The Rev. Dr. John Burton Wolf died on September 19, 2017 at the age of 92.
John was born on September 6, 1925 in Bloomington, IL to parents Walter and Helen (née Young) Wolf. He served in the Navy during World War II, and then received his pre-med Bachelor of Science degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1949. Having heeded a call toward ministry, John went on to earn his Bachelor of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1952. He completed additional studies with the University of Chicago’s Federated Theological Faculty in 1953, and was later awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1976.
Dr. Wolf was first called to the Church of the Good Shepherd Universalist (now Olympia Brown Memorial UU Church) in Racine, WI in 1952. It was in Racine that Dr. Wolf was ordained on February 19, 1953. John was then called to serve Meadville, PA’s Independent Congregational Church - Unitarian (now the UU Church of Meadville) from 1954 until 1960. In that year Dr. Wolf was called to All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK, where he would minister with passion and dedication for 35 years. John was a fervent advocate for civil rights and racial justice. In 1965, after the civil rights marches in Selma, AL, Dr. Wolf hosted Tulsa’s first interfaith and interracial worship service—followed by a solidarity march through the city’s downtown. John further helped lead the fight for integration in Tulsa’s schools, which finally came in 1973. Through his leadership, All Souls grew to become one of the largest UU congregations in the country, and John helped found two new UU churches is Tulsa: Hope Unitarian Church in 1969 and Church of the Restoration UU in 1988. When Dr. Wolf retired in 1995, All Souls elected him their Minister Emeritus.
Dr. Wolf carried out a vast array of service to the denomination. He was an officer of the Midwest UU Conference, served on the Ohio Meadville and Southwest Districts’ Boards of Directors, and was Vice-President of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Dr. Wolf also represented his region on the UUA’s Board of Trustees (1989 – 1993), and was a member of many other UUA boards and committees including the Board of Review, the Commission on Appraisal, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and the Panel on Theological Education.
Dr. Wolf was a co-founder of the Oklahoma branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and served on the National Board of Planned Parenthood. And Dr. Wolf was a pioneer of television ministry: His program “Faith for the Free,” though originally only aired on local access, was later broadcast nationwide. Dr. Wolf also authored the book The Gift of Doubt(1983), along with many published articles. A treasured member of the Tulsa community, Dr. Wolf was inducted into the city’s Historical Society Hall of Fame in 2015.
In his spare time, John loved to read—most especially about President Abraham Lincoln. For a few years he became a devoted crossword-puzzler. But his greatest avocational passion was for golf; he once remarked that “Retirement is a word for golf.”
Rev. Wolf will perhaps be remembered most for his powerful gifts of oration. His beloved wife Barbara believed that John was “the UUA’s best preacher in a long time. His timing at the pulpit was outstanding.” Preaching at All Souls’ pulpit 50 years after he was first called there, Dr. Wolf offered this fond recollection and call to action:
“By the time [I] got here, seeds had already been sown in abundance. … No longer could prejudice be preached in the guise of principle, or ignorance paraded as piety, or kindness killed in the name of virtue. Not in this town. … But we are not done yet—not by a long shot. We have stood our ground; often as not we stand alone. … But look out these windows: Behold, we have planted a garden in the wilderness.”
He is survived by his wife of 65 years Barbara N. Hudgins Wolf, son John David Wolf (Anita Jacobson Wolf) and daughter Catherine Elizabeth Wolf, grandson Aaron Michael Wolf-Johnson (Kayla Wolf-Johnson), and great-granddaughter Willow Rose Wolf-Johnson.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the John B. Wolf Memorial Fund, c/o All Souls Unitarian Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave, Tulsa, OK 74114. The memorial fund will be distributed based on Rev. Dr. Wolf’s wishes and the wishes of his family.
A memorial service took place on Monday, September 25, 2017 at All Souls Unitarian Church.
Notes of condolence can be sent to the family at All Souls Unitarian Church (address above).