Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors, #2: Glen H. Stassen

Glen Harold Stassen (1936-) is my beloved teacher, mentor, occasional writing partner, and friend. Considering that he was the supervisor for my doctoral work in Christian ethics (my Doktorvater, as the Germans put it), some who know me well probably wondered why, if I were going to list mentors on this blog, I didn’t put Glen first. The answer is simple, if a bit embarrassing: I had to find a picture! Stassen is a Baptist ethicist and peace theologian who has lived and worked in several Baptist denominations, and taught on the faculties of Baptist, mainline Protestant, and evangelical institutions.

Born in Minnesota (the grandson of German immigrants) to Harold and Esther Stassen, Glen’s father became the youngest governor of Minnesota and the Stassens were part of the old ethnic German Baptist Convention (now called the North American Baptist Conference and using English in worship)–which had earlier produced Walter Rauschenbusch. Glen and his sister, Kathleen, grew up speaking German in the home and English outside. When WWII began, Harold Stassen resigned as governor of MN and joined the U.S. Navy. (Harold Stassen later wrote the first draft of the United Nations’ Charter, was a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, ruined his career in attempting to get Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket for the second term, and repeatedly ran for president of the U.S. as a liberal Republican. His influence on Glen is enormous.) Glen, newly converted and baptized as a teen, saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning of judgment by God on a war-mad world. He went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia when his father was president of the University of Pennsylvania. There he met a teacher who had volunteered as a “human lab rat” for alternative service as a conscientious objector. This impressed Glen with the idea that military courage was not the only form courage took.

Initially educated at the University of Virginia in nuclear physics (B.A., 1957, cum laude), work for the Navy and Air Force in nuclear research soon convinced Glen that enough people were solving the mysteries of the atom–and not enough were working to keep the atom in check. He soon discerned a calling to the ministry. Up to this point, Stassen had been involved in North American Baptist and American Baptist circles, but he had met and married Dot Lively, a Southern Baptist, and, after investigating seminaries, decided to enroll at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology).  He also met the famed Clarence Jordan who came to Barnette’s ethics class and told the students that segregation was like a mortally wounded horse:  it would kick and do much damage before it died. Unfortunately, Stassen arrived just after a clash between the faculty and seminary president had resulted in the firing of most of the professors with whom he had wanted to study. (13 professors were fired in this “Battle of Lexington Road,” and it took nearly 2 decades for the seminary to regain its former excellence and reputation. Now, since the presidency of Al Mohler began in ’94, that reputation is again in the toilet outside fundamentalist circles. ) Glen transferred to Union Theological Seminary of New York where his major influences were James Muilenberg (Old Testament), W.D. Davies (New Testament), the early Barth scholar Paul Lehmann (who, along with a young Robert McAfee Brown introduced Stassen to the thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christocentric liberal and process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who introduced him to the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr) , and, the Union giant of that day, the Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian ethics). R. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was reinforced at Union by Roger L. Shinn and John C. Bennett.

While at Union (B.D., 1963), Stassen continued involvement in the civil rights movement that he had begun in Virginia and Kentucky, travelling from NYC to Washington, D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington only to meet his father in the crowd when neither knew the other was coming. 

Stassen earned his Ph.D. (Theological Ethics and History of Christian Thought) at Duke University (1967, magna cum laude), supervised by Waldo Beach, but most thoroughly influenced by theologian Frederick Herzog (a creative Barthian and one of the earliest white North Americans to interact with both Latin American and Black Liberation theologies), and Lutheran historian and Reformation scholar Hans Hillerbrand (who introduced Glen to the study of the Anabaptists).
Stassen’s dissertation, The Sovereignty of God in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, has never been published.

Another strong influence was his fellow doctoral student, Lonnie Kliever. Stassen and Kliever were both Baptists who had gone to Union Seminary and now were doing doctoral work also outside Baptist circles–a rare phenomenon in those days–and both were involved in movements for social justice. (Kliever would eventually leave Baptist life and become a United Methodist.) He also continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. In both cases, he worked mostly as a strategist and organizer.

