The Rev. Dr. Dennis Edward Groh, age 83, died peacefully at Sparrow Hospital, Lansing, Michigan, on April 22, 2023, surrounded by family. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Constance De Young Groh, children Jeremy D. Groh (Christin), Sara Groh Silva (Richard), stepchildren Patrick Collora and Anthony Collora, and grandchildren Molly Silva, Patricia Noonan, Katherine Silva, Liam Silva, and Elliot Silva.
Dennis was born in Chicago, IL, on August 9, 1939, the only child of Edward and Anne Groh. Dennis described himself as a “working class kid” who, from his grade school days through his undergraduate years, was actively involved in athletics, school organization, and community activities. At Chicago’s Theodore Roosevelt High School, Dennis played football for the “Roosevelt Rough Riders.” Football, as well as the classroom, reinforced his sense of appropriate discipline and his intense work ethic. After graduation in 1957, Dennis headed for Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL, where he would later return as a faculty member and administrator. At IWU, Dennis majored in history, played football, participated in student government and was a member of Acacia fraternity and the honor society Phi Kappa Phi. After graduation from IWU in 1961, Dennis moved on to a Bachelor of Divinity program at Garrett Seminary (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), Evanston, IL. Concurrently, Dennis served as pastor of Sumption Prairie United Methodist Church, South Bend, IN. In 1965, he received his B.D. from Garrett and was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church.
Upon graduation from Garrett, Dennis began doctoral studies at Northwestern University, pursuing a program broadly based in early Christianity with intensive specialization in Patristics, Classical Studies, and Roman History and Archaeology. He joined a team studying the recently excavated Mithraea at Ostia, Italy, leading to his first of over one hundred scholarly publications, eventually including authoring, co-authoring or co-editing six books. Dennis’ course work culminated in the Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowship in Religion, for study at the American Academy at Rome. His doctoral dissertation, Christian Community in the Writings of Tertullian: An Inquiry into the Nature and Problems of Community in North African Christianity (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1970), drew on his work in Patristics, late Classical literature, Roman archaeology, and social history. Dennis’ scholarship demonstrated fascination with how one’s place in space and time affects one’s understanding of the world. Dennis understood that we are all “children of our landscape,” an insight he brought to the study of Tertullian.
Dennis earned his Ph.D. in 1970. Previously, in 1968, he launched his twenty-eight year career of service at Garrett-Evangelical. By the age of thirty-seven, he had earned the title Professor of the History of Christianity. He also served as advisory member of The Graduate Faculty at Northwestern, and as adjunct faculty at Chicago Theological Seminary (1988, 1989, 1990). He took on speaking engagements at numerous institutions, including the University of Chicago, Albion College, Brown University, Princeton University, and Oxford, as well as the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Among other honors Dennis was named Summer Scholar in Residence, The Institute for Economic and Cultural Research, Collegeville, MN (1971); The James Alan Montgomery Fellow, the American Schools of Oriental (now Overseas) Research (1974-1975); Annual Professor, Wm Foxwell Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem (1982); and Humphrey Fellow, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Social Ecology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (1988-89). His many leadership positions have included, among others, Founding Member of the Midwest Patristics Seminar (1973-1996); Trustee, Albright Institute in Jerusalem (1978-1981); Member, Scholar’s Advisory Committee of the Heritage Foundation of the World Jewish Congress (1979-1986); Vice President and President, North American Patristics Society (1980-1983); and Trustee, Illinois Wesleyan University (1993-96). In 1996, Dennis returned to IWU as University Chaplain and Professor of Humanities and Archaeology, leading a multi-faith chapel program and teaching courses including field methods in archaeology.
Archaeology was pivotal in Dennis’ life and career. He participated in numerous field projects throughout the Mediterranean world of Cypress, Israel, Italy, Tunisia, and Turkey, specializing in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Among the projects he served with in Israel were the Joint Archaeological Expedition to Caesarea Maritima (1972, 1974, 1975); the Joint Survey of Upper Galilee (co-leading with Eric M. Meyers and James F. Strange, 1976); the Meiron Excavation Project (Gush Halav, 1977-78, Ein Nabratein, 1980); and projects at Tel Nessana including, as co-director with Dan Urman, the Tel Nessana Archaeological Expedition of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (1991-1993). Dennis served as Associate Director with T.R.W. Longstaff of the Sepphoris Excavations of the University of South Florida, directed by James F. Strange (1987-2012). Most recently, Dennis served as Ceramics Consultant to the Shikhin Excavation Project (2012-present), directed by James Riley Strange. Dennis developed a nearly unparalleled expertise in Roman finewares – the “fancy” pottery that is most susceptible to fashion, and therefore the most useful for precise dating, essential to archaeological method.
In the area of text scholarship, Dennis approached “historical theology” at the level of “real life” – “why were particular religious issues important to people?” He teamed with Robert C. Gregg (1938-2023) to study the Arian Controversy, a heated dispute that raged for decades during the fourth century C.E. The “Gregg and Groh” book Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) was honored by the American Society of Church History as Finalist for the Phillip Schaff Prize (1983). Historical theologians traditionally approached the topic in an abstract way, as intellectual speculation at the cosmological level. Bob and Dennis, however, concluded that the controversy was a matter of biblical interpretation, not cosmology. People were focused on the question, “What must I do to be saved?” – which mattered in their lives.
Dennis retired from IWU at the close of 2006 and relocated to Lansing, MI, to be near his wife’s family. His scholarly interests never waned. He loved his work on the Sepphoris and Shikhin digs, and was proud of the chapter, “The Religion of the Empire: Christianity from Constantine to the Arab Conquest,” which he wrote for the book Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of their Origins and Early Development, edited by Hershel Shanks (Biblical Archaeology Society: Washington, DC, second edition, 2011). He was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, a passionate intellectual, and an avid sports fan. He will be greatly missed.
A Memorial Service celebrating Dennis’ life and legacy will take place on Saturday, May 13, 2023 at 1:30 p.m., at St. David's Episcopal Church, 1519 Elmwood Rd, Lansing, MI 48917. In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Dennis may be directed to the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) at https://www.asor.org/donate or mailed to ASOR, 209 Commerce St, Alexandria, VA 22314; Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at https://www.garrett.edu/ or mailed to 2121 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL, 60201; Illinois Wesleyan University at https://www.iwu.edu/giving/ or mailed to Illinois Wesleyan University, Advancement Office, PO Box 2900, Bloomington, IL 61702-2900; Northwestern University at https://www.northwestern.edu/giving/index.html or mailed to Northwestern University, Alumni Relations and Development, Attn: Gift and Record Services, 1201 Davis Street, Evanston, IL 60208; or St. David’s Episcopal Church at https://www.paypal.com/us/fundraiser/charity/1537902 or mail to 1519 Elmwood Rd, Lansing, MI 48917.