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Allergic to Pomposity

Requiescat: John Woolverton

David L. Holmes gathers the recollections of colleagues and friends to create a living memory of an eminent historian of the Episcopal Church. — Ed.

Episcopal historian John Woolverton died on June 25 at his home in Cumberland, Maine. He was 88. A native of New York City, Woolverton graduated from the Groton School and Harvard College. Following service in World War II, he took an MDiv at Virginia Theological Seminary. After three years in parish ministry, he received a PhD in church history from Columbia University.

In 1950, Woolverton married Margaret Richardson, who subsequently played a leading role in promoting the study of women’s history in the Episcopal Church. In 1958 he was called to the faculty of Virginia Theological Seminary. The Very Rev. Harry Krauss, former dean of the Cathedral of St. John in Providence, who occasionally babysat for the Woolvertons while a student at the seminary, described their home in Alexandria as a comfortable “delight,” full of antiques and books.

Named in 1970 to the seminary’s Kinsolving Chair of Christianity in America, Woolverton served as mentor to a generation of Episcopal clergy and scholars. “He was enormously well prepared and a very amusing lecturer,” Dean Krauss said. “And he was very glad to have an active difference of opinion with students.”

Robert Prichard, who now holds the Kinsolving Chair, remembers that Woolverton championed the use of primary sources in the classroom. Prichard emphasized his predecessor’s “amazing ability to track trends in scholarship in the Church at large.” In Prichard’s view, two convictions — that a historian needs to be aware of larger intellectual currents and that texts from the past have relevance today — provide a key to Woolverton’s teaching and scholarship.

In 1981-82 Woolverton taught as a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary. One of his students there, James Comey, now director of the FBI, described him as among the “handful of people outside of one’s family who have a profound impact on who you are and who you become.”

Comey remembers Woolverton as an extraordinary teacher, but also as more than that. “For me,” Comey said, “he became a trusted advisor and lifelong friend. His kindness, decency, wisdom, and humility were both an inspiration and a practical model. … More importantly, he taught me what it was to be a lifelong learner. He taught me that a person confident enough to be humble was someone who could connect with people of any age, any background.”

In 1978, Woolverton became the fourth editor of the Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Denominational historical magazines tend to struggle, since the number of persons sufficiently interested in their denomination’s history is ultimately small. “How far into the nave do our articles penetrate?” Woolverton asked in an early editorial. “How far into the rector’s study?”

Insightful, imaginative, and scholarly, the new editor broadened the coverage of the journal. Overseeing its change of name to Anglican and Episcopal History, he expanded its breadth and depth. He focused many issues on specific themes. He prodded his contributors to be aware of the larger intellectual currents that had influenced their subjects.

During his editorship, the number of articles on women, on African Americans and other groups, on parishes at worship, and on the 20th century markedly increased. By the time Woolverton retired in 2007, he had transformed the journal into a respected scholarly resource for worldwide Anglican history.

In 1983, Woolverton left Virginia Seminary to become rector of Trinity Church in Portland, Maine, a parish that had experienced division over the charismatic movement. In six years as rector he became, in the words of his assistant, the Rev. Katherine Grieb, “a real pastor of the people. He would go to their homes. He would go to the hospital. He was there for them.”

Grieb, now Meade Professor in Biblical Interpretation at VTS, described Woolverton as a “splendid preacher.” Lay member and former vestryman Merton Henry said the quality of the preaching during Woolverton’s ministry inspired him and his wife not to miss church.

Each of Woolverton’s sermons, he said, “was a major intellectual exercise tied to the Scripture readings for the day.” Henry and others praised the high level at which the parish’s adult education classes moved during the Woolverton-Grieb years.

In 1989, Woolverton retired from Trinity Church to concentrate on editing and writing. Its tensions were so healed that the parish was able to call a woman rector as his successor. “He did a great job of getting things on an even keel,” Henry said.

