Kenneth S. Oster

Photo courtesy of Sven Jensen.

Oster, Kenneth S. (1921–2015)

By Sven Hagen Jensen

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Sven Hagen Jensen, M.Div. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA) has worked for the church for over 50 years as a pastor, editor, departmental director, and church administrator in Denmark, Nigeria and the Middle East. Jensen enjoys reading, writing, nature and gardening. He is married to Ingelis and has two adult children and four grandchildren.

First Published: November 2, 2023

Kenneth Samuel Oster, with his outgoing personality, linguistic skills, and intellectual capacity, was a trend-setter among Seventh-day Adventists who developed a respectful and less confrontational approach to share the good news with the Muslim population of the Middle East. His seminars, books, and other written materials have served as an inspiration for many others who likewise have a burden of reaching the Muslims with the gospel of salvation.

Education and Preparation

Oster was born in Hood River, Oregon, on September 7, 1921, to Frank F. and Florence Oster. His parents were pioneer Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in Iran (Persia) and were on furlough at the time.1 He was the youngest of four children2 and only five months old when the family returned to Iran. Oster received all his formal years of education up to the 10th grade at home with his mother as his teacher.3 As a child, he was slow to verbalize, but one day suddenly spoke English to his parents, Farsi to the gardener, Armenian to the maid, and Turkish to the night watchman.4 He later added basic knowledge of Arabic.5 It was in his childhood and youth that he acquired a great admiration and appreciation for the people of Iran.6 As an adult, he learned to read and understand Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, for a total of 12 languages that provided greater insight to understanding God’s word.7

When Oster’s parents returned to the United States for another furlough, he completed the Junior year of high school at Emmanuel Missionary College Academy in Berrien Springs, Michigan. The following year, his parents returned to Iran, and he transferred to Indiana Academy, where he graduated from in 1938.8 Because of a bout of tuberculosis while attending the Academy, he was not drafted to serve during World War II.9 In July of 1939, he had the opportunity to visit his parents in Turkey, where his father now served as the director of the Turkish Mission.10 11

Oster returned to Emmanuel Missionary College (EMC) and finished his ministerial training in 1944 with a B.A. degree in religion and history. After graduation, he interned with the Indiana Conference for one year before enrolling in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. as a mission appointee with plans to return to Iran.12 When his fiancée, Dorothy Gertrude Nelson (daughter of Andres and Gertrude Nelson) graduated from EMC, where they met, they married in Takoma Park, D.C.13

In 1946, Kenneth and Dorothy Oster moved to Shiraz, Iran,14 where he began evangelistic work and translation into Farsi.15 Their first child, Don, was born in Shiraz. His sister Ellowyn and brother Cyrus followed later.16 In 1949, the family was asked to move to Tehran to launch the Voice of Prophecy Bible Correspondence Course in Farsi for the populations of Iran and Afghanistan. He wrote: “At first, we encountered much difficulty in securing the required permission to print and distribute our lessons from the National Censor Bureau. However, the Lord, being mindful of His work, had placed in a responsible position an influential gentleman who was instrumental in seeing to it that we were afforded the privileges of religious freedom as embodied in the United Nations Declaration.”

Once permission was granted, hundreds of enrollment cards were distributed all over Iran. Within a short time, 386 students scattered throughout 20 different cities in Iran were taking the 18 lessons that were offered. At the time 97 percent of the population were Muslim and 88 percent illiterate, but God blessed their efforts.17 Over the next few years, Oster repeatedly reported in the Middle East Messenger and the Adventist Review of the successes of the Bible Correspondence School, the large enrolment as well as the number of baptisms and additions to the church.

