In a letter to DeWolf after completing his PhD, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote to his former dissertation advisor: “Both your stimulating lectures and your profound ideas will remain with me so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen. I have discovered that both theologically and philosophically much of my thinking is DeWolfian” (King to DeWolf, 2 June 1955).
DeWolf was born in Columbus, Nebraska, and received his AB (1924) and STB (1926) from Nebraska Wesleyan University, and his PhD (1935) from Boston University. DeWolf served as a Methodist pastor in Nebraska and Massachusetts between 1926 and 1936, and taught in the Department of Philosophy at Boston University from 1934 until 1944, when he became professor of systematic theology in the School of Theology.
DeWolf became King’s dissertation advisor at Boston University following the death of Edgar S. Brightman. In his 1955 reader’s report, DeWolf concluded that King’s work promised to be “an excellent and useful scholarly achievement” (Papers 2:334). By then, King had become minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He expressed regrets to DeWolf that he would not be able to attend his own graduation due to financial concerns and his wife Coretta Scott King’s first pregnancy: “Without her presence, the whole experience would be somewhat incomplete to me” (King to DeWolf, 2 June 1955).
King remained in contact with DeWolf after graduation. In an August 1956 letter to King during the Montgomery bus boycott, DeWolf wrote, “Your letter is a renewing inspiration to me as has been the marvelous leadership which you have given to our people in the south land during these last months.” He concluded his letter by writing, “May He bring to you victory for all the people, for which you are making such great sacrifices” (Papers 3:364).
DeWolf facilitated the 1964 donation of King’s personal papers to Boston University, traveling to Atlanta to help pack the boxes for shipment. He left Boston University in 1965 to become dean and professor of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He retired in 1972.
DeWolf’s publications include A Theology of the Living Church (1953), The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective (1959), Responsible Freedom: Guidelines to Christian Action (1971), and Crime and Justice in America: A Paradox of Conscience (1975).