Earle Hilgert, 1923–2020

William Earle Hilgert passed to his rest at the Westminster-Canterbury Retirement Community at Charlottesville, Virginia on December 22, 2020. Born in Portland, Oregon on May 17, 1923, he was 97.

The first child of William T. and Katie Ann (Earle) Hilgert, a Seventh-day Adventist minister and Bible instructor couple, Earle graduated from Laurelwood Adventist Academy, Oregon, in 1939 at the age of 16. During the subsequent year he received private tutoring in French and German from Leona Glidden Running, a mentor destined to later become a particularly valued colleague. By 1945, a five-year stint on the campuses of La Sierra College and Walla Walla College had led to a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology and history, and a Bachelor of Theology with emphasis in biblical languages. Earle was president of WWC’s student association in 1943–44.

Years later, Earle described the next 12 months after his college graduation as a particularly “dizzying time,” during which he hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., saw the end of World War II, earned a Master of Arts degree in church history from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (thesis on the Waldenses), signed up for international service as a missionary, and on August 4, 1946, married his Swiss sweetheart Elvire Roth. Weeks after their wedding they sailed to Manila aboard the newly decommissioned troop carrier, the USS General M. C. Meigs, in what they remembered as a rough winter crossing of the north Pacific, with stops in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The couple’s four years (1947–51) on the campus of Philippine Union College were devoted to teaching history and Bible courses in Earle’s case, French and English courses in Elvire’s, plus joining in a concerted effort on the part of all the faculty to help the institution re-launch itself after the war. For Earle, this included, among other things, accepting the duties of conductor of the college band!

Upon completing their circumnavigation of the globe by returning to the U.S. via southeast Asia, India, the Levant, and Europe, Earle taught for a year at Lodi Adventist Academy in California. In 1952, they moved to Takoma Park, MD, where Earle joined the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the premises of Washington Missionary College. Simultaneously he contributed to the book Problems in Bible Translation (General Conference of SDA, 1954), and earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1955 (thesis on early Christian baptism).

While there, Earle also served on the editorial team charged with producing the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, a watershed effort that for the first time modelled for Adventist readers a historical approach to the scriptures. This five-year project both arose from and contributed to a climate of openness and freedom within the denomination to study the Bible objectively — a 15-year window of marked progress in Adventist understandings of Scripture and doctrines. In addition to his editorial role on the commentary, Earle authored two substantive essays in it (“Chronology of the Pauline Epistles,” and, together with Siegfried Horn, “’Lower’ and ‘Higher’ Biblical Criticism”). He also wrote the commentary on Lamentations and on portions of Jeremiah, Daniel, John, and Revelation.

On study leave from the Seminary, Earle studied from 1956–59 toward the Doctor of Theology degree at the University of Basel, under Karl Barth. With his major in New Testament studies and minors in systematic theology and in church history, his studies there also included courses from Oscar Cullmann and Bo Reicke. His dissertation, entitled “The Ship and Related Symbols in the New Testament,” was published in 1962 (Assen, NL: Van Gorcum), the year of the conferral of his degree.

Back at the SDA Seminary, now newly relocated to the campus of Andrews University, Earle joined a cohort of colleagues energized by a sense of new potential for contributing to the denomination’s maturation and mission. One of the organizing editors of Andrews University Seminary Studies, launched in 1963, Earle regularly published scholarly articles in the journal, plus book reviews in Theologische Zeitschrift. He contributed to the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (undertaken in 1962 at his urging), and to the Biblisch-historisches Handwörterbuch. Denominational periodicals (Ministry, Journal of True Education, Review and Herald, These Times) benefitted from his regular contributions, which sought to bring non-specialist SDA readers into familiarity with the perspectives of their scholarly fellows. As a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, he attended and reported to SDA members on the Commission’s triennial meeting in Bristol, England, July 30–August 8, 1967 (Review and Herald, October 12 and 19, 1967).

