I’m not a Methodist. I WAS raised Methodist and most of my family of origin are still Methodist, but I have been an Anabaptist-type Baptist for longer than I was Methodist. So, I present this as an “interested outsider,” rather than an insider. I offer these interpretations especially to Methodist friends and colleagues inviting feedback–agreement, disagreement, modification. alternative proposals, etc. The discussion should prove interesting.
1) Methodism as Modified Episcopalianism. In this perspective, Methodism is a variation on Anglo-Catholic Christianity. Neither John nor Charles Wesley left the Church of England. British Methodists have entered into a covenant with the Church of England. Methodism is an evangelical/pietist renewal (or internal critique) of Anglicanism. In the United Methodist Church, the bishops are the institutional home of this perspective–whether or not they think reunion with the Anglican Communion desirable. (This may also be true for the African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations, but I have never met a bishop in any of the forms of African Methodism, so I couldn’t say.) Had the Anglican hierarchy welcomed (not resisted) the Wesley’s Evangelical Renewal movement, it would have remained in the Church of England.
2) Santification as Key: Methodism as Holiness Movement. This view doesn’t see the 19th C. Holiness Movement, with dozens of new denominations spinning off from Methodism, as a new development, but as the original heart of Methodism itself. Had Methodism remained true to its Holiness heart, this view goes, there would never have arisen Free Methodists, Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Church, the Church of God (Anderson, IN-non-Pentecostal), etc. Wesley was influenced by Moravians, who were radical Pietists, and also by the “salvation as deification” theme of Eastern Orthodoxy. The essence of Methodism, in this view, is a Pietist-Holiness emphasis that includes both individual and social sanctification.
3) “Heart Religion”: Methodism as Doctrinal Pluralism. This is the theme of liberal Methodism. John Wesley had said that he didn’t want Methodists to be known “for their particular opinions.” Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate was not an intellectual change of mind, but finding his heart “strangely warmed.” This interpretation allows for a wide diversity of doctrinal conviction, united by an inner salvation experience. Examples would include the Boston Personalists (e.g., A. C. Knudson, Bordon Parker Bowne, Georgia Harkness, & L. Harold DeWolf), the many Methodist Process Theologians (John B. Cobb, Marjorie Schuchocki, Randy L. Maddox, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Schubert M. Ogdon), some feminist and liberation theologians.
4)Methodism as Part of the Free Church/Believers’ Church Tradition. In this view, Methodism’s soteriology and ecclesiology places it among the Believers’ Church traditions that include the Hussites, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Friends/Quakers, Baptists, the Stone-Campbell movement, Pentecostals. The major difference is that Methodists retain infant baptism since Wesley hadn’t attempted to formulate an entire “systematic” theology and accepted the structures of the Church of England. (Anabaptists–and Nazarenes–would say that Methodists are confused about baptism. Infant baptism doesn’t fit their soteriology or ecclesiology.) The social sanctification, the many Methodist struggles for justice and numerous Methodist pacifists are all explained by this perspective say its proponents. Some in this perspective include the late Franklin H. Littel, Justo Gonzalez, James Lawson, James Farmer, Elsa Tamez, Theodore W. Jennings, Donald W. Dayton.
Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are different ways to “slice” the same phenomenon. Do my Methodist friends find this helpful? I await your comments and dialogue with much anticipation.
On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May). He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years. Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa. (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square. I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)
Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas. He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here: Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity. True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology, James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.
Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus). During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.
In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it. I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism. But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).
He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists. Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions. Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament. Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers. The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity. They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.
Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil. In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression. He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil. (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]). He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence: A Third Way. Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)
Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church. Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes, and Ken L. Sehested. See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.
Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period. See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.
Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist. I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.
People connect to the work of peace and justice, if they do, at the heart of their personal identities. For most people, throughout history, the heart of their identities is intimately connected to their religious convictions. Even for the non-religious, some controlling philosophy or ideology substitutes for a religious identity. So, denominational peace fellowships developed early in the 20th C. as ways for people to connect their faiths to their work for peace. Many of these denominational peace fellowships are directly connected to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and others have informal connections. This history is for the U.S. scene, although there are denominational peace fellowships around the world..