He reported: “We are glad to say that there are now going out more than ten thousand lessons to new students throughout Iran. Ninety per cent of those students are Moslems.” (1952)18 He continued: “The correspondence work has made phenomenal growth during the past two years (1954) …Already a number of graduates have been baptized.”19 Not only were the Bible lessons shared in print, but Oster also made tape recordings to be used for the Farsi Voice of Prophecy broadcasts. The recordings were done in Beirut, Lebanon.20 He wrote: “The Voice of Prophecy is silently but effectively witnessing for the Master in Iran.”21

Service and Leadership

Oster was ordained in 1949, and from 1950-1951, he served as president of the Iran Mission 22 in addition to his responsibility as director for the VOP Bible Correspondence School. In 1958, he became acting president during the time mission president Skinner was on furlough.23 In between, he served as an influential member on the Mission Executive Committee, continued with translation, and served as director of the Sabbath School, Temperance, and Lay Activities departments.24

One of Oster’s major achievements was to combine the VOP with the Sabbath School. Extension Division Sabbath Schools were organized in every place with three or more VOP graduates, and a Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly printed in Farsi to be used with these groups.25 Being fluent in Farsi as well as other languages of the region made Oster a key worker in the Iran Mission. The literature work was launched after two books, The Impending Conflict and Our Children, were translated into Farsi. Young men from Tehran, Tabriz, and Arak were among the first colporteurs.26 The temperance film, One in Twenty Thousand, was also translated into Farsi and shown in many schools all over Iran.27

When General Conference, Division, or Union personnel visited, Oster was often the one to accompany the visitor throughout the mission territory. In 1948, one exciting trip into Afghanistan with Grover C. Winslow to explore the country for mission possibilities was recorded in a series of articles in the Middle East Messenger.28 There was a period of time when Oster took over the responsibility as director of the Tehran Training School where the purpose of “training the young people spiritually, mentally, and physically” was implemented after the counsels outlined in the Spirit of Prophecy.29

During a furlough in 1959, Oster completed an M.A. from Andrews University, School of Graduate Studies with a major in religion. Upon his return to the Middle East in 1960, he was asked to be acting head of the Bible Department at Middle East College, Beirut, Lebanon, and pastor of the College Park Church.30

After three years in Lebanon, Oster accepted a call to go back to Iran to teach Bible in the Iran Training School and serve as pastor of its School Church. During the summers, he carried out active evangelistic campaigns in the local vernacular, Farsi. 31 Dorothy Oster opened an overseas school in 1962 and taught 10 pupils in seven grades with Mrs. Lyndon DeWitt as her assistant.32

In 1965, Oster returned to the United States permanently (or so he thought). He completed the requirements for a B.D. degree in 1968 at Andrews University while teaching Bible in Battle Creek Academy. For two years, he was district leader of District Four (Central Michigan) in the Michigan Conference. At the time, they lived in Cedar Lake.

TEAM

When a reorganization of the church at the General Conference session in 1970 took place and the Middle East Union became part of the new Afro-Mideast Division, Oster was called back to the Middle East Union to be part of a research and evangelistic team to develop new ways of responding to the challenge of Islam. Under the chairmanship of the Middle East Union president, R. C. Darnell, five evangelists with a collective of more than 75 years’ experience from the Middle East and with different language and ethnic backgrounds met and adopted the name the TEAM (Thrust for Evangelism Among Muslims) for their new group. The members of the TEAM were Harley Bresee from Lebanon, Manoug Menzatyan from Turkey, Salim Majeed Elias from Iraq, Jack Bohannan from Iran, and Kenneth Oster also from Iran. Oster was asked to be the director of the TEAM. 33 34

TEAM developed a program coordinating all aspects of evangelism with an emphasis of reaching the whole man (physical, mental, and spiritual) in a community context.35 For the countries where the gospel could not be freely preached, one approach suggested to reach the community was to use the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking. Four unentered places were chosen to initiate this program: the Turkish sector of Cyprus, Shiraz in South Iran, Bahrain, and Qatar.

