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Grace Mullen: A Life in the Shadows

Danny E. Olinger

The Lord puts certain people in your life who make a difference, who demonstrate by the grace of God what the Christian life is. To many of us in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and to many others beyond, Grace Mullen was one of those individuals. I have rarely met anyone who was more Christ-centered. I have never met anyone who had more integrity and commitment to the church.

Born on March 7, 1943, Grace grew up in North Wildwood, New Jersey, the younger daughter of Hopwood and Rebecca Brandiff Mullen. Although her grandfather, I. T. Mullen, was a founding member and ruling elder at Covenant OPC, Vineland, New Jersey, her dad, Hopwood, did not have much interest in the church. Her mother, Rebecca, did and she made sure that Grace, and her sister, Becky, were involved in the life of Calvary OPC, Wildwood. For the first twenty-eight years of her life, Grace had only two pastors at Calvary Church, Leslie Dunn and John Davies, but what great pastors they were. Both were absolutely committed to Jesus Christ and to the cause of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Still, the town of Wildwood, with its isolated geographical position at the southern tip of the state of New Jersey was not really on the map for Orthodox Presbyterians. That changed dramatically when Mr. Dunn persuaded the Presbytery of New Jersey to purchase a lot on the Wildwood boardwalk in 1945 with the goal of building a chapel. Soon after, the Boardwalk Chapel was up and running and Orthodox Presbyterians were flocking to Wildwood during the summer. Added to this was the fact that OPC missionary families on furlough during the mid-to-late 1940s and 1950s were often staying in Wildwood for extended periods of time. The convergence of these factors led Grace to believe in her youth that the Lord had made Wildwood and South Jersey the center of life in the OPC. She may well have been right.

She grew particularly fond of the Richard Gaffin family when the Gaffins found themselves living in Wildwood for three years from 1948–51. Pauline Gaffin’s vibrant faith and zeal for missions made a great impression on young Grace. She would become one of Grace’s spiritual mentors, and Grace would support the work of Reformed foreign missionaries her entire life.

Grace would remain supportive of the Boardwalk Chapel and was very thankful that she had been blessed to participate in its ministry from the beginning. Even after she had moved away from Wildwood as an adult, she would return every summer to the Mullen family home and visit the staff and volunteers whenever she could.

At the start of the decade of the 1950s, Grace providentially found herself at the ground floor of another new ministry that would positively impact her life. Seeking a camp where they could gather OPC young people for instruction, Pastors Lewis Grotenhuis, Glenn Coie, and Robert Atwell created the French Creek Bible Conference. During the summer time, if Grace wasn’t at the Boardwalk Chapel, you would find her there. She not only loved the fellowship, but also being outdoors. It might have been her favorite place in the world, and Grace gave herself entirely to everything involved with the Conference. Over the years, she was a camper, a counselor, a director of activities, a life guard, and a helper in the kitchen where her mother, Rebecca, served as the main cook for decades. In the late 1970s she recruited Dick and Jean Gaffin to join with her as a cooks’ trio to assist her mother and Mary Laubach, which they did together for fifteen years. When she no longer was able to spend multiple weeks at French Creek, the Board of Trustees appointed her as its Executive Secretary.

Seemingly, the only thing that Grace didn’t do at French Creek over the years was preach! But, it was the gospel preaching and teaching of the covenant youth that was so important to her. Whenever I would have the opportunity to speak at French Creek, she would want the full report on the text I had chosen to preach on, what I emphasized about Christ, and how it was received by the campers and staff.

You also couldn’t talk to Grace long about the subject of French Creek before she would mention Mr. Grotenhuis. He was her model of what a pastor in his daily walk should be—godly, humble, and hard-working with a boundless love for Christ and his church. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Grotenhuis were Grace’s role models for showing hospitality to friends and strangers alike. Grace would speak of the Grotenhuis children whom she had grown up with at French Creek with such love and familiarity that you would have thought that they were family, which, of course, they were in Christ. The bonds of fellowship were tightened as Ralph and Joan Grotenhuis English would labor for many years as OPC missionaries to Korea and Suriname, and John Grotenhuis, one of Grace’s dearest friends, would co-found the Middle East Reformed Fellowship in 1970.