Other major influences include Menno Simons, Richard Overton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder (they were friends and dialogue partners for decades), James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (another Baptist theologian influenced by Yoder and Anabaptists), the Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer, Heinz-Eduard Toedt, and Juergen Moltmann (they co-authored a brief book).  His ongoing friendship with Stanley Hauerwas includes much agreement, but also much continued debate.   Recent dialogue partners include biblical scholars Ched Myers, Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Bruce Chilton, Marcus Borg, Willard Swartley, the late Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, R. Michael Lerner, Cornel West, philosophers Nancey Murphy, and Rene Girard.

Stassen has done additional study at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg. He has taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville), Berea College, Harvard University (Visiting Professor) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1976-1996), and as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-Present).

He has worked in or helped to found several organizations for peacemaking, worked behind the scenes to negotiate the removal of the short and middle range nuclear weapons from Europe, has testified at capital punishment cases and developed a strategy for defense attorneys in captital cases, founded and worked on advocacy for the mentally retarded (his youngest son was misdiagnosed as such during a time when almost no help for the mentally retarded existed in Kentucky) and assisted nonviolent human rights and peace movements in East Germany (Stassen was present when the Wall came down), Kazakstan, Central America, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa. He keeps up an amazing correspondence with students in each of these areas of the world, coming to lecture for them and connecting with church groups(usually Baptist or Mennonite) in all these places.

When I was his student, I argued that the implications of his theology and ethic of “just peacemaking,” led logically to pacifism, gospel nonviolence. In 2000, Glen finally began to call himself a Christian pacifist. The influence of Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder, and the New Testament, had finally pushed beyond the influence of his father and of Reinhold Niebuhr (though he remains grateful to both).

Aside from friendship, I have learned the following from Glen Stassen:

  1. He reinforced my dedication to biblical scholarship–staying abreast of current work, but being unafraid to tackle one’s own exegesis and to buck professional consensuses in the cause of Christian ethics.
  2. I was already committed to nonviolence when I met Glen, but he gave me an approach to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that made concrete, pragmatic sense. Just peacemaking, like Jesus and the biblical witness, is not primarily against something (war or violence or injustice), but for the in-breaking Rule of God including taking risks in transforming initiatives for justice and peace–just as God took a transforming initiative for human salvation in sending Jesus.
  3.  Discipleship divorced from sound theology is rootless and leads to a “thin” ethics and even burnout. Doctrine divorced from concrete discipleship (nachfolge Christi) is irrelevant and leads to a docetic, disembodied Christ unrelated to the biblical Jesus.
  4. He deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer and Yoder and taught me to appreciate the Niebuhr brothers more than most pacifists ever do. Glen reinforced my historical bent by introducing me to HRN’s dictum, “History is the laboratory of ideas.” Any ethics or politics that only works in theory, under ideal conditions, is not of much use.
  5. Glen also reinforced my interest in the early history of Anabaptists and Baptists–and introduced me to the life and work of Richard Overton, the inspiration for this blog, Levellers.

Throughout his early career, Glen published little, concentrating on classroom and church teaching and on social activism. But as he has neared retirement, his publishing output has increased, since his developing theology of “incarnational discipleship,” and ethic of “transforming initiatives” has been reaching a mature form.
Rather than give a bibliography, I direct you to Stassen’s website.

August 13, 2006 - Posted by | heroes, mentors


  1. Wow. You are a fortunate one.

    Some great reading on that website. More new books are being added to my list..”Just Peacemaking” being at the top.

    Comment by Marty | August 14, 2006

  2. Hey, Marty, thanks for stopping by. Not on the website is Glen’s latest book, Living the Sermon on the Mount_ just off the press this summer from Jossey-Bass publishers.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 14, 2006

  3. I printed “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” so that I could sit in my easy chair and read it. BUT… easy it won’t be….I’m going to need Merriam Webster to get through it! 🙂 I had to do the same with that Yoder book.

