Stanford Report, September 7, 2001
Activist theologian Robert McAfee Brown dead at 81
BY BARBARA PALMER
Robert McAfee Brown, former Stanford professor of religious studies and a renowned educator, author and activist, died Sept. 4, 2001, at age 81. Brown died in a nursing home near his Heath, Mass., summer home, from complications following a broken hip.
A Palo Alto resident, Brown taught at Stanford between 1962 and 1976 and became an international leader in civil rights, ecumenical and social justice causes.
"In the 20th century, in the religious quest for meaning and redemption, few have been his peers," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Wiesel met Brown three decades ago when Wiesel lectured at Stanford and the two shared an instant bond, Wiesel said. "The way he listened and the way he spoke, the way he shared and the way he searched, he was an empowering and inspiring figure."
While at Stanford, Brown campaigned against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and was a co-founder of the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. As a leader of the ecumenical movement, he served as an official Protestant observer at the second session of Vatican II in 1963 and 1964, representing the World Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. In 1961, before joining the Stanford faculty, Brown was jailed after participating as a freedom rider in Florida.
Brown "impressed me as one of the few American theologians who made the faith both reasonable and exciting intellectually, but also relevant to society and its needs in the most direct and concrete ways," said Ernlé Young, co-director and co-founder of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics and professor of medicine. Young came to Stanford in 1974 after being banned for anti-apartheid activities in his native South Africa.
Young said he first considered the theologian a mentor and role model after reading Brown's work. Brown was the author of 29 books, ranging from An American Dialog: A Protestant Looks at Catholicism and a Catholic Looks at Protestantism, which he co-authored with Gustave Weigel in 1960, to Gustavo Gutierrez: An Introduction to Liberation Theology, published in 1990.
Later, "as a friend and colleague, Bob's simplicity, directness, integrity intellectual force and courage made an indelible impression on me," Young said.
Brown, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born on May 28, 1920, in Carthage, Ill. He earned a bachelor's degree from Amherst College in 1943 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1944. Brown earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1945 and served as a Navy chaplain from 1945 to 1946. The recipient of a Fulbright grant, Brown studied at Oxford before completing a doctorate in the philosophy of religion at Columbia University in 1951.
That year, Brown became the head of the Department of Religion at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. In 1953, he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. He came to Stanford in 1962.
"My reasons for moving from seminary teaching to university teaching is an attempt, if possible, to build some bridges between the world of theology and the world of modern man. I think the first task of the theologian on the university campus is to listen, so that he will not overconfidently prescribe answers to questions nobody is asking," Brown wrote in 1964.
During his 14-year tenure, Brown's classes on religion and ethics in relation to contemporary life and literature were some of the most popular on campus.
"Brown was an immensely popular teacher and quite articulate in his opposition to the Vietnam War," political science Professor David Abernethy said. "He was just one of the most articulate people I ever met. He combined eloquence with a marvelous sense of humor."
Brown left Stanford in 1976 to teach at the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley.
"He had a tremendous influence on his students, some of whom in turn have become teachers," Wiesel said. "His students are continuing to follow his path. They see religion not as a fist but as an outstretched hand."
Brown is survived by his spouse, Sydney Thomson Brown; three sons, Peter of Houston, Markof Mountain View and Tom of Chesterfield, Mass.; and a daughter, Alison Ehara-Brown, of Richmond, Calif.
The family plans a small, private ceremony and a memorial service later
in the fall, said the Rev. Jeffrey Vamos, associate pastor of First Presbyterian
Church of Palo Alto, where Brown was a parish associate.