The “historic peace churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren/Dunkers) have been normatively pacifist for centuries,but they were actually slower to develop peace fellowships than other denominations. Further, because each had strands of tradition that included “separation from the world,” they were often hesitant to join ecumenical or interfaith peace groups. Thus, the beginning of peace fellowships in the U.S. came from groups whose majorities were not pacifist–and could even be hostile to peacemaking activities. The peace fellowships of Protestant denominations came first. In the aftermath of World War I, a huge revulsion toward war swept through the U.S. and its churches, especially, but not only through its mainline liberal Protestant churches. It is safe to say that the years 1919-1940 constitute the period in which Christian pacifism came the closest to being the majority view of U.S. Christians. (Non-Christians in the U.S. also adopted anti-war views in larger numbers than at any time since the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1830s. Pacifists and near-pacifists would not be in the U.S. in anywhere close to the numbers between the World Wars until thel late 1960s as the Vietnam War dragged on seemingly forever.) One strong motivation for the formation of denominational peace fellowships was the protection of the rights of conscientious objectors. Most conscientious objectors to World War I were imprisoned for the length of the U.S. involvement in the war and the peace fellowships wanted to protect the rights of conscientious objectors if and when another war came. If you are not a member of one of the “Historic Peace Churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren), then participation in a denominational peace fellowship was one of the ways to show a military draft board that one objected to participation in war as a matter of religious conviction.
The earliest denominational peace fellowship was the Methodist Peace Fellowship which formed in the 1920s. The founder of Methodism in 18th C. Britain, John Wesley, was not a pacifist (because he was too much a supporter of the Church of England as a state church), but he came close–considering war to be the most visible sign of human falleness and sinfulness. American Methodists, however, had been strong supporters of the American Revolutionary War and the influence of Wesley’s views on war and slavery (which he condemned in the strongest terms) was slim in the years when American Methodism strove to prove itself as a truly AMERICAN denomination. But the recovery of a Christian peace witness began with Methodist participation in the Abolitionist movement–thanks to the huge leadership of Quakers in that movement. After the Civil War, many Methodists saw pacifism as a natural outgrowth of Wesleyan emphasis on “holiness” or “entire sanctification.” (Indeed, numerous Wesleyan Holiness denominations split off from mainline Methodism out of a sense that the latter was losing this emphasis. Many of these Holiness offshoot groups, e.g., Free Methodists, the Church of God [non-Pentecostal], the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Brethren-in-Christ[a denomination that combined influences from Anabaptism and from Wesleyan Pietism], and the Evangelical United Brethren [a group that would, in the 1950s, merge with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church], were pacifist–at least at their beginnings.) The rise of the Boston Personalist movement in theology, and the Social Gospel, increased the rise of Christian pacifism among American Methodists until, by World War I, pacifism was ALMOST a majority view in American Methodism and the Methodist Episcopal Church was recognized as a “peace church” by the U.S. military. (The Methodist Episcopal Church–South, formed as a split in American Methodism over slavery, had fewer pacifists, but it was still a sizable minority.) The strength of the pacifist witness in American Methodism waned beginning with World War II, although numerous Methodist pacifists continue to this day. Still, the Methodist Peace Fellowship itself became increasingly weaker in the 1980s and died out altogether in the 1990s. Organizationally, the witness of gospel nonviolence in the United Methodist Church has been maintained by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, but many of the more evangelical United Methodist pacifists avoid joining MFSA because of its perceived theological liberalism–especially its strongly inclusive stance toward LGBT folks and its support for legal and accessible abortion as part of its commitment to women’s procreative choice. (Both are stands largely rejected by evangelical Protestants, including evangelical United Methodists.) A “Pan-Wesleyan” peace fellowship began in the 1980s to fill the gap left by the death of the MPF. Methodists United for Peace with Justice began in 1987 as a response to the United Methodist Bishops’ pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, which condemned nuclear weapons and called for the development of theologies of “just peace.” Membership is open not only to United Methodists, but to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Church-Zion (AMEZ), the Christian Methodist Church (CMC), the Free Methodist Church, and the Free Methodist Church. Because MUPJ takes no stand on LGBT issues or abortion, evangelical pacifists among these branches of the Methodist family are more likely to join it.
