Baylor Mourns Death of Emeritus Professor of Religion John Jonsson
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Native South African, who actively protested apartheid, ran for South African Parliament; was only Baptist minister to sign Kairos Document as plea to churches to demand end to racial segregation
Baylor University is mourning the death of Dr. John N. Jonsson, emeritus professor of religion and former director of the African Studies program at Baylor, who died May 26 at his home in South Africa after an extended illness. A native South African, Baptist pastor and scholar, Jonsson openly protested apartheid from the pulpit, the classroom and in other public forums, which included a run as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African Parliament.
Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 3, at Rosebank Union Church. Brian Jardine, one of Jonsson's former students at the Baptist Theological College in Johannesburg, will officiate.
Baylor's department of religion and Seventh and James Baptist Church, where Jonsson and wife, Gladys, were members when they lived in Waco, will hold a memorial service for Jonsson, tentatively scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, June 13, at Miller Chapel.
Jonsson grew up in South Africa, where his parents were Scandinavian missionaries among the Zulu peoples. He was actively involved in protesting apartheid, and in 1977, ran as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African Parliament. He lost this election in Natal by less than 1,000 votes.
In 1985, he was the only Baptist minister to sign the Kairos Document, which called on all churches to demand that the government give equal rights to all South Africans. As a result, the government took away his passport, and from 1985 to 1989, he was not allowed to enter South Africa. In 1989, he was one of the few white citizens of South Africa to be invited to attend the first Conference for a Democratic Future in South Africa, resulting in the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.
For more than two decades, Jonsson served in the Baptist World Alliance as a member of the Human Rights Commission.
Jonsson joined the Baylor faculty in 1992 as professor of religion and director of African Studies. He held those positions until his retirement in 2002.
"Professor Jonsson was once asked by a student if we would see Mahatma Gandhi in heaven. To the student's surprise, the professor said, 'I don't think so.' Then continuing, John said, 'I don't think we'll see him; he'll be so far ahead of us, we'll never catch up,'" said Dr. Blake W. Burleson, senior lecturer in religion and associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Baylor.
In honor of Jonsson's retirement, the university named a lecture series after him: The John N. Jonsson Peace and Justice Lecture Series at Baylor. Burleson said the creation of the lecture series prompted a letter to Jonsson from none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
- Dear Prof. Jonsson,
I thought we were likely to meet . . . so that I could thank you in person for your generosity and also to congratulate you most warmly on richly deserved honours such as the University Lecture Series named after you . . . .
You have been an outstanding and faithful servant of our Lord especially in your courageous witness in South Africa. Thank you again.
God bless you John Jonsson.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Jonsson earned his BA, MA and PhD at the University of Natal and his BD from Spurgeons College, London University. He served as principal at Baptist Theological College, lecturer in history of religions at the University of Witwatersrand, senior lecturer at the University of Natal and acting head in 1981, when Professor Gunther Wittenberg incorporated the Lutheran Theological Institute into the University of Natal. He also co-founded Treverton College, a private interracial institution in South Africa.
Jonsson was preceded in death by his son, David. He is survived by his wife; three children, Lois, Sylvia and Sven; and seven grandchildren.
Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275