Woolverton’s schedule of classes, preaching, editing, correspondence, and parish work allowed little time for writing. In 1984, he published his authoritative Colonial Anglicanism in North America, but the bulk of his publishing occurred after he left Trinity Church.

In 1995, he tapped previously unused primary sources to write The Education of Phillips Brooks, an engaging monograph on the formative years of the leading Episcopal preacher of the 19th century. Ten years later he published Robert H. Gardiner and the Reunification of Worldwide Christianity, reading 11,000 letters of his subject to do so. Praised for its “rich historical context, skilled analysis, and convincing interpretations,” it was the first biography of the layman who led an often reluctant Episcopal Church into the 20th-century ecumenical movement.

At the time of his death, Woolverton had completed A Christian and a Democrat. Not yet published, the study traces the New Deal not only to urgent economic and social needs but also to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Christian heritage and belief. One reader described the manuscript as “something rare — an intellectual history of a president intermingled with politics, biography, religion, and other topics.”

In personal characteristics, Woolverton was kind, passionate, supportive, and faithful. “He loved to play the part of a gruff academic,” said his rector, the Rev. Nina Pooley of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Yarmouth, Maine. “But the smile on his face … would betray him every time.”

He had a well-developed sense of humor and a mischievous side. Pooley recalled that Woolverton wrote a collect. “Lord Jesus Christ,” it began, “as you chided the self-righteous, give us the gift of humor that we may know ourselves as you see us.” Gil Birney, a former student, remembers Woolverton advising seminary students that “the best solution to doubt is an armful of selfless tasks.”

If Woolverton was above all a teacher, he was also a churchman. Raised during the era of inter-party tensions, he represented — as Virginia Seminary long did — what one of his students described as “the old fashioned low-church position.”

In Grieb’s words, Woolverton’s church style stemmed from an “allergy to pompous, pretentious rites and people. He didn’t like the self-importance that infects some ecclesiastical life. He just wouldn’t have it.”

The Very Rev. William Stafford, his former colleague at VTS and an Anglo-Catholic, sees a link between Woolverton’s allegiance to the theology and ecclesiology of Karl Barth and to low-church Anglicanism. “Sovereign was his loyalty to the disrupting word of God in Jesus Christ,” Dean Stafford said. “His dislike of Anglo-Catholicism with its hierarchy of clergy, seven sacraments, images, tropes, gestures, chants, and symbols was that he thought it both obscured that Word … and disempowered the laity, the people of God, the real church.
“John loved teaching, loved students, loved beauty, so long as beauty did not become a Pelagian means of ascent to God,” Stafford said.

Many things mattered greatly to Woolverton. He was profoundly concerned with Christian theology. He took social justice seriously, as he did American politics. And in an interesting way, he tended to oppose (as prior generations of Virginia churchmen had) excessive worldliness on the part of Episcopalians.

In 1984, Virginia Theological Seminary awarded Woolverton the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. The board’s citation declared:

For a quarter of a century you taught Church History at Virginia Seminary … inspiring generations of students with your learning, passion, and wit.

In those twenty-five years, and since, you have shown us that your heart is in the Protestant Reformation, your scholarship in the Protestant Episcopal Church, your citizenship in this present protesting age, and your authority in the obedient Christ. …

As a scholar, teacher … editor … and pastor, you exemplify the best in the tradition of this school.

Six weeks before his death, Woolverton was still running a mile every day in Maine. A statement attributed to several Anglican writers goes: “These evangelicals die well.” John Woolverton died surrounded by Charles, Mary, Susan, and Arthur, his four children. “We sang hymns” in the final days, Arthur wrote. “We laughed, and we cried.”

David L. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary. His books include A Brief History of the Episcopal Church and The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama.

Images: John Woolverton as a young man (courtesy David L. Holmes) and upon his retirement in 2007 as editor of Anglican and Episcopal History (Historical Society of the Episcopal Church).


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