A Scholar’s Life in Black and White

December 10, 2018

Ronald E. Osborn’s Papers at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society

Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D. (1917-1998),was a church historian by training who spent most of his adult years as professor or dean in academic institutions related to his communion, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Secure in his ecclesial identity and scholarly attainments, he was able to devote much of his attention to leadership in his church and in ecumenical activities, especially the Consultation on Church Union.

Osborn was in demand as preacher in churches throughout the United States and as lecturer on topics related to his scholarly and ecclesial interests. During his lifetime, he published or edited more than a dozen books. He published a long list of articles on major topics that were related to denominational, ecumenical and broadly cultural activities of churches in which he was engaged during a period of more than half a century.

He developed his scholarly habits long before the electronic age, although he began using computers in later years. He was meticulous in his habits, using cards instead of spreadsheets for some of his records and made paper copies of nearly everything. Two examples are included in a large shipment of papers and other media that have recently been received by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (DCHS) in Bethany West Virginia.

The first is his personal record of sermons and addresses delivered, baptisms and weddings performed, materials he read throughout his life, and some other activities—approximately 110 hand written pages, both sides. The second is his card index of books that he acquired throughout his life. He had developed his own numerical code as a way of recording pertinent information concerning his library.

Two of the boxes contain correspondence from May/June 1987 through May/June 1998. Another is identified as “Diary” and contains folders of material, beginning with one entitled “Ancestry,” that may have been intended to be the basis for writing his autobiography.

These boxes contain materials for two scholarly projects that could be thought of as the bookends for Osborn’s intended work as church historian. During his student days, he became interested in the life and career of Eli Vaughn Zollars, whom Osborn described as a “pioneer in the Southwest.” While in seminary, Osborn wrote a one thousand-page manuscript about Zollars, portions of which he used for his M. A. and B. D. theses at Phillips University. Two bound volumes of this material are in one of these boxes. Osborn’s first book was a biography of Zollars, published in 1947 when he was thirty years of age.

The bookend for the ending of his life’s work was to be a magisterial history of preaching from ancient times until now.  Many of the folders in these boxes contain materials for this project—lectures and essays by Osborn, papers written by students in his classes, essays on preachers drawn from scholarly journals and sources, and preliminary drafts of what might have become chapters in the three-volume book he hoped to write.

Volume 1, The Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching, was scheduled to be published on September 1, 1998, but printed copies did not arrive until later. Although he did see galley proofs, Osborn died on October 1, 1998, without seeing a copy of this book which was to be the climax to his life as a devout and scholarly Christian. Fearing that he would not live to complete the remaining volumes, Osborn arranged with another Disciples scholar to finish the task, but this did not happen. Unless completed drafts of the two remaining volumes of the projected book are discovered, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to read the continuing story that Osborn wanted to tell.

The Osborn papers provide the source material for research and publication. He spoke and wrote extensively on the historical and theological aspects of actions that were being taken by his own church and by other churches as they sought to find a new unity in worship and work. He was a preacher of unusual depth and passion and prepared manuscripts for a high percentage of these discourses. Convinced that religious leaders needed to be well grounded in literature and the arts, he also lectured and wrote on these matters. Copies of several hundred sermons, lectures, and essays are now available in one place—the Disciples of Christ Historical Society—and now can be accessed by people interested in the liberal Protestantism during the second half of the twentieth century.

I hope that during the next few years a succession of scholars will make use of this unusually rich storehouse of documents by a scholar who loved his church and served it faithfully over a long and fruitful life.