    Comment by Marty | August 14, 2006

  4. […] Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency.  Stassen, father of my Doktorvater and mentor, Glen H. Stassen, was the grandson of German immigrants to the U.S.–from that wave of those fleeing the […]

    Pingback by Harold Stassen and the U.N. Dream « Levellers | April 19, 2007

  5. My son, Jeffrey R. Stassen, forwarded your Blog to me. I am a double cousin to Glen H. Stassen. My Dad, William R. Stassen, and Harold married sisters. My grandfather, William A. Stassen, an immigrant from Schlesvic Holstein, Germany, (an area located between Belgium and Denmark)when he was about four years old. He and his wife, Elsbeth nee Mueller, were truck farmers in West St. Paul, Minnesota, and had five children: William R. Stassen, Elmer B. Stassen, Harold E. Stassen and Violet Stassen. He had 14 grandchildren, of which I was the oldest. I was 11 years old when Harold first ran for Governor, and I worked in that campaign running a mimeograph machine and stuffing envelopes. I got bit by the political bug. I asked the present Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, to proclaim April 13, 2007 as “Governor Harold E. Stassen Day” which he did, in honor of the anniversary of his 100th birthday. Glen and Kathleen joined us in Minnesota where we had several events. 1) A press conference in a hallway in the State Capital Building by his portrait, where we announced our efforts to have President Bush to award posthumously the President’s Medal of Freedom; To urge the federal government to issue a stamp with Harold’s photo on it, with the words “Governor”, “Statesman”, “War Hero”, and “Man of Peace” surounding the photo; and to have his birthday anniversay noted in the Congressional Record, which we accomplished through the office of Rep. Jim Ramstad, (Rep.6th Dist. MN. 2) A memorial service at the gravesite of Harold and his Wife at Acacia Cemetery in a suburb of St.Paul, with military honors from a Naval ROTC group by a local High School, VFW 295, of which Harold is a members, gave a Military salute and taps, former Congressman Arlen Erdahl spoke on how he became a delegate to the United Nations Charter Convention and being chosen by the world press along with Foreign Minister of Australia Evart, as the two most influencial in drafting the Charter, brieft talks by Glen and Kathleen, a sermonette by Pastor David Wick of the Riverview NAB Baptist Church, which has been the home church of the Stassen family for 150 years, and closing with the bag pipe player from Macalester College playing Amazing Grace. After viewing a collection about Harold E. Stassen at the Minnesota Historical Society, Glen and Kathleen were interviewed on a Public TV Channel program, “Almanac”, a widely viewed program on Friday evenings, and in this case on Friday, April 13.

    I found your comments on Harold Stassen and Glen very interesting. I graduated from the University of Minnesota, and studied at Bethel University and Seminary, have been in business in Minnesota, and served in the Minnesota State Senate. Although many do not know much about Harold E. Stassen, especially the younger generation, and those who know his name may only be by seeing his name on crossword puzzles, as “Perennial Candidate for President. Actually he was only officially nominated three times; By Congressman Dr. Walter Judd in 1948, By Marge Howard, President of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in 1952, and I had the honor to place his name in nomination in 1968, where we tried to place his plan in the party platform to honorably end the Viet Nam War by pulling U.S. troops into a defensive conclave, as suggested by Marine General Gavin–attacking only for defense, and training the Vietnamese to fight their own battles. President Nixon actually tried to do that, but gave in saying, “I am not going to be the only President of the United States to lost a war. The war dragged on through the JFK and LBJ administrations.

    Thank you for your well done comments in your Blog.

    Bob Stassen

    Comment by J. Robert (Bob) Stassen | April 21, 2007

  6. […] ethicist and peacemaker, Glen H. Stassen […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Mentors « Levellers | July 14, 2008

  7. Bob,I don’t know why I missed your comments. Thank-you for filling in many blanks. I’m surprised that Tim Pawlenty gave that much help since he is a VERY different kind of Republican governor from Harold E. Stassen. I also wrote a blog post on Harold E. Stassen and the UN Dream at the time of his passing away.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 9, 2009

  8. Dr Glen Stassen is one of the most influencial mentors in my life. I attended SBTS in 1990-94. I found myself enrolled with Dr. Stassen in the introduction class to Xn ethics. I was so fortunate to have taken many classes with him including a Ph.D level class on the Niebuhr brothers in my last semister before graduation. I seldom have contact with Dr. Stassen but I do take my understanding of history and the Sermon on the Mount with me into the classroom now as I teach pastoral care students. Thank you Michael for this biography and good to reconnect with you.

    Comment by David Carnish | August 11, 2009

  9. David, you were an SBTS student during the same time I was a Ph.D. student. I think I remember you from the Niebuhr brothers’ seminar.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 11, 2009

  10. Michael, that is me…we were in the Ph.d class on the Niebuhr brothers together! Hope you are well!

    Comment by David Carnish | January 11, 2010

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