Remembering Willis Elliott: theologian and gadfly

Willis ElliottMy dear friend and colleague Willis Elliott has died. Scott Paeth’s FB post today captures some of the essence of Willis:

“For those who did not know him, he was the often-insightful/often-infuriating gadfly of the United Church of Christ, and a long-time participant in the Confessing Christ group. He died old and full of years”

I met Willis at the very first Craigville Colloquy back in 1984. He spoke at dinner about the “Christian Connection,” the often overlooked piece of the four-church merger that became the United Church of Christ. I thought, “Who is this guy?” Smart, articulate, funny, and insightful. He had a full white beard like Santa Claus, and I thought he was really old, but that was thirty years ago so what did I know?

Later we had him at my congregation as a speaker and with his wife Loree a guest in our home. He was a brilliant, multi-lingual polymath, a former fundamentalist, and at times as difficult and uncompromising as Jeremiah. If there had been a shop that sold iron yokes, Willis might have purchased one. But he could also be an encouraging mentor. Years ago I did a presentation at the MA Conference annual meeting and afterward he made a point to come up and thank me. He also said, “I didn’t know you had it in you!” That was Willis.

In the 1990’s he was one of the founders of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ, along with Gabe Fackre, Fred Trost, Jim Gorman, Leslie Zeigler, Barbara Clemons, Bennie Whiten, Herb Davis, Andy Lang, Ted Trost, myself and many others. “Confessing Christ” was an invitation to “joyous theological reflection and serious theological work” on behalf of the ministry and mission of the United Church of Christ.

For years we had our Confessing Christ annual meeting at the church I was serving in Pittsfield, MA, and I got to know Willis well. He was one of the least compromising people I have ever known, and the least career oriented. He had been the librarian and Old Testament Professor at New York Theological Seminary, and before that had served on the national staff of the UCC.

He was a deeply committed Christian, reading the Bible every day in the original languages. His “Think-Sheets,” free of an editorial hand, were challenging, quirky, often brilliant, and, just as often, maddening. They always made you think.

In his latter years his eyesight waned, but he kept up a lively correspondence and participation on the Confessing Christ list-serve conversation.

The “thickness” of the conversation in the United Church of Christ, and the great church, will now be poorer for the loss of his voice, but he had no doubt, and neither do I, that he is now numbered among the great cloud of witnesses. I thank God for him.

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6 thoughts on “Remembering Willis Elliott: theologian and gadfly

  1. Oh my, Richard. Thank you for honoring him so well. I too was at the first Craigville Colloquy and other gatherings with Willis. What a character he was, always challenging and inspiring us to ponder our assumptions and beliefs with an unpolished and unfettered honesty.

  2. Richard, I had a conversation with him at Craigville Colloquy about a conversation I had had with a Mormon elder in Salt Lake City. The elder said that only ordinations that were handed down from the first Mormons were valid, and that Christian ordinations, that are presumably handed down through the centuries were not valid. When I asked Willis about it, he smiled sadly, spread his hands, and said, “It is heresy, plain and simple.”

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