Campus & Community

Memorial Minute for George H. Williams

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At a meeting of the Faculty of Divinity on February 24, 2003, the following Minute was placed upon the records.

George Huntston Williams, a church historian of extraordinary range and productivity, and an important contributor to the revival of Harvard Divinity School after the second World War, died on October 6, 2000, at the age of 86.

Williams, the son of a socially radical Unitarian minister who held pastorates in Ohio and in Rochester, N.Y., was born in Huntsburg, Ohio, on April 7, 1914. He graduated from St. Lawrence University in 1936, and from Meadville Theological School three years later. He then, having spent one of his undergraduate years in Munich, again studied abroad, this time in Paris and Strasbourg, before taking up an associate pastorate at the Church of the Christian Union (Unitarian) in Rockford, Ill. In Rockford he met Marjorie Derr, an alumna of Oberlin. They were married in July 1941. Marjorie Williams and three of their four children survive him.

In the Fall of 1941, George Williams assumed teaching duties in church history at the Starr King School for the Ministry (Unitarian) in Berkeley, and at the adjacent Pacific School of Religion (Congregational). While holding this dual post he pursued doctoral studies first at the University of California and then at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he received a Th.D. in 1946. His dissertation in medieval church history was published five years later as “The Norman Anonymous of AD 1100.”

In the Fall of 1947 Williams began his career as a teacher at the then small and struggling Harvard Divinity School. In later years he would take understandable pleasure in recalling his first encounter with the Harvard Dean, Willard Sperry. After perfunctory but pleasant greetings, Sperry’s remarks took a sharp downward course: “I’m afraid, Mr. Williams, that there is not much of a future here for you.” During his subsequent active service of thirty-four years at Harvard, not only did Williams erase such apprehensions about his own future; he was also instrumental in securing the school’s future.

After Dean Sperry’s retirement in 1953, the as yet untenured George Williams served for two years as Acting Dean. Among his first decanal acts was an invitation to the newly elected President, Nathan Marsh Pusey, to address the Divinity School at its opening convocation. This was Pusey’s first public address at Harvard as President, and the first time a sitting President had spoken in Andover Hall in nearly half a century. It was no small coup for the young Acting Dean. In a larger sense it underlined the fact that Pusey, himself a churchman, intended to give special attention to the somewhat daunting project of rehabilitating the school.

Williams also sought to secure the place of the Divinity School, within and beyond the University, by lending his special academic talents to the recovery of its history. With the assistance of several colleagues, Williams in 1954 produced the first comprehensive history of the school. The origins of both the University and its Divinity School, as the editor and joint author explained, extended back to Moses, Joshua, and the Hebrew School of the Prophets. A typological strategy of this sort, in its similarity to those of Augustine in “The City Of God,” and Cotton Mather in “Magnalia Christi Americana,” may have seemed to some readers strained and perhaps pretentious. For Williams, however, given his sense of Harvard’s significance, such comparisons were not even faintly hyperbolic.

In 1955, with Douglas Horton safely installed as Dean, Williams turned his full attention to teaching and writing. He was appointed Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History a year later, and in 1981 became Hollis Professor of Divinity. The fact that the Hollis is the oldest endowed chair in the oldest of American universities was never far from his consciousness. Despite rumors to the contrary, he never asserted a statutory right to tether his cow in Harvard Yard. As an historian of the University he knew very well that such rights, doubtless because of some clerical error, had become attached not to his chair but to other, relatively upstart, professorships. Besides, he knew that the Hollis Professor could claim something more important, namely a right of precedence permitting him or her to march at the head of all the faculties in each year’s Commencement procession.

Williams’s classroom performance and demeanor demonstrated the same high seriousness, and conveyed similar convictions about history’s relevance to the affairs and ceremonies of today. Throughout his Harvard career, he taught church history in the grand style that fewer and fewer of his fellow historians were inclined or trained to attempt, offering the entire institutional and doctrinal history of Christianity in a four course sequence.

