Yale Divinity School was one of the great experiences of my life, our lives, since Margaret shared two years of it with me. There were many life shaping moments, but as I reflect on them they were more confirmations of earlier decisions and experiences, rather than transformations. The transformations had come during my college years at Lafayette College, and not all of them came in the context of campus events. I became a pacifist and registered as a CO well before seminary was even a thought. I received a call to ministry during a summer work camp sponsored by the Methodist Church. That led me to change my curriculum from engineering to history, and to trade calculus for Greek. The chaplain at Lafayette, John Mitchell Currie, was a great personality. He was a clear theological thinker and a social activist. When I reached my senior year I asked him where he had attended seminary and he said Yale. That was the only place I applied, figuring that if I could become like him I would have a useful life. And it was during my college years, on another summer event sponsored by the Methodists, that I met Margaret and almost immediately realized that God had truly blessed me. The conviction is now fifty-two years old and has not diminished.
The confirmations I received at YDS are too many to recount; however, I remember best the following. The teachers who inspired me most were Bainton and Niebuhr. I can close my eyes and see them both, each in his own way, so captured by his field that I was often lifted to another realm. They nurtured my interest in church history and ethics. I took all but one of the courses Ahlstrom offered and was grateful that he accepted me for doctoral work; but I decided to study with H. Shelton Smith at Duke. Muehl changed me as a preacher. One day in preaching class, after I had read my sermon, he asked to see it. I dutifully handed it to him and he directed me to preach it again, on the spot. I asked for the manuscript and he said he did not think I needed it. After I succeeded in preaching the sermon without a text he advised me not to use a manuscript, advice I have followed. The YDS experience was students as well as teachers. I formed several life-long friendships and am grateful that it was, and I hope remains, a place which draws interesting people.
While I was studying at Duke I made a decision that has shaped my career. I had been called to a preaching ministry and was preparing for a teaching one. I had no epiphany moment but sometime at Duke I decided to try to do both. I am grateful to my two academic places of employment, Mount Holyoke College in the religion department and Lycoming College in the history department, and to my bishops in the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference, now the Susquehanna Annual Conference, that I have been able to have a dual career. When I retired from preaching in 2004 I had thirty-two years under appointment to preach in local churches, beginning with a two point charge in 1967. When I retired from teaching in 2007 I had forty-three years in the classroom. In the last fifteen of those I taught just one course a semester while also serving as the Dean of the College.
One question raised by those planning our reunion was how our minds have changed. I have two responses. First, my mind has been changing constantly, but from a fixed base. The fundamentals of the Christian faith have not been changing, at least not for me. God created the universe. God loves that creation and that includes, some days inexplicably, even me. The scriptures and the hymns continue to excite me. Second, the world has been changing. I teach United States history. It has been my privilege, and yours, to have lived in one of the revolutionary eras in our history. We have had, as a nation, three such epochs, times of true utopian thinking: the Revolutionary era; the era of social and political experiment, 1830-70s; and the civil rights era,1950-70s. If you have been alive, as we have, during this time and your mind has not changed, you have been among the walking dead. I know such people. I thank God every day that I have had the opportunity to see human rights move from ideas on paper to reality. I relate to something Niebuhr said in one of his classes. The semester was drawing to a close. He stood in the lecture hall, before quite a crowd, not just his class but many graduate students, and said something like this, my phrasing not his. “You know, I realized that I am growing older. I have never thought much or talked about death and dying, but I am about to do so.” I cherish him because he was a mind at work, always looking at new experiences and thinking about them.
One person I first heard about at Yale and then became better acquainted with at Duke was Robert E. Speer. He had died in 1947 and I met him in the pages of a book. I have written several books in my life, four of which have been published and one of which will be out in December. One of them is a biography of Speer and I thank Yale for leading me to him. He was not a Luther or a Wesley, but he has become one of my guiding stars.
I am very aware that life has been unusually good to me and mine. There has been loss, and sickness and death, but we have not faced starvation, not had our land overrun by war, and not had to live as refugees. I remain hopeful that the kind of life we have had will be possible for more and more of the world’s people. I continued to teach as well as be a dean because constant contact with the newest generation of students reminded me that among them are those who may one day extend better lives to others, move the world a little closer to a time when there is less fear and hunger and more peace.
Dr. John F. Piper, Jr.