The Rev. Peter John Gomes, Harvard chaplain and professor and a leading voice against religious intolerance, was born on May 22, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa, worked in cranberry bogs. His mother was raised in Boston's Black upper-middle-class and graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music. She was organist and choir director at the largely-White First Baptist Church of Plymouth where Peter was raised and remained a life-long member.
Peter grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in a primarily-White milieu where he studied culture, literature and music. He worked as a houseman to help pay for his education. He practiced preaching sermons in the basement of his home and preached his first public sermon at age 12. He also cultivated Anglophile traits that came to mark his adult persona. He was elected president of Plymouth High school where he graduated in 1961. He majored in history at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1965. He enrolled at Harvard Divinity School where his religious vocation was affirmed and graduated with a bachelor of divinity degree in 1968. That same year he was ordained as an American Baptist minister by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth.
Gomes spent the next two years teaching Western Civilization at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This was a formative experience for him as he stated in a later interview in The New Yorker: "I saw more Black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life."
Gomes returned to Harvard in 1970 as the assistant minister of Memorial Church. His first book, History of the Pilgrim Society, 1820-1970, was published in 1971 and reflected his life-long passion for the history of Plymouth and its environs. In 1974 he was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at the Memorial Church, positions he held for the rest of his life.
Gomes became renowned for his distinctive preaching style which mixed a patrician appearance with elegant diction, strong cadence, and dry humor. He was named as one of the outstanding preachers in America in Time magazine in 1979 and was widely sought after as a speaker and preacher in the U.S. and Europe. He published 11 volumes of sermons over his career.
Gomes identified politically as a Republican, giving the benediction at the second inaugural of Ronald Regan and preaching a sermon at National Cathedral for George H.W. Bush's inauguration. His political conservatism cut against the grain at Harvard and was indicative of Gomes' apparent delight in being seen as contrarian. As fellow Harvard professor and friend, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., noted Gomes "was a large, warm and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities, each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony."
Gomes amplified this complex image of himself in 1991 when he publicly identified as gay. A conservative student journal at Harvard, Peninsula, had published a 56-page critique of homosexuality and gay activism. In the uproar that followed, Gomes addressed a protest rally of students, faculty and administrators from the steps of Memorial Church and declared that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay."
Following this dramatic declaration Gomes was affirmed in his position by the Harvard administration, despite some calls for his dismissal. However, this whole experience appeared to set him on a new vocation. As he stated to the Washington Post shortly thereafter, "I now have an unambiguous vocation--a mission--to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia. I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the 'religious case' again gays." His sermons, lectures and writings in the following years became focused on engaging religious fundamentalism and its resultant social intolerance.
In The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (William Morrow; 1996) Gomes encouraged believers to grasp the spirit, not the letter, of scriptural passages that he believed had been misused to defend racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Books that followed were: The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need (HarperCollins 2002); and The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good about the Good News (HarperCollins 2007).
Gomes continued to be a prominent figure on the Harvard campus. For many years he was among the first and last to address undergraduates--greeting arriving freshman with a sermon on hallowed traditions and advising graduating seniors about the world beyond Harvard Yard,
Gomes was the recipient of 39 honorary degress and was an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, England, where the Gomes Lectureship was established in his name. He received the Preston N. Williams Black Alumni/ae Award from Harvard Divinity School in 2006.
In 2006, Gomes announced he was registering as a Democrat in order to vote for Deval Patrick, who became the first Black governor of Massachusetts. He divided his time between his 1799 home in Plymouth and the Sparks House on the Harvard campus and talked of retiring at age 70, in 2012. In 2009, he experienced heart problems resulting in a pacemaker being implanted. He was recuperating from a stroke he had suffered in December, 2010, when he died from a heart attack on February 28, 2011.
(Information for this biographical statement taken from obituaries in The New York Times, March 1, 2011, by Robert D. McFadden and in the Boston Globe, March 2, 2011, by Bryan Marquard.)
Biography Date: March, 2011
American Baptist/USA | African American | Author/editor | Theology | Cambridge | Massachusetts
“I did not know Peter Gomes man that well, but at one time we were colleagues--teachers together at Tuskegee Institute [now University], back in the sixties and early seventies. I was a chemist; he was the leader of a community-based program which took privileged students from the school out into the community to touch their roots. There they would meet others not ‘bright’ enough for college and interact with them enough to inspire them to do better--and to inspire the college kids to not forget that this is where they come from and this is where they need to place their emphasis, so that the future would be better for all concerned.
Peter Gomes came from privilege. Born and raised in the Massachusetts area, he came down south like a noreaster and made waves unlike any that the South had seen. He put emphasis on quality at all times. He would not take second best from anyone. He lived his life like he preached to others. He was a Renaissance Man for the ages. They did not fully appreciate the man down south. He was too full of himself and of his roots to be accepted fully by those around him. And yet, he was accepted, for they all realized that this was a man genuine to the core. Even if they did not understand the man they admired him for what he was.
When he left Tuskegee he went back home taking up residence back at Harvard, where he taught and very soon became the dean of the Chapel at Harvard College--where he became a man of some importance. He was responsible for being the ‘man’ that the college would turn to in times of trouble. Whenever there was unrest among the students, either white or black or any color in between, it was Peter who was able to speak to both sides snd to calm the troubled waters with ease. His secret was that he was a listener. But having heard both sides out, he was able then to sort out one side from the other and be a mediator that brought everyone around.
He was also known for his excellent preaching. He had skills that were able to talk to people without feeling they were being ‘preached’ at. His sermons were both intellectual and practical. He published several books that were well-received. For my money, his best work, however, was “The Good Book” in which he took all of the scholarship at his beck and call to explain the fallacies that others had placed Upon the literal words of the Bible to twist them to their own use or misuse. He was thus able to debunk the myths that: somehow the black man was inferior; that women should not be heard at all; that gays were somehow to be condemned. He posited that taking God’s holy word too literally would lead one down a path best not taken! Said paths would lead to utter folly; such paths would lead to utter shame!
We did not keep in touch after he left Tuskegee. Many years later I read that he would be in town delivering a talk or two and I felt it important for me to go and touch base with him again. It felt so good because he remembered me. We embraced and talked and had a good time. We reminisced about good old times--although not all times were "good" even if they were "old" by anyone else’s reckoning. I got him to autograph his books for me. It was good to have this short time with him. It made me feel important in knowing this man. It made us feel younger once more as we each thought Of the times we had been together in Alabama reliving our times and moments of witness. Going back is not always a bad thing at all for this is of what we each were made.
Just recently I heard that Peter Gomes had died. This world has lost a good man, a wise man, an intelligent man, a gay man, a holy man. This world has lost a man who made a difference. This world has lost a friend. May you rest in peace, dear Peter. I have a new saint in heaven with whom to pray!”
– as remembered by Ray Barreras on February 29, 2012
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