Brown, Robert McAfee, 1920-2001

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Robert McAfee Brown, 1920-2001, Christian theologian, ethicist, teacher, author, preacher, and activist in social, economic, and gender justice issues, received the Bachelor of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, New York. He studied under such theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister, married Sydney Thomson Brown, and served as a chaplain in the Navy at the end of World War II. Brown was a professor at Union Theological Seminary, 1953-1962; Stanford University, 1962-78; and Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California, 1979-1984 when he retired. An engaged teacher, Brown also authored books and articles on all the ideas and issues he embraced. He preached and lectured throughout the United States and the world. Brown embodied his thought and faith through activism in peace and justice causes all his life. Early in Brown's career, he studied and taught extensively the theology and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Brown was a great advocate for and interpreter of the ecumenical movement and Catholic-Protestant relations. He attended Vatican II as a Protestant observer. His advocacy for racial equality led to active participation in the civil rights movement. During the Vietnam War, Brown worked for peace through political activism in the protest movement. He studied and wrote on the Holocaust and related issues, collaborating with Elie Wiesel on several projects. His embrace of liberation theology led to close associations with Gustavo Gutierrez and Dorothee Solle, and advocacy for Central American issues.

From the description of Robert McAfee Brown Collection, 1925-2005. (Graduate Theological Union). WorldCat record id: 668251383

Biography / Administrative History

"I believe we are here to share bread with one another, so that everyone has enough, no one has too much."

Robert McAfee Brown, 1920-2001, was a Christian theologian, ethicist, teacher, author, preacher, and advocate for peace and justice in social, economic, and gender issues. Brown was descended from and raised in a strong Presbyterian background from both his maternal family, the McAfees, and his paternal family. His father and most of the men in his mother's family were Presbyterian ministers.

Throughout a life of ever expanding and inclusive ideas, philosophies, theologies, and causes, Brown remained rooted in the Presbyterian tradition. He was born in Illinois, lived his childhood in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. He received his B.A. at Amherst College 1943, and the B.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York, 1945 where he studied with such eminent theologians as Paul Tillich, John Bennett, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Brown and Sydney Thomson married in 1944. They had four children, Peter, Mark, Thomas, and Alison.

After graduation and ordination in 1945, he joined the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps. The war ended while he was still at the Naval Training School for Chaplains in Virginia. After training, he was sent to San Francisco, then assigned to the USS Bollinger (APA 234), a troop ship bringing troops home from the Pacific after war's end. One of the stops was Bikini Atoll, the last ship out before the test explosion of the atom bomb.

Discharged from the Navy in 1946, Brown returned to Massachusetts serving two positions in Amherst First Congregational Church and Amherst College. In 1948, Brown began a PhD program at Columbia-Union. Following a Fulbright Grant to study in England during 1949, he returned to New York receiving the PhD in 1951. He was appointed Head of the Religion Department at Macalester College in Minnesota, 1951; Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, 1953; Religion at Stanford University, 1962; and, after a brief stint back at Union, the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, 1979 until his retirement in 1984.

In his Reflections Over the Long Haul: A Memoir, Robert McAfee Brown elaborates on the many avenues of service and faith he followed throughout his life. A teacher and writer, his work was framed by how he integrated situations in the world into his intellect, faith, and life.

Robert McAfee Brown early in WWII did what he did throughout his life. He thought, studied, prayed, and discussed with others what it meant to live as a Christian during wartime, and how one was to proceed with life choices. He ultimately understood himself as a pacifist. As a pacifist, he needed to understand how his philosophical and faithful stand should manifest itself in his life. He decided ultimately to work it out through Navy chaplaincy. As a Chaplain assigned to a ship, he again approached his faith stand according to how to live it in that real situation. He found that the Navy and its ships were divided into a strict racist structure. Throughout his assignment, he worked small steps and large, quietly or overtly if not to dismantle, at least to get people thinking and talking about how to live in a world without a racist structure. Brown continued to live out his life and faith acting for justice.

