Levi Pennington: Mentor and Follower of Christ

May 20, 2019

Levi Pennington

Someone who earns a university degree should have accumulated more knowledge than when they began. Yet, knowledge is only one aspect of the experience. Most of the community at George Fox would regard spiritual formation and character development as essential aspects of a student’s development. Both spiritual and character formation involve knowledge, but they are aspects of human development that are primarily the result of experience and practice. It is one of the reasons that the university maintains a chapel requirement, conducts Serve Day and offers numerous opportunities to engage in dialogue with mentors about important elements of life. When one earns a degree from George Fox (graduate or undergraduate), it is our hope that they are prepared for work, but as importantly, prepared to stand tall in life because of their relationship with Christ.    

It has been a joy to read through many of former President Levi Pennington’s letters during my sabbatical. In my opinion, he modeled in his public and private life the type of person one might come to describe as an exemplary graduate of the university. His letters were thoughtful and engaging. He wrote with grace even when the person he was writing to had personally attacked him. He had a way of engaging an adversary that I would describe as disarming. For example, in 1947, in answer to an angry letter in which the author condemned Pennington’s commitments in a certain area, Dr. Pennington wrote, “It must be interesting to have such a certainty of one’s own wisdom as to class all who disagree as either ignorant or unintelligent. . . . How nice it must be to be in such a fine group, an immensely superior group” (Pennington to Mr. R.W. Ross, July 29, 1947.) Indeed, even more so in our own era, the common practice has been to treat one’s opponent as “wrong and evil.”

Pennington argued that, for a Christian, this can never be the case. It is essential that one know what they are committed to and why. In his letter to Mark Hatfield following one of his courageous votes on the Vietnam War, Pennington honored him by noting, “Aside from anything else, I appreciate the fact that you stand true to your convictions; that you are ready to ‘stand up and be counted,’ even if the count on your side of the difference should be just one, you!” (Pennington described well what we mean when we now use the phrase “stand tall.” It is a metaphor for remaining true to your convictions regarding what is true and beautiful.) At the same time, when you “stand up” your focus is not on tearing your opponent down but on holding steadfast to your commitment to God’s redeeming work in this world. God meant it when he commanded that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, in closing his letter to another person that he disagreed with, Pennington wrote,

“With the assurance that I do not set myself up as the judge of those who differ from me conscientiously nor force them to my way of thinking, believing that they should follow their conscience as I should follow mine, I remain, Levi Pennington.”

Our convictions should never overcome our commitment to love and care for people. 

All of our children are George Fox University graduates. Like most parents, Ruth and I want Jacob, Rebekah and Tara to grow in Christ, and we believe attending George Fox helped prepare the path for that development. At the same time, we know that their faith in Christ must be their own. Pennington felt the same way about his daughter, Bertha May. In 1948, Bertha May was making some decisions about her relationship to the church and God that she felt her parents might disapprove of, and she was concerned about how that might affect their relationship. I discovered Pennington’s letter to his daughter and, as I read it, I thought it was one that many of us would like to write today to our children. 

“The thing that would make us the saddest in our relation to you would be for us to interfere with your spiritual welfare . . . . We shall be glad indeed when you find a place in your religious life where you can be happy and permanently established. And don’t let anything ever make you feel that we do not love you, or that we have anything but a desire to be helpful to you.” 

As university administrators and teachers, it is certainly our desire that our students (and, for many of us, our children) find the place that Christ has for them. Whatever their choices, though, our love will always be extended to them. 

There is no letter in the entire Pennington collection that is more moving than one he wrote to his wife Rebecca, who preceded him in death, in Paradise. It deserves quoting at length.

“My darling, I’m sitting alone in the house that for so many years you made a happy home, and lonely as I never was for a moment during those fifty years when you were by my side, even if there was the width of a continent between us.

You know that all those years that I loved you more completely as a man can love a woman. You know the words I used, ‘the love of all of me for all of you.’ And I knew, though I never could understand it, that you loved me with your whole being, and that love was the sweetest human thing that the world can give.

We were never rich in what the world calls wealth, and I could never provide half of the things that my love prompted. Indeed, for nearly all the years that we lived one life together there was financial need, sometimes hardship, but always rich in love, and that love grew richer and dearer as we approached and passed our golden wedding anniversary, and it became increasingly clear that I could not have the delight of your companionship much longer. 

And when the end came to your earth life, I started on the lonely road that I have now traveled for more than three years and a half. You were my joy, my comfort, my inspiration, the best part of my life. If ever I have done work worth-while in the world, you shared it – it could not have been done without your help. And if I have written anything worth-while, you were in it as its subject or its inspiration. 

It would be unbelievable to anybody who had not had the kind of love that blessed our lives to know how everything reminds me of you and of the happy past with you. Big things and little things. 

I came back after months of absence to the house that was the sweetest place on earth because you were there in other years, and there was no one there to greet me. I sit down at the table, and the face that grew dearer with every passing year is not smiling at me – your smile darling was the sweetest thing on earth. I dream of you and wake to the sad knowledge that it is only a dream.

How completely all my faults and failings were forgiven. And how sweet, even sweeter than the long years before, were our last years together. I should be grateful and I am.” 

Pennington was a thoughtful advisor, committed Christian, and loving father and husband. His letter to Rebecca exemplified the character of a person who had been deeply formed by Christ and whose humility and care were evident. He helped set the vision for the university that exists today and continues to carry the mission forward in a different era. His primary legacy is a life well-lived. In that, he provides direction for those of us who continue to provide leadership in a different time.