Lewis Elbert Wethington, age 96, died peacefully on March 3, 2019, filled with the love of Christ and in the trusting assurance of sharing in Christ’s resurrection life. Always at his side was his very loving and faithful wife Lois, supportive of his life and work during their 73 years of marriage, as well as his compassionate caregiver during the past seven years of his progressive dementia.
Elbert was born June 1, 1922 in Onslow County, NC. He was gifted by God with a brilliant mind and boundless energy. He was the son of Ola Riggs and Claude W. Wethington and the fifth of ten children. His youngest sister, Helen Bunton of Winston Salem, is his only surviving sibling.
Elbert grew up on Pike Street in Durham, attended Lakewood Elementary School and Durham High School where he met Lois in the school orchestra. He frequently offered to “tune” Lois’ violin, although he played the French horn. While growing up in Durham at age 6 a builder paid him 5¢ to clean 100 bricks a day, he worked on a milk truck from 12 – 15 years of age, and then delivered the Durham newspaper from 15 – 18 years of age, and also worked at a grocery store. During his senior year of high school, in 1941, he was in the Senior play, and also won the state wrestling championship in his weight class of 145 pounds. Elbert was a member of the Boy Scout Troop 11, sponsored by the Men’s Bible Class of Temple Baptist Church, and in 1940 was the second person in Durham to receive the rank of Eagle Scout.
Elbert attended Wake Forest College (now University) and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, served as President of the Baptist Student Union Council, received honorary membership in Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges and graduated in 1944 with a B.A. degree.
On November 21, 1945 Elbert and Lois Ruppenthal were married in Duke University Chapel. They were the 13th couple to marry there. Together and by the grace of God they built a life of Christian service and dedication to family. At the time they were married Elbert was a student at the Duke Divinity School and graduated in the spring of 1946. Lois received her B.A. from the Women’s College of Duke University in January 1946. Elbert was licensed to preach October 1941 and later ordained October 14, 1945 at the Lakewood Baptist Church where he was a member. For awhile he served as a supply pastor at Lowes Grove Baptist Church.
Elbert received his Ph.D. degree from Duke University, the Graduate Department of Religion, in June 1949. His dissertation was entitled The Role of Nature and Grace in Fenelon’s Conception of Salvation.
His first teaching position was in 1949 at Bucknell College in Lewisburg, PA, where he was given ten courses to teach, a great preparation for a lifetime of teaching! In 1951 he accepted a teaching position as assistant professor at the Duke University Undergraduate School. While teaching at Duke, Elbert was received in 1954 as an Elder into the Methodist Church and that same year he and Lois answered a call from the Methodist Mission Board to teach at Union Theological Seminary in Manila, Philippines for four years. Shortly after he, Lois and their three children arrived in Manila, Elbert was also asked to serve on the Methodist’s Mary Johnston Hospital Board and to make plans to reconstruct its Nursing School that had been badly damaged during World War II. He also taught and preached throughout the Philippines including to the Negritos in the mountains of Luzon. He also traveled to various countries in Eastern and Southeast Asia.
During his first term in the Philippines he published Seekers of the Way and Preaching through the Church Year, the latter being one of the first scholarly presentations of preaching the liturgical year. At the end of their four-year term in the Philippines Elbert, Lois and their three young children traveled for eight weeks in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, before returning to the United States for a time of furlough. During furlough from the Philippines in 1959 Elbert taught at the Divinity School of Duke and spent time in Fayetteville NC where he prepared the first curriculum and catalog for the newly established Methodist College, now Methodist University. At this time he worked with Dr. Stacy Weaver, newly appointed President of the college.
In 1960 Elbert, with Lois and the family, answered a request to return to the Union Theological Seminary in Manila. There they remained until 1963 when he accepted an invitation to return to the United States and teach at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. During his 20 years at LVC he taught and preached widely, and also served a large portion of that time as Chair of the Department of Religion.
Elbert was a Christian Theologian who faithfully followed in the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ. In his life and vocation he was a strong political activist and an advocate for God’s justice, including serving as a counselor to those who sought conscientious objection during the Vietnam War. He was an exceptional scholar and teacher of Christian theology, the Bible and of world religions. Even into recent times some of his students from years past have kept in touch with him, with gratitude for his devotion and care.
Upon retirement from LVC in 1983 Elbert and Lois moved to Oriental, NC where he soon became very active. He was responsible for reactivating the County Ministerium and a County Interracial Committee. He chaired the first and several other annual celebrations and educational programs for commemorating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elbert was also part of a delegation to Russia sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches and spent considerable time speaking to churches of North Carolina about the church in Russia.
In 1990 – 1991 he was asked to be a visiting professor at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, NC. Elbert and Lois returned to Durham in 1991 but he wasn’t ready for retirement. Elbert and Lois founded the Wesley Heritage Foundation, Inc., a non-profit to promote the thought, spirituality and practice of the Wesleyan tradition among speakers of Spanish. He served as the first President of the Foundation for 15 years. The first major project of WHF was the translation, publication, and distribution of the Works of Wesley in Spanish, Obras de Wesley, in fourteen volumes. This project has had a major impact upon Wesleyan churches throughout the Americas, including Cuba, to which was sent some of the first sets. Because of this unique contribution and in recognition of his life-long Christian ministry, in 2010 Elbert received the Distinguished Alumni award from the Duke Divinity School. Since 2012 Elbert and Lois have been residing at the Croasdaile Village Retirement community in Durham.
Elbert is survived by his loving wife, Lois, who very faithfully and compassionately cared for him during his recent years of dementia. He is also survived by his children: Olin (Nadine), Joyce (Rick) and Mark (Beth), as well as 8 grandchildren and 5 greatgrandchildren. Elbert loved his family and was always interested and involved in their activities. He pushed the boundaries for change and encouraged his children and grandchildren to do the same. He was an avid gardener and his backyard in Pennsylvania was filled with dwarf fruit trees for which he tenderly cared. Through the years he enjoyed tennis, ping pong, walking, swimming and diving, and he first water skied at age 66. He learned to play the cello at age 83.
The family is very grateful to many friends and staff at Croasdaile Retirement Village. The family has special gratitude for the CV Home Health for their 24 hour care, love and support in recent years. The family is also very grateful to Duke Home Health and Hospice for their compassionate attention to Elbert during his challenge with dementia, and also for their extended care for Lois as his faithful caregiver. Special gratitude is given to Rebecca Poe, who as a Hospice nurse gave very close and compassionate care to Elbert.
A service of Death and Resurrection will be held in the Few Chapel at Croasdaile Retirement Village on Saturday, March 9, at 1 pm. Burial will follow in Maplewood Cemetery.
Contributions in Elbert’s memory be made to the Wesley Heritage Foundation, Inc., the non-profit which Elbert and Lois established in their retirement to share the thought and spirituality of the Wesleyan revival among Spanish speaking people, via PO Box 76, Henrico, NC 27842. Arrangements are with Hall-Wynne Funeral Service.