Robert H. Bonthius
Robert Harold Bonthius, teacher, pastor, writer, community organiz-
er, and tree farmer, formerly of Hancock and Blue Hill, Maine, died at
home in Worthington, Ohio on August 14th . Born in Pasadena, CA
August 26, 1918, the son of Holland Dutch parents who had served as
medical missionaries in China, Bonthius earned his B.A. with
honors in philosophy from Hope College in Holland, MI. Called to
the ministry, he attended San Francisco Theological Seminary, receiving
his B.D. and a Graduate Fellowship. He then went on to Union
Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York for his M.A.
and Ph. D. degrees. His doctoral dissertation became his first book,
Christian Paths to Self-Acceptance, published by Columbia and chosen
book-of-the-month by the national Religious Book Club.
In 1948 Bonthius accepted The College of Wooster (OH) call to be
professor of religion. In the next seven years he taught and counseled
students, headed a pioneering Carnegie Foundation survey of indepen-
dent study programs for undergraduates published by Columbia Press,
and organized the first multi-county mental health center in Ohio. In
1955 Vassar College invited Bonthius to be chaplain and professor of
religion. In this period he became president of the National Association
of College and University Chaplains. His writings and published materials included sermons, intercollegiate and professional journal articles in theology, psychology, and ethics.
Bonthius moved from campus to parish ministry in 1959. He accept-ed the call of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, OR to be its senior pastor. His ministry emphasized learning more about the Christian faith, worship and pastoral care as power for Christians in their every day lives, and the historic Calvinist commitment to involve the church in the world around it. In the nation’s “long hot summer” of 1964 he joined the black community of Hattiesburg, Mississippi in its voter registration campaign. Near the end of his Portland ministry, the Jewish community of Portland bestowed on him its B’nai B’rith Brotherhood Award for service to city and state.
In 1966 Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH asked Bonthius to teach clergy of all faiths how to organize for social changes in their communities. The success of this five-year pilot program en-couraged him to form the Action Training Network of Ohio (ATN). Dur- ing the Seventies ATN’s statewide staff of 24 trained over 300 local, state, and national groups to make systemic changes regarding racism, sexism, hunger, poverty, public education, domestic violence, and the environment. Bonthius and his wife, Fran Truitt, made time to travel the Western U.S., Western Europe, and East Africa to learn more about the growing, global, economic gap between rich and poor.
In 1980 the couple “retired” to Hancock, ME. Bonthius was the architect and general contractor for their solar energy house. Bonthius was elected president of the Washington-Hancock Community Action Agency. He did volunteer organizing with the Maine Woodsmen’s Association. Bonthius and Truitt served local churches including the Mt. Desert Larger Parish, provided training for 23 Maine community organizations, helped organize the U.S.-Soviet Nuclear Freeze town meetings in Maine, and advocated for U.S. justice toward El Salvador and Nicaragua.
In 1983 Catholic and Protestant groups in Nicaragua asked for support in building a just economic society by stopping the U.S. government Contra War against them. Bonthius and Truitt became co-founders of Witness for Peace (WFP). For the next thirteen years (to 1996) each took major leadership roles in WFP at the international level. As poor majority groups in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Columbia have requested international solidarity, WFP has continued to grow: multiplying U.S. delegations and increasing its challenges to U.S. policies that favor the “haves” rather than the ‘have nots.”
During the WFP years, Bonthius became a certified American Tree Farmer, managing their woods for multi-age growth and wildlife, and building trails for enjoyment. The tree farm became a place of rest and renewal for peace activists, friends, and family. In 1990 with others, Bonthius founded the Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) to stop aquaculture in this fragile estuary and to protect the bay from all types of degradation. He was FTB’s founding president; he served until 1997.
In 1998 Bonthius and Truitt gave a conservation easement of their beloved Blue Heron Tree Farm to the Frenchman Bay Conservancy in perpetuity. In 2009 they returned to Ohio to be closer to family members.
He is survived by his wife, lover, and dearest friend Fran; sons Robert Jr. and Andrew II of Cleveland, OH; son Coert of Ithaca, NY; daughter Rebecca Lyn of Oakland, CA; stepchildren Mary Elizabeth O’Brien and Robert T. Carter; grandchildren Andrew, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Rosa.
Memorial gifts may be sent to Witness for Peace, 3628 12th St. NE
Washington, DC 20077-5213.