Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Neglected Theologian: Georgia Harkness

Georgia Elma Harkness (1891-1974), first woman to teach theology in an American seminary, was once a household name, but few today know who she is–and all of her writings are out of print.  We need to recover the work of this neglected theologian for the life of the church today.

Born 21 April 1891, Harkness was the youngest of four children born to Joseph Warren Harkness and Lillie Merrill Harkness.  She was born in Harkness, NY, a town in the Adirondacks named for her grandfather.  A Methodist, she was personally converted in a revival as a teenager, and sensed a calling to serve the church.  Her family was upper middle class and progressive, thereby giving her opportunities for education beyond what was available to most girls and women of her era.  Avoiding the women’s colleges, she earned a B.A. (philosophy) from Cornell University in 1912.

In a later age, Harkness would probably have gone straight to a seminary and training for the ministry, but seminaries did not admit women as regular, degree-seeking, students and ordained women were very rare.  Harkness intended to volunteer for overseas mission work after her graduation from Cornell, but family problems prevented this. She taught high school for six (6) years, but was restless.  She wanted to do more to serve the church and she wanted to pursue studies in theology.  So, she went to Boston University (related to the Methodists).  Denied entrance because of her sex to BU’s School of Theology, she matriculated in the Department of Religion of the Graduate School  and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion in 1923 with a dissertation entitled, ” The Relations Between Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green.”  (Green (1836-1882), was a liberal   British Idealist philosopher and social reformer who died 10 years before Harkness’ birth. )

 For the next 15 years, Harkness taught courses in religion and philosophy at Elmira College in Elmira, NY–at the time a women’s college, but now co-educational. During summers and sabbatical leaves, Harkness continued her theological education by attending Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary (NY) always with the status of “special” (non-degree) student.  In 1926, she was ordained by the Methodist Church (later part of the United Methodist Church), but, along with all other women, she was not admitted to any Conference (and, thus, could not function as a minister) until 1956. 

From 1937 to 1940, Harkness was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachussetts and from 1940-1949, she was Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute near Chicago, IL.  Garrett Biblical Institute, now known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a post-baccalaureate Methodist theological seminary whose main mission is the preparation of divinity students for ordained ministry.  Harkness was the first woman hired to teach theology at any seminary in the U.S.  Today, the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is known as the Georgia Harkness Chair of Applied Theology.  Harkness ended her active teaching ministry at The Pacific School of Religion, an ecumenical seminary related to the United Church of Christ outside of San Francisco,CA.  She was Professor of Applied Theology at PSR from 1949 until her retirement in 1960. 

Her early interests in global missions and in global and ecumenical Christianity never left Harkness.  Unable to be a missionary herself, Harkness did support work for Methodist global missions, including writing materials for them, especially the Methodist Board of World Peace and and the Board of Social and Economic Relations.  After World War II, Harkness also did much to support the global ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches, serving on both the Faith and Order and Church and World Commissions. Her hymn, “The Hope of the World,” was chosen by the Hymn Society of America  (now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) for the Second global meeting of the World Council of Churches which was held in Evanston, IL in 1954 and had as it’s theme, “Christ, the Hope of the World.”  Harkness had previously played key roles in the Life and Work conference at Oxford (1937), and at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, 1948.   In the 1957-1958 school year, Harkness served as Visiting Professor at both the International Christian University in Japan and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, Manila, the Philippines.

This pioneer for women in ministry and early feminist theologian usually was irenic and balanced in her approach to such matters.  Living in a very patriarchal and sexist era, she knew the dangers of appearing to male-dominated structures as “shrill,” or “strident,” in her advocacy of equality, and so was quick to praise opening or partial steps even while continuing to push for full gender equality in home, church, and society.  Typical of Harkness’ approach on these matters, she advocated equal ordination and ministry for decades, but when the 1956 Methodist meeting in Minneapolis opened the door for full pastoral ministry for women, Harkness let younger female colleagues take the lead in advocating for the motion on the floor.  However, her caution did not mean timidity, for at the World Council of Churches in 1948, Harkness openly confronted Karl Barth himself on his theology of female subordination!  Though Barth’s influence intimidated many, Harkness refuted him point-by-point in open debate and the great man’s startled reaction showed that he was completely unused to confronting strong, independent women! (A year later, when someone mentioned the event to him, Barth replied, “Remember me not of that woman!”)

