loved reading spy novels. Gottfried loved color, always keeping his table covered with red place mats and red candles. He also loved flowers, orchids in particular. Gottfried continued to play the piano throughout his life. Growing up, his children loved to fall asleep to the sound of him playing.”
A very spiritual man, Oosterwal “prayed with his children every night, teaching them to pray,” Tidwell remembers. “His children’s friends fondly recall the family Sabbath rituals. Sabbath was celebrated together as a family, ushered in on Friday night with prayers, salutations in Dutch, Indonesian and English, and family hugs and kisses. Friends were always welcome to join. Before leaving the house on Saturday night, Sabbath was closed with the same ritual.”
The great man “loved people, all people.” He was gifted orator, “a prolific linguist able to speak many languages. He sometimes sprinkled his conversations with Latin quotations. He was completely blind to people’s’ socioeconomic status, their race, their religion, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or any other aspect of a person that might serve as a prejudice to divide us. He was equally comfortable sharing a meal on the floor of a grass hut in the jungle as he was presenting seminars to executives at major corporations on the importance of intercultural relations.”
The most important passion for Oosterwal was the mission of Christ and understanding the humanity for whom Christ gave His life. This is why it was important for him to spend his life in cultural anthropology, the study of people, cultures and how environments affect the way people behave and what they believe.
Oosterwal authored a number of books and articles. The most recent is The Lord’s Prayer as seen Through Primitive Eyes (2009, Pacific Press). “He was in the process of writing a manuscript,” Tidwell reveals. Amazon.com lists nine titles in addition to his classic Mission: Possible, his doctoral dissertation and the new book mentioned above: Michael Belina Czechowski, a collection of historical papers on the first Adventist international missionary that Oosterwal edited with Alfred Vaucher (1979, Znaki Czasu Publishing House); Patterns of Seventh-day Adventist Church Growth in America, the first research on church growth in the Adventist faith (1976, Andrews University Press); Modern Messianic Movements (1973, Institute of Mennonite Studies); A Cargo Cult in the Mamberamo Area (1963, University of Pittsburgh Press); The Position of the Bachelor in Upper Tor Territory (1959, American Anthropological Association); Die Papua published in Dutch (1963, W. Kholhammer Verlag); Worship Him Who Created the World (1969) and “Fetch a Robe and Let’s Have a Feast” (1972), both evidently self-published; and two published by the Center for Intercultural Relations in 1994, Community in Diversity and International Business Relations.
Oosterwal was a proud Dutchman. He utilized the denomination’s policy for inter-division workers and took his family back to Holland on furloughs and “showed them the brick streets where he grew up, and they visited the important spiritual locations, the Wartburg castle, the churches and the cathedrals,” wrote Tidwell. “He loved soccer. As a missionary in PNG, he not only spread the word of God, but also shared his love for soccer. He taught them the game and found they were very gifted athletes who learned quickly.”
“Gottfried was a brilliant, loving, and diverse man,” Tidwell summed up. “His wit and wisdom will be greatly missed.”
He is survived by his daughter, Verona Valentine; two sons, Dantar Oosterwal and Erik Oosterwal; five grandchildren; and a brother, Siegfried “Flip” Oosterwal, and a sister, Elfriede Oosterwall, both in the Netherlands. The funeral was at Pioneer Memorial Church on the university campus on Sunday (November 15).