Who Was Harold Ockenga?
"Harold John Ockenga was born on June 6, 1905 to a lower middle-class family in Chicago. The only son of Herman and Angie Ockenga, Ockenga was raised in the Methodist church by his mother as his father was not yet a believer. From an early age, Ockenga had a spark that set him apart from other children. Biographer Harold Lindsell comments on an early money-making venture by the young man: “Harold inherited energy and ambition from his parents, and turned toward the production of income when most other boys turned away from it. When nine years old, he got a Saturday job delivering orders for a grocery store, working from 8:00 in the morning to 9:00 or 10:00 at night.” Ockenga applied this same intensity to academic and religious ends throughout his early life. He finished high school in three and a half years even as he worked throughout. Before his conversion at the end of his high school years, he attended no less six church services each Sunday.
Ockenga then attended Taylor University in Ohio, where he attained a 94 average and qualified for a Rhodes Scholarship nomination that proved unsuccessful. Ockenga developed a love for literature that led him to major in English. John Marion Adams reports that at Taylor, “His courses in English introduced him to a broader liberal arts curriculum. As an English major, Ockenga wrote papers on William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Victor Hugo.” Ockenga joined a preaching team while in college and decided to pursue the ministry as a vocation after graduation. He enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary and studied there for three years until he decided to follow his mentor, J. Gresham Machen, to newly founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Ockenga’s pattern of achievement continued during his seminary years. Entering a Greek contest in his second year at Princeton, Adams notes that “His exegesis of Romans 11:1-2 obtained both the first place finish and a one hundred dollar stipend.” During his time under Machen and other Reformed scholars, Ockenga acquired a love for reformed theology, intellectually engaged Christianity, and stout doctrinal preaching. Ockenga’s life was at this early stage stamped by a concern for the life of the mind and an ability to translate this concern into academic excellence and ministerial action.
The strength of Ockenga’s collegiate and seminary course led him to pursue both a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh following graduation from Westminster. Ockenga labored on these degrees for over eight years as he pastored the Point Breeze Church in Pittsburgh from 1931 to 1936 and then moved on to the prestigious Park Street Church in Boston, MA. Park Street had a long and storied history, and the polished young pastor, though from the Midwest, fit the church well. Ockenga labored on his dissertation for the next four years, eventually earning his doctorate through his thesis on “Poverty as a Theoretical and Practical Problem of Government.” If this seems a strange dissertation choice for a pastor, Adams observes that during this period, “the study of Communism captivated him. Rumblings of communist enclaves surrounded him in Pittsburgh.” Ockenga’s thesis reflected interest in the greater social questions of his day, developed his ability to think and write cogently and persuasively, and rendered him a qualification that opened doors for the rest of his life."
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