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Presbyterian theologian and civil rights activist Gayraud S. Wilmore to receive honorary degree from Louisville Seminary

by Chris Wooton | May 15, 2019

On Sunday, May 19, 2019, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary will confer an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on Presbyterian theologian, author, ethicist, historian, educator, and civil rights activist the Rev. Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore. The honorary degree will be conferred at the seminary’s commencement exercises, which will be held at Second Presbyterian Church (3701 Old Brownsboro Road, Louisville, Ky. 40207) at 3:30 p.m. Wilmore’s son, Jack, will accept the degree on Wilmore’s behalf. This is the first honorary doctoral degree given by Louisville Seminary in its 165-year history. According to Seminary President Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III, Wilmore’s service and contributions to the church, theological education, and humanity warrant the recognition.

Gayraud Wilmore“Dr. Gayraud Wilmore is one of the most consequential faith and thought leaders of recent generations,” said Pollard. “A magnificent clergy-activist in the spirit of Henry McNeil Turner, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and James Cone, a companion scholar for Katie Cannon, Diane Moffett, J. Herbert Nelson II and countless others besides, it is an honor to call this wise elder and griot of the faith my friend. I am thankful for the wisdom of Louisville Seminary to so justly honor him.”

One of the most important Presbyterian civil rights activists in the 1960s, Wilmore was the first executive director of the United Presbyterian Church Commission on Religion and Race. From 1963 to 1971, Wilmore and the commission undertook several civil rights initiatives including the lobbying for the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, promoting voter registration in Mississippi, and supporting civil rights demonstrations such as those in Selma, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. In 1966, Wilmore and Benjamin Payton of the National Council of Churches founded the National Conference of Black Churchmen, which would become the largest ecumenical organization of pro-black power clergy.

Wilmore’s influence in the African-American religious experience and black theology is significant. He, along with his close friend James H. Cone (winner of the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion), co-edited Black Theology: A Documentary History Volumes I and II (1979). Among Wilmore’s other books are Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (1979), Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope (1983), Pragmatic Spirituality (2004), and several others.

Acumen for theological education also defined Wilmore’s career. He was the valedictorian in both his undergraduate and seminary classes at Lincoln University, a Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania. (Wilmore’s education was interrupted when he was drafted into the United States Army. As a Buffalo Soldier, he served with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy.) In 1951, Wilmore helped integrate West Chester (Pennsylvania) elementary schools, and in 1953, he began his work with students as an associate executive with the United Presbyterian Church’s Department of Social Education and Action. Wilmore was an assistant professor of social ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, taught social ethics at Boston University School of Theology, taught black church studies at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, served as the dean of the divinity program at New York Theological Seminary, and as a teacher of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He was also an adjunct professor at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Stated Clerk Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II (also a Louisville Seminary alum), and Katie Geneva Cannon, theologian and ethicist associated with womanist theology and black theology, are among the many leaders of the Presbyterian Church influenced by Wilmore.

Wilmore, who is now retired and living in Washington, D.C., and his wife, Lee, were married in 1944 and remained married until her death in 2015. They have four children: Steven, Jack, Roberta, and David (who is deceased); four grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.
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