While at Macalester College in Minnesota, he began a long involvement in political activity as he actively campaigned for Eugene McCarthy running for Congress, writing and speaking equally as actively against the broadly intolerant philosophies raised by Joseph McCarthy. In this, as in subsequent teaching and writings on issues, he was open and public in his views having the courage to receive negative reactions on several levels and through varying avenues. To all of these, he responded with calm dignity and thoughtful answers.

At Union Theological Seminary in New York, 1953-62, Brown taught the expected courses such as Christian Ethics, Bible, Narrative Theology, and the Theologies of Niebuhr, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. But he never taught in the usual way. His courses were always expansive, always popular, and he led his students to think, to push all boundaries, to follow their faith. As his life moved on with the world, Brown moved into such courses and workshops as World Religions and Systems, Social Concerns and Justice, Liberation Theology, Women's Studies, and the Ethics of Work. As he had always been, he continued to be well prepared. He presented content and led discussions with accessibility and liveliness.

In the turbulent issues and events of the 1960s, Brown was at the forefront, then the heart of them all. Always an advocate for and participant in the World Council of Churches and ecumenism, he early understood the need for a broadening dialog with Roman Catholicism. Understanding the need, he took the action. Brown began to work closely with Gustave Weigel, S.J. continuing to study, discuss with an expanding circle of colleagues, write, and speak. A series of articles such as "Rules for Dialogue" were published simultaneously 1960 in the Catholic journal Commonweal and Protestant journal Christian Century. He ultimately attended Vatican II as an Observer for the World Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. Again, he wrote extensively 1963-65 of the experience and the issues involved for the churches and a broader ecumenicism.

Brown was a strong participant in the Civil Rights movement through his teaching, writing, and preaching. Since action always followed Brown's convictions, he participated in a Freedom Ride 1961 with several New York pastors and rabbis, Black and Caucasian. They traveled by bus to Tallahassee, Florida, eating together in diners and bus stations received with varying levels of hostility. In Tallahassee, they were arrested and jailed. Again, Brown published his beliefs and experiences in several articles including the seminal "I Was a Freedom Rider", Presbyterian Life, 1961.

The Vietnam War and the peace and anti-draft issues to which it gave rise developed after Brown had moved to Stanford University. He published "In Conscience I Must Break the Law" in Look magazine, 1967. Along with his continued prolific writing, teaching, and preaching, Brown participated in many protests and actions against the draft and for the peace movement. In 1969, he traveled with a study team to Vietnam, and in 1972, traveled with a peace delegation to Europe seeking to meet with high level political leaders and the Pope to urge peace.

A broadening ecumenicism led Brown into Jewish-Christian dialog and study. He invited Elie Wiesel to speak at Stanford in 1974. From their first meeting, the two became deep friends lasting to Brown's death in 2001. Wiesel became a strong influence on Brown who expanded into Holocaust studies. He was appointed 1979 to President Carter's United States Commission on the Holocaust. After the Commission's travel, study, and report, it became the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Brown, action following conviction, resigned from the Council 1985 after President Reagan's visit to the German Bitburg Cemetery containing graves of German soldiers including SS troops.

The emergence of Liberation Theology in Latin American in the 1970s caught Brown's attention and he began a deep study. Through this study, he met Gustavo Gutierrez, again becoming friends and working together in varying ways, academic, political, and practical. For the next two decades, Brown engaged in liberation study, teaching, and action concerning women's liberation and feminism, justice issues in Central America and the Sanctuary Movement, economic justice, and Gay and Lesbian (or LBGTQ) liberation and justice. This continued long after his formal retirement from the Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California, 1984.

