I went to the library today and checked out several books by and about Georgia Harkness. Although I knew a little about her life and work, as the recipient of a scholarship bearing her name, I wanted to learn more.
Georgia Harkness (1891 – 1974) was the first woman theologian to teach in a Protestant seminary in the United States. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University, she went on to receive a double Master’s degree in Religious Education and Arts, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University. She served on the faculties of Elmira College and Mt. Holyoke College before her career as Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) and the Pacific School of Religion. She was not known as an academic, though. Rather, she was a “theologian of the people.” Recalling her historical roots growing up in the rural community of Harkness, New York, a town named after her grandfather, she said, “For these roots, I humbly thank God. If in some measure He has been able to use my words to speak in plain language to common folk, the reason is … simply this – that I am one myself.”
A United Methodist, Harkness was committed to social justice and worked diligently to dismantle racism, sexism and classism within the denomination and throughout the world. She was a prophet for unity in Christ and often quoted Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” She lobbied for full clergy rights of women, convinced that the ordination of women was essential to the life of the church. In 1939, she wrote, “To close the door to any persons possessing spiritual and mental qualifications is, in effect, to say that sex is a more important factor in Christian vocation than character, spiritual insight, or mental ability.” Her persistence eventually paid off in 1956 when the General Conference of The Methodist Church granted full ministerial rights to women.
Harkness was a distinguished author with many titles to her name including the autobiographical book, The Dark Night of the Soul. Her deep spirituality is evidenced in her many poems, written prayers, and hymn texts. As a United Methodist clergywoman, I am indebted to Georgia Harkness and others who have gone before and forged the way for women in ministry today. I am also grateful to the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for granting me the Georgia Harkness scholarship for the 2009-2010 academic year. Harkness’ legacy is one to which I aspire. For those interested in the news article about the scholarship, it can be found at http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=1723955&ct=7056799.
I look forward to sharing more about this incredible woman as I continue to learn about her in the coming year. Until next time, peace …
Rosemary Skinner Keller. Georgia Harkness: For Such a Time as This. Nashville: Abington Press, 1992.
_____ ., ed. Spirituality and Social Responsibility: Vocational Vision of Women in The United Methodist Tradition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.