Harvard University's professor of Christian Morals and minister to its Memorial Church, Peter J. Gomes presents to his students and readers an engaging and accessible look at biblical scholarship. As a Christian who happens also to be gay, Gomes has published two books and a collection of sermons exploring biblical perspectives on issues such as slavery, racism, homosexuality, and sexism. Gomes's ability to get to the heart of an issue with clarity and honesty appeals to a wide audience which includes non-church goers. His success as a university professor is heightened by the fact that his books reach the bestseller lists. Gomes's eloquent and scholarly sermons earned him a place among the top seven U.S. preachers in 1979 and the opportunity to participate in inaugural ceremonies for two U.S. presidents.
As the only son of Peter Lobo and Orissa Josephine White Gomes, Peter John Gomes was indulged by attentive parents. Gomes's father Peter Lobo was born in Cape Verde Island in 1908 and immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. After settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts, he worked his way up the ranks to superintendent in the local cranberry bogs. Versed in several languages, the elder Gomes willingly helped other immigrants in the area to compose letters to send home. Orison Josephine was born on Boston's wealthy Beacon Hill in 1901. She was one of nine children and the daughter of Jacob Merrit Pedford White, a well-known Baptist minister in the area. She graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and was the first African American woman to work in the Massachusetts State House as a clerk. Her family could be traced back to before the Civil War. Her mother and many of their family had escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. Known as free-issue Negroes, the family faced situations of emancipation that were both disruptive and benevolent.
With the birth of their son, Peter John, on May 22, 1942, Peter Lobo and Orissa Joseph White Gomes set about to educate him well beyond the public school system. He was given music lessons and had classical literature read to him nightly by his mother. Outings to places of interest were included in his education. His parents prepared him to have a good life, recognizing that diverse life experiences and an openness to others were essential.
It was the experience of failing the second grade that motivated Gomes to excel. He became an exceptional student. He writes in his book The Good Life that this experience was one which made him something of an ambitious overachiever. He recognizes it as a valuable lesson in the ongoing search for the good life. Church was also an important part of Gomes's early years. As a young boy, he attended a Baptist church in Plymouth and was active in church programs to the point of preaching his own private sermons. At twelve years of age he preached his first sermon in a basement pulpit constructed of cranberry boxes. Gomes later compared the excitement of the pulpit to the unleashed freedom that most African American youth might associate with the basketball court. In the eleventh grade, Gomes wrote the entry on Plymouth, Massachusetts for the 1960 American Encyclopedia and also worked as a page for the public library, where he was responsible for the department of genealogy and research in some of New England's finest homes. These activities foreshadowed his later decision to become a scholar and a clergyman. In 1961, Gomes graduated from Plymouth High School with hopes of attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. When this did not work out, he successfully enrolled in Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Bowdoin College in later years gave Gomes an honorary degree. The experiences provided by his parents made it possible for him to pay his way through college by working as an organist and choirmaster at the first Congregational Church in Lewiston and at the Pilgrim Hall museum in Plymouth in the summers. He was awarded the Theodore Presser Scholarship in music for the entire four years of college.
As a sophomore at Bates College, Gomes like many students of the 1960s had reservations about religion. He took Religion 101, with John A. T. Robinson. Thanks to Robinson's instruction and an approach that enlightened and did not diminish the questions of the college sophomore, Gomes was rescued from religion of doubt. He graduated from college in 1965 and determined that history was his chosen subject. He planned to become the first curator of American Decorative Arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Before he executed his plan, though, he was persuaded to spend a year at Harvard Divinity School. If this year did not peak his interest, he would move on to his original plan as curator. After a year, Gomes decided to stay, and three years later in 1968 he earned his bachelor's of divinity degree.
Gomes was an active member of the university community because he was the chair of the Worship and Publications committee and served as proctor of Divinity Hall. He also won the Harvard preaching prize. Gomes was ordained to the ministry of the American Baptist Church in 1968 before he accepted an offer to teach history at Tuskegee in Alabama. Tuskegee, a predominately African American college in the Deep South, offered a more intense cultural experience for Gomes than life in Massachusetts. For the first time African American people were the majority. Gomes commented once in an interview for the New Yorker: "I saw more black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life." As well as teaching history, Gomes directed the Freshman Experimental Program and assisted in the institute chapel. He used his musical talent as choirmaster for St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Tuskegee.
In 1970 he returned to Harvard and was appointed assistant minister of Harvard's Memorial Church. His commitment to service was again realized and he was an active participant in various organizations: member of the Royal Arts Society, London, England; director of the North Baptist Educational Society, 1973; member of the Farmington Institute of Christian Studies; and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. By 1974, Gomes was appointed minister of the Harvard Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.
Christianity and Homosexuality Debated
In November 1991 Harvard University campus was in heated dialogue over the activities of the student publication called Peninsula. The magazine was devoted to denouncing homosexuality as destructive for individuals as well as for society. The magazine used as the basis for its statements a fifty-six-page special issue Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures. Faculty and other administrators were asked to comment at a campus protest. Gomes placed himself squarely in the controversy when he stated, on the steps of the Memorial Church, that he was a Christian who happened to be gay. Although Gomes was not the only person who declared their homosexuality, his declaration received the most vocal response. A fifty-member student committee calling themselves Concerned Christians at Harvard was formed to seek the resignation of Gomes. His resignation was not sought because of his own homosexuality but because he teaches that homosexuality is not a sin in the Christian church.