In his teaching role, Earle conducted an ongoing seminar that met weekly in the Hilgert home for years, attracting other Seminary faculty as well as advanced graduate students in biblical studies and related fields. Students who went on to doctoral work in top-level universities have credited those sessions with best preparing them for their further study. Earle’s summer study tours to Europe and the Near East were especially valued by serious students (English-, French- or German-speaking) of history and scripture.

While chairing the Seminary’s department of New Testament studies, his administrative abilities brought him into the role of acting dean of the Seminary during the dean’s study leaves, in the summers of 1961 and 1963, and the 1965–66 year. He was known to remark, however, “I wish I had two heads: a teacher’s head and an administrator’s one — and a shelf in my office where I could stash the one when I’m wearing the other. The two roles represent such different ways of seeing and thinking — but of the two, I prefer the teacher’s one!” Even so, when invited by the University’s Board of Trustees to assume the position of the institution’s vice presidency for academic administration effective August 1, 1966, he accepted. He held the position until spring of 1969, when he requested to be allowed to return to the classroom.

After a period of extended reflection, Earle and Elvire came to the radically life-altering decision to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Accordingly, Earle submitted his resignation from Andrews University, a move announced by President Richard Hammill on April 10, 1970. With her extensive knowledge of (especially Continental) periodical literature in theological and related fields, Elvire had accepted employment in 1965 at McCormick Theological Seminary as their head cataloguer. Earning a Master of Arts in library science from the University of Chicago in 1970, Earle joined her at McCormick as Reference Librarian and Lecturer in New Testament Greek during the 1970–71 academic year.

Earle received ordination into the Presbyterian Church (USA) on November 9, 1972. Among his first projects at McCormick, he joined with faculty colleague Robert Hamerton-Kelly and others in organizing the Philo Institute in 1971. Under the aegis of this body and the editorship of Burton Mack and Earle Hilgert, six issues of Studia Philonica were produced from 1972 to 1979. In a later incarnation, as the Studia Philonica Annual, the publication’s 1991 issue comprised a festschrift in Earle’s honor (Heirs of the Septuagint: Philo, Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity: Festschrift for Earle Hilgert). It was under his leadership that the program unit for Philo of Alexandria was established in the Society for Biblical Studies in 1984 — a thriving circle that continues active to the present.

Their two decades at McCormick were especially productive and rewarding for the Hilgerts. Earle collaborated with colleagues, contributed as editor and reader, and supported cooperative consortia agreements among libraries serving theological schools. In addition to his extensive editing and teaching responsibilities, he co-edited festschrifts in honor of Calvin Schmitt (Essays on Theological Librarianship, 1980) and Samuel Sandmel (Nourished with Peace, 1984), contributed an essay (“Formgeschichte und Heilsgeschichte”) to the Oscar Cullmann festschrift, co-authored with Carl Dudley a book on New Testament Tensions and the Contemporary Church (1987), and, after retiring, co-authored with Lib Caldwell the Horizons Bible Study for Presbyterian Women: Prayers of the Bible for a Faithful Journey (1993–94).

Earle’s breadth and expertise are reflected in the variety of positions and roles he filled at McCormick. Beyond his initial positions there, he variously served as Professor of Bibliography, Professor of Bibliography and New Testament, Acting Dean of the Seminary (1972–73 academic year), visiting Professor at Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands, and Interim Dean of Doctoral Studies, retiring as Professor Emeritus of New Testament in 1990.

In retirement at Charlottesville, Earle contributed to the community via his regular preaching appointments. At 96, he was still volunteering time to teach at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Virginia, sharing his ideas and expertise with other engaged learners. His beloved wife Elvire, and his only sibling, Willa Hedrick, both predeceased him. He had no children, but is survived by a nephew (James Hedrick) and two nieces (Merideth Trott and Priscilla Brunner); all of Dayton, Ohio; brother-in-law Ariel Roth, and his wife Lenore, of Loma Linda, California; and by many grand and great-grand nephews and nieces. He enjoyed warm and lasting friendships with many others at Westminster-Canterbury, throughout the Charlottesville area, and across the country.