The first Plan was conducted in March 1972 in the Turkish sector of Cyprus by Manoug Menzatyan and Dr. Harold Sheffield from the Afro-Mideast Division. Kenneth Oster and Jack Bohannon followed with their program in Shiraz in April 1972, which was particularly successful as many signed up for the VOP health course. They continued to Bahrain, where they conducted the Plan from April 30–May 4 and again in Qatar from May 6-10.36

Oster followed up later in the year 1972 by conducting two Five-Day Plans together with Dr. A. P. Bokovoy in Saudi Arabia at Riyadh and at Jeddah. Travel and entertainment expenses were paid by the Saudi government.37 This was the first time Seventh-day Adventist ministers had the opportunity to speak to large congregations in Saudi Arabia. They also presented two one-half-hour programs on national television.38 In the spring of 1973, the Plan had come to Syria. The director of a popular TV program in Damascus said: “Millions of people in Syria have been reached recently by the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking, and probably 30,000 have stopped the habit.” Appointments in schools the following week resulted in more than 5,000 students seeing the film One in Twenty Thousand.39 In addition, a series of six articles on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations was written by Oster for the Adventist Review to help the church members better understand and relate to their majority neighbors.40

The escalation of military hostilities in Lebanon among other things caused the TEAM members to separate for a while. Oster went back to Andrews University to complete his doctoral studies and write his Project Report “Evangelism Among Muslims” for his D.Min. degree, which was presented in June 1975. In this report was an analysis of the Christian and Seventh-day Adventist work among Muslims over the past years with new proposals worked out by TEAM and a summary of their productions.41

In 1976, the Osters moved to Shiraz in Iran to implement what TEAM had researched and worked on. There, Oster spent his time writing and developing friendships in the community. Elaine Fleming, who together with her husband Glenn stayed with the Osters before moving to their missionary post in Urumia, shares the following impression: “Ken spoke with many people in the community. Since he spoke Farsi fluently, he made friends easily. He soon knew their stories, how their families and businesses were doing and the burden they carried. He asked about their family members by name. Ken would explain that many of them would ask for prayer, because he was considered a Holy man and therefore his prayers were heard by God. I witnessed one lady, who was selling small items in the market, dissolve in tears of gratitude that Ken had stopped by because if he prayed God would hear. She told her story of how her son had been injured and couldn’t work, and how God did miracle after miracle, in answer to Ken’s prayer.”42

Oster also spent a lot of time writing. Out of that came three key books, other study guides, and radio talks. Articles in major church papers included two articles in Ministry magazine in addition to the articles in the Adventist Review already mentioned.43

After 1979

With the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the introduction of the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini,44 the services of the Osters in Shiraz and Iran came to an abrupt end. They with other Western missionaries were forced to leave the country in November 1979 and return to the United States.45 From 1982-1984, Oster served a term in the Ethiopian Union as Ministerial Secretary and Health and Temperance Director.46

After retirement, the Osters volunteered as Sustantee Overseas Service (SOS) missionaries and in 1985 were sent to the Middle East Union office, then in Cyprus, on a special assignment. During this time, Oster served at the Mission in Juba, South Sudan, as Interim Director until a new appointee was in place. In 1986, he presented his “Mission to Muslims” seminar in five Unions of the Far Eastern Division in preparation for a Division-wide seminar in Singapore. He also taught a class at the Seminary in the Philippines. Oster later put the materials from these seminars into his book Mission to Moslems Around the World, which was published in 1997.47

They finally retired in 1986 and moved to Weimar in California. When they required specialized care, their children moved them to a senior facility in Loma Linda, where Kenneth passed away in 2015 at the age of 94.48

