Attentiveness: Andrew Walls (1928-2021)
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
Every once in a while a person passes on who has personally influenced so many people that the accolades continue to come from surprising corners of the world. That is the case of Professor Andrew Walls, missiologist, historian, missionary, mentor, and friend of so many.
The words that keep coming up in the remembrances are words like brilliant, mentor, humble, deep scholarship, primary sources, new understanding. However, I believe the dominant characteristic that enabled all the others is humility. Gentle, humble, but strong.
Walls’ training was in Patristics which he felt prepared him well for the young church in Africa. His adamant commitment to Africa, and to training African leaders, was remarkable because at the same time he founded institutions and taught at top universities and seminaries around the world: Fourah Bay College (Sierra Leone), Akrofi-Christoller Institute (Ghana), Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School. He lectured for me at Trinity Theological College in Singapore and helped guide Dale Irvin and myself in the historiographic approach used in the multi-volume History of the World Christian Movement project.
Well-written memorials have been posted honoring Professor Walls by Gina Zurlo, Christianity Today, Patheos, The Gospel Coalition, and there will be many others. The great quotation from 2007 in a Christianity Today article and repeated last week with a slight change by Patheos is so true: “The most important person you may not know”/ “The most important scholar you didn’t know.” Humility made it possible for him to have a global impact.
To the many other stories, public and personal, I add a few others.
- When Professor Walls received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Church History, I heard two or three well-known scholars say, “Who is he? I never heard of him!” Their history was focused on Europe and North America, his on the world. He was ahead of his time, and many recognized it.
- When I was a PhD student, my mentor, Dr. Samuel H. Moffett, was going to retire, and I was asked to serve on the search committee for his replacement. We brought in David Bosch and Orlando Costas to interview. We also brought in Professor Walls just a year after he had had a quadruple heart bypass operation. He was the first choice, but his health (in 1986!) seemed precarious, and so the seminary did not select him. That was 1986. He lived another 35 years and made his greatest contributions to the global church during that time.
- When Dale Irvin and I were working on the first volumes of History of the World Christian Movement, at one of our conferences Walls took me aside and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “What are you going to do about the 1918 Flu Epidemic?” I was paralyzed. What in the world was I to say? What was he getting at? I was writing Christian history… the flu epidemic? But of course, today with another global epidemic, we know that these things shape or transform Christianity, at the local level and globally. Walls’ question was spot on.
- Credit needs to go to former editor Bill Burrows and Orbis Books for collecting some of his amazing lectures and putting them into books. For most young scholars he is known for these books, and less for the articles as stand-alone documents. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (1996) and The Cross-cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith are remarkable volumes which I try to refer to in most every history or missiology course I teach.
- Currently I am working on the final edit of a coming volume on Christian history, and one of my first lines is a quotation about and from Walls (there are many like this):
It has been reported to me that in January of 2010 Professor Andrew Walls was giving a lecture in Aarhaus, Denmark and, in a typically Wallsians fashion quietly dropped a bombshell: “Western theology is too small for global Christianity today.” Shaken, disturbed, and probably offended by the remark, Stanley Hauerwas asked what in the world he meant by that remark.
- Finally, I have been fortunate enough to have worked some with those African and Asian scholars whose intellectual work was shaped by Professor Walls’ mind and heart: Lamin Sanneh, Ogbu Kalu, Daniel Jeyaraj, John Azumah, and Jehu Hanciles. All represent the careful and creative scholarship of their mentor. In fact, this week I am reading Hanciles’ important new work, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity.
We can continue to learn from the Christian gentleman and scholar through his disciples. This “passing on to the next generation” is some of the best of the Christian tradition and I believe it applies to both evangelism and Christian scholarship:
“You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” (II Timothy 2:1-2)
Lord of all wisdom, we thank you for the life, friendship, and wisdom of your servant, our mentor and friend, Andrew Walls. May we remember him by imitating in our lives his humility, servant attitude, and faithfulness to your Word, and to your Church. Amen.
Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.