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In Memory of Norway’s First Woman Seventh-day Adventist Pastor


In 1978 heaven sent a cargo of pure grace to Norway. Her name was Jenny Nygaard, at that time twenty-nine years old. She had just finished ministerial training at Atlantic Union College in the United States and was about to become the first Seventh-day Adventist woman pastor in Norway. 

Jenny grew up in a caring family at the very edge of the ocean in the most wind-swept part of the west coast of Norway.  The coastline is otherwise dotted with islands that break the wind, but on this particular part of coast there is nothing to cushion the often fierce weather.  Her family was caring but Lutheran mostly in name.  Perhaps influenced by a sea-faring tradition Jenny went abroad, first to work at the Care House for Norwegian seamen in London, then to New York City, where she worked at a famous hair salon.  At her work, she met a woman who introduced her to Adventism.  Jenny accepted what she heard, embracing faith in Christ and the Seventh-day Adventist message.  She also had a new sense of calling that led her to Atlantic Union College.  And then, in 1978, she returned to Norway to take up ministerial work.  Her family was not happy about her choice of faith or vocation, but they did not doubt the depth of Jenny’s conviction.

Jenny Nygaard with her mother.

It was evident from the very beginning of her pastoral work that Jenny was pure grace. I say this advisedly, fully aware of the theological prestige of the word ‘grace.’  While there was no precedent for a woman pastor in the Adventist church in Norway, Jenny did not need a precedent.  Sometimes self-evidence is the strongest argument, and for Jenny the argument of self-evidence silenced whatever opposition there might have been.  She had a deep sense of calling; she had dignity; she exuded warmth and sweetness; and she communicated in an earnest, utterly disarming way.  When she stepped into the pulpit, the audience was hushed, often rapt. If possible, she was even more effective at the personal level, visiting people in the homes. I witnessed both first hand, seeing her involved in evangelistic work in the affluent communities west of Oslo. There is the embodiment of grace walking about, I often thought to myself.  Years later a couple that embraced the Adventist faith at that time would talk with gratitude of the pastors and people that guided them but always with Jenny in a special category. There were many influences—and then there was Jenny Nygaard. 

Cancer struck Jenny hard in 1982, but the ravages of the disease did not obliterate grace. During the treatment she was sustained by grace and by her sister Mary, always at her side. Anti-nausea medications were not as effective then as they are now, and the understanding of palliative measures was also much less adequate.  When Jenny came for her radiation treatment at the National Cancer Hospital in Oslo, the vomiting would begin in the lobby, sometimes in the parking lot. When the cancer infiltrated the spinal cord, Jenny had pain the like of which I have never seen in my considerable experience with cancer and terminal care of cancer patients. Transection of the dorsal column of the spinal cord was done, but even this could not curb the pain, and the hospital physicians at that time did not understand morphine and used it too sparingly. The pastor in Oslo at that time, Magdalon Lind, a former president of the Middle East-East Africa Division, visited Jenny faithfully in the hospital, sometimes guided to her room by audible expressions of excruciating pain. He said that Jenny’s suffering exceeded the suffering of Job. Jenny was at a loss herself under the tsunami of pain, but she said that sin is a worse reality than pain.  She lived grace, and she died as pure grace, emaciated, on May 23, 1983, not yet thirty-four years old.

I was asked to officiate at the funeral, as Jenny’s friend. I worked as a physician-evangelist at that time and had not planned to do funerals. But I could not say no to participate, to look for words of consolation and hope, to see the body of grace laid to rest on a windy, cold day at the graveyard a few kilometers from Jenny’s home, and then to reminisce about her life at her childhood home, looking out on the ocean. If you ever travel on one of the most scenic cruise experiences in the world up the coast of Norway, look toward the shore when the ship passes the Hustad Coast. There, not far from the shoreline, is Jenny’s grave.

A bond was created that day between Jenny’s sister, Mary, and Jenny’s mother and me. Perhaps there will be a day to tell the rest of the story, our story; what has happened during the intervening years.  But the reality that has given us a story to tell centers on the pure grace of Jenny, the first Seventh-day Adventist woman pastor in Norway. 

Ordination means different things to different people. In the Protestant tradition, ordination is not conferral of virtue, or office, or calling, or fitness, or task. Ordination, above all, is in Protestant thought recognition of virtue, calling, and fitness already there. God is in this sense the chief and exclusive Ordainer. The church cannot truly ordain; it can only recognize the God-given ordination that is evident in a person. Jenny Nygaard was ordained by heaven for an exceptional and complete ministry of grace. It was too brief, to be sure, but it sufficient to break the ice and to open our eyes to the fact that God’s call to pastoral ministry transcends gender. We saw it in the life of Jenny Nygaard, no further study or questions necessary then, no further study or questions necessary now. Self-evidence spoke. Discernment responded with the one word, ‘Amen.’ 


Sigve Tonstad, MD, PhD, is professor of religion and assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University and the author of several theological books. He was born and raised in Norway.

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