Obituary: Joel Hensel

Pastor Joel Hensel (1930–2018)

Joel Hensel served our Lord and the Protes’tant Conference for nearly his entire life as the musical accompanist for its worship services and sessions. The strength of his ministry in this regard rested in the fact that he played the message of each verse of every hymn rather than just the notes on the page. His chorale accompaniment was exceptional in that he varied tempo, timbre, and volume in a way that invited the worshipers’ hearts into the meaning of each individual stanza. A student of his from his earliest days remarked that “everything he played was a sermon that we needed to hear.” In addition to his own improvisations on countless hymns and chorales, he drew on his vast appreciation for the music of J. S. Bach and many other composers for his preludes, interludes, and postludes. He also introduced the Conference to more contemporary works such as Healy Willan’s setting of the Lutheran liturgy.

In 2006 Joel and Eleanor Christman Cox released a CD of his improvisations on chorales that follow the church year, woven together with J. S. Bach’s six cello suites. Listening to these improvisations one understands the spirit of the occasion when “David danced before the Lord with all his might,” 2 Sam. 6:14. His final opus was a collaboration with his lifelong friend Dr. Daniel Reuning, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in compiling a hymnal including all the hymns of Martin Luther, many by Martin Franzmann, and many from other authors and composers. The hymnal, Te Laudamus,is to be released later this year. Yet another expression of a soul in possession of the joy of salvation was Joel’s fine, perceptive sense of humor.

Joel John Hensel was born December 27, 1930, at Liberty, Wisconsin, the son of Rev. Paul Hensel and his wife, Olga (née Karth) Hensel. He was baptized January 11, 1931, at his father’s church, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, in Liberty, Wisconsin, and confirmed March 30, 1947, at his father’s church, Grace Evangelical Lutheran, in Valders, Wisconsin. He grew up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where he graduated from the city’s Lincoln High School. He then graduated in turn from Concordia College, Bronxville, New York, and Concordia Lutheran Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1957 he married Ruth Esther Brusco. In 1959 he was ordained into the ministry and began serving as pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Marion Springs, Michigan. For much of his fifty-year ministry there he also taught the five upper grades in the congregation’s parochial school.

Joel Hensel died on January 15, 2018, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Preceding him in death were his wife Ruth, his sister Agnes, and brothers Marcus, Paul, Rufus, and Daniel. At the time of his death his survivors included his brother Philemon (Esther), of Manitowoc, and his children: Beth (David) Burnham of Mansfield, Massachusetts; Gretchen (Philip) Hall of Franklin, Massachusetts; John (Amy) of Highland Park, Illinois; David (Julie van Haren) of Dallas, Texas; Hannah Hensel, of Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Jason, of Big Rapids, Michigan; five grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. Joel’s daughter, Gretchen, died on March 6, 2018.

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.” Rev. 14:13