Harkness wrote over 30 books in her lifetime.  She dealt with numerous theological subjects: Christian ethics, social concern in global contexts, equality of the sexes, racial equality and integration (though she was not an active participant in the Civil Rights struggle, she openly supported its goals and there was much personal correspondence between Harkness and  African America leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Howard Thurman), the nature of the church, a study from her own Wesleyan Methodist perspective of Calvin’s ethics, prayer and the life of devotion, mysticism, the Holy Spirit, eschatology (partially anticipating themes later made more prominent by Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann), the relation of religion to philosophy and to science, secularism (which she saw as more of a challenge than a reason to celebrate, contrasting with the early work of Harvey Cox), and apologetics.  Concerned to be understood by a wide audience, Harkness wrote with clarity and a refusal to cloak her thought in academic obscurantism (which led her critics to charge her with a lack of depth or profundity), but always a wide awareness of the history of Christian thought and of current trends on the global scene. 

She characterized her theological perspective as that of a “chastened liberalism.” She had been raised in the optimism of the late 19th C., been educated in the traditions of Idealism and Borden Parker Bowne’s “Boston Personalism,” as well as the Social Gospel. Even after World War I and into the Great Depression, Harkness could declare her faith in human moral progress, her strong pacifism, and rejoice that belief in Original Sin was disappearing. “The faster it goes, the better,” she remarked to The Christian Century.  Yet she interacted with the rise of Neoorthodoxy in the perspectives of Barth, Brunner, Suzanne de Dietrich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich.  On the eve of the Second World War, Harkness called on liberal Protestantism to recall the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  Not surrendering her pacifism, she stated that although she remained committed to liberalism, “it was a chastened and deepened liberalism.” Human moral progress was possible, but did not follow an evolutionary certainty, and was dependant always on the grace of God.  She still considered traditional formulations of original sin to be problematic, but recognized anew the power of sin in both individuals and social structures.

Harkness’ books are entirely out of print and the influence she once had is largely eclipsed, even among contemporary feminist theologians.  Yet the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is named for her and so is a scholarship for women ministry students over 30 at Pacific School of Religion.   The church historian Rosemary Skinner Keller wrote a secondary study of Harkness, Georgia Harkness:  For Such a Time as This (Abingdon Press, 1992) and in the Doctrine volume of his 3-part Systematic Theology, James Wm. McClendon lists Harkness (along with Walter Rauschenbusch, E.Y. Mullins, D.C. MacIntosh, W.T. Conner, and Dale Moody) as among the guiding forerunners of his approach.  Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has just edited a reader of Harkness’ early essays, Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010).  Miles had previously written a biographical and theological sketch of Harkness as a chapter in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed., Mark Toulouse and James Duke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).   So, the groundwork is set for a recovery of this neglected pioneer feminist theologian.  In my view, such a recovery cannot come too soon. We need Harkness’ voice as a conversation partner for our 21st C. context.


February 20, 2010 - Posted by | biographical entries, ecumenism, history of theology, Methodists, theologians


  1. Thanks so much for this, Michael. I know I told you years ago that I would write a piece about Georgia Harkness, but I never did. Sorry about that; but you did better than I would have.

    Readers may not be aware that when Methodism became fully open to the ordination of women (including full conference membership) the motion that was made at General Conference was made by the President of Asbury Seminary, Dr. Zachary Taylor Johnson. He caught a lot of flack from it, including flack from many bishops. Many women of course supported Dr. Johnson, including Georgia Harkness, and of course many women pioneered in the struggle for women’s ordination long before Dr. Johnson made his motion. But it was Dr. Johnson who was largely responsible for pushing this motion through in 1956, decades before most people assumed it would happen. Dr. Johnson, of course, was a Conservative Evangelical with a capital C and capital E, but his devotion to the Bible was what inspired him to stick his neck out for the sake of women’s ordination and conference membership. Note that women could function as pastors before 1956, but the key in 1956 was conference membership, which carried with it a guaranteed appointment.