In Brown's last and difficult illness, he worked with family and colleagues remembering and sorting through his life, his faith, his work, and his actions. This became Reflections Over the Long Haul: A Memoir, published posthumously in 2005 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press). He is buried in Heath, Massachusetts, near the family summer home. Sydney Thomson Brown writes of Robert McAfee Brown in the Prologue: "Grounded in the traditional, the traditional never contained him. He wanted the earth to be fair and good for all. . . . He was committed to relate his faith to the world around, to push the boundaries. . . . He wanted his faith to be effective, to make the world a better place. He acted for this through his teaching, preaching, and writing - and with others, turning his ideas into action. . . . [H]e was not by nature an activist. He became an activist because his faith called him to act . . . . He was a man of courage."

From the guide to the Robert McAfee Brown papers, 1940-2005, (The Graduate Theological Union. Library.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Stone, Wilfred Healey, 1917-. Wilfred Healey Stone papers, 1946-2004. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Stanford Alumni Association, Summer Alumni College, records, 1966-1973 Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Dorff, Elliot N. University of Judaism, Graduate Theological Union Annual Colloquia Collection, 1973-1983. Graduate Theological Union, Flora Lamson Hewlett Library
referencedIn William Sloane Coffin, Jr. papers, 1916-2006 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
creatorOf Brown, Robert McAfee, 1920-2001. Robert McAfee Brown Collection, 1925-2005. Graduate Theological Union, Flora Lamson Hewlett Library
creatorOf Clergy and Laity Concerned (U.S.). Records, 1966-1981. Swarthmore College, Peace Collection, SCPC
referencedIn Coffin, William Sloane. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. papers, 1916-2006 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Stanford Alumni Association. Stanford Alumni Association, Summer alumni college, audio tapes, 1966-1973. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Minnesota State Archives Commission. State archivist's correspondence, 1950-1973. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
creatorOf Robert McAfee Brown papers, 1940-2005 The Graduate Theological Union. Library.
creatorOf Van Dusen, Henry P. (Henry Pitney), 1897-1975. "Questions from the younger generation." Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Wilfred Healey Stone papers, 1946-2004 Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 1906-1945. person
associatedWith Brown, Sydney Thomson, 1922- person
associatedWith Catholic Church corporateBody
associatedWith Clergy and Laity Concerned (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Coffin, William Sloane. person
associatedWith Gutierrez, Gustavo, 1928- person
associatedWith Minnesota State Archives Commission. corporateBody
associatedWith Niebuhr, Reinhold, 1892-1971. person
associatedWith Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith Solle, Dorothee. person
associatedWith Stanford Alumni Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Stanford University corporateBody
associatedWith Stone, Wilfred Healey, 1917- person
associatedWith Tillich, Paul, 1886-1965. person
associatedWith Union Theological Seminary (New York, N.Y.). corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Navy corporateBody
associatedWith Vatican Council 1962-1965). corporateBody
associatedWith Wiesel, Elie, 1928- person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Latin America
United States
Central America
Clergy--Political activity
World politics--20th century
Liberation theology--Latin America
Presbyterian Church--Clergy
Government, Resistance to--Religious aspects--Christianity
Sermons, American--20th century
Christian ethics--Study and teaching
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements
Presbyterian Church--Clergy--United States--Biography
Clergy--Political activity. [msg]
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Religious aspects
Vietnam War, 1961-1972--Religious aspects
Distributive justice--Religious aspects--Christianity
Faculty--Political activity
Religious thought--Study and teaching
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Historiography
Theologians--United States--Biography
Vatican Council (2nd : 1962-1965)
Faculty--Political activity. [msg]
Women's rights
African Americans--Civil rights
Vietnam War, 1961-1972--Protest movements--United States
Liberation theology
Catholic Church--Relations--Protestant church
Narrative theology--Study and teaching
Race relations--Religious aspects--Christianity
United States. Navy--Chaplains
Liberation theology--Study and teaching
Protestant churches--Relations--Catholic Church
Central America--Politics and government, 1979-
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Religious Aspects
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--History
Race relations--Religious aspects
Theology, Doctrinal--Developing countries
Christianity and justice
Justice (Jewish theology)


Birth 1920-05-28

Death 2001-09-04


Spanish; Castilian,




Ark ID: w6x06690

SNAC ID: 74972152