Campus & Community

William Robert Hutchison

long read

Faculty of Arts and Sciences – Memorial Minute

This Memorial Minute was delivered to the Harvard Faculty of Divinity on September 18, 2006.

William Robert Hutchison, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, Emeritus, died on December 16, 2005, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in the presence of his immediate family. He was 75. Hutchison came to Harvard in 1968 as the first incumbent of the Warren chair; after his retirement in 2000, he became Charles Warren Research Professor of American Religious History. In January 2006, the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History included a session on his work to which he was to have participated. At its conclusion, he was posthumously honored with the Society’s Lifetime Achievement award.

He was a friend, relating to his students with the sympathy – not empathy – born of essential kindness. But beyond that he was also a mentor, never telling his students what to think, but how to think. And in the process of teaching us how to think, he taught us to take responsibility for the decisions we make, the words we write, and the lives we live….

Bill grew up in a distinctively Protestant world. His father, Ralph C. Hutchison, earned a master of divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1922 and, after being ordained as a Presbyterian minister, took a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Ralph Hutchison entered the field of higher education, a decision that led to a position at Alborz College in Tehran (1926-31) and to two college presidencies, the second at his alma mater, Lafayette College (1945-1957). He was also a long-time trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary, which declared after his death in 1966 that “Dr. Hutchison loved his church and served it well.” To his only son, then on the eve of graduating from college, he counseled choosing “a high vocational objective on an idealistic basis.”

The ministry would not suit the son, but higher education most certainly would. After graduating from Hamilton College in 1951, followed by two years at Oxford on a Fulbright, Bill entered the history department at Yale University, and completed a PhD in 1956. His mentor at Yale, a “perennial teacher and friend,” was Ralph Henry Gabriel, an intellectual historian who emphasized the close connections between Protestantism and democracy. Bill taught briefly at Hunter College, and then, for a decade, at American University, where he served for six years as chair of American Studies. At Harvard, he participated in the History of American Civilization for many years and taught a course on American religious history in the Core. Patiently he built up a cadre of doctoral students in American religious history drawn from several departments and, to aid them in their training, established in 1972 a bi-weekly colloquium in which they could try out their work. For five years (1974-79) he and his wife Virginia served as masters of Winthrop House. Most visibly, he succeeded Mason Hammond as the “caller” at each University commencement, declaiming stories and cajoling marchers-to-be with ever-fresh enthusiasm.

Outside the university, he became a member of Cambridge Friends Meeting once he and his family moved here in 1968, though doing so meant leaving the Presbyterianism of his family. Honors that came to him included a Guggenheim fellowship for research leading to his book on modernism, which won a National Religious History award, an honorary degree from his alma mater, and, in 1981, election as president of the American Society of Church History. When he retired, friends, family, and students established the William R. Hutchison Fund to benefit doctoral students in American religious history.

Bill did much to situate American religious history in an international context. Doing so had a personal dimension. Throughout his life he exercised a fondness for foreign travel, sometimes with research in mind, sometimes not. He was affiliated with the Free University in Berlin in 1976, traveled to India and Sri Lanka in 1981 as a Fulbright lecturer, lectured elsewhere in Asia in 1983 on behalf of the USIA, and twice was a visitor at the University of Uppsala.

Bill consistently pursued subjects that seemed in need of recovery and reappraisal. He was troubled by the ignorance about the past apparent in many proclamations of turning points or transformations, when, as he himself would demonstrate, any longer term view suggested otherwise. In the well-received book that concluded his career, Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (2003), he pointed out that Protestants in the United States had been contending with diversity as soon as there were Protestants in the country. What did change was the nature of this diversity itself and how it figured in the thinking of the major Protestant denominations.

In his Yale dissertation, which received the Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History and was published as The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (1959), he had demonstrated that some of the Transcendentalists had practiced interestingly experimental ministries. He moved on to rethink the substance of late nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, a movement that some historians and theologians had been characterizing as “naïve.” Bill disagreed. He did so on personal grounds, declaring in the preface to The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976) that his “respect for” the movement “had increased substantially” as he worked on it, and that the “much-scorned liberal alternatives” to neo-orthodoxy struck him as more convincing. The book remains an authoritative description of the “modernist” strain.

