Leona Glidden Running: Dialogue with an Adventist linguist and scholar

An accomplished scholar. A learned linguist. A respected teacher. With all that, add grace, dignity, and a Christian role model, and you have Dr. Leona Running. Born in central Michigan two years before the end of World War I, she graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College two years before the beginning of World War II. Armed with a major in French and minors in German, English, and education, she was well equipped to begin her career as a language teacher in 1937. In 1955 she received an M.A. in Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and 9 years later she earned her Ph.D. in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Running’s outstanding service to the Adventist Church began in 1937 in Laurelwood Academy in Oregon as German and French teacher and later also librarian. Then she served as a secretary at Pacific Union Conference office, Voice of Prophecy’s Foreign Language Division, and the Carolina Conference. From 1950 to 1954 she worked as a copy editor for Ministry magazine and in 1955 began teaching biblical languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, then in Takoma Park. In 1960 she moved with the Seminary to Andrews University as professor of biblical languages–a position she held until her “official” retirement in 1981. Thousands of students from around the world have passed through her classes, with fond memories of her scholarship and compassion.

Dr. Running has published numerous articles and reviews in various church and scholarly journals and coauthored William Foxwell Albright: A Twentieth-century Genius (1991) on the life and work of this leading Semitist. Her distinguished and long career has brought her numerous awards. Dr. Leona Running enjoys her “retirement,” still teaching in her specialty as professor emerita at Andrews University.

The saddest note in her life was the death of her husband, Leif H. (Bud) Running, in 1946 after a surgery. They were married in 1942. She also has other difficulties and sorrows, but is thankful for God’s unfailing help and guidance, and the opportunities to use her God-given talents.

Dr. Running, tell us a little about how would you define yourself.

I have often been referred to as “the first Adventist woman teaching biblical languages.” That is not true, but I am the first woman to become a full-time faculty member of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.

You were born and grew up in difficult days. What motivated you to pursue a good education?

My parents. They strongly believed in Christian education, and they sacrificed much to send my younger sister and me to Adventist schools. They believed and instilled belief in me that God had a plan for my life in His work. Despite several difficulties, I always felt I must work for my church.

Why is the study of biblical languages important for a minister?

How would you like to go to a dentist who says: “I didn’t bother to learn how to use my tools because it’s too hard”? Biblical languages are the tools of a minister. They help you go to the original text and learn for yourself what it says. They help you evaluate the many translations. They give you authority. But I always tell my students, “Don’t even say the word ‘Hebrew’ or ‘Greek’ from the pulpit. Just tell your people what the original says. And they won’t go out saying, ‘Look how much Hebrew and Greek our pastor knows.’ Instead, they’ll say, ‘Our pastor makes the Bible speak to me.’”

How did you get interested in ancient languages?

I love languages. While working on Ministry magazine with the Seminary next-door, I had an opportunity to study the biblical languages. I began by taking two Hebrew classes. After two years I registered full-time and completed my M.A. in 1955. Then the Seminary hired me to teach the first and second levels of Greek and Hebrew.

That was over 40 years ago. How did you get to doing a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University?

During my first year of teaching in the Seminary, one of my mentors urged me to work towards a doctoral degree. I started doing it in education. But when my department chairman heard of it, he disagreed strongly. Dr. Siegfried Horn, the great Adventist scholar, was not only my colleague but also a former teacher. “Leona,” he urged, “You must go to Johns Hopkins and get a proper degree in your proper field.”

What was your reaction?

Disbelief. “Could I? At Johns Hopkins?” I asked myself. As far as I was concerned, Johns Hopkins was on the moon! Well, no harm in trying. I passed all my incoming language requirements in one pleasant hour by conversing with Dr. Albright in German, switching to French and Spanish, then translating several selected Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. He didn’t ask me to translate from the Latin Vulgate although I had been studying Latin on my own for six weeks. On the basis of my knowledge of the other languages he accepted my simple statement that I could read the Vulgate as well!

Can you share something of your experience in writing your dissertation?

My dissertation involved the Syriac manuscripts of Isaiah. The world’s leading Syriac scholar taught at a seminary in Chicago and had agreed to guide me through the research process. One summer I was awaiting the arrival of microfilm copies of Isaiah manuscripts I had ordered from the British Museum, the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Vatican Library and other sources from Europe. While doing research, I was also teaching classes. Besides Greek and Hebrew, several times I taught Akkadian (cuneiform), Egyptian (hieroglyphic), and Syriac, close to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and this was helpful. My 400-page “monster” of a dissertation included 147 pages of handwritten Syriac presenting the 3,339 variants I had found. We had no computers with the foreign scripts then. I had to write the 147 pages of Syriac by hand twice, with enough pressure on the pen against a metal ruler to make a readable impression on two carbon copies, as I needed six copies and we didn’t yet have photocopy machines.

A doctoral dissertation defense is a sort of “rite of passage.” Anything significant about that “ritual”?

January 30, 1964 was the memorable day of my oral examination. The examining committee sat around a long table: the chairman of the committee, chair of Classics, the chairman of my department of Near Eastern Studies, an Arabist, and an Economics professor, included because my dissertation contained statistical tables, and the chairwoman from the Department of German, knitting at my right. In fact, it was fun! Each person was allowed 10 minutes to question me. My chairman began with easy questions to get me started. The time slipped by rapidly; the experience felt very satisfying. I waited out in the hall while the verdict was being decided. That didn’t take long, and they soon called for “Dr. Running” to enter. After the graduation ceremony, it seemed to me that I had been liberated. But I did not have all the answers. Higher education is a humbling as well as enlightening experience.

Was that the greatest event in your life?

No, it was not. The most important event in my life was my marriage. My husband was already a liberated man in those times. We were equal partners. I still miss him.

As you said earlier, you are the first Adventist woman to become a full-time faculty member of the Seminary. How did you feel in that role?

Socially speaking, it did not bother me to be the only woman in classes at the Seminary and Johns Hopkins, but what was really difficult was going to faculty banquets that are overwhelmingly for couples! Now, in academic terms, I probably gave myself a mental block when I joined the Seminary faculty, restricting myself to languages and methods of teaching. I left the exegesis and theology courses for the men, who preferred that kind of teaching. When the Seminary moved to Michigan, Dr. Horn nominated me to the Chicago Society of Biblical Research, where in 1981-82 I served as the first woman president.

What is your major satisfaction teaching biblical languages?

To work with young ministers in training, young women more recently as well. What fun to open a door into a room they never before could have entered, and let them see all the treasures stored there—looking at the original biblical text, seeing things they had never noticed! It’s a great satisfaction seeing my students applying their knowledge teaching or pastoring or as administrators all over the world. Sometimes they call me for advice or help, or just to say Hello. That means a lot.

How do you see Adventist higher education today?

I’m proud of it. Except for my Ph.D., I completed all my education in our schools. And it’s important that, in college, all our students get a good biblical background and not just limit themselves to a secular liberal-arts program.

What would be your advice to Adventist students in secular universities around the world?

I would hope they all have a local church that really nurtures them. If they don’t have one, they should organize a group to worship and study. While on many campuses you cannot do any open evangelism among your peers and your teachers, you can live your faith and share it quietly. That will arouse curiosity and questions. They may say, “I have a different idea about Adventists since I met you.” Then you are ready to say, “Come and see.” In any case, be open, be available, be helpful.

Interview by Roberto Clouzet. Roberto Clouzet is a doctoral student in educational psychology at Andrews University. Dr. Running’s address: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A.