After Grace’s graduation from Wildwood High School in 1961, she attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although there was not an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation at that time in the state of Michigan, much less in Grand Rapids, there was regular fellowship for OPC students at the home of Winifred Holkeboer, whose late husband, Oscar, had been a longtime OPC pastor in Wisconsin and Iowa. Among the OPC students who were with Grace at Calvin College were Nancy Adair, Thomas Armour, Margaret Atwell, David Clowney, Philip Coray, Calvin Cummings, Mary Jo DeWaard, George Elder, Suzanne Galbraith, and Beth Graham.

Following her graduation from Calvin College in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Grace accepted a job as a teacher at the Charlotte Christian School in Charlotte, North Carolina. After a year there, she taught English for two years at the Philadelphia-Montgomery Christian Academy while living with Dick and Jean Gaffin and their young family. She then accepted a teaching position for the San Jose Christian School.

After spending a year at San Jose and then helping Pastor George Hall and his family in Middletown, Pennsylvania, when Mrs. Hall was ill, she went back to school and received a Masters in English Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. Also at this time, she began to work at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. In 1972 she decided to teach once again, albeit this time not in the United States, but at the Ardavan School in Shiraz, Iran. She returned to work for the Presbyterian Historical Society in 1973, and labored there for two years until Arthur Kuschke hired her to serve in the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary.

It was at Westminster that she found a home and her globe-trotting ended. She greeted people at the front desk with the warmest smile and then worked endlessly to help them find whatever they needed. When asked a question about who wrote this or that book or where to find a particular article, Grace would almost always know the answer. When Grace didn’t know the answer, she knew exactly where to look and what rabbit trails to follow. On both her desk at work, and on tables at her home, you would find stacks of papers and books where Grace was tracking down leads long after the inquirer had given up hope of finding anything.

Grace would also influence many students who worked in the library over the years, including Alan Strange, whom Grace helped in his pilgrimage to the OPC. Alan would later intern at Grace’s home church, Faith OPC, Pole Tavern, New Jersey and marry a daughter of that congregation, Kathryn Bacon, which only deepened the bonds of fellowship.

It was during her first years at Westminster that she also developed a deep friendship with Cornelius Van Til as he was finishing up his teaching career there. She agreed with Dr. Van Til that the only Christ that the church had was the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. She also shared with Dr. Van a mutual appreciation of the OPC, J. Gresham Machen, and Geerhardus Vos. When Dr. Van Til was still able to fill pulpits in his 80s, Grace would often drive him to the church where he would be preaching. When Dr. Van Til officially retired, he gave Grace his marked up copy of Calvin’s Institutes, inscribed to her his Bible used for personal devotions, and many of his and Vos’s books.

Her esteem of Dr. Van Til was evident in her asking her lifelong friend Richard Gaffin, Jr. to read the same Scriptures at her funeral service that he had read in April of 1987 for the funeral of Dr. Van Til. In sharing Grace’s request to those gathered at her funeral service, Dick vocalized what we all thought. He said, “Dr. Van Til had no more favorite daughter in the faith than Grace Mullen, and she stood so resolutely with Dr. Van Til in his maintenance and defense of the gospel.” After reading the passages, Dick then paused and said, “And to these Scriptures I would like to add one more. Grace would not be pleased, but I am going to do it anyway. 1 Timothy 6:6, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain.’ ” He continued,

I know for so many of you here today, especially those of us who have known Grace over the years and have worked with her, you will certainly identify when I say that I have never known anyone who more exemplified, more modeled, godly contentment than Grace Mullen. And now, she experiences that contentment, the greater gain of that contentment with her Savior, in a way that none of us today, here, can truly comprehend. But we know for sure, because the Apostle Paul tells us, that it is better by far.

Grace’s love of OPC history was put to good use in the early 1980s when she began assisting OPC historian Charles Dennison in the development of the OPC archives. When Charlie became historian in 1981, previous historian Clair Davis handed him a shoe box that contained the OPC archives. Together, Charlie and Grace started gathering material from first generation members of the church, and Grace began to organize and oversee the collection. Soon it was apparent that a place larger than Grace’s home was needed to hold the material. Charlie talked to then Montgomery Library director John Muether about the possibility of keeping the collection in the basement of the Montgomery Library, and John and Westminster Seminary graciously agreed.

