William J. Schmidt, ecumenical historian, dies





The Rev. Dr. William J. Schmidt, church historian and biographer of ecumenical pioneers Samuel McCrea Cavert and Henry Smith Leiper, died Monday night after a long illness.

"Bill was a devoted supporter of the World Council of Churches and often accompanied his wife Jean to our New York office, where she was chief financial officer and later served as a loyal volunteer," said the Rev. Deborah DeWinter, Program Director for the United States, World Council of Churches. "Bill's knowledge of ecumenical history, his gracious kindness and his sense of humor made him an invaluable resource for us."

Bill and Jean Schmidt also staffed WCC exhibits and represented the WCC at the national meetings of many member communions, DeWinter said.

Schmidt is survived by Jean, with whom he celebrated 60 years of marriage in June.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said Schmidt's reputation as a scholar was widely known. "His clearly written and thoroughly researched biographies of Cavert and Leiper are major milestones in our understanding of ecumenism and how it evolved nationally and internationally," Kinnamon said.

Cavert was General Secretary of the Federal Council of Churches and the first General Secretary of the NCC when it formed in 1950. Leiper was a foreign affairs specialist for the World Council of Churches and the first head of the WCC's U.S. Office in New York.

World Council of Churches General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, recalled honoring Schmidt at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference for the WCC in Atlanta in 2004.

"Bill and Jean Schmidt assisted with registration and the publications table at that meeting and they presented an excellent image for the WCC -- efficient warmth with a constant readiness to help," Kobia said. "It's a gift to the WCC when volunteers have such a deep commitment and detailed knowledge of council programs, ministries and history. Our prayers are with Jean and Bill's many friends during this sad time."

William J. Schmidt, a Presbyterian, was retired professor of theology at St. Peter's College, Jersey City, N.J. He taught church history at New York Theological Seminary before becoming the first ordained Protestant scholar to teach theology at Jesuit St. Peter's. He was an officer of the North American Academy of Ecumenists.

Schmidt also taught at the University of the Philippines while on sabbatical, and studied at the University of London on a World Council of Churches scholarship.

He held a B.A. from North Central College, a B.D. from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.

"Bill was both professorial and extremely pastoral," said Philip E. Jenks, a former member of the WCC U.S. Office staff and now NCC media specialist. "He'd take an interest in people that made them feel important. Whenever I saw him, he'd quote the title of a magazine article I had written years ago, just to show he had noticed it."

A poet as well as a scholarly writer, Schmidt added a tribute in verse to his biography of Cavert (Architect of Unity, Friendship Press,

1978). "I couldn't help but notice how closely the words suited Bill as well as Cavert - except that Cavert was 'small in stature' and Bill was over six-feet tall," said DeWinter.




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