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Harvard's Moral Compass

Here and Now: A Profile of Peter J. Gomes

By Justin C. Worland, Crimson Staff Writer

The late Pusey Minister and Plummer Professor of Christian Moral Peter J. Gomes was an anomaly.

“An African-American from Plymouth, a Baptist in Memorial Church, a Republican in Cambridge, out-of-the-closet and out-of-the-box,” University President Drew G. Faust said during a eulogy for the late minister this April.

Gomes’ distinctiveness may make him the odd man out when grouped with his eight predecessors in the role of minister at Harvard. For many reasons, his appointment to the position 35 years ago certainly raised eyebrows.

But Gomes’ selection during the turbulent 1960s and 70s was an early indicator of the evolution that the University would undergo during Gomes’ long tenure. In his 35 years at the helm of the church, Gomes came to embody and define the Harvard of today—an eccentric, eclectic mixture of increasingly diverse individuals at the forefront of progress and learning.

Growing up in Plymouth, he was surrounded by history. As a child he would walk through the town’s local cemetery, recalling from memory the names of America’s oldest settlers on the headstones. In his later years, his time in Plymouth was often spent at the Old Colony Club, one of the oldest all-male social clubs in America, and the Pilgrim Society, where he once served as president.

“As an African American growing up in Plymouth he was of course a minority,” Harvard Divinity School Professor Emeritus Harvey G. Cox Jr. said. “It’s rather indicative of how Peter was able to absorb, in his own way, traditions that were not biologically his own and make them his own. His whole life he was so steeped in the history of his hometown.”

Gomes adapted to his position at Harvard in much the same way. When he entered Harvard Divinity School in 1965, the United States and the world of religion were seemingly influx. Protests against the Vietnam War began to coalesce around the country, the Civil Rights movement seemed to be gaining ground, and the influence of religion appeared to be on the decline.

“In the 1970s, when Gomes took over, it was the low point of religious life in the United States and certainly on college campuses,” said Jonathan C. Page ’02, a former Epps Fellow at Memorial Church.

While as an African American he may have been a remarkable choice to lead the church at Harvard, a University where the faculty was still dominated by white men, Gomes’ commitment to tradition and to Harvard made him a logical, if unusual, selection. His course “The History of Harvard and Its Presidents” remained popular with students at the College for years. He took pains to write a history of the Hollis professorship at Harvard Divinity School. When Cox wanted to graze a cow in Harvard Yard—a tradition that had been practiced by past holders of his endowed professorship—Gomes jumped on the opportunity to bring tradition back to life.

But, perhaps most significantly, Gomes was able to adapt traditions—giving them his own flair and allowing them to survive in a new era.

“I’ve given my life to Harvard, and I have a wonderful sense of the great continuity,” he said, reflecting on his career in an interview with The New Yorker. “I can see the Puritans sailing in, I can see Henry Dunster’s first Commencement, and the incredible thing is that I can see me in it!”

Viewing his career in retrospect, Gomes can perhaps be seen in the center of Harvard’s religious tradition. The ability to command a strong following with his sermons—solidly grounded in the Bible, but offering a different, more progressive interpretation—was a feat in itself that reflected his ability to merge the traditional with the contemporary.

“Many of us—when asked our denomination—continue to answer as Skip Gates once did: ‘We are Gomesians, sir,’” Kennedy School Professor and longtime member of the church’s congregation David R. Gergen said of Gomes’ traditional yet progressive Christianity.

This blend, along with his rhetorical abilities, maintained attendance at the church while the number of churchgoers declined at Protestant university churches across the country. And while Gomes’ role at Harvard extended beyond his preaching duties at Memorial Church, religion informed those functions and his everyday life.

“It was oftentimes hard to see Peter’s faith come through in his public persona at Harvard ... I was very struck that at the core of it all was this very strong Christian faith,” Page said. “The more you got to know him, the more you got to see that deep faith.”

Gomes’ open door created an abundance of stories featuring Gomes helping Harvard students through tough times. But his efforts in that regard were grounded in his faith as well.

“It is not what would [Jesus] do, but what would he want from me?” said Gomes, rephrasing the bumper sticker slogan on Charlie Rose in 2007. Part of Jesus’ expectations, Gomes said, was loving others freely, something he strove to do at Harvard.

“Peter loved freely and was loved in return,” Faust said.

But by virtue of his unique character and abilities, his role as a spiritual beacon extended far beyond Harvard. As Memorial Church Associate Minister and longtime friend Dorothy A. Austin said, Gomes “brought religion into politics in ways that illumined our thought. At important moments, he stood up for things that mattered—for freedom, for liberty, and for equality.”

In the last decade of his life, Gomes spoke out against the impending war in Iraq and attracted attention when he left the Republican Party to vote for Deval L. Patrick ’78. But he took his most prominent political stance in 1991, when he came out as gay in response to homophobic remarks in a conservative Harvard magazine. His crusade against homophobia would lead him to take the spotlight on the national stage, speaking in front of the Massachusetts State House in support of same-sex marriage.

But while expressing progressive views, he never strayed from tradition and his Christianity. All of his identities—as a New Englander, an African-American, and a homosexual—he said, “are subordinate to my principal identity as a preacher and a child of Jesus Christ. I spoke, not as outraged homosexual, but as an outraged Christian.”

As a result, Gomes became a sort of de facto moral compass at Harvard, ready to weigh in on the issues of the day. At the same time, he recognized that his position at Harvard was unique.

“Harvard is my city of God. We are different from the rest of the world, and we ought to be,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.

Today, it is impossible to imagine Gomes as the church’s minister a century ago. Harvard of 1911 was nearly devoid of African Americans and would soon see the formation of a “Secret Court” that sought to expel homosexuals. But at the same, Gomes would have fit the role of minister perfectly—he was a devout Christian and a son of long-established Plymouth with a profound respect for Harvard and what it represents.

Gomes unique embodiment of the seemingly opposed value Harvard places on tradition and the importance of progress is perhaps best expressed by professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.: “No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes.”

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