After Charlie died in 1999, Grace was thankful that John was appointed as historian. John, in turn, was thankful for her great service as archivist in preserving the OPC’s history. In seeking to recognize Grace’s work, Darryl Hart and John dedicated their 2006 book, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism to her. They wrote:

In her work at the Presbyterian Historical Society, the archives of Westminster Theological Seminary and of the OPC, Grace Mullen has a wise understanding of the vicissitudes and riches of American Presbyterian history. And as a lifelong Orthodox Presbyterian, her historical awareness is tethered to a deep devotion nurtured by the Reformed faith. Both of us had the privilege of working with Grace when we served respectively as directors of Westminster’s Montgomery Memorial Library—when, in fact, most of the direction came from our relying on Grace’s own wise counsel as a librarian and archivist. As an acknowledgement of the debt we owe to her, and as a tribute to her insufficiently appreciated efforts to preserve Presbyterian history, we dedicate this book to Grace.

By the time that I accepted the call to serve as General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education at the end of 2003, Grace was one of my closest friends. Over the years, our friendship had deepened through my work on the Committee for the Historian and our shared interests. I would ship her cassette tape recordings of the sermons of Charlie Dennison, and she would send me copies of all the hard to find Vos, Machen, and Gaffin materials that I had requested.

One of the first things that I did after telling Grace the news of my appointment was to ask her if she could recommend a real estate agent. She immediately gave me the phone number of Ray Parnell, a fellow worker and friend of hers from Westminster Seminary. A few weeks later, Ray, my wife, Diane, and I were looking for homes without success when we pulled up at the last one on the list in the Glenside area. I was getting out of the car when I heard Grace calling my name from across the street. As I ran to greet her, Diane turned to Ray and said, “He’s going to want this one.” It was the house we purchased.

For the next decade, I would walk across the street, through her backyard and knock on her back door. She would greet me with the same excited “Danny” every time, and we would start talking all things OPC and the Reformed faith. I learned so much from her in those talks, and not just from her great knowledge of practically everyone who had ever ministered in the OPC. There was a dignified manner to everything that Grace said. She might not have agreed with someone’s theological positions or actions, but she treated that person as if he or she were joined to Christ until the person proved otherwise. I have tried to carry that posture from Grace in my service to others.

I also had the opportunity living so close to Grace to participate in the Vos Group meetings that were held monthly in her home. Grace and Chad Bond had asked Lane Tipton in 1998 to lead a Vos study group, which Lane graciously did for the next fifteen years. Those nights were among Grace’s favorites as Lane would explain Vos’s writings, exegete Scripture texts, and answer questions from those gathered. Afterwards, everyone would fellowship together. Some of Grace’s dearest friends, Robert and Eleanor Meeker, Bob and Linda Jones, Charles and Alayne Martell, and Philip Tachin were regular attenders.

The last decade of her life, Grace was often undergoing radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and surgery for a rare and aggressive form of cancer. When I would visit Grace when she was hospitalized in the Fox Chase Cancer Center, almost always there were OPC members or someone from Westminster Seminary already visiting with her. When friends would ask Grace what they could pray for her, she would not ask them to pray that the pain would lessen, but that they would pray that she would remain faithful.

It was during this period that the Committee for the Historian was able to relocate the OPC archives to the OPC administrative building in Willow Grove. Grace was excited about helping us move into the new space, and we spent hours together arranging the collection. After everything was in its place, the Committee took the official action on March 23, 2010, of naming the archival room “The Grace Mullen Archives Room.” This was our small token of appreciation for her labor over the years. No one could have done a better job, and yet she was never paid and never wanted to be paid. For her, it was a labor of love.

The Committee assigned me the task to let Grace know that we were honoring her in this way. When I told her, she immediately said that we shouldn’t. I told her that we were so thankful for everything that she had done that we wanted to recognize her in this way. Then appealing to her Dutch-side, I showed her the plaque and told her that we had already paid for it. The plaque read, “Dedicated to the glory of God and named in honor of Miss Grace Mullen whose tireless efforts were instrumental in the establishment of the archives of the church and the preservation of its heritage.” Tearfully, she said “okay.”

