- Georgia Harkness: A Chastened Liberal Spirituality for the Mainline Protestant Church
Georgia Harkness’ academic career, first teaching philosophy to undergraduates at Elmira College and Mount Holyoke, then as a professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute and Pacific School of Religion, was filled with prophetic stands for justice and noteworthy accomplishments. Throughout her career Harkness published thirty-seven books and one hundred and seventeen articles. In 1933 she became the first woman theologian in the United States invited to join the American Theological Society where her contemporaries in the Younger Theologians Group included John Bennett, Robert L. Calhoun, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, Douglas Steere, and Paul Tillich.1 Harkness said in a 1939 article published in The Christian Century “I was a pacifist and a socialist ten years ago and still am.” Expressing her opposition to racism she said “the internment of 110,000 Japanese on the Pacific Coast, including more than 70,000 American citizens, will, I am sure, long remain a blot on our democracy.”2 Harkness was committed to the ecumenical agendas of the twentieth century attending the 1937 Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State, the 1938 Madras Conference of the International Missionary Council and the 1948 founding gathering of the World Council of Churches. Her hymn “Hope of the World, Thou Christ of Great Compassion” was written for the World Council of Churches meeting in Evanston, Illinois in 1954 and has since been published in forty-five hymnals.3 In 1956, for her work on behalf of the ordination of women in the Methodist Church, she was honored with a standing ovation when an affirmative vote permitted women full ordination rights.4
Harkness’ commitments to alleviating racism, economic disparities and sexism, her prediction that same sex relationships would be accepted in the future, her steadfast allegiance to pacifism even as others during the Second World War modified their commitments; her publication record and her academic appointments would in the contemporary context insure her inclusion in the roster of influential twentieth century mainline Protestants. Such recognition has been limited. Rosemary Skinner Keller published a biography of Harkness in 1992 while more recently Rebekah Miles edited a series of Harkness’ essays focused on her intellectual development.5 In 2010 the Center [End Page 16]
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for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Pacific School of Religion named an annual lectureship after her, in recognition of her advocacy of full civil rights for gay and lesbian people and honoring her thirty-three year relationship with her companion and housemate, Verna Miller.
Among her accomplishments, Harkness published a number of books and articles on topics focused on spirituality, including, works on prayer, the dark night of the soul, and mysticism. Given the growing interest in Christian spirituality among mainline Protestants since the final decades of the twentieth century and the explicit emphasis on prayer in the United Methodist Church since 1983 through its Academy for Spiritual Formation retreat programs, it is surprising that little has been done to reintroduce and reclaim Harkness’ works. It was only in 2005 that her major work on prayer (published in 1948), Prayer and the Common Life,6 was reissued. There is little critical assessment of her understanding of Christian spirituality or of her contribution to the spirituality of mainline Protestant denominations. This paper will take a small step in addressing this lacuna by investigating concepts central to her spirituality and assessing the contribution her work makes to mainline Protestant spirituality.
I begin with brief biographical material identifying Harkness’ social location and her recollections of her early spiritual formation. This is followed by a short section, which sketches her intellectual development from a Boston personalist philosopher to a “chastened” liberal theologian. The weight of the paper, however, focuses on her “dark night of the soul,” her teachings on prayer and the relationship between prayer and social justice, and her commitment to introducing mainline Protestants to the insights of a variety of mystics. Throughout I will note the way in which the questions she addresses and the arguments she makes reveal that she is both formed by and...