Philosophy and Legacy

Kenneth S. Oster will be remembered for his keen interest in the Muslims and the materials he helped prepare to build bridges to reach them with the good news of salvation. His philosophy of God’s purposes for our interaction with the indigenous is summarized in his book Cosmic Perspectives of God and Man. It reads like this: “Having lived in Iran for more than forty years of my life, I very early in life came to the conclusion that there is no church (including my own Seventh-day Adventist Church), nation, tribe, or community that has a monopoly on everything good. There are good and bad in every society in the world. The greatest injustice one can exercise towards another human being, is to brand that person by the group from which he comes. In other words, there are sincere saints as well as gross sinners among Christians as well as Moslems! My understanding of the situation is that God is searching for those who are truly whole-heartedly and fully surrendered to God among all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.” In writing this book, “I have endeavored to find bridges or meeting places between sincere worshipers of God in both societies, with the hope of discovering a harmony that will identify the sincere believers as members of one family with a unity that brands us as God’s people.”49

The book Islam Reconsidered (1979) was primarily targeted to the Adventist audience to help them understand Islam better. His second book, The Role of Christianity and Islam in the Cosmic Perspective of God and Man, was written in Farsi and later translated into English (1992). It was intended to reach out to sincere worshipers with a Muslim background. Finally, the book Mission to Moslems Around the World (1997) is a collection of his seminar materials presented in the Far East.50

Kennth Oster helped re-think the Seventh-day Adventist approach to Muslims, and others have followed his line of thought and continue to implement these ideas into practice.

Sources

“A Trip to Afghanistan.” Middle East Messenger, August-September 1948.

Appel, G. J. “Growth of the Voice of Prophecy in Iran.” ARH, December 16, 1954.

Darnell, R. C. “Radio Department Council.” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1958.

Dick, E. D. “Missionary Sailings.” ARH, August 17, 1939.

“From Here and There.” Middle East Messenger, April 1, 1954.

“From Here and There.” Middle East Messenger, July 1, 1962.

“From Here and There.” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1963.

“Iranian Revolution.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution.

Khanoiar, Michael. “Our Week of Prayer.” Middle East Messenger, June 1, 1948.

“News from Here and There.” Middle East Messenger.” October 1, 1956.

“Oster, Frank Frederick.” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1966.

Oster, Kenneth S. “Bible Course for Iran and Afghanistan.” ARH, April 27, 1950.

______. “Five-Day Plan Helps 30,000 Quite Smoking in Syria.” ARH, May 17, 1973.

______. “Five-Day Plan Open Doors for Evangelism.” ARH, June 22, 1972.

______. Islam Reconsidered. Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1979.

______. “Colporteur Beginnings in Iran.” Middle East Messenger, July 1, 1955.

______. “TEAM – Thrust for Evangelism Among Muslims.” ARH, January 25, 1973.

______. “The Voice of Prophecy and the Sabbath School Clasp Hands in Iran.” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1955.

______. “Dedication of Iran Training School Administration Building.” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1959.

______. (1975). Evangelism Among Muslims. Dissertation Projects D.Min., Andrews University. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1402&context=dmin.

______. “Voice of Prophecy, Iran Branch.” Middle East Messenger, April 1958.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. Various years. https://www.adventistyearbook.org/.

“The Autumn Council of the General Conference.” ARH, October 9, 1952.

Webster, F. C., “Two Five-Day Plans Held in Saudi Arabia.” ARH, December 21, 1972.

Winslow, Grover C. “Pushtu Push.” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1949.

Notes

  1. Kenneth S. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims, Dissertation Projects D.Min., Andrews University, 1975, accessed July 31, 2023, https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1402&context=dmin.

  2. Don Oster to Sven Jensen, email message, June 6, 2023. Winnie, the oldest child of Frank and Florence Oster, died at the age of two and was buried in Iran. Kenneth never knew his oldest sister. Winston, the second child, died in a hiking accident in Switzerland in 1964. Francis, the third child, died in 1937 from tuberculosis while attending Indiana Academy as a sophomore. Kenneth also suffered at the same time but survived. Don Oster is the eldest son of Ken Oster.

  3. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  4. Don Oster, email message.

