Paul G. Hiebert: A Life Remembered -- By: Robert J. Priest

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 30:2 (Fall 2009)
Article: Paul G. Hiebert: A Life Remembered
Author: Robert J. Priest

Paul G. Hiebert: A Life Remembered

Robert J. Priest

This essay is a slightly revised version of an article with the same title first printed in Books and Culture (Oct. 1, 2007), and is included here with permission.

Robert J. Priest is an anthropologist and serves as Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies and Director of the Ph.D. Program in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Paul Gordon Hiebert, Distinguished Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist, died in March of 2007 of cancer. He was 74.

Paul combined attributes not easily combined: anthropologically and theologically informed scholarship and a passion for God’s global missionary purposes. The story of how Paul fruitfully merged these commitments is worth telling.

Born in India (1932) to second-generation Mennonite Brethren missionaries, Paul was deeply influenced towards missionary service by his evangelistic and erudite father, Johann Hiebert, whose single-minded missionary commitment led him in 1947 to reject the tempting offer of a faculty position in Indian History at the University of Southern California.

Paul often told the story of how, at Taber College (Hillsboro, Kansas), where he studied physics and history, he approached a young lady:

“Miss Flaming.”


“I’m Paul Hiebert. I’m going to be a missionary. Would you like to have dinner with me?”

So began a romance that would last 57 years, until Fran’s own death from cancer in 1999.

A missionary needed theological education, which Paul acquired at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Fresno, Calif.). Inspired in college by missionary anthropologist Jacob Loewen, whose lectures were “exciting,” “iconoclastic,” and “made so much sense,” Paul felt missionaries needed anthropology. And in a family that took education seriously—four of his seven sisters would earn Ph.D.’s—only the Ph.D. would do. So Paul completed Ph.D. coursework in anthropology at the University of Minnesota while

also pastoring a church. Then in 1960 he went to India for fieldwork and a six-year term of service with the Mennonite Brethren Mission Board. Here Paul unlearned the simplistic missiology he was taught in seminary, and began rethinking missiology for a postcolonial age.

Inherited models were strong. Old-timers challenged him, “Do you really have the call of God? Are you going to be here for forty years...

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