Elmer and Phyllis Martens

By wayne.steffen on October 5, 2016 @ 4:17pm
Marten couple's portrait

A couple who contributed much to their church, their community and Fresno Pacific University and Biblical Seminary passed away within days of one another after 60 years together.

Elmer Martens, 86, died September 21, 2016. Phyllis Martens, 88, died October 1, 2016. The couple lived in Fresno, CA, and attended North Fresno MB Church.

“Elmer Martens was the MB church’s scholar for nearly 50 years,” said Lynn Jost, like Martens a faculty member and former president of what is now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (FPBS). “Though pressed into service as seminary president for a decade and often engaged in leading in a multitude of other ways throughout his career, Elmer left his greatest mark as the MB Old Testament scholar who served his church. Elmer continued to experiment with creative approaches to teaching, preaching and scholarly writing throughout his career, making his classes engaging, his preaching innovative and his scholarship future-oriented—so much so that on the eve of his death he forwarded a scholarly paper that he intended to present at a professional conference in November that plowed new ground in both method and content. Though we have lost a friend, colleague, encourager and mentor, we can be grateful to God that Professor Elmer Martens led and served the church with creative energy for more than half a century. Thanks be to God for his servant Elmer!”

Phyllis was not in the spotlight as often as Elmer, but she was a remarkable church leader in her own way, Jost said. “On the one hand she supported Elmer, editing his writing, engaging his theological ideas and providing hospitality to support his evangelistic and church-related gregarious lifestyle. On the other hand Phyllis was a pioneer as a modern professional woman in her own right. Phyllis was teaching baccalaureate writing when Elmer met her. She was a novelist, historian, essayist and poet. Later, she earned a second master’s degree, this one in counseling at the seminary, and served the neediest in the public schools.”

Phyllis was born July 15, 1928, in India to missionary parents J.N.C. Hiebert and Anna Jungas Hiebert and was baptized July 11, 1943. Elmer was born August 12, 1930, in Main Centre, Saskatchewan, to Jacob H. Martens and Susanna Nickel Martens and baptized September 9, 1946. Elmer and Phyllis met while Elmer was a student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (now FPBS) and Phyllis was a teacher at Pacific Bible Institute (now FPU) married August 24, 1956, in Mountain Lake, MN.

His education included Main Centre High School, Bethany Bible Institute, a B.A. from the University of Saskatchewan, a B.Ed. from the University of Manitoba, a B.D. from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School. She was a graduate of Immanuel High School, Reedley, CA, and Tabor College, earning an M.A. in English from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling from MBBS.

Both were active teachers, writers and servants of the church. Phyllis taught courses in English, beginning at PBI in 1950 and continuing as the school became a university. She also led English as a second language courses at the International English Institute in Fresno and short-term courses during the couple’s time in China, India, Kenya, Korea and Russia.

Elmer devoted much of his professional life to the seminary. He became a full-time member of the Old Testament faculty in 1969, after teaching part time from 1959-61 and again for many years after his 1995 retirement. He was president of the seminary from 1977-86. Other teaching positions included part-time instructor at PBI and teacher and vice principal in Stewart Valley, Saskatoon. In addition, he taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Southern Baptist Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary as well as internationally in countries including Japan, India, Korea, Russia, Kenya, Brazil and Congo.

Books by Elmer include God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (1981), now in its fourth edition, as well as Old Testament Theology (1997). His 1986 book Jeremiah is part of the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary, a series with Herald Press for which Martens served as founding editor in 1972. He was co-editor of The Flowering of Old Testament Theology (1992), and recipient of an honorary volume edited by Jon Isaak, The Old Testament in the Life of God's People (2009). He served on the translation team of the New American Standard Bible and assisted with the New King James Version. Other editing assignments included Journal of Church and Society in 1970-71 and the MB higher education journal Direction 1989-95. He also wrote numerous articles in publications such as the Bulletin for Biblical Research, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and Christian Scholar’s Review.

Among Phyllis’ publications are A Heart for the World: God’s Mission Series (1997); Family Night at Home: Activities for Family, Fun, Sharing, Learning (1980); God’s Guardians: The Christian Parent and Her Children (1963); Manners for Kids: A Book by Children, for Children (1978); Stories from an Old Town: Grace, Grief, and Gossip in a Rural Minnesota Town; and The Mustard Tree: The Story of Mennonite Brethren Missions (1971). She was a member of the Board of Christian Literature for the General Conference of MB Churches from 1978-90 and secretary 1978-84.

As part of his commitment to the Mennonite Brethren church, Elmer served as of Butler MB Church from 1958-66 and on the General Conference boards of Christian Literature from 1966-78 (chair 1969-78) and Missions/Services from 1978-97 as well as the Hymnal Committee from 1966-72. He was part of the United States Conference Executive Committee and Board of Reference & Counsel from 1959-62. For the Pacific District Conference, he was a member of the boards of Faith & Life, 1958-59, and Home Missions, 1963-66. He was conference vice chair in 1972-73.

Survivors include four children—Lauren Martens (Helen), Frances Martens Friesen (Kenneth), Vernon Martens (Sally) and Karen Bartlett (Rick)—and nine grandchildren. Fran Martens Friesen is a former FPU student and assistant professor of English and Ken Martens Friesen, Ph.D., is a graduate of FPU and associate professor of political science/history. Their son, Loren, is a current student. Rick Bartlett has a B.A. from FPU and an M.Div. from MBBS. Karen Bartlett earned an associate degree at FPU and Lauren Martens also attended.

A memorial for Elmer took place Saturday, October 1, at 2:00 p.m. at North Fresno Church, 5724 N. Fresno St. Phyllis died hours before Elmer’s service, and a memorial for her is planned probably in November.