    One of my favorite stories about Georgia Harkness was one that I heard Stanley Hauerwas tell. I was taking his course in Christian Ethics in America, and we had just spent several weeks on Reinhold Niebuhr. At the end of one class, I asked Hauerwas, “Were there any Methodist theologians who objected to Niebuhr’s critique of pacifism because it flew in the face of Wesleyan sanctification and Christian perfection?” Hauerwas got this big grin on his face and said, “There sure was! Do you know who it was?” (I guessed Paul Ramsey.) He said, “No, it wasn’t Ramsey*; Ramsey went right along with Niebuhrian realism at this point….. You know who it was?….” (blank stares from the students in the class)….. “It was Georgia Harkness!” (Hauerwas’ wife Paula Gilbert had studied Harkness very carefully) “Thank God for Georgia Harkness!” Hauerwas said, “She was an LPP (liberal protestant pacifist), but she was a Wesleyan too! She was a rare combination – not so rare in those days – of pietistic Methodism and liberal boston personalism. She went after Reinhold at a meeting of the World Council of Churches. She looked straight at Niebuhr and said, ‘You’re wrong! Christianity isn’t about the lesser of two evils! It’s about being good’ And of course, it was exactly the Wesleyan sanctificationism in her that led her to disagree so sharply with Niebuhr. But Niebuhr swept her away. Harkness had exactly the right theological instincts, but she lacked the conceptual power of Reinhold Niebuhr, so Niebuhr just swept her away…”


    *(Later in a conversation I asked him if Ramsey’s Niebuhrian realism wasn’t chastened by insistence on agape, and he said, ‘yes you could read it that way’).

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Jonathan. I know some fine capital C, capital E, Conservative Evangelicals who are strong for justice and peace. I wish there were more of them.

      Although I share Hauerwas’ critique of Niebuhr, I never shared his love for Paul Ramsey–whom I think sometimes fell BELOW Reinie’s concern for justice. Ramsey justified the Vietnam War (even though it failed all his tests of JWT), but Niebuhr strongly opposed it, for instance. And Reinie was far ahead of Ramsey on women’s equality and on racial justice.

      But I do share his view of Harkness as combining a Wesleyan view of sanctification with Boston personalism–which, as you say, was once far more common than now. Ironically, Rebekah Miles, who is doing so much to help recover Harkness, considers herself a Niebuhrian feminist! But others have been interested in recovering Harkness, too: Marianne Micks, Rosemary Skinner Keller, Jim McClendon.
      Now that Hauerwas has moved further along the Canterbury Trail and become an Anglican/Episcopalian, I wonder whom he’ll raise up as pacifist examples? (The Episcopal Peace Fellowship is largely liberal, afer all. To whom will Stanley look for orthodox pacifism?)

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. Your post was picked up by Google Alerts. I had heard Prof. Harkness’s name but I was not familiar with her work. Thank you for bringing her to greater attention.

    Comment by Nann | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • You’re welcome, Nann. And next month, you can get the reader edited by Rebekah Miles and begin discovering her for yourself.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thank you so much for this succinct and enlightening biography of Georgia Harkness. She has long been one of my faith “sheroes.”

    As a matter of fact, I’m portraying her on March 14 at St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, TX, as part of our observance of Women’s History Month. You’ve added to my store of knowledge as I try to give something of this great woman’s achievements in an 8-minute monologue.

    Much appreciated!

    Comment by Cynthia Astle | March 13, 2010 | Reply

    • Well, thank-you. This Kentuckian will be cheering for you down in TX.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  4. I’m giving thanks for the sainthood of Georgia Harkness I’ve just met so late, but will sing the 3rd verse of This is my Song, she contributed, to the first 2 of Loyd Stone’s…surely a hymn for all time but especially now in this warring world we live in.

    Comment by Karen | November 6, 2011 | Reply

  5. Liberal Christian is an oxymoron.

    Comment by D | November 12, 2011 | Reply

    • I beg to differ–and I ask that you show courtesy when commenting on my blog.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 13, 2011 | Reply

  6. Her books are still in some libraries, so ask your local library to get them for you through interlibrary loan. Amazon lists a few of them used, the University of Northern Iowa library lists more than 20, so you could check there for titles: http://www.uni.edu

    I’m curious about a quote attributed to her, though: “The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.” Any clue about the source and context?

    Comment by ruth1940 | December 2, 2011 | Reply

  7. Fantastic post, which I found 3 years too late. Did you know that one of Georgia Harkness’s students was George McGovern?

    Comment by alexvoltaire | September 5, 2013 | Reply

  8. […] choir, we’re singing a beautiful hymn called, “Hope of the World” by Georgia Elma Harkness (links to lyrics and sound files here, I can’t find a video of anything that even remotely […]

    Pingback by TIGO! | After the Ecstasy, the Laundry... | March 15, 2014 | Reply

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