The Kingdom, the Power, & the Glory: In Memory of William Brink Monsma
[Editor’s Note: The following post is the introductory chapter to a festschrift honoring William Brink Monsma, the founder of the MacLaurin Institute—now Anselm House. This introductory chapter was edited and compiled by Chris Macosko and Kirk Allison based on information provided by Mary Beth Monsma. Here’s the complete table of contents:
Looking for the Spirit: An Essay in Christian Dialogue with Islam – John P. Spaulding
God, Government, Politics, and War: Economics and Defense in Light of the Cross – Philip E. Friesen
In the Garden and Outside It: The Wild, the Domestic, and the Aesthetics of an Urban Ecology – Robert Osburn
Why Should We Learn Science? – Jed C. Macosko
Jesus, Gender, Marriage, and Same-Sex Relationship – Philip E. Friesen
A Proposed Model for Understanding the Origin and Meaning of the Genesis Text – Rodger Dalman
Memories of William Brink Monsma by His Family and Friends – Mary Beth Monsma, Philip E. Friesen, Robert Osburn
We will be launching the festschrift with a panel discussion and reception this coming Thursday, October 13 at 7 p.m. here at the study center. Please join us to celebrate William’s life and work.]
Introduction: William Brink Monsma’s Life and Work
William was born in Los Angeles, California as his parents’ youngest child and only boy. His mother, Marion, was his intellectual inspiration. She read to him from an early age and encouraged him to explore a wide variety of subjects. Over the years she encouraged his intellectual pursuits. They delighted in each new discovery and spent many hours sharing insights and debating their historical and philosophical significance. His father, William, was the analytical one. It was from him that William learned to love science and math.
The Monsma family was a part of the Christian Reformed community wherever they lived. In this community, it was a part of the culture to discuss theological positions and examine them in great detail using insights of their Calvinist tradition. William chose physics over theology in college, where both he and Mary Beth, his future wife, were actively involved in the Mission Club (IVCF – InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group at Calvin College). It was here William developed the passion for in-depth expositional Bible study. He was as devoted to the study of Bible as he was to the study of physics, math, and philosophy. William graduated from Calvin College in 1964 with both Danforth and Woodrow Wilson Fellowships.
After college graduation, he and Mary Beth married and moved to Berkeley, California. This was 1964; the Free Speech Movement was gaining momentum on campus. William was captivated by this movement as a result of the interactions between his Danforth friends and his IVCF community. What did this mean for the Christians on campus, who were not allowed to hold religious gatherings in campus facilities, and for his future as an academic? As a Christian what did this mean for academic freedom to explore a world view contrary to the secular world view held by so many in academia? These questions were beginning to form William’s life-long passion to integrate his academic growth with his biblical perspectives. How was he going to continue to be a Christian and maintain his intellectual integrity? Could his faith hold up against the prevailing world views? William had the conviction that he must be willing to examine all positions and let these drive him to understand the truth about his God, science, philosophy, and whatever other challenges he might encounter.
The next year, William transferred to the University of Colorado, Boulder. He fell in love with the campus on the way to California and their physics department offered William the opportunity to do work in the field of theoretical physics, rather than the experimental physics options available to him at Berkeley. At this point, William and Mary Beth felt the need to be a part of a church community which supported student ministry. They joined First Presbyterian Church, Boulder. It was here under the teaching of Bill Ramer and Eugene Thomas, two former IVCF staffers, that William learned how to really probe scripture. It took six months to get through the prologue of John in their University Bible Class. However, it was Campus Crusade’s passion for evangelism that prompted William to spend a day a week in the Student Union, praying for someone to come and sit with him and be open to conversations about their world view or any other challenges they were experiencing. William was not afraid to face the tough questions, examine his own positions, and challenge others to dig deeper to discover truth. His study of scripture, the questions of doubters, and the need to discover more about this God who he was brought up to believe loved him and the world, encouraged William to open himself up to the Spirit’s leading. It was frequently said by his fellow students in the physics department, that if you wanted to have a conversation about religion and science: “Go see Monsma; he’s the guy who cares about these things.”
With the growing student unrest on campuses across the world, the Christian community in Boulder decided to present a strong, visible presence speaking to the issues of the day. The three large student ministries, IVCF, Campus Crusade, and Navigators, began working together, each with their unique strengths, to put out a weekly newspaper. This afforded opportunities to engage students and faculty in conversation. They opened up support groups to students facing the challenges and ridicule from those who thought their Christian beliefs naïve or unsupportable. William and other biblically and intellectually knowledgeable ministry staff and students met regularly with students to discuss the issues raised in their classes. They encouraged them to examine the problems confronting them and helped them ask probing questions which offered new options and perspectives. These students returned to their classes with new confidence and abilities that forced other students and their professors to take note. A few faculty began to seek out these students and enter into dialogue with them and their coaches. Some even became Christians. William realized then that his calling to the academic world wasn’t just to be a teacher, but also to be the voice for a Christian world view.