The oldest denominational peace fellowship in the U.S. in continual existence is the Disciples Peace Fellowship, founded in 1935 as the peace fellowship of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the more mainline liberal branch of the Stone-Campbell movement that grew out of the Second Great Awakening in 19th C. America. Many early leaders in this movement, such as Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and David Lipscomb (1831-1917) were pacifist. As the movement splintered along both cultural and theological lines into the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), pacifism was strong among all branches until World War II, though only the Disciples formed a denominational peace fellowship or took part in ecumenical efforts to end war or make peace. (Note, outside the U.S., denominations related to the Stone-Campbell movement are not divided along a liberal-conservative axis. In the UK and Australia, for instance, the Churches of Christ relate to the U.S. Disciples, as does the Evangelical Christian Church of Canada.) After World War II, pacifism declined sharply in all branches of the Stone-Campbell movement, though a strong pacifist minority remains in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). By contrast, the independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ have become some of the most militarist of all U.S. Christians, with few remembering the pacifist roots of many of their early leaders. (There HAS been an effort by Stone-Campbell movement historians to recover this early witness, the major result of which has been the beginnings of a peace studies program at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN (related to the Churches of Christ), though most of the professors teaching in the Institute for Conflict Resolution do not share the pacifism of David Lipscomb.) One strength of the Disciples Peace Fellowship is its program of “peace interns” who spread gospel nonviolence to youth at church camps.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship began in 1939 and today connects with the global Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
The denominational peace fellowship I know best, of course, is also the peace organization with which I have been most deeply involved:The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. In its current form, BPFNA was founded in Louisville, KY in 1984 out of a meeting of Southern Baptist peacemakers with American (Northern) Baptists who belonged to the (Northern) Baptist Peace Fellowship which was founded in 1940. The BPFNA is a grassroots Baptist peace fellowship that has members in at least 15 different Baptist denominations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It also has strong ties to the British Baptist Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) and similar groups around the world. One does not need to be a pacifist to be a member of the BPFNA, just committed to the call on all Christians to be peacemakers, but it is safe to say that BPFNA gathers together more Christian pacifists in Baptist life than any other organization. BPFNA has ties to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and is represented on the boards of Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.
Other Christian peace fellowships include: Adventist Peace Fellowship (formed in October 2001 as a recovery of earlier–mostly lost–pacifist convictions among Seventh Day Adventists and in response to American militarism following the attacks of 11 September 2001), Brethren Peace Fellowship (1946, the ecumenical and interfaith peace witness of the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches), The Catholic Peace Fellowship (1965, renewed in 2001, with a primary focus on protecting and spreading conscientious objection to all war among U.S. Catholics), Church of God Peace Fellowship (1964 with roots in the Interracial Fellowship founded in the 1930s and deeper roots going back to the initial pacifist witness of the Church of God [Anderson, IN–Non-Pentecostal] in the 19th C.), Lutheran Peace Fellowship (1994–members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the USA), Orthodox Peace Fellowship (founded during the Vietnam War and re-launched in 1984; connects Orthodox Christians globally in peacemaking. Pacifism is not required, but active work for peace is seen as “not optional” for Christians), Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice (founded in 2002 as The Pentecostal Peace Fellowship and quickly expanding to the Pentecostal and Charismatic Peace Fellowship, the current name was adopted to stress both the essential connection of peace and justice in the gospel, and to avoid confusion with another peace group listed below; early Pentecostals were pacifist but this witness was progressively lost after World War I. PCPWJ attempts to recover, deepen, and expand the radical nonviolence of early Pentecostalism.), Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (1940s).
Noticeably missing (considering the peace witness of their roots) is any peace fellowship of Moravians, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or the Evangelical Free Church, or the Church of the Nazarene. Also noticeably missing (considering its many pacifists) is a peace fellowship related to the United Church of Christ.
