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New biography marks 120th anniversary of birth of ecumenical pioneer Visser ’t Hooft

24 September 2020

By Stephen Brown*

A new English-language biography of Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), has been published in the year that marks the 120th anniversary of his birth.

The book, Visser ’t Hooft 1900–1985: Living for the Unity of the Church, is the English translation of a biography that appeared in Dutch in 2018 by the theologian and historian, Jurjen A. Zeilstra. Published by Amsterdam University Press, the 598-page volume is also available as a free open access download.

Visser ’t Hooft was born on 20 September 1900 in Haarlem in the Netherlands and in 1948 became the first general secretary of the WCC, a post he held until his retirement in 1966. Through his strategic thinking and personal authority, Visser ’t Hooft played a decisive role in the development of the 20th-century ecumenical movement.

“The story of the life of Willem Visser ’t Hooft to me is a fascinating adventure covering the main part of the 20th century,” author Zeilstra said in a WCC interview. “Two world wars, the interbellum period of economic crisis, severe international tensions, and the rise of fascism, form the background to his ecumenical work among youth from many nations, students and those engaged in the organisation of the early years of World Council of Churches.”

Zeilstra recounts in the biography how Visser ’t Hooft was asked at his retirement by a Dutch journalist whether he would be withdrawing from the work of the WCC.

“It’s not possible for me . . . to withdraw from the major ecumenical questions,” Visser ’t Hooft replied, “for the simple reason that my whole life is bound up with them and that I have no other major interests in the world than this.”

Visser ’t Hooft was only 24 when he represented the YMCA at the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work convened in Stockholm in 1925 by Swedish Archbishop Nathan Söderblom to bring together churches of many traditions in a common quest for justice in society and the pursuit of world peace.

The experience set Visser ’t Hooft on a path that led to him being appointed in 1938 as general secretary of the provisional committee of the WCC “in process of formation.” This brought together the Life and Work movement founded by Söderblom and the Faith and Order movement, which sought to promote Christian unity through theological dialogue.

The outbreak of the Second World War meant it took another decade until the official founding of the WCC at its first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948.

The biography covers the span of Visser ’t Hooft’s life from his birth into a patrician family in Haarlem to his death in Geneva in 1985; the years of the Second World War when he maintained contacts with the German resistance to Hitler and was the focal point for a conspiratorial communication route between the Netherlands and the Dutch government-in-exile in London; his personal role in the founding and shaping of the WCC; and the theological and ecumenical debates in which Visser ’t Hooft took part.

Separate chapters deal with his efforts during the Cold War to bring the Orthodox churches of Russia and Eastern Europe into WCC membership, and Visser ’t Hooft’s contacts with the Roman Catholic Church in the period leading up to the Second Vatican Council and beyond.

In a review in The Ecumenical Review of the Dutch version of the biography, former WCC staff member Martin Robra praised it for the way “it successfully interweaves Visser 't Hooft's personal development with the history of the ecumenical movement and important events shaped and influenced by Visser 't Hooft's extraordinary personality.”

Jurjen Zeilstra, Visser ’t Hooft, 1900–1985: Living for the Unity of the Church, trans. Henry Jansen, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020, pp. 598, ISBN 978-94-6372-683-2, 39.95 euros.

* Stephen Brown is editor of the WCC’s quarterly journal The Ecumenical Review.

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Table of Contents and individual chapters in PDF format

E-book (epub) version

Interview with Jurjen A. Zeilstra: Visser ’t Hooft’s life “a fascinating adventure”