- Born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 22
- Preaches his first sermon at twelve years of age
- Graduates from Plymouth High School
- Receives B.A. from Bates College
- Receives B.D. degree from Harvard University; ordained to ministry of American Baptist Church
- Teaches at Tuskegee Institute
- Receives D.D. degree from New England College; minister to Harvard Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
- Delivers benediction at second inaugural for President Ronald Reagan
- Delivers inaugural service for President George Bush
- Declares status as Christian who happens as well to be gay
- Publishes The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart
- Publishes The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need
The American Baptist Church at the time had no stated policy on homosexuality, but in June 1991, it issued a statement against homosexual practices. The president of Harvard stated that it was not the school's task to apply doctrines that are a part of theological debate. It was reasonable that different religious groups have differing views. Gomes continued in his position as minister of the university chapel and vowed to address the religious causes and root of homophobia as presented through various scriptures and doctrines. Toward that goal, he published in 1996, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.
The Good Book, which was a New York Times bestseller, confronts the biblical roots of homophobia as well as other controversial topics such as racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. He offers a scholarly and thoughtful reinterpretation of these issues and places them in the context of the times. Reviews about the book note the dual purpose that it serves. Not only does it reach the audience of those seeking spiritual engagement, but it provides an example of how the Bible still speaks to the most intellectual or sophisticated Christian. Gomes argues that the Bible is good news for gays, women, people of color, and all others who seek its wisdom. He further notes that strict fundamentalists may not see the value of his interpretation, but the text given a limited reading can become a dangerous tool. His promotion of an on-going context and a community of interpretations of the Bible serves as the key rational for the moral decisions of the church. Among those voices he concludes that feminist interpreters have much to teach others and to ignore their views sets a dangerous precedence for the scriptures and the church. Religious institutions in confronting cultural ills such as slavery and racism have used the process of interpretation to understand the scriptures of the time and of the people. Gomes places the charge of the Bible squarely in the hands of the Christian. The words, syntax, doctrines, and interpretations must be given time, commitment, imagination, and serious study by those who truly seek to know the scriptures. To do anything less is a derelict of duty.
To reach the scope of believers from the embarrassed to the exiled, Gomes published in 1998 Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living. It is a collection of forty selections from sermons preached over the years to the Harvard congregations at First Memorial Church. The first eighteen sermons in the book address themes of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The second group of twenty-two sermons looks at more universal topics such as identity, miracles, depression, love, death, and stewardship. The entire collection, which is very readable, offers a broad view of Gomes's approach to teaching the word.
In 2002 Gomes wrote The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need. His goal in this text is to reclaim doctrines of virtue and lifelong moral education verses materialism, which has come to inform much of U.S. culture. Julianne Malveaux in her article in Black Issues in Higher Education notes that Gomes speaks about the moral agenda in education. In an interview with The Christian Century, Gomes states: "making a living is what most parents of my students today were brought up to do. Making a living is supposed to be a means to an end, but it often becomes an end in itself." His book explores these issues in three parts. The first part of the book discusses the yearning for something more than material reward, for some noble purpose or destination worth living and even dying for. The second part of the book looks at what prepares people to live fully, such as successes, failures, discipline, and other character builders. In the final section the process and the means to reach the good life are placed within Christian teaching. Gomes asserts that a good life can only be called good if it exhibits in some way the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. The journey to a "good life" as offered in this text is ultimately an examination of what matters and gives purpose to people's lives.
Gomes, who is unmarried and celibate by choice, continues to confront issues of spiritual growth in his scholarly and ministerial work. He contributes articles and book reviews to the New York Times, covering various topics, such as cultural attitudes regarding tourism and African American culture in Harlem, reviews on religious texts such as Buddhism, and scholarly commentary on historic moments (for example a sermon preached by John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630). In 1985, Gomes delivered the benediction for the second inaugural address for Ronald Reagan, and in 1989 he delivered the inaugural service for George Bush. Even though his life was changed by his willingness to respond to an act of hate, Gomes seeks to expand the understanding of the scripture. His ultimate response does not rest on the issue of homosexuality, but on the doctrines of Christianity.
French, Ellen Dennis. "Peter J. Gomes." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 15. Ed. Shirelle Phelps. New York: Gale Publishing, 1997.
Gergen, David R. "A Pilgrimage for Spirituality." U.S. News & World Report 121 (23 December 1996): 80.
Higgins, Richard. "Polishing the Truth." The Christian Century 119 (22 May 2002): 19.
Malveaux, Julianne. "Moral Education in an Immoral Society. (Speaking of Education)." Black Issues in Higher Education 19 (29 August 2002): 46.
McGrath, Bernandette. "Sermon: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living." Library Journal 123 (1 May 1998): 106.
Olson, Ray. "Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living." Booklist 94 (15 April 1998): 1397.
Ostling, Richard N. "Christians Spar in Harvard Yard." Time 139 (16 March 1992): 49.
Lean'tin L. Bracks