Of the Historic Peace Churches, only the Church of the Brethren has a Brethren Peace Fellowship, but it is small these days and has no website. The peace witness of the Church of the Brethren is most strongly expressed organizationally in On Earth Peace, the official peacemaking program of the Church of the Brethren. Likewise the Mennonite Central Committee (founded in 1920), which unites many different Mennonite and Amish groups in the U.S. and Canada on matters of missions, hunger and disaster relief, development aid, and peacebuilding, performs many of the functions of a grassroots peace fellowship in traditions that are not rooted in a historic peace witness throughout all parts of the Mennonite identity. In the largest of these groups, the Mennonite Church, USA, there is also a Mennonite Peace & Justice Support Network, linking and supporting the peace work of Mennonite congregations, much like peace fellowships do in other traditions. Among Friends/Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee , whose history I sketched briefly in an earlier post in this series, acts as a peace fellowship and is an official affiliate of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
After World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust (with its roots in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism) awakened ecumenical Christian pacifists to the need for interfaith peace work. The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) broadened its identity and membership basis from Christian pacifists to interfaith pacifists–as did several of IFOR’s national branches such as the U.S. FOR. (Other branches, such as in the UK, remained specifically Christian.) This led to “denominational” peace fellowships connected to the FOR (USA) from other world religions, beginning with the Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941 to support Jewish conscientious objectors). Today, such peace fellowships in other faiths include The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (1968), The Muslim Peace Fellowship (Ansar as-Salam, founded in 1994), and the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship. (Both Unitarians and Universalists began in the 19th C. as liberal Christian denominations and several prominent Unitarians were among the founders of the U. S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But UUs today do not widely consider themselves to be Christian, but an interfaith collection of “free congregations” with Christian roots. So, I list the UUPF in this interfaith section and not among the Christian denominational peace fellowships.) To date, I know of no Hindu peace fellowship, no Jain or Sikh peace fellowship, no Ba’hai peace fellowship, Other interfaith peace groups with less connection to the FOR and Christian denominational peace fellowships will be profiled in future posts.
I have just learned that Rev. Dr. John M. Swomley died earlier this week (16 Aug. 2010) at age 95. A United Methodist minister, pacifist Christian, and nonviolent activist, Swomley had influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “pilgrimage to nonviolence.” He was Exec. Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, president of the Methodist Peace Fellowship, helped to desegregate the armed forces after WWII and worked to end conscription. He taught Christian ethics for years at St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, MO and served a period as head of the Society of Christian Ethics.
A tribute is found on the website of the F.O.R. here.
Taking up my challenge in the comments after the Wesley post, Jonathan Marlowe, UMC minister who blogs at The Ivy Bush, will write a series of posts profiling those he decides are the Ten (10) Most Important Methodist Theologians Since the Wesleys. [update: He will do 20! 1st installment up today!] He has 16 candidates so far. 🙂 Especially (but not only) if you hail from the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition, check out his list and upcoming series. Discuss/debate with his choices. I have too often heard non-Wesleyans and non-Methodists (especially Lutherans and the Reformed) claim that the movement is long on organization and short on theological depth. I don’t think that is true and I hope this series displays some of the theological depth in this form of global Christianity. I have also challenged Jonathan to follow the series with a list of “New Voices” in the tradition from around the world.
Here’s Jonathan’s current list of 16 which he hopes to whittle to 10:
Contemporary with John and Charles Wesley in the 18th C.:
John Fletcher (first “systematic” Methodist theologian), Thomas Coke, and the Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield.
Since that era (in no particular order). Those marked with an asterisk * are not known to me:
Edwin Lewis *
Borden Parker Bowne
Edgar Sheffield (E.S.) Brightman
Thomas C. Oden
Stanley Hauerwas (recently become an Episcopalian)
E. Stanley Jones
Richard B. Hays
Because I want discussion to move to Jonathan’s blog, I will close comments on this post–not my usual practice.
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.