In his fourth year of graduate studies, William accompanied his thesis advisor to Trieste, Italy. It was here he encountered physicists from all over the world. With his insatiable thirst for knowledge, he not only pursued his thesis work but also expanded his understanding of the world. He learned first-hand from the visiting scholars about life in Africa, the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, and South America. Mary Beth and William were able to travel on holidays and weekends to various countries in Europe. William enjoyed the chance to see historical places, the work of famous artists, and encounters with locals. Never one to miss an opportunity to learn more, he overcame language barriers to “converse“ with people and even received invitations for a drink, meal or night’s lodging.
Returning to Boulder, William concentrated on finishing his thesis in elementary particle physics. Mary Beth worked with their friends to set up a summer project in Boulder after the model of Intervarsity summer evangelism camps. In 1970, the Boulder Summer Project was started. At night William wrote programs for his thesis research at the computer center. During the afternoon and early evening, William engaged in street evangelism and Bible studies. The Boulder Summer Project was his lab. That first summer, he faced lots of challenges and opportunities and learned a great deal about street evangelism and building disciples. The number of seekers was overwhelming and it was clear that if a project like this was to be really successful, a stronger follow-up program was needed which could disciple those who came for discussions. William finished his PhD thesis in 1970, his son William was born, and he took a 2-year teaching position at Calvin College. But the Monsma family returned for another summer to continue the Boulder Summer Project imitative. When conflict arose in the management of the project, the leaders took a day of prayer and fasting. Everyone learned that when you let God lead, He does amazing things.
Within the strong academic and Christian community at Calvin, William was able to have many conversations that continued to expand and challenge him. After he completed his time at Calvin College in 1972, William began a post-doctoral program in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Daughter Anne was born that year. In the fall of 1973, William began two years of teaching physics at Grove City College. He became convinced that his calling was to work with faculty to help them gain an openness and understanding of the Christian world view. Although offered a new position at a secular Pennsylvanian college, he knew that this was not the direction God wanted him to take. The family moved back to Grand Rapids so that William could go to Calvin Seminary. He was also able to teach part-time at Calvin College. As part of his seminary training he spent summers doing pastoral work in Alberta, California, and Ontario.
William came to Minnesota as a campus pastor for the Christian Reformed Church. He ran into problems with his ordination when he was not willing to give precedence to a theological system over his understanding of the Bible. This meant that he had to leave his position as a CRC campus pastor. He joined IVCF as a staff worker. At that time they did not have a ministry to faculty or graduate students. William saw this as his calling. He began working with a small but devoted group of graduate students. Through weekly Bible studies, long discussions, and guest speakers this group developed strong attachments and a commitment to live out their Christian faith in their academic life. It was at an IVCF Urbana Missions Conference that William realized it was time for him to focus exclusively on faculty and graduate students. For many years, the dream of challenging the academic world with competent Christian scholars was something William was willing to risk all for.
With the help and encouragement of some faculty friends, William founded the MacLaurin Institute. He had long felt the need to engage the academic community in dialogue about a Christian world view in a more serious and formal way. Not being a particularly strong fundraiser, William was blessed to be able to get part-time teaching positions at various colleges. Mary Beth understood and embraced William’s vision for ministry, and much of their family income was now being provided by her employment. They worked together to host graduate student parties, teach adult Sunday School classes, and provide stipends and travel expenses for visiting lecturers. William was able to get university departments to co-sponsor lectures on campus to help defray costs. His Calvin and U of M contacts helped him locate lecturers who had successfully integrated their academic discipline with their Christian world view. During these years William continued to meet with students, faculty and staff regularly to discuss their world views, academic concerns, and Biblical understanding. He mentored a number of students during this time, meeting regularly with them to discuss academic questions and study the Bible.
The year 2000 brought some major changes for William. That year he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A visiting neurologist, a guest lecturer for MacLaurin, noticed the first symptoms and asked William if he might have Parkinson’s. That year, William decided to leave the MacLaurin Institute and form the Galilean Center with a focus on encouraging Christian scholars in dialogue on issues of interest and concern facing them in their daily pursuits.
For a number of years, William was still able to teach and engage in dialogue. However, the involuntary movements and the strain of focusing and organizing his thoughts kept him from pursuing the writing he wanted to do. Mary Beth and William concentrated on traveling during these early years knowing that these things would be impossible later. They went on a sailing trip in the Aegean with their Canadian friends. William’s focus was seeing the many places on the shores of the Aegean Sea that Paul had visited in his missionary journeys. His visit to Patmos was the highlight of that trip for William. He spent a morning in the cave where John had his vision and meditated on the book of Revelation. William longed to visit the Holy Land but Mary Beth insisted that they go with a group. Group touring was not William’s ideal. When he learned about Jerusalem University College, he felt he found a group that would meet both their concerns. William was able to live out the Bible stories in the land where they happened. Long a student of geography, history and philosophy, he now was seeing the places he had only visited on maps.
In 2011 William had Deep Brain Stimulation surgery for Parkinson’s disease. He inspired others by his enthusiastic participation in therapy classes and the day program. He made efforts to continue to attend lectures and share his insights with those with whom he met. On June 7, 2015, William suffered a stroke, and he never recovered. At 4:00 pm on June 15th he died. Shortly before he breathed his last, Struthers sent over a music therapist to play his favorite song, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. He left this earth eager to join with the saints who had gone before and to achieve his ultimate reward, to sit at the feet of Jesus.