Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft (1900-1985) was a Reformed churchman from the Netherlands, of remarkable vision, who became the first general secretary and guiding influence in the World Council of Churches and of Protestant ecumenism in the 20th century.
Willem Adolf (Wim) Visser 't Hooft was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1900 of a well-to-do, bourgeois family, and he died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985. His father was a lawyer, his paternal grandfather a judge, and his maternal grandfather a Remonstrant pastor who became a member of the Dutch Parliament.
In 1912 he entered the Classical High School, concentrating on languages. After graduation he considered studying theology, and he entered Leiden University in 1918. In 1921 he began his association with the World Student Christian Federation.
His social conscience was sharpened by a visit to the Woodbrooke Quaker Centre near Birmingham, England, in 1919 or 1920, and at a later Woodbrooke reunion he met Henrietta "Jetty" Boddaert, whom he married in 1924. In October 1924 they took up residence in Geneva to join the staff of the International Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). They had a daughter and two sons; his wife died in 1968.
He successfully defended a doctoral dissertation at Leiden on The Background of the Social Gospel in America in 1928 and began working part-time for the World Student Christian Federation. He became general secretary of the federation in 1931. He was ordained a minister of the Eglise Nationale Protestante de Genève in 1936. One year later he was invited to become the first general secretary of the newly proposed World Council of Churches. He retired in 1966 and was engaged in writing and acting as unofficial "elder statesman" of the World Council of Churches until his death on July 4, 1985.
The Visser 't Hooft family belonged to the Remonstrant Church, a church with broad sympathies but lacking theological depth, and the young "Wim" found its theological liberalism unsatisfying. But he never lost the broad sympathies and cultural breadth of his background, and his cultural interests and international sympathies probably had roots in his family tradition. In addition to his native Dutch he learned Latin, Greek, French, German, and English and took private lessons in Hebrew from a rabbi in his final year of high school.
He was religiously confused as a youth and in danger of becoming a religious syncretist. He had enormous respect for the intellectual integrity of his maternal grandfather, but the influence of the Student Christian Movement camps was very different; there, "the personal encounter with Jesus was the centre of everything. And this message was not given by solemn preachers but by students…."
At Leiden he became particularly involved with the Dutch Committee for European Student Relief. Other influences had a lasting effect on him: he found Barth's commentary on The Epistle to the Romans "a terribly difficult book, " but he recognized that Barth's thinking meant that "all the different elements in my religious development could now fall into place, " and he later confessed that the art of Rembrandt helped him to a better understanding of the Bible.
Meanwhile his social conscience was stimulated by visits to Woodbrooke and his ecumenical contacts enlarged by relationship to the British Student Christian Movement. He also encountered the ideas of the American "Social Gospel."
Barth's theology contrasted sharply with his experience at Woodbrooke and his interest in the Social Gospel, but Barth's theological influence became dominant and he admitted, "I remain grateful to him for giving me ground under my feet." Thus began a life-long commitment to the Student Christian Movement, to the Christian influence for peace, and hence to the objectives of the ecumenical movement.
He joined the staff of the YMCA in Geneva in 1924, and his writings during the late 1920s show that he still retained the evangelicalism and international outreach of his own youth, but Barth's perspective caused him to become increasingly out of sympathy with the liberalism of his own church and with the American leadership in the YMCA. He found a more congenial theological context in the World Student Christian Federation. He became general secretary of the WSCF in 1931, and this position brought participation in all the important conferences of the young ecumenical movement, where he met those who were to be its architects and builders.
Visser 't Hooft had studied many of the major problems at issue in the early history of the ecumenical movement: for example, Anglo-Catholicism and Orthodoxy (1933). He was also in contact with ecumenical elements within the Roman Catholic Church that would have great influence in Vatican Council II. His ability to speak eloquently in four languages and his intimate knowledge of contemporary youth issues were additional reasons why the committee entrusted to further the World Council of Churches (WCC) invited Visser 't Hooft to become the first general secretary of the new organization.
He was responsible for the organization and policy of the WCC while it was in process of formation, and particularly for setting up its office in Geneva during World War II and maintaining contact between churches in the Axis countries and in the West. He was also responsible for organizing the Amsterdam Assembly of 1948 at which the WCC was formally constituted and for the initial structure and form of the WCC during the period of its first three assemblies.
Some have seen the WCC as an agent of Communism and others as a tool of American capitalism, but anyone who knows the full story recognizes that Visser 't Hooft's thinking and purpose was behind all its policies. He encouraged the inclusion of churchmen from Eastern Orthodoxy, promoted better relations with the Vatican, and welcomed the increasing involvement of Third-World churchmen. For him the word oikumene meant "the whole inhabited earth"—the Church always points to the Kingdom.
A former colleague (Stephen Neill) notes that he was better in analysis than in construction and that he never held pastoral responsibility in a local congregation, but within Visser 't Hooft "lies a quiet and resolute faith in Jesus Christ, so restrained in expression that casual observers might well fail to realize what is the driving force behind everything that the man does." His liberal social concerns were not a political agenda but arose directly from his insight into biblical truth and from the centrality of Jesus Christ in his life and thought.
Visser 't Hooft's appointment as first general secretary of the World Council of Churches seems to have been inevitable by reason of his natural abilities, his cultural background, his theological perception, and the breadth of his ecumenical contacts and sympathies. Under his direction the WCC grew from a membership of 147 churches in 44 countries to a council of 300 churches in more than 100 countries (Roman Catholic churches are not WCC members).
Visser 't Hooft's career and its formative influences may be traced in his Memoirs (1973). A complete bibliography of his writings is to be found in No Man Is Alien: Essays on the Unity of Mankind, edited by J. Robert Nelson and dedicated to Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft (Leiden, 1971). The only serious treatment of his thought is in Francois Gerard's The Future of the Church: The Theology of Renewal of Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft (1974), while friends and former colleagues have provided personal assessments in Bishop Stephen Neill's Men of Unity (1960); in The Sufficiency of God: Essays on the Ecumenical Hope in Honour of W. A. Visser 't Hooft…, edited by Robert C. Mackie and Charles C. West (London, 1963); and in Voices of Unity: Essays in Honour of Willem Adolf Visser ' Hooft on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, edited by Ans J. van der Bent (Geneva, 1981).
Visser 't Hooft, Willem Adolph, Memoirs, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1987.