Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft

After earning degrees in theology and law from the universities of Leiden and Birmingham at Selly Oak, Visser ’t Hooft, the son of a lawyer, became the Secretary of the World Alliance of YMCAs in Geneva in 1924. He began working for the World Student Christian Federation in 1928 and became its Secretary in 1931, it General Secretary in 1932 and its President in 1936. He was ordained in Geneva that same year.

Inspired by Karl Barth, Visser ’t Hooft developed a Christocentric understanding of the church and theology embracing denominations and schools of theology, which unified elements of European and American theology – he had earned his doctorate in 1928 with a dissertation on the Social Gospel movement in the USA – in an understanding of the future Kingdom of God and the individual Christian’s responsibility toward the world.

He was the youngest attendee of the Universal Christian Conference in Stockholm in 1925. In 1937, Visser ’t Hooft was involved in organizing both the second international Life and Work Conference “Church, Community and State” in Oxford and the second international Faith and Order Conference in Edinburgh. He was named general secretary of the provisional committee in 1938 and ultimately the first general secretary of the newly established World Council of Churches in 1948.

Visser ’t Hooft opened the expanding World Council of Churches to the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches and made the fight against racism an ecumenical issue. He criticized the East’s antireligious actions without being partial to the West. Visser ’t Hooft headed the World Council of Churches as a plural community of churches at the foot of the Cross of Christ. Upon his retirement in 1966, he was elected honorary president of the World Council of Churches.

His political and theological convictions and his contacts throughout the world made Visser ’t Hooft an important liaison between church resistance in Europe and Germany and Allied governments in their fight against National Socialism.

After the war, Visser ’t Hooft pushed for the Evangelical Church in Germany’s quick return to the ecumenical fold and, to this end, encouraged the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany to issue its Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt of October 1945.

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