The Voice of Harvard
The late Reverend Peter J. Gomes leaves a legacy as the University’s symbolic leader
The book is called ‘The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News.’ What’s so scandalous about it?” Stephen Colbert asked his guest on the show.
“I want to sell books,” the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes replied.
During a 2008 taping of “The Colbert Report,” Gomes turned the tables on the ordinarily quick-witted host. Hearing Gomes’ response, all Colbert could do was laugh.
Gomes would come to be known, in part, by his voice—its rich humor, its melody, its power, and its timbre. Though he died in February, his voice—and all that it stood for—will continue to resonate in the memory of those who knew him.
A gay, black, Baptist minister at Harvard, Gomes had great significance to many people during his 35 years as the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. During that time, he became the University’s incomparable spiritual leader and leaves behind a profound legacy. He played an instrumental role in shedding light on Harvard’s history, speaking for the voiceless, spreading “the good news,” and forcefully rallying on behalf of justice.
AN INSTITUTION WITHIN AN INSTITUTION
Last year, Harvard Divinity School Professor Emeritus Harvey G. Cox Jr. decided to graze a cow in Tercentenary Theater, one of the rights associated with his endowed chair but one that had not been practiced in over 200 years.
Worried that security guards might interrupt the occasion, he consulted Gomes, a long-time friend.
Gomes responded with his typically powerful voice and self-assuredness.
“They would never dare,” he said, according to Cox.
Preserving Harvard’s history was an important mission for Gomes, who created the course Religion 1513: “The History of Harvard and Its Presidents.”
A frequent visitor to the Harvard Archives, Gomes would often pour through the annals of the University’s history, according to Jan C. Randolph, his long-time executive assistant who spoke during Gomes’ memorial service.
Even before he made history at Harvard, Gomes was considered Harvard’s historian, according to Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer in History and Literature who has known Gomes since his time at the College.
“There was probably no one here at Harvard who knew the institution both experientially and historically the way Peter did,” McCarthy said.
With the portrait of Gomes hanging in the Nathan Pusey Room in Memorial Church, he has become a part of the Harvard history that he has sought to preserve.