Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem A(dolf) (1900-1985)
First general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC)
Visser ‘t Hooft was born in Haarlem, Neterlands, and graduated from the University of Leiden. During his student days he was drawn into the Student Christian movement (SCM), where he learned for the first time that Christian faith could be a dynamic reality. A meeting with John R. Mott kindled his vision of the worldwide mission of Christ, which shaped all his subsequent work. Reading Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans in 1922 gave him the assurance that the word of God had an authority that could challenge all the ideologies of modernity. There was a message to match the mission.
In 1924 Visser ‘t Hooft moved to Geneva to head the international work of the YMCA among boys, an assignment that nurtured his wide knowledge of an sensitivity to international issues. From 1932 he was general secretary to the World’s Student Christian Federation (WSCF), and from 1938 he was the first general secretary of the WCC “in process of formation.” He retired from the WCC in 1966.
The focus of Visser ‘t Hooft’s passion can be seen in the titles of some of his books: None Other Gods (1937), The Kingship of Christ (1948), and No Other Name (1963). The churches of Europe were hindered from their world mission by unlawful alliances with nationalism and with liberal ideologies. In this syncretistic entanglement, he believed, they could not meet the onslaught of the new paganisms. The absolute authority of Christ as God’s living word required both unity and mission, for how could the Good Shepherd gather all the nations if is own flock was scattered? The world mission of the church must be at the heart of ecclesial life, not relegated to peripheral bodies.
Visser ‘t Hooft was not a major theological writer, but his work in the WSCF and in the WCC, his ceaseless traveling, speaking, and writing, and during World War II his often dangerous work of keeping Christians on opposite sides in contact with one another were of decisive importance in shaping the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century.
Lesslie Newbigin, “Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem A(dolf),” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 706-707.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem A. and J. H. Oldham. The Church and its Function in Society. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937.
Visser ‘t Hooft’s papers are in the WCC archives in Geneva and include a list of over 1.760 items—books, articles, and unpublished papers.
Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem A. Students Find the Truth to Serve: The Story of the World’s Student Christian Federation 1931-1935. Geneva: World’s Student Christian Federation, .
_____. None Other Gods. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1937.
_____. The Wretchedness and Greatness of the Church. London: SCM Press, 1944.
_____. The Kingship of Christ; an Interpretation of Recent European Theology. New York: Harper, 1948.
_____. Man’s Disorder and God’s Design. New York: Harper Brothers, 1949.
_____. The Regeneration of Europe. [Lausanne: La Concorde, 1949].
_____. Christianity, Race and South African People. Report: An Ecumenical Visit. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1952.
_____. Our Ecumenical Task in the Light of History. Geneva: John Knox House Association, .
_____. Rembrandt and the Gospel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, [1958?].
_____. The Pressure of Our Common Calling. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, .
_____. The Background of the Social Gospel in America. St. Louis: Bethany Press, .
_____. No Other Name London: The Choice Between Syncretism and Christian Universalism. London: SCM Press, 1963.
_____. The International Civil Servant and Today’s World. Geneva: Foyer John Knox Association, .
_____. “Is the Ecumenical Movement Suffering from Institutional Paralysis?” In Ecumenical Review 25 no. 3 (July 1973): 295-309.
_____. No Man is Alien; Essays on the Unity of Mankind. Leiden: Brill, 1971.
_____. Memoirs. London; Philadelphia, PA: SCM Press; Westminster Press, 1973. 2nd ed. Geneva: WCC, 1987.
_____. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Self-Understanding of the Ecumenical Movement.” In Ecumenical Review 28 no. 2 (April 1976): 198-203.
_____. “Karl Barth and the Ecumenical Movement.” In Ecumenical Review 32 no. 2 (April 1980): 129-51.
_____. “Pan-Christians Yesterday and Today.” In Ecumenical Review 32 no. 4 (October 1980): 387-95.
_____. The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation. Geneva: WCC, 1982.
_____. The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches. Geneva: WCC, 1982.
_____. “Oldham’s Method in Abrecht’s Hands.” In Ecumenical Review 37 no. 1 (January 1985): 3-9.
_____. “The Basis: Its History and Significance.” In Ecumenical Review 37 (1985): 170-4.
_____. “WCC – Roman Catholic Relations: Some Personal Reflections.” In Ecumenical Review 37 no. 3 (July 1985): 336-44.
_____. “Teachers and the Teaching Authority: The Magistri and the Magisterium.” In Ecumenical Review 38 no. 2 (April 1986): 152-202.
_____. “Questions About the Future of the World Council of Churches.” In Ecumenical Review 38 no. 2 (April 1986): 133-9.
_____. “Evangelism Among Europe’s Neo-Pagan.” In Evangelical Review of Theology, 18 no. 4 (October 1994): 335-47.
Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem A. and Augustin Bea. Peace Among Christians. Translated by Judith Moses. New York: Association Press, .
Gérard, François C. The Future of the Church: The Theology of Renewal of Willem Adolf Visser’t Hooft. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1974.
László, Gonda. The Service of Evangelism, the Evangelism of Service: The Influence of John R. Mott, Hendrik Kraemer, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft and Johannes C. Hoekendijk on the Development of the Understanding of Mission in the Reformed Church in Hungary, 1910-1968. Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2008.
Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Willem Adolf Visser ‘t Hooft, 1900-1985, 9 July 1985. Geneva: WCC, 1985.
van der Bent, Ans J. Willem Adolf Visser ‘t Hooft: 1900 – 1985: [Fisherman of the Ecumenical Movement]. Geneva: WCC, 2000.
Vischer, Lukas. “Space for God’s Design: The Correspondence Between Karl Barth and Willem A. Visser’t Hooft (1930 – 1968).” In Ecumenical Review 59, nos. 2-3 (April-July 2007): 177-88.
Visser ‘t Hooft, Willem Adolf and A. J. van der Bent. Voices of Unity: Essays in Honour of Willem Adolf Visser ‘t Hooft on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday. Geneva: WCC, 1981.
Chronology of the Life of Willem Visser ‘t Hooft.
“Willem A. Visser t’ Hooft”, Boston University School of Theology Archives.