Klassen, Wilhelm "William" (1930-2019)

Jump to navigation Jump to search
William Klassen and Dona Harvey, 1993.
Family photo

Wilhelm "William" or "Bill" Klassen: professor, administrator and Anabaptist scholar, was born 18 May 1930 in Halbstadt, Manitoba, Canada to David D. Klassen (5 February 1902-4 September 1985) and Susanna "Susan" Heinrichs Klassen (10 December 1902-17 March 1989). He was the third son and sixth child in a family of 15 children. On 21 December 1951 William Klassen married Marilyn Ruth Horst (12 December 1931- ), daughter of Clayton Horst (16 July 1900-June 1985) and Mary Ellen Doolin Horst (14 September 1905-December 1994). They had three children--Jarold Tyler, Kirsten and Karis. William and Marilyn's marriage ended in divorce in 1971. In the early 1970s while working at the University of Manitoba, William was also briefly married to Patricia Duryee. On 26 November 1977 William Klassen married Dona Harvey (12 August 1944- ), a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Winnipeg Tribune. William Klassen died 29 January 2019 at Parkwood Mennonite Home in Waterloo, Ontario.

William Klassen's father was a farmer and preacher in the Mennonite community of Homewood, Manitoba. He attended the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna, Manitoba, and received a BA in History and English from Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, USA in 1952 and a BD from Goshen College Biblical Seminary in 1954. He was ordained as a Mennonite minister in August 1956 in the Homewood Mennonite Church where his father was pastor. In 1960 he received a PhD in Early Christian Literature from Princeton Theological Seminary; his dissertation, "The hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck," was later published in 1968 as Covenant and Community: the life, writings and hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck. His research was supervised by the New Testament scholar, Otto Pieper, and launched Klassen's lifelong occupation with the history of the Anabaptists in the 16th century.

While studying at Princeton, Klassen filled short pastorates at a number of Mennonite congregations, including service as interim pastor of the Germantown Mennonite Church. From 1958-1969 William Klassen taught at Mennonite Biblical Seminary/Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana. During 1964-1966 he had leave during which he served as Visiting Professor of Biblical Theology at New York Theological Seminary and Executive Director of Mennonite Mental Health Services. In 1969 he accepted an appointment to the new Religion Department of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba where he taught from fall 1969 to 1980, and was department chair beginning in 1971.

William Klassen then moved more fully into administration (although he also continued teaching, research and writing), serving as Director of Development at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia from 1982-1984, Dean of the Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, Jerusalem from 1984-1986, Director of Development at University College, at the University of Toronto, 1986-1989, and Principal at St. Paul's United College, University of Waterloo, 1989-1994. He was recognized as a United Church of Canada minister when he became Principal at St. Paul's College. In retirement he led an international fundraising effort to rebuild and modernize the library of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. He also accepted part time pastoral assignments in United Church of Canada congregations in the Region of Waterloo.

William Klassen's research and writing began with his belief that Pilgram Marpeck was an independent, creative interpreter of the parts of Scripture that made up the pillars of Anabaptist theology. His conviction that Marpeck's work should be made more widely available led to the translation into English (with Walter Klaassen) of Marpeck's smaller writings and letters, published under the title The writings of Pilgram Marpeck. Equally important was the biography of Pilgram Marpeck, also compiled with Walter Klaassen and published as Pilgram Marpeck: a life of dissent and conformity.

Another academic interest for Klassen was the biblical figure, Judas Iscariot, resulting in his 1996 book, Judas: betrayer or friend of Jesus. Klassen said that Judas did not betray the Lord, but, as the biblical text indicated, had merely handed him over. Equally important in his investigation was the review of the virulent anti-Semitism associated with the name of Judas.

Klassen's publications also spanned peace issues, mental health, and life in the congregation. While at Mennonite Biblical Seminary he spoke often in congregations and wrote for The Mennonite. He was a meticulous, passionate scholar, always profoundly concerned for the relevance of his work for the church. His writing on peace was for him no abstract academic exercise. A particularly important example of this was when he brought together Israeli and Palestinian scholars in Jerusalem to talk to each other about peace. In articles he demonstrated that the concern for peace and forgiveness had a long history, the implication being that it did not originate in the "historic peace churches." He infected others with his enthusiasms, especially when he repeatedly led student groups on visits to the lands of the Bible.