In his unfailing graciousness Earle modeled the grace of the Kingdom he advanced. Summing up his own father’s life, he said, “My father was the most non-judgmental person I have known. Although imbued with strong feelings of right and wrong for himself, he simply did not express judgments regarding the conduct of others.” Earle held himself to the same standard. He lived a life of joyous service, genuine appreciation of others, devoted self-discipline, and great integrity. His influence will continue to carry forward among the students and colleagues who knew him, as they pass it on.


This life sketch was written by John R. Jones, PhD, associate professor of New Testament Studies and World Religions at La Sierra University.

Photo courtesy of the author.


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10992

On of my most gracious blessings has been to have had Earle Hilgert as a colleague at the Seminary. He became my mentor and model, and our friendship lasted until his death. It was a real treat to be teaching Introduction to the New Testament to a large class of students with Earle Hilgert and Sakae Kubo. Later he invited me to join the Philo Institute at McCormick. It was an honor to contribute an article to the Festschrift the Insititute publish in his honor. He always encouraged me in my efforts at writing and wrote endorsements for most of my books. There are not many who can wear the shoes worn by Earle Hilgert. He was a most intelligent, knowledgeable teacher and a most humble man. Always optimistic, always eager to listen and to help. His preaching was powerful and mild. His departure from the church was a tragic lost, and the consequences are still reverberating. I extend my most sincere sympathy to his relatives.


While he lived a long life of service, it is the Seventh-day Adventist Church which missed most of his best years. Unlike Desmond Ford whose contribution was upended by his legitimate questioning of aspects of our doctrine, Hilgert left because SDA intransigence over a range of issues silenced questions and the voices of many who knew better and who wanted to help move the church forward. I took one class, and it was outstanding. And the gentle way he would respond to students who were emotionally impacted even by something as (now) innocuous as the development of the Canon was to see not just a scholar but someone who emulated Christ. We are much too successful at wasting our talent, at hiding our challenges and concerns, and at refusing to honestly deal with our history. He was easy to love, a delightful conversationalist and a faithful friend. We won’t see his like very soon, if ever.


It makes me wonder why an educated man and his wife would leave the Adventist message and go to one of the Higher Churches? His example is not one that I would want to emulate.

That’s a long story. Have you read anything about the 1919 Bible Conference in Adventism?

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My knowledge of Hilgert is limited to what I read in thei article.

My knowledge and connection with Earle Hilgert is indirect. By word and example of a couple of his former students who in turn served as my mentors, his gracious spirit and generous intellect shone through.

RandH, 30Jan1947

Earle Hilgert was one of a number of people who paved the way, inadvertently, for Desmond Ford to go to Glacier View. Des was fairly traditional until about 1956, when A. J. Kranz, head of the religion department wrote to him the first of two letters I recently scanned—one questioning the investigative judgment and the other the role of Ellen White as the final arbiter of Scripture. Kranz did not teach these things in his classes. He was, perhaps, warning Des of issues he needed to know about, since he (Des) was about to go away for study in order to return and become head of the religion department. Des’s reply in the middle (1957) of the correspondence was quite conservative. Des was at Washington Missionary College in 1958, 1959 I believe and Earle Hilgert taught him. I scanned a paper Des wrote about the year-day principle on which Earle wrote copiously. Des said to me recently—he was a fine scholar, I had to consider what he said. Edward Vick and Ronald Loasby were two others who did not believe in the investigative judgment, and who I think were let go. This illustrates numerous scholars throughout our history who knew about the problems with this doctrine. Some chose to speak out, others hoped it would disappear. Des brought nothing new to Glacier View that others before him and at the time were unaware of. Chubby Moulds who went to Yale after Andrews was swept out of the classroom at Avondale in 1968 because he taught what he had learned at Andrews. Why would an educated man and his wife leave the Adventist message and go to one of the Higher Churches? Because of the dishonesty about our erroneous doctrines—problems known since our inception but covered up by administration—would be one answer. Note, I was not an Adventist at the time all this happened.

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The answer to that question is one that the powers that be refuse to acknowledge. It’s D-O-C-T-R-I-N-E.

I was a very junior faculty member at Andrews when Earle was on the Seminary faculty and also VP. He was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever known. His memory is blessed indeed.

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