Campus & Community

Divinity School’s Hutchison dies at 75

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Influential scholar of 19th, 20th century American religion

William Hutchison, scholar of American religious history and former co-master of Winthrop House, died of cancer on Dec. 16, 2005, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 75.

At the time of his death, Hutchison was the Charles Warren Research Professor of American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School. From 1968 to 2000, he was the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America.

According to David D. Hall, the John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History, “Hutchison approached the history of religion in the United States not as a subject unto itself but as a crucial aspect of our national story. When he wrote about the Transcendentalists and the ‘modernist’ Protestant theologians of the early 20th century, the subjects of his first two books, he did so assuming that theirs were important voices within the broader scope of American intellectual history. Perhaps his major accomplishment was to reclaim the intellectual stature of the liberal and modernist movements within modern Protestantism. Hutchison showed that these movements accomplished broadly constructive goals, including that of advancing social reform. From his perspective the movement became an indispensable element in the making of progressive America.”

Born in San Francisco on May 21, 1930, Hutchison received a B.A. degree in English and history from Hamilton College in 1951, then earned a second B.A. in modern history from Oxford University in 1953 on a Fulbright Scholarship. He earned a Ph.D. in American history from Yale in 1956.

After teaching at Hunter College, American University, and the University of Wisconsin, he joined the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School in 1968. With his wife, Virginia, he was co-master of Winthrop House from 1974 to 1979.

Hutchison was the author of significant and influential studies of 19th and 20th century religious history, including “The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance” (1959); “The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism” (1976), winner of the National Religious Book Award; “Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions” (1993); and “Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal” (2003). He was also the editor or co-editor of several important works and the author of numerous articles and reviews.

He was a valued teacher and adviser to generations of graduate students, many of whom have become important scholars in their own right. In a 2003 letter nominating Hutchison for the lifetime achievement award of the American Society of Church History (given posthumously Jan. 6), several of his former students wrote of their mentor:

“In an age when freedom of academic thought seems imperiled, WRH personally exemplifies toleration of difference. His students occupy every pocket on the cultural, political, and theological map, and they have published in areas of history far afield from mainline Protestantism. No one who worked with him ever suffered doubt about where WRH himself stood on important issues; at the same time no one ever suffered doubt that they themselves would be judged by any standard except that of scholarly excellence.”

Hutchison’s respect for the ideas and opinions of his students characterized his relationship with his children as well, according to his son, Joseph Hutchison, who remembers family trips in which Hutchison took pains to ensure that his children had an opportunity to absorb the cultural riches surrounding them.

“We were constantly traveling in the summers to places where he was conducting research. I remember packing everyone into the station wagon or going off on trips to Europe and being presented with art and history in a way that wasn’t pedantic, but merely seeing that we were exposed to the history, art, and architecture of the places we visited, and that helped awaken me to an intellectual life.”

Joseph Hutchison also remembers the “dinner seminars” that took place during the family’s evening meal, when the elder Hutchison would officiate at debates on subjects ranging from contemporary politics to English grammar and usage.

“His mind was not asleep or exhausted when he came home,” Joseph Hutchison said.

Elizabeth, the youngest of Hutchison’s four children, who lived with her parents in Winthrop House for the whole five years they were co-masters, remembers the time as a high point in her father’s life when his roles as a teacher and a family man came together.

“That was the height of my father’s involvement with undergraduates, and my parents really enjoyed that time in their lives. They were collaborating on something they were both very good at, working with students. It was like being part of one big extended family with the students, the senior tutors, and the graduate student tutors,” she said.

Divinity School Dean William Graham, who served as Winthrop House senior tutor during the time the Hutchisons were House masters, said that Hutchison was “hugely engaged in the life of the House and with individual students,” many of whom remained in touch and continued to visit the Hutchisons years afterward.

Graham described Hutchison as “a true citizen of the University,” who successfully presided over Winthrop House during a period of transition when the House system was changing from “a rather immature male world to a more mature integrated world in which women were assuming leadership roles and participating fully in House life.” Graham said he learned a lot from the Hutchisons that proved valuable when he later became master of Currier House.

Hutchison leaves his wife, Virginia (Quay); four children, Joseph of Ridgefield, Conn., Catherine Winnie of Rochester, N.Y., Margaret of Berkeley, Calif., and Elizabeth of Albuquerque, N.M.; 10 grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Fletcher of Florida.

Memorial services will be held at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, on April 28 at 2 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the William R. Hutchison Fund, which supports doctoral students in religion at Harvard University. (Checks should be made out to Harvard University, and mailed to the William R. Hutchison Fund, Office of Development and External Relations, Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.)