Clarence Albert Colwell (1923-1999) was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on October 13th. As a teenager he joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands as CB (construction battalion). He received a Bachelors degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, a Bachelors of Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary, a Masters in Social Ethics from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from Hartford Seminary.
After graduating from the Union Theological Seminary in 1952, he served as a minister for the Berlin Heights Congregational Church in Ohio. In 1956, he became a minister to Collinwood Congregational Church in East Cleveland. He then moved to East Morris, Connecticut, to become the minister for Morris Congregational Church; here he continued his education at the University of Connecticut and Hartford Seminary.
After receiving his Ph.D. he accepted the position of Director of Urban Activities for the United Church of Christ in San Francisco, California. There he became active in the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Rev. Colwell, along with other clergy members of the Council, interacted with the gay and lesbian community, including visiting gay bars. His goal was to learn as much as he could, to understand their position and see how the church could help. Ruth Colwell, his second wife, accompanied him to many of the Council’s meetings. In order to gain perspective she also attended many meetings of The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Ultimately, she became with friends with Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and became an honorary member of DOB.
Rev. Colwell attended the infamous 1965 New Year's Day Ball at California Hall along with his wife, Ruth, and many other members of the Council. Ruth Colwell recalls this night: “The ministers all wore their clerical collars and I was wearing a purple dress along with a full-length purple coat. I saw men dancing with men for the first time and marveled at the beauty of the elaborately dressed drag queens.” Towards the end of the night, the clergy and their spouses were warned of the police and media presence outside the building. They decided to exit first in order to protect the guests who wanted to leave without being identified. Using her full-length purple coat, Ruth shielded men and women leaving from the media and their cameras. Rev. Colwell and Ruth stayed behind in order to calm the situation and left after most of the guests were safely escorted away.
Also, while in San Francisco, Rev. Colwell worked with young people. Some were homosexuals and some were also homeless. He decided he needed see firsthand what living on streets of San Francisco meant so he spent at least 2 weeks living as a homeless man.
Colwell left the ministry in 1969 and became a home and family therapist. During the early 1970’s he was a professor at Long Beach teaching Social Ethics. In 1989 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He moved to Oregon in 1972 and had a successful private practice in Marriage and Family Counseling until 1992, when he retired. He died on November 30th, 1999, from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease. He had three children: Barbara, born in San Diego to his first wife Alana, and Clay and Lorie, born in Berlin Heights to his second wife, Ruth. He currently has 5 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.
(This biographical statement researched and written by Nicole and Rachael Christenson, Clay Colwell's granddaughters.)
Biography Date: February, 2009
United Church of Christ/Congregational Church | Council on Religion and the Homosexual | Ally | Clergy Activist | New Year's Ball (San Francisco) | California | San Francisco | EXHIBIT Council on Religion and the Homosexual
“Rev. Clay Colwell | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 19, 2021, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/clay-colwell.