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Nelle Katherine Morton

Nelle Katherine Morton

Nelle Katherine Morton (1905-1987) was a church activist for racial justice, a teacher of Christian educators, and, later in her life, one of the leading influences on the powerful and growing movement of women's spirituality and feminist theology.

Nelle Morton began her journey in 1905, when she was born in the hill country of east Tennessee. Her circumstances were humble, but her heritage was proud. As she would later write, "I did not have to start at the beginning." One historian has referred to her grand-mother's people as a little band of Presbyterians from the Scottish Highlands seeking freedom and justice. Morton's mother, whom she referred to as "a strong Appalachian Amazon," remained a powerful influence all of Morton's days, entering even into a vision reported in one of her final essays. Her mother was a schoolteacher, a faithful church woman, and a social activist who had written in her youth a prize-winning speech entitled "The Woman I Want To Be." In Morton's teens her mother gave her the speech to use in an oration contest. She won the prize with it. Morton noted that the speech expressed sentiments we would now call feminist and wrote that in many ways she gave her mother "back her own pages."

Morton's long career as a teacher began during her summers off from her studies at Flora MacDonald College. She taught in vacation church schools. She then became the sixth grade teacher in a Kingsport, Tennessee, public school. During these years she developed an extraordinary attunement to the imaginative gifts of children which would shape her pedagogy and her theology.

Morton then made the great leap from Appalachia to New York City, where she graduated from Biblical Seminary and moved on to direct the educational programs of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. At the same time she led advanced seminars for Christian educators at Union Theological Seminary. The urban experience began to refocus her ministry in terms of social justice as she began to confront a poverty that degrades and entraps, a poverty unlike that with which she had been well acquainted among the hill people. During the 1930s she directed the youth programs for her own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, based in Richmond. She consistently challenged the racial segregation laws of the South as a board member for the denomination's board of education.

During her seven years in Virginia she challenged the racial laws and customs of the South by organizing interracial youth camps and conferences. Then in 1943 Morton accepted the call to become the general secretary of the Fellowship of Christian Churchmen (one source called it the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen), a prophetic network of African American and white southern leaders committed to racial justice, equality, and integration. This is the group in which Martin Luther King, Jr., would rise to prominence, a group which did indispensable preparatory work for the later civil rights movement. Morton was instrumental in changing the Fellowship's annual conference into an (illegally) interracial family camping week in a secluded mountain cove. On one occasion she and her campers hid all night between the rows in a cornfield to elude a local group threatening to take the law into their own hands. In 1947 she took part in the first Freedom Ride, a key historic event designed to challenge the racist laws inhibiting interstate travel for African Americans.

A bout with cancer caused her to resign the Fellowship post and return to the family home in Tennessee. During her ultimately successful convalescence she occupied herself teaching mentally handicapped children for whom she pioneered camping programs. Morton made a prize-winning film on the subject for the Virginia State Department of Education. During this period she was also writing, publishing two books on her perspectives on Christian and theological education.

In 1956 Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, then a Methodist seminary with a strong international flavor due to its involvement in German existential theology, called her to join its faculty. She came as an instructor in Christian education, the only field then open to women in seminary education. She became the first, and for many years only, woman on the faculty. Drew invited her to use her commitments and experiences to broaden its understanding of the church's educational ministries. And indeed she never relented in her willingness to challenge colleagues at Drew and in the churches as to the multidimensional scope of their accountabilities, urging them to become more active in the church's mission of the time. In her teaching and writing she drew not just on the dimensions of social and global justice but also on the avant garde theater and art museums of New York.

In 1962 she took a sabbatical leave to study in Switzerland with Jean Piaget. Here she learned the requisite tools for her critique of the theological tradition of the Word and its hyperabstractions of transcendence. It was in the late 1960s that Morton began to make the connections between image, word, and the newly emerging feminist movement. At this point, she wrote, "My whole life just fell open." In 1969 she taught what seems to be the first course anywhere on women, language, and the Bible. For the two remarkably creative decades remaining to her, she would focus attention on what she called "the woman question."

After her retirement from Drew in 1971, Morton was free to embark on a period of intense intellectual activity, including writing, teaching, and speaking at events around the world. She became involved in the formative discussions, behind the scenes and on the forefront of the new set of theories and practices known as feminine theology. From her new home in Claremont, California, she participated in the newly created Commission on Women formed by the National Council of Churches by examining women's roles in articulating theology. Morton also led and participated in feminist spirituality groups, forming an academic group on women and religion called Thiasos.

From papers written during this decade she edited her book The Journey Is Home. This book reveals why Christian feminists such as Rosemary Ruether, and post-Christian feminists, such as Mary Daly, consider her a great foremother.

In its pages her earthy Appalachian roots underlie a project which finally embraced every dimension of spiritual and political consciousness. Her way was not to pontificate. The essays are concise explorations rather than conclusive treatises. Her famous phrase, "hearing each other to speech," suggests her own method. For Morton even the act of divine creation is no longer to be imagined as the ultimate speech-act; rather, "in the beginning was the hearing."

This open, liberating concept of hearing is linked to consciousness, whence metaphors arise. Following the power of metaphor to both break the deadlock of old images and liberate our energies with new ones, she challenges the sociocultural icons of patriarchy. Instead of the old revelation of the Word from above, she evokes a movement which carries the aspirations for wholeness of all persons who have been kept down, whether by race, class, or gender. And it carries the bodily, emotive, relational energies which wait to come forth as sacred in each of us. Finally, her work centered on the idea of the Goddess as metaphor. Her work reports not just the history and the theory supportive of a Goddess-spirituality, but also her own imaginative visionary experiences. Yet her message remained unmistakable; the "Goddess," or God as woman, is a metaphor. Its purpose is iconoclastic and epiphanic—to break the exclusivistic hold of masculine images of the divine and to disclose new possibilities. If the Goddess ceases to be a live metaphor, perhaps when sexism itself has been overcome, then "she" must also shatter or else become a dull and dogmatic idol like the usual uses of "God the Father."

A respected critic said her thoughts of Morton were of "a pucker of dissatisfaction, of systematic suspicion, knitting her brow; or of her radiant burst of innocent wonder, unconditionally affirmative; or her continuum of undiluted curiosity. Her passion to know what was going on, especially but not exclusively with women and minorities, kept her reading immense piles of books and journals and kept her in touch with an endless network of friends." Despite a review in a journal that indicated Morton had moved to the margin of the Presbyterian faith in her later years, Morton believed herself to be even more faithful to her challenge of church assumptions about women. Even in her 80s, Morton was an advocate for religion and theology to be "an embodied, communal process, an evolving politics of the imagination in which we are, in her famous idiom, heard to our own speech."

Morton's full life of over eight decades never ceased to be a journey. It ended on July 14, 1987. In her view, the journey does not arrive eventually at a final destination called "home." Rather, "home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be 'their own,' and increasingly responsible for the world." In this sense, "the journey is home." She was one whose immeasurable influence will long continue to come home to those concerned with justice and gender in the churches.

Further Reading

The best introduction to Nelle Morton is her own book The Journey Is Home (1985). See also Catherine Keller, "Ear, Goddess and Metaphor on the Journey of Nelle Morton" in Feminist Studies in Religion, and "Nelle Morton: Hearing to Speech" in The Christian Century (February 7-14, 1990); and "Nelle Morton: Journeying Home" in The Christian Century (August 26-September 2, 1987). □

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