Henry Hildebrand: Briercrest president from 1935 - 1977

Chrissy Dennis | Nov 7, 2012
Dr. Henry Hildebrand at the dedication of the Whittaker dorms. Dr. Henry Hildebrand at the dedication of the Whittaker dorms.Dr. Henry Hildebrand at the dedication of the Whittaker dorms.

For some, the name ‘Hildebrand’ brings to mind the building where Briercrest students spend part of their mornings in worship during college chapel. For others it sparks memory of a man who put his trust in the Lord and who not only helped found Briercrest in October 1935 but also presided over it for 42 years.

Henry Hildebrand grew up in the faith, regularly exposed to his parents seeking the Lord and serving Him faithfully.  Hildebrand, however, did not personally experience a conversion to the faith until he was 17 years old.  It was at this age that he decided he craved more for his life.

“Though I wanted first to taste this world and its pleasure, there was a deep inner longing for personal reality, for forgiveness of sins, and for a hope of life called the conversion experience,” Hildebrand said of his decision to accept Christ. 

 “His conversion was remarkable in that he did not feel ‘the glorious lifting of the burden’ that is spoken of dramatically by many converts in their testimonies,” said Hildebrand’s son Paul, recalling the story he’s heard of his father’s conversion.   “Rather, his assurance grew as he studied the Word of God believing in Jesus.  He had been searching for reality and real repentance and not simply for a feeling.”

Now equipped with the full armour of God, Henry Hildebrand stepped out into ministry.  After attending Winnipeg Bible College for some biblical training, he travelled to Saskatchewan where he began leading Sunday Schools.  Though saddled with a passion for ministry, it was during this time Hildebrand received a letter from a Mr. Whittaker from a small Saskatchewan town called Briercrest.  Whittaker reported a number of Christians in the small town were proposing to begin a Bible school and felt prompted to ask Hildebrand to lead it.

“Pioneer missions – yes. Pastoral ministry – by now desirable.  Teaching the Word – perhaps, possible.  I could trust God for such.  But, the founding of a Bible college?  Impossible, unthinkable!” said Hildebrand of his initial reaction upon receiving such a letter.

It wasn’t long before Briercrest began to tug at his heart.  Soon, Hildebrand found himself visiting the small town of Briercrest and though he began by pastoring their small church, he eventually accepted the role of president and Briercrest Bible Institute was born.

This was not a journey Hildebrand travelled alone.  He and his wife Inger served the school together, along with their five children who eventually came along: Marcia, Evelyn, David, Paul and Glen.  Their family was one who put the Lord first but still endured hardships.  Even in the midst of presiding over a Bible school and facing new challenges, Hildebrand managed to find time to be a loving husband and father. 

“With all of the demands tugging at his sleeves, the lasting love of his family is a remarkable accomplishment,” Paul said fondly.

Henry Hildebrand is remembered well by many.  For example, Doug Bergren, a neighbor of Henry’s and a family friend, described Henry as “honest, loving, kind and firm.”

From the testimony of those who have been touched by Henry Hildebrand, it is easy to catch glimmers of his personality and the sort of man he was to know.

“In discussions around the dinner table, with guests, in staff meetings, or in his office, dad was comfortable with himself and he possessed an easy self-confidence,”  Paul said, reflecting upon some earlier recollections of his father.

Hildebrand was popularly known for his outstanding capacity to remember names.  He was always asking about someone’s wife, their children, their grandchildren, their closest friends and he remembered everybody’s name.  Dr. John Barkman, who describes Hildebrand as his own personal cheerleader, explains Hildebrand’s aptitude for this.

“Dr. Hildebrand was amazing with names – he would remember people and remember students.  Now he worked at it without a question, but he had a good memory, because he spent time praying for them.”

Paul also reflects upon his father’s capacity for name recall, and insists it was because his father was “interested in those who he met and what they were about.”

Not only was Hildebrand a man who loved others but he was also a man who yearned after the Lord.  Paul described his father as making God the first priority of his day.

“Every day began with devotions and prayer.”

His family wasn’t the only witness to Hildebrand’s disciplined walk with the Lord.  Others around him took notice as well.

“He was an individual that took time for the Lord and it was very evident in his day to day operations in his leadership,” says Dr. John Barkman.

One of the ways Hildebrand’s faith shone the brightest was during the times the school faced trials.  Briercrest Bible Institute was founded in 1935 but it wasn’t long before the war years placed a burden on the future of the school.  There was a very real possibility that the school could shut down but Hildebrand stood firm in his faith and trusted in the Lord’s provision.  Sure enough, God kept the doors open.  Throughout economic hardships, difficult decisions and even a close-call with the furnace room nearly catching fire, Hildebrand remained faithful to the Lord and trusted in Him.

“His faith did not waiver, he and his family leaned on the Lord,” says Marilyn Zink, a family friend and neighbor who was pastored and taught by Hildebrand.

“He modeled reliance on God’s provisions for the school,” Bergren added.

Hildebrand regularly turned to Philippians 4:19 during these difficult times in the school’s history.

“But my God shall supply all of your needs, according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

Hildebrand put his faith in the Lord throughout his life and ministry but there were also earthly stewards who significantly influenced him along his journey.  Hildebrand reports his own parents being of tremendous value and inspiration to him, as they “by practice and by percept...taught me lessons of godliness.”  His immediate family also played a crucial role in influencing him: his wife and their five children. 

Hildebrand was also greatly encouraged and inspired by the many students he had the opportunity to get to know and pour into during his time as president.  He reported that the students taught him many lessons, namely remaining young in one’s outlook while maintaining optimism and enthusiasm. 

“If under God I helped to shape BBC, the college also shaped me and prepared me for the years ahead,” Henry Hildebrand said.

After 42 years as president it was time for Henry Hildebrand to step down.  The school’s constitution required a mandatory retirement at the age of 65.  While many could have complained about letting go, Hildebrand remained a willing steward.

“He was very ready...If he would have fought it, people would have caved in right away,” Barkman said.  “He realized there comes a time to hand it over to younger men.  He didn’t fight that for a moment.  I don’t know that you would see a more gracious person giving up his presidency as Dr. Hildebrand.”

The presidency fell to Henry Budd, whom Hildebrand described as the right man for the job.  The decision to pass the baton, so to speak, was an easy one for Hildebrand.

“This choice is personally gratifying...he has served loyally at my side.  I have confidence in God that he is God’s chosen man in the succession of leadership.... BBI is now in good and trustworthy hands,” said Hildebrand of Budd.

Thus ended Hildebrand’s term as Briercrest’s president, but his legacy remained. He had many hopes and aspirations for Briercrest.  Paul recollects his father striving toward a school that was both academically sound and yet “simple enough to touch the common heart.”  Most importantly, Hildebrand aspired for a school that remained rooted in the Word.

“His prayer was that the schools would stay true to the word of God and be a beacon of light to the community, province and world,” says Marilyn Zink.

As a school firmly rooted in the teaching and application of the Word of God, Hildebrand’s simple and yet life-changing mission has been carried out.  His legacy as a man who put his faith in the Lord and trusted in His provision is something to be applauded and modelled.  It is safe to say this school would not be what it is today without the touch of a humble man who placed God first in everything.

From the words of Henry Hildebrand,

“It is very humbling to reflect upon God’s leading and undertaking in the ministry of BBC.  He has enlarged our tent, stretched out our curtains, and enabled us to strengthen our stakes.  It is an ongoing ministry that we pray will increase in wisdom, stature, and in favour with God and man.  Again, we say, thank you to our heavenly Father.”