William Klassen was also a gifted fundraiser for the universities with which he was associated, especially for the École Biblique in Jerusalem.

In the last decade of his life, William Klassen's vision began to deteriorate gravely, and the effects of a stroke and the onset of dementia made conversation with him more difficult during the last few years of his life. Nonetheless the church community was enriched by his indefatigable work of teaching, research and writing. He left traces of himself in many places and he is remembered with gratitude.


"Curriculum Vitae William Klassen." Unpublished manuscript, 2010, in possession of author.

GRANDMA (The Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry) Database, 19-07 ed. Fresno, CA: " California Mennonite Historical Society, 2019: #221748.

Klaassen, Walter. "In memoriam: William Klassen (1930-2019)." Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 2 (April 2019): 147-148.

Klassen, William. "A joyous service among the children of peace" in Why I am a Mennonite: essays on Mennonite identity, Harry Loewen, ed. Kitchener, Ontario: Herald Press, 1988: 154-164.

"Klassen to teach at Mennonite Biblical Seminary." The Mennonite 72, no. 19 (7 May 1957): 301.

"Wilhelm 'William' Klassen." SAGA (Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association) Genealogical Website. Web. 2 December 2019.

"Obituary of William (Bill) Klassen." Erb & Good Family Funeral Home. Web. 2 December 2019. https://erbgood.com/tribute/details/14395/William-Bill-Klassen/obituary.html#content-start.

Major Publications by William Klassen

Klassen, William. "Pilgram Marpeck’s two booklets of 1531." Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (1959): 18-30.

Klassen, William and G. F. Snyder, eds. Current issues in New Testament interpretation: essays in honor of Otto A. Piper. New York: Harper, 1962.

Klassen, William. "Love your enemy. a study of New Testament teaching on coping with the enemy." In Biblical realism confronts the nation: ten Christian scholars summon the church to the discipleship of peace, edited by Paul Peachey. New York: Fellowship Publications, 1963.

_____. Covenant and community: the life, writings, and hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968.

_____. "Jesus and the Zealot option," in Canadian Journal of Theology (Spring 1970): 12-21.

_____. "Die Gestalt des Glaubens in der Nachfolge." In Die Mennoniten, edited by Hans-Jürgen Goertz. Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1971: 41-52.

Klassen, William and Walter Klaassen, eds. The writings of Pilgram Marpeck. Kitchener, Ont.: Herald Press, 1978.

Klassen, William. "Pilgram Marpeck, Freiheit ohne Gewalt." In Radikale Reformatoren: 21 biographische Skizzen von Thomas Müntzer bis Paracelsus, edited by Hans-Jürgen Goertz. München: C.H. Beck, 1978, 146-154.

_____. "The Role of the child in Anabaptism." In Mennonite images: historical, cultural, and literary essays dealing with Mennonite issues, edited by Harry Loewen. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1980: 17-32.

_____. "The Limits of political authority as seen by Pilgram Marpeck," Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1982): 342-364.

_____. Love of enemies: the way to peace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984.

_____. "Musonius Rufus and the living law." Studies in Religion 14 (1985): 63-71.

_____. "Jesus and the Messianic War." In Early Jewish and Christian exegesis: studies in memory of William Hugh Brownlee, edited by C. A. Evans and W. F. Stinespring. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987: 155-175.

_____. Judas: betrayer or friend of Jesus? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

_____. The Contribution of Jewish scholars to the quest for the historical Jesus. Cambridge: CJCR Press, 2000.

Klassen, William and Walter Klaassen. Marpeck: a life of dissent and conformity. Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2008.

Author(s) Samuel J. Steiner
Walter Klaassen
Date Published December 2019

Cite This Article

MLA style

Steiner, Samuel J. and Walter Klaassen. "Klassen, Wilhelm "William" (1930-2019)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. December 2019. Web. 6 Dec 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Klassen,_Wilhelm_%22William%22_(1930-2019)&oldid=166271.

APA style

Steiner, Samuel J. and Walter Klaassen. (December 2019). Klassen, Wilhelm "William" (1930-2019). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 December 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Klassen,_Wilhelm_%22William%22_(1930-2019)&oldid=166271.

©1996-2021 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.