On February 5, 2014, an ice storm hit greater Philadelphia, knocking out electrical power in the Glenside area. In her weakened condition from the cancer, Grace could not stay at her house without power. Douglas and Betty Watson, longtime friends of Grace’s from French Creek, lovingly took Grace into their home for the next six weeks. With Betty’s cooking, Grace gained some strength, although it was clear that the cancer was taking its toll. When it was announced at Calvary OPC, Glenside that Grace was feeling well enough to receive visitors at the Watsons for a hymn-sing, over thirty people packed into the Watson’s living room to sing God’s praise from the Trinity Hymnal with Grace seated in the middle. She could not have been happier.

A few months later when Grace entered the last stage of her life at the Fort Washington Estates extended care unit, two dear friends and fellow residents in the residential wing, Beverly Mariani and Charlotte Kuschke, attended to her. Bev, who was probably Grace’s closest friend, did a little bit of everything. She would eat her meals with Grace, help her with her doctor’s appointments, handle her personal affairs, read Scripture with her, and pray with her.

Charlotte would walk over during breakfast time and, while Grace ate breakfast, she would help Grace, whose eyesight by this time was failing, read her mail and many get–well cards. Whatever Charlotte and Bev couldn’t do in helping Grace during this time, Patricia Clawson and James Dolezal did. So many times in the last months of Grace’s life, I would find James reading Scripture to Grace at her bedside or Pat returning to Grace’s room after having run an errand for her friend.

At the Eighty-first (2014) General Assembly on June 9, the commissioners expressed their love and appreciation for Grace as they unanimously adopted the following resolution:

The 81st GA of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church hereby resolves to communicate the following to Miss Grace Mullen: The 81st General Assembly takes this opportunity to greet you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and to assure you of our love and prayers. We thank God for your life and the many ways your gentle, quiet, and faithful service has enriched the life of our denomination. Your service in the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary had led to the establishment of a denominational archives, in a facility named, to the glory of God, in your honor. Your loving, cheerful, and loyal friendship and service have prompted many in the OPC to esteem you highly in Christian love.

In light of your declining health, we pray that you will find comfort in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who gives eternal hope to the living and eternal life to the dying.

Grace’s pastor at Faith OPC, Pole Tavern, Richard Ellis, was able to read that resolution to Grace when he returned from the Assembly. Dick’s trips to see her despite the long distance always gave her great encouragement. Although Grace lived in Glenside on the northern tip of Philadelphia, she always made clear to everyone that her home church was Faith Church and that she loved the members there. They were as important to her as any of the prominent theologians at Westminster that she helped on a daily basis. For years, Grace would leave after her work ended on Friday at the seminary and drive to Newfield, New Jersey, to take care of her mother, Rebecca. Together, they would worship at Faith Church on the Lord’s Day.

Grace loved South Jersey and knew every part of it. Although she grew up along the coast in Wildwood loving the ocean and the lighthhouse just minutes from her home, she considered the oft-unmentioned southern and western part of South Jersey a treasure. The Maurice River and the Cohansey River to the Delaware Bay and all the little towns along the way were of intense interest to her.

Almost of equal importance to Grace was her love of England to which she traveled many times, often alone. She would explore the many towns with their cottages and gardens and was not shy about knocking on the door of a house to seek lodging for the night.

When I returned from the Assembly in mid–June, Grace quizzed me in her typical fashion about everything that had happened. But, we also started to talk about what she wanted done at her funeral service. She said that she wanted it held at Faith Church with Lane and me preaching. The instructions that she gave us were clear. She wanted us to preach Christ, to focus on him and not on her in our sermons.

On July 15, Virginia Dennison, Charlie Dennison’s wife, and I stopped by to see Grace. Grace was so happy to see Ginger, even exclaiming that she could think of nothing better. I had also just spent the Lord’s Day teaching Sunday school and preaching at French Creek and Grace wanted to hear the full account. We talked non-stop for an hour, and then we read Scripture and prayed. As we left, I wondered if this was the last time that I would see Grace living. Ginger and Grace were more direct. They hugged each other as Ginger said, “I’ll see you next in heaven.”

A few days later on July 20, Grace’s condition worsened, and Lane and I determined to see Grace immediately after the conclusion of the evening worship service at Calvary Church in Glenside. We entered her room with Bev by her side, and Lane began to read from Romans 8. Grace died and passed into glory as he read that glorious passage that speaks of the relationship between Christ and his own.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39)

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, December 2014.