Long-Time Minister, Teacher and Peace Activist Celebrates 100th Birthday

By Erin Andersen 
Lincoln Journal Star
January 12, 2013

One hundred years ago, headlines were filled of talk of a world war.

But on a small farm near Junction City, Kan., Josephine Peterson was giving birth to a son -- Raleigh Peterson Jr.

The date was Jan. 9, 1913.

This week, Peterson celebrated his 100th birthday.

And perhaps it is not without irony that while the time of his birth was marked with frets and talks of World War I, this ordained minister, Biblical scholar and professor, author and activist has dedicated his life to the pursuit of peace and justice.

Peterson has seen it all. Wars, famine, deadly flu epidemics, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. From the Model T to the smart car; from the invention of television to the iPad.

Sunday, Bethany Christian Church, 1645 N. Cotner Blvd., will honor Peterson at its 10:30 a.m. worship service followed by a noon lunch, cake and fellowship.

One hundred years -- it’s a milestone Peterson never really expected to reach -- but now that he has, he does not expect it to be his last.

“People ask me how I did it," he said of his longevity.

"I tell them I am relaxed. Most of my decisions are made on the philosophy, 'if it can be done tomorrow, why do it today,'” he said, jokingly.

He nodded toward the wheelchair in the corner of his living room. He resolved in 2013 to stop using it.

So far so good, he said putting a hand on his trusty walker.

Google “Raleigh Peterson,” and not many references pop up.

But don’t let the lack of media fool you into thinking Raleigh Peterson was just your average God-fearing guy.

Raleigh Peterson was a theological mover-and-shaker in his heyday -- and is still widely respected for his thoughtful and thought-provoking interpretations of the Bible and human behavior.

Growing up, he was an astute student -- eighth grade honor graduate; state spelling champion; member of the high school debate club and National Honor Society; president of the Hi-Y, an all boys Christian organization; and salutatorian.

Upon his graduation, he taught five years in rural schools, and served one year as parks and recreation director under Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

He planned to attend the University of Kansas and become a teacher. But three pastors had different plans for him. They wanted Peterson to attend their alma mater, Phillips University seminary, then located in Enid, Okla.

“I got my arm twisted a bit to go to Phillips,” Peterson recalled.

He also admits his decision to be a minister was somewhat egotistical.

“I saw a gap in the preaching I heard, and I felt I could do better than that,” he said. “I thought 'I should go train.' It was an egotistical thing, but it worked out.”

He was ordained on June 28, 1942. Initially he thought of going into pastoral ministry. But ultimately decided “maybe teaching was better for me,” he said.

In the end, he did both.

In 1946, he came to Lincoln, one of three faculty hired to the newly revived Cotner College, a school dedicated to teaching ministers and lay people on how to meet the needs of rural churches. Cotner College first opened in 1888, but closed in 1933.

When it reopened in 1946, Peterson was the Bible instructor and librarian. Over the next 32 years he served as registrar, professor, dean and director of the school of religion and eventually dean emeritus when he retired from the classroom in 1978.

However, Peterson remained active in the college and its various incarnations through 1987, when it formally became a school in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln through an endowment. And he later helped establish the Cotner College Commission on Continuing Education -- now known as Cotner College Educational Ministries.

When Peterson wasn’t teaching, he was preaching. He filled in as interim minister in Methodist and Disciples of Christ churches located within 75 miles of Lincoln.

“One thing I learned about college students -- they dare you to teach them something," he said. "At churches, you have a more enthusiastic audience."

Ever the student, Peterson thrived on theological discussions, especially in relation to what was happening in the world. He prided himself on crossing denominational and religious lines, bringing people of different faiths to learn about one another, discover their commonalities and uniting in the pursuit of peace and justice.

“I’ve always felt I needed to respond when something needed correction or justice,” Peterson said.

During the Vietnam War, he helped organize the weekly Tuesday protest against the war on the UNL campus, which ultimately led to the founding of Nebraskans for Peace, the oldest statewide peace and justice organization in the country.

“Nothing good can come out of war," he said. "It is impractical and wasteful. It’s in opposition to Christ -- a peacemaker.”

While the protests united students and clergy, “my academic board wasn’t too happy with me,” Peterson recalled.

Peterson always has been a man of conviction, regardless of how popular or unpopular his stance.

More than once he has taken on the 10,000-member Disciples of Christ General Assembly, said the Rev. Daryl Lauber, minister at Bethany Christian Church. Once was in response to racial tensions, in which white members were hostile to a black committee chair. Peterson stood up and chastised the group: “Here you have appointed a committee and you are crucifying the people who are working for you. It’s not right.”

Another time, he put a stop to a heated debate over abortion.

“The only people talking were men. That seemed backwards,” Peterson said. “It didn’t seem right that only men were talking about a women’s issue.”

When he sees something is not quite right, he works to change it, Lauber said. He is a longtime member or the United Nations Association in Nebraska, and devoted decades to the criminal justice and peace and justice commissions with Interchurch Ministries, Nebraska.

Peterson and his late wife, Olive, tirelessly worked behind the scenes to help others -- especially the marginalized and those who could not stand up for themselves, Lauber said.

Peterson says his efforts and his life always have been defined by Christ's teachings:

“There should be justice, if not peace,” he said. “You can’t have peace if you have injustice -- they go together.”

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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