Memories of John Conway (1929-2017)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)

Memories of John Conway (1929-2017)

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

John Conway is known to all who contribute to or read this online journal as the energetic, knowledgeable, committed, and seemingly indefatigable founder of the project. For fifteen years, John published a monthly online newsletter, filled primarily with his own review of books on German church history. That means something like 180 issues and, though I have not done an actual count, presumably 500 or more books reviewed. At the age of 80, John seemingly “slowed down” by creating the present Contemporary Church History Quarterly (CCHQ), with more than a dozen co-editors and with publication every three months. Until just weeks before his death, he remained the most prolific contributor to this project as well.

Readers of this online journal almost certainly also recognize John’s remarkable contribution to modern German church history, most especially based upon his magnum opus, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1945 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968). John not only produced the first substantial historical study in English of German churches in Nazi Germany, he also preceded his German counterpart, Klaus Scholder, by almost a decade.[i] Nearly fifty years after its publication, John’s Nazi Persecution of the Churches remains foundational for the field. During those subsequent decades, John lectured around the world; published numerous important articles on German church history as well as the role of Pius XII and the Vatican in the Nazi period; served on editorial boards, including for Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte since its inception in 1988; and provided very important mentoring to junior scholars as they began to work in this field, including most or all of the editors of this online journal.

In 1976 I was one of those junior scholars given a chance to meet John Conway. Christopher Browning, soon to emerge as a Holocaust scholar known worldwide, invited John to drive three hours south to give a lecture at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. I was invited to speak at the same event. Although my doctoral dissertation was far from finished, my first article was about to appear in the Journal of Contemporary History. Thus I could be allowed to appear alongside John and give my first public lecture on Gerhard Kittel. Two years later, Chris and John encouraged me to travel to Stanford to attend the third annual meeting of the Western Association of German Studies (WAGS), the organization now known as the German Studies Association. We three shared a room and, as the junior person, I lay on a cot at the foot of the two beds. We turned out the lights, kept talking, and I remember John Conway commenting sadly about “good Germans” during the Nazi period: “Even the best of them had feet of clay.” Over the next decades, I learned to see this combination of high aspirations for Christian behavior, coupled with an honest recognition of human weakness, as typical of John Conway’s work. Though he entitled his path-breaking book The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, it is also filled with stories of the failure of church leaders, Protestant and Catholic, to confront Nazi policies, or even to dampen their own enthusiasm for many of those policies.

I managed to meet some important figures in this field before I met John, including, for example, Klaus Scholder and the remarkable Bonhoeffer friend and relative by marriage, Eberhard Bethge. But it was through John that I met figures in the Scholars Conference on Churches and the Holocaust, an organization led by Franklin Littell and Hubert Locke, which began in 1970 to host the first annual Holocaust conference in North America. In 1984 John helped plan a fiftieth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration in Seattle, with participation by Bethge, but also by John de Gruchy, Wolfgang Gerlach, and Desmond Tutu, among others. Since its origins in 1988, John and I served together as members of the editorial board of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte. In more recent years (as I can say as a senior member among John’s junior colleagues), the panel sessions, meetings, and conversations have included such important people as Susannah Heschel, Doris Bergen, and Victoria Barnett. At numerous meetings over forty years, I saw John play his prodigious role as a forceful, knowledgeable, articulate, senior scholar in the world of modern German church history. It was a great privilege, with the additional good fortune for me to spend most of my career just three hours away from John, his home, his wonderful wife Ann, and, not least, the impressive library collection he built at UBC.

[i] Klaus Scholder, Die Kirche und das Dritten Reich. Bd. 1: Vorgeschichte und Zeit der Illusionen, 1918-1934 (Berlin: Propyläen, 1977).