A Holy Calling: To Keep Truth Alive
By Timothy George
His real name was George Pease Williams, but to ward off insensitive school-yard taunts as a young boy he constructed a more elegant middle name for himself, and this is how he was known for the rest of his life: George Huntston Williams (1914-2000). When I arrived at Harvard University in 1972, he was already a legend in that place and widely known elsewhere as one of the leading church historians of his time. He stood in the front ranks of scholars on the order of Roland Bainton, Jaroslav Pelikan, Georges Florovsky, and Heiko A. Oberman.
Williams is best remembered for The Radical Reformation, a monumental overview of sixteenth-century religious dissent, first published in 1962 and still in print today. But he never considered this his principal work. It was, he said, only a “fresh trench” or irrigation ditch—he borrowed this image from Thomas Mann, who referred to such motifs as coulisses—in the landscape of the wider Christian tradition. His true magnum opus, he envisaged, would be titled The New Testament People: An Ecumenical History of Christianity with Attention to Its Relations at All Important Nodal Points with Judaism and Islam. Like the unfinished cathedrals of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, Williams’s projected covenantal history of the people of God was never completed. But, as a determined generalist in church history, he was always alive to the subtle and complex interconnectedness of the events he studied—events he saw not as isolated, opaque moments in the history of religion but rather as translucent windows on to a whole pattern of Christian experience.
Williams was fond of saying that the special task of the church historian was to make meaningful at least two articles of the creed: the una sancta and the communio sanctorum. This is why he pursued not only the grandees of church history (Athanasius, Anselm, Luther) but also those harried, illusory, and sometimes downright weird participants in the community of faith. From Anabaptists running naked through the streets of Amsterdam to Celtic monks chanting psalms in the icy waters of the Shannon, from polygamous apocalyptics to ascetic renunciants, Williams treated each seriously and with sympathy. They all have something to teach us, he said. They are all our “speaking cousins.”
Calvin Pater, one of Williams’s students, described his mentor’s work in this way: “Only Williams would decide to specialize in everything; thus clasping to his breast both and and, with either and or together—a state of affairs that would have scandalized a Kierkegaard.” Indeed, in his personal life no less than his scholarly labors, George Williams was a coincidence of opposites. A Unitarian who did not deny the Holy Trinity, he dared to write about sectarian ecumenicity, wilderness and paradise, evangelical rationalism, Catholic liberalism, and benignant Calvinism, not to mention Radical Reformation.
Unlike others before and after him who assimilate church history to secular history, Williams defined his own vocation as that of one standing committedly within the historic community of faith, charged with telling and interpreting the story of that community against the background of ultimate meanings. He resisted historicist reductionism on the one hand and confessional imperialism on the other.
Williams was one of the few official Protestant observers present at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. There he met Karol Wojtyla from Poland, who later befriended him during a sabbatical leave in Krakow. Williams later published one of the first English-language books on his friend, The Mind of John Paul II: Origins of His Thought and Action (1981). At the behest of the Holy Father, Williams was inducted as a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory I in a special mass for Christian unity.
As both scholar and minister, Williams labored under the burden of a holy and risky calling to keep alive the truth, the truth that sets men and women free. Such truth was not speculative or abstract but engaged. Thus he refused to play the role of historicus otiosus, an idle observer detached from the flow and flux of the events he or she interprets. He liked to quote the words of Adolf von Harnack: “We study history in order to intervene in the course of history, and we have a right and duty to do so; for without historical insight we either permit ourselves to be mere objects of the historical process or tend to mislead people in an irresponsible way.”
One could almost tell the story of American public theology during the latter half of the twentieth century through the prism of Williams’s scholarship and activism. During the McCarthy era, he argued for the principle of “conscientious reticence.” In an influential article, “Reluctance to Inform,” he defended the right of the sensitized conscience against forced informing. He supported racial equality and civil rights and marched in Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr., a former auditor in his courses in church history. Like Richard John Neuhaus, he opposed the war in Vietnam. Even before Roe v. Wade, he wrote and spoke against abortion on demand and served as president of the National Right to Life Committee. Following a sermon on this theme at Harvard’s Memorial Church, he once received a blow to the head from a critic in the congregation who was enraged by his pro-life perspective.
In this, the centennial anniversary of Williams’s birth, Rodney L. Petersen of the Boston Theological Institute has edited a manuscript of some two thousand pages left unpublished at the time of Williams’s death. Divinings: Religion at Harvard From its Origins in New England Ecclesiastical History to the 175th Anniversary of The Harvard Divinity School, 1636–1992 tells the story of religious life at Harvard from its founding in 1636 through almost all of the twentieth century. It has now been published in three volumes by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht: (1) First Light: The Formation of Harvard College in 1636 and Evolution of a Republic of Letters in Cambridge; (2) The “Augustan Age”: Religion in the University, the Foundations of a Learned Ministry and the Development of the Divinity School; and (3) Calm Rising Through Change and Through Storm: The Contours of Religion and Commitment in an Age of Upheaval and Globalization. Only Williams could have conceived and written such a tumultuous history of religion at Harvard, one that begins with “light” and concludes with “upheaval.” The footnotes alone—in which Williams recounts many personal anecdotes and reveals strong opinions on many matters—are worth the price of the set.
George Williams had an incalculable influence on several generations of students. In his graduate seminars we were never very far from the sources, the documents, and the languages he loved and knew so well. His seminar on Tertullian was my introduction to serious historical research—one came away with a sense of having been in the room with that fiery Latin teacher and having glimpsed the whole oikoumené of classical and Christian antiquity.
Williams would come to his church history courses in Harvard Yard directly from Appleton Chapel, fresh from morning prayer, which he rarely missed. He would divest himself of his galoshes and topcoat, brush the snow from his disheveled hair, shuffle through his near-illegible notes for a minute, then begin:
This is called ancient church history, because it must be truly seen in the context of the ancient world. . . . The church is like a symphony. Christianity stands in continuity with Judaism, while uniquely celebrating the mid-logos of God incarnate alike in the infant of Bethlehem and the figure at Calvary. Salvation is cosmic, as the whole creation groans in travail awaiting our full redemption, a new heaven and earth. Our calling is to examine all the various strands of confessing communities. We are amazed that this world is our home and now (by satellite) has been glimpsed as a heavenly body and Christ’s saving significance encompasses both aspects. The truth, however, remains in part unseen, even as Jesus was often a mystery to his own disciples.
It was several years after I left Harvard before I realized the gift I had received from this great scholar. He taught me the meaning of what I believed. His insight, conviction, and passion left none of his students untouched. But his pastoral and personal qualities also shown through—his affection and tenderness, his capacity for encouragement, his spiritual wisdom and quest for faith de profundis, his compassion and love for all things human and humane. When George Huntston Williams died in the year 2000, the theologian, later cardinal, Avery Dulles, S. J., wrote: “With George’s death, I feel that I have lost a friend and gained, most probably, an intercessor in heaven.”
Published 3/10/14 at First Things.
is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
See also Timothy George, “George Huntston Williams: A Historian for All Seasons” in
The Contentious Triangle: Church, State, and University, eds. Rodney L. Petersen and Calvin Augustine Pater (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999); “Keeping Truth Alive as a Holy Calling,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 29/4 (2001).