February 28, 2020

In Memoriam: William H. Shea Remembered as a Remarkable, Humble Scholar

Adventist Review Staff

William H. Shea, a physician, professor, and lecturer on archeology and the Bible, died February 15, 2020, in Manassas, Virginia, United States. He was 87.

“What I find especially difficult to put into words is what a humble and unassuming person he was,” daughter Rebecca Erdelyi said in reflecting on her late father. “He was the epitome of ‘walk humbly with thy God.’”

Shea was also a remarkable scholar. Seventh-day Adventist professor Ferdinand O. Regalado, who wrote his dissertation on the impact of Shea’s works on biblical studies, states, “[My research] has … shown that he is both a renowned scholar and a dedicated believer.”

Both of Shea’s worlds, as a scholar and as a person, were interconnected, according to Adventist Review associate editor Gerald Klingbeil. Shea “was not only a consummate scholar and a creative and careful interpreter of the Word,” he said. “He was a kind man whose openness and friendliness attracted students and church members.”

Shea also had a talent to reach outside Adventist circles. Klingbeil shared that while he was pursuing his doctorate at a major non-Adventist university in South Africa, professors would speak about Shea with the highest esteem. “[Shea]’s contribution to Adventist scholarship cannot be overestimated. His love and interest in the people around him is something to be replicated,” Klingbeil said.

His Life Story

William “Bill” Shea was born to Henry Morris Shea and Nettie Josephine Lende on December 30, 1932, in Upland, California, United States. His boyhood days were spent by the beach in Laguna Beach.

To his great regret, his family moved to Ontario, California, where he attended high school.  Across the street from his new home lived two Adventist young people, with whom he walked to school every day. They invited him to an evangelistic meeting at the Adventist church on the topic of Daniel 2. He started attending church services, became involved with the young people's activities, and was baptized.

Shea went to La Sierra College, where Karen Olsen, his wife of 63 years, first caught his eye. Later, Karen attended the college, and they became acquainted. They became engaged at the end of her senior year and married at the end of her freshman year of medical school.

While in college, Shea was undecided between the ministry and medicine, finally deciding on medicine with the goal of becoming a medical missionary. He graduated from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in 1958 and Karen in 1959. A year of internship at the White Memorial Hospital was followed by a year of general surgery residency at the Santa Fe Hospital in Los Angeles, California.

New Horizons

The following year, the Sheas drove with Josephine and Theodore, their two young children, down the Pan-American Highway to live in Nicaragua. They served at the Nicaragua Adventist Hospital in Estelí. They returned home to Los Angeles in 1963, and Rebecca joined the family.

It was during this time that Shea sat in on a class on biblical archeology taught by Siegfried Horn to a group of pastors, and his interest in the archeology of the Bible was born.

The following year the family moved to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Shea continued to practice medicine, but he had heard that the way to get into Harvard University was through the back door as a Special Student. He applied, and, to Karen’s amazement, was accepted.

A Student, Lecturer, and Researcher

While studying at Harvard, Shea received two calls to service from church leaders: one to return to Trinidad to practice medicine at the hospital, and the other to complete his doctorate and teach at the Theological Seminary. He told the leaders that he was willing to go where most needed, but his long-term goal was to finish his degree and teach.

The Sheas did return to Trinidad for two years and then moved with the family to Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. Shea completed his PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan. His thesis, “Famines in the Early History of Egypt and Syro-Palestine,” connected the famines of Egypt to the accounts in the Bible.

While working at Andrews University, Shea filled many capacities, including professor, chair of the Old Testament department of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and acting director of the Institute of Archeology. During this time he participated in the Glacier View Conference in Glacier View, Colorado, United States, which is often perceived as a critical period in the history of the Adventist Church. He also taught at Bible conferences and extension schools around the world.

In 1986 Shea joined the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland. During this time, he traveled internationally, preaching, lecturing, and teaching on archeology and the Bible, as well as many other issues of interest to the church. Shea said he was happy to go wherever he was needed. He occasionally joked, however, that he wished there were more Bible conferences in Bora Bora or Tahiti.

Shea published several books on the Bible book of Daniel, including Daniel, A Reader’s Guide, and Daniel 1-7: Prophecy as History. He was also the author of dozens of articles in various scholarly journals on the Sabbath, Esther as history, the day-year principle, and ancient Near Eastern creation stories. Among many other topics, he also wrote on Assyrian campaigns, beer and wine in the Bible, and the construction of the tabernacle in the desert.

In His Golden Years

Shea retired in 1999 and moved to Red Bluff in Northern California to be near his son Ted and family. Years later, the Sheas moved back to the East Coast to help with the care of the youngest grandchild, Allison. He kept teaching Sabbath School, special classes, and occasionally preached.

After a couple of brief hospitalizations, Shea was admitted early Tuesday morning, February 11, 2020. His immune system was compromised due to immunosuppressive drugs needed for his kidney transplant, a gift from his daughter Rebecca almost 10 years earlier. He succumbed two days later.

Shea is survived by his wife, Karen, son Ted (Brigitte), daughters Josephine and Rebecca Erdelyi (Tim), four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service is planned for April 11, 2020, at the Manassas Seventh-day Adventist Church in Manassas, Virginia.