His students, whether in broad, magisterial courses of that sort or in highly demanding seminar settings, regarded Williams with admiration, awe, and sometimes terror. Erudite, abstracted (he never learned to drive a car), and remarkably focused (in his later years he taught himself medieval Polish), he was clearly a man of singular accomplishments yet, at the same time, was just what most students expected a Harvard Professor of Divinity to be.

In the days when candidates for a Bachelor of Divinity degree were subject to seven written and one oral examination, most seniors prayed that George Williams would not be on their examining committee. It was not that he was in any way unfair or unfeeling; it was rather that, as an academic unaware of any limits to his own scholarship, he seemingly could not comprehend that others, including his colleagues, might not know as much as he did.

His participation in doctoral orals could be especially intimidating for everyone. According to one story, perhaps apocryphal, Williams asked a hapless candidate to speculate on an obscure biographical detail relating to one of the Cappadocian Fathers. An annoyed colleague interrupted in behalf of the student and said. “George, nobody knows that.” Williams is alleged to have replied sweetly, “I know I don’t know, and I’m sure you don’t know, but I wondered if perhaps this young man fresh from his labors knows.” The anecdote captures something of that essence of George Huntston Williams that was at one and the same time exasperating and endearing.

In his spiritual life, his teaching, and his scholarship, Williams was guided by a theologically grounded vision of the oneness but also inclusiveness of Christianity. His ambition, never realized, was to write a book to be called “The New Testament People,” with a characteristically Williams-esque sub-title: “An Ecumenical History of Christianity with Attention to Its Relation at All Important Nodal Points with Judaism and Islam.” One reason why this was a daunting project, even for Williams, was the fact that he considered the heretics, the dissenters, and various wayward sectarians to be as legitimately a part of the story as the established churches of the powerful. Thus he devoted a major part of his attention to the neglected and despised Anabaptists, spiritualists, and rationalists of the “left wing” of the Reformation. The principal result was the nearly thousand-page volume entitled “The Radical Reformation” (1962). But this was preceded in 1957 by his celebrated edition of “Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers,” and was followed by massive documentary volumes representing “The Polish Brethren” (1978) and “Stanislaw Lubieniecki” (1994).

Such works exhibited Williams the specialist at his best. Williams the generalist explored virtually all the Christian centuries, and ranged over subject matter as diverse as American Unitarianism and Universalism, Pentecostalism, the military chaplaincy, ecology, abortion, church-state issues, Hinduism, and Marxism. His Polish historical pursuits, together with his experience as an observer at Vatican II, led him to publish a number of pieces on Roman Catholicism and, in 1981, a substantial study of “The Mind of John Paul II.”

Not too surprisingly, the man who managed this enormous output of books and lectures was most often to be found, on working days and weekends, not at the Divinity School nor at his home in Belmont, but in his Widener Library study. More accurately, perhaps, he was believed to be there even though a visitor to his study might despair of actually “finding” him. If Williams’s inhabiting of Widener was legendary, so was the difficulty of locating him among the thousands of books and documents that rose, all over his workroom, most of the way to a twelve-foot ceiling.

Williams was never content, however, to be typed simply as an academic, nor even as an academic cum ecclesiastic. He also thought of himself as an activist who honored and drew upon the liberal political traditions of his Unitarian inheritance. It was in this capacity that he became something of an unlikely hero to the troubled generation of divinity students at the time of the Vietnam War. On one famous occasion in Boston’s Arlington Street Church, he was moved by the passion of his own rhetoric and the emotional heat of the moment to perform what was widely perceived, in the Vietnam era, as the ultimate symbolic act of protest. That is, he began to burn draft cards – in this case in the pulpit. So unanticipated was this action on the part of the venerable professor that it apparently left the principal speaker, William Sloan Coffin, at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

That of course did not last. But George Williams’s taste for political theater had nearly provoked a riot. Clad in his flowing academic gown, his florid face crowned with a most impressive mane of white hair, his voice an open diapason in full cry, he had for a memorable moment become one of those radical reformers of sixteenth century Europe to whom in quieter times he had devoted so much of his scholarly attention.

Respectfully submitted,
William R. Hutchison, Chair
Peter J. Gomes
C. Conrad Wright