Soon thereafter, he turned to the much-neglected history of Protestant overseas missions. Family connections played a part in leading him to describe how the meaning of “foreign missions” had changed from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. A key turning point came when the liberal wing of Protestantism relinquished its critique of other world religions and substituted different kinds of service for evangelism, including the educational projects in which his father had participated. Next came a project on the Protestant “mainstream” generously supported by the Lily Endowment, and for which Bill enlisted some 40 other scholars. Did such a mainstream exist, and had it experienced significant “decline” in the first half of the twentieth century, as many sociologists were asserting? Although the group he assembled to debate these questions disagreed on how to answer them, Bill and the 11 contributors to Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1989) mainly answered “yes” to the first of these questions and mostly “no” to the second, Bill himself insisting that a Protestant “establishment” had persisted well into mid-century.

Bill stood apart from American triumphalism, which he detested on moral and political grounds. He accepted the premise, affirmed by his knowledge of the religious history of western Europe, that Christianity in America had taken on distinctive features that marked it as “American,” but he was among the very few historians to recognize that some of these would-be “American” features occurred elsewhere, an observation that animates a book of essays in comparative religious history he co-edited with the German scholar Hartmut Lehmann, Many Are Chosen: Divine Election & Western Nationalism (1994), and he was virtually alone in his fascination with the European appropriations of “American” style religion, a project on which he was working at the time of his death.

Bill’s capacities as a teacher were especially evident in his seminars and the colloquium. His forte was intellectual history, yet he welcomed other kinds of work, and the many dissertations he directed or helped as an adviser mirror, in their catholicity, the breadth of his own sympathies. One of his former students, speaking about him at a memorial service in April 2006, emphasized this aspect of Bill’s teaching: “He was a friend, relating to his students with the sympathy-not empathy-born of essential kindness. But beyond that he was also a mentor, never telling his students what to think, but how to think. And in the process of teaching us how to think, he taught us to take responsibility for the decisions we make, the words we write, and the lives we live. … By his own example of respect for the integrity of each student’s mind and spirit, he helped us become stronger, more thoughtful, more caring men and women.” Bearing in mind the tribute Princeton Theological Seminary paid to his father, we may recast it to suit the son and Harvard professor: “He loved his university and his students, and served them well.”

For his wife and family Bill had unbounded affection. Virginia (Ginny) Quay grew up in a Presbyterian milieu with strong inflections of the missionary movement. Her father, an ordained minister, was YMCA secretary in Egypt for many years before ending his career in administration at Princeton Seminary. Bill and Ginny were married in Princeton in 1952, with their fathers officiating. She survives him, as do their four children: Joseph, Catherine, Margaret, and Elizabeth, and 10 grandchildren. Theirs was a family that traveled together and climbed mountains together; Bill and Ginny also served as surrogate family to many of his students. Bill’s endless tinkering with house-building and repairs also figured in the household culture. After he retired he joined the Chorus Pro Musica and participated in a concert in November 2005.

In early spring 2005 Bill was diagnosed with stomach cancer. By mid fall he was resolutely optimistic about the outcome and remained hopeful even after he was rushed to the hospital shortly after the Pro Musica concert. He wanted, especially, to participate in the Church History session on his work, and entertained the possibility of doing so by speaker phone until a few days before the end. Many members of Cambridge Meeting as well as friends, colleagues, and former students gathered for a memorial service at the Friends Meetinghouse on January 21, 2006, and another service followed at Memorial Church on April 28, with members of the Chorus Pro Musica reprising music from the November concert.

Bill’s deeper qualities as a person are not easily captured. For several of the persons who spoke at the Friends service, the essence of the Bill they knew was a sense of humor manifested in his fondness for puns and the comic routines he liked to perform. For others, he was characterized by an unusual capacity for affection. In remembering their teacher and friend, former students have voiced a feeling of love for him, a feeling he reciprocated. Another way of understanding him is to return to the word “liberal.” Of its many meanings, Bill embodied three: an internationalism rooted in family history and his father’s theology, an optimistic preference for conciliation, and a confidence in human nature. When he felt the winds of change blowing through religious history, his principal anxiety was not that he must fall in step with the maddening crowd, but that proclamations of the “new” might become divisive. He thought well of a great many people, and his confidence in others has borne particular fruit in the lives of his former students.

At the April 28 service, one of the writers of this minute spoke of Bill’s importance as a moral exemplar and of having counted on his presence as an ethical person in the midst of confusing or contested situations. He is no longer with us in all the ways that made him so agreeable a friend and colleague, but it is heartening to recall the title of John Norton’s life of the great New England minister John Cotton, “Abel being dead yet speaketh.”

Respectfully submitted,

David D. Hall (chair)
James Reed
Grant Wacker (Duke University Divinity School)