  5. Jerald Whitehouse to Sven H. Jensen, email message, May 30, 2023. Whitehouse gave a speech at Kenneth Oster’s memorial service on March 8, 2015, titled “In honor of a dear friend and mentor.”

  6. Kenneth Oster, Islam Reconsidered (Hicksville, New York: Expositions Press, 1979).

  7. Don Oster, email message.

  8. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  9. Don Oster, email message.

  10. E. D. Dick, “Missionary Sailings,” ARH, August 17, 1939.

  11. “Oster, Frank Frederick,” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1966), 943.

  12. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  13. Don Oster, email message.

  14. Michael Khanoiar, “Our Week of Prayer,” Middle East Messenger, June 1, 1948, 11; Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook 1947, accessed July 31, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1947.pdf.

  15. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  16. Don Oster, email message.

  17. Kenneth Oster, “Bible Course for Iran and Afghanistan,” ARH, April 27, 1950, 18.

  18. “The Autumn Council of the General Conference,” ARH October 9, 1952, 11.

  19. G. J. Appel, “Growth of the Voice of Prophecy in Iran,” ARH, December 16, 1954, 1.

  20. “From Here and There,” Middle East Messenger, April 1, 1954, 8.

  21. K. S. Oster, “Voice of Prophecy, Iran Branch,” Middle East Messenger, April 1958.

  22. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbooks 1951-1952, accessed July 31, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1951.pdf; https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1952.pdf.

  23. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook 1959, accessed July 31, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1959.pdf.

  24. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  25. Kenneth Oster, “The Voice of Prophecy and the Sabbath School Clasp Hands in Iran,” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1955, 6.

  26. Kenneth Oster, “Colporteur Beginnings in Iran,” Middle East Messenger, July 1, 1955.

  27. “News from Here and There,” Middle East Messenger, October 1, 1956, 8.

  28. “A Trip to Afghanistan,” Middle East Messenger, August-September 1948, 1,2, 14; Grover C. Winslow, “Pushtu Push,” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1949.

  29. R. C. Darnell, “Radio Department Council,” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1958, 9; Kenneth S. Oster, “Dedication of Iran Training School Administration Building,” Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1959, 1.

  30. Oster, “Vita”.

  31. Ibid.; “From Here and There,” Middle East Messenger, July 1, 1962, 7.

  32. “From Here and There”, Middle East Messenger, January 1, 1963.

  33. Oster, “Vita.”

  34. Kenneth Oster, “TEAM – Thrust for Evangelism Among Muslims,” ARH, January 25, 1973, 5.

  35. Oster, Evangelism Among Muslims.

  36. Kenneth Oster, “Five-Day Plan Open Doors for Evangelism,” ARH, June 22, 1972, 16-17.

  37. F. C. Webster, “Two Five-Day Plans Held in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, December 21, 1972, 24.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Kenneth Oster, “Five-Day Plan Helps 30,000 Quit Smoking in Syria,” ARH, May 17, 1973, 31.

  40. January-March, 1973, ARH, January 25, February 1, February 8, February 15, February 22, and March 1, 1973.

  41. Oster, “Evangelism Among Muslims.”

  42. Whitehouse, email message.

  43. Ibid.

  44. “Iranian Revolution,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed June 11, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution.

  45. Judith Whitehouse, email to Sven H. Jensen, May 31, 2023.

  46. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbooks, 1983 and 1984, accessed August 31, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

  47. Whitehouse, email message.

  48. Don Oster, email message to Sven H. Jensen, June 6, 2023.

  49. Whitehouse, email message.

  50. Ibid.

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Jensen, Sven Hagen. "Oster, Kenneth S. (1921–2015)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. November 02, 2023. Accessed February 26, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=AJLX.

Jensen, Sven Hagen. "Oster, Kenneth S. (1921–2015)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. November 02, 2023. Date of access February 26, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=AJLX.

Jensen, Sven Hagen (2023, November 02). Oster, Kenneth S. (1921–2015). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved February 26, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=AJLX.