Gomes, Peter J. 1942–

views updated May 23 2018

Peter J. Gomes 1942

Clergyman, educator, author

At a Glance

Always Loved the Church

Assumed Religious Mantle

Addressed Societal Prejudices

Selected writings


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As Harvard Universitys Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and minister to its Memorial Church, Peter J. Gomes has been one of that institutions most visible and beloved faculty members since 1970. He was named one of Americas seven star preachers by Time in 1979, and he pronounced the benediction at former U.S. president Ronald Reagans second inaugural and preached former U.S. president George Bushs inaugural service four years later. Variously described as magnetic, charismatic, and courtly, Gomes is a man of unquestioned scholarship and possessed of great personal charm. He is held in high esteem both by his peers and by the Harvard student body.Time noted in 1992 that although worship attendance has been voluntary at Harvard for a century, collegians crowd the sanctuary each Sunday to savor his eloquent, engaging, and scholarly sermons....

Kit Lively depicted Gomes in The Chronicle of Higher Learning as a man whose bearing is decidedly patrician and whose Massachusetts accent sounds almost English at times. Robert S. Boynton was more specific in the New Yorker, identifying his voice as a rich baritone that is three parts [actorj James Earl Jones and one part [actor] John Houseman. Poet, Nobel Prize winner, and Harvard colleague Seamus Heaney commented on Gomess preaching method in Boyntons 1996 New Yorker profile, stating He embraces this old-fashioned grandiloquent style in a manner that is always on the verge of carnival, he observed. His style is full of cadence, roguery, and scampishness, which is itself redemptive.

George H. Williams, professor emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, described Gomes to the Chicago Tribune in 1996 as a wonderful preacher whose style incorporates the fervor of an evangelical with a moderate conservative theology and an episcopal sense of liturgy. Ordained into the American Baptist Church, Gomes has described himself as having an Anglican oversoul. Although disinclined to classify his own style, Gomes places it somewhere between what he calls the tornado genre of popular black preaching and the measured clock preaching characteristic of English sermons. I love the splendor of the tickery, he told Boynton. Think of me as a `precise tornado.

In 1996 Gomes published The Good Book: Reading

At a Glance

Born Peter JohnGomes on May 22, 1942, in Boston, MA; son of Peter Lobo Gomes (a cranberry bog worker) and Orissa Josephine (White) Gomes (aclerk intheMassachusetts State House).Education: Bates College, B.A., 1965; Harvard University, B.D. 1968; New England College, D.D., 1974. Politics: Republican.Religilon: Baptist

Clergyman, professor, author. Ordained to ministry of the American Baptist Church, 1968. Tuskegee Institute, history instructor and director of Freshman Experimental Program, 1968-70; Harvard University, Memorial Church, assistant minister, 1970-74, actingminister, 1974-; Harvard University, Plummer Professor of Morals, 1974-; delivered Benediction, second inaugural, Ronald Reagan, 1985; delivered inaugural service, George Bush, 1989.

Selected awards: Theodore Presser Scholarship in Music, Bates College, 1961-65; Chief Marshal, Harvard Divinity School, Class of 1968; nine honorary degrees; Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, England;

Selected memberships: Fellow, Pilgrim Society (trustee, 1972-; librarian, 1962-); Royal Arts Society, London; North Baptist Educational Society (Director, 1973); National Association of UniversityChaplains;Colonial Society ofMassachusetts (Councillor, 1973-); Massachusetts Historical Society; Harvard Musical Association; SignetSociety; Royal SocietyofChoraleMusic; Farmington Institute of Christian Studies; American Baptist Historical Society; Director, English Speaking Union; Phi Beta Kappa; (President, trustee) International DefenseFund and Aid in South Africa, 1977-; National Chaplain, American Guild Organists, 1978-82.

Addresses: Home-Sparks House, 21 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; 33 Alerton St., Plymouth, MA 02360; Office-Memorial Church, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.

the Bible with Mind and Heart. The book, which Time called an entertaining bid to grab serious Bible study back from the religious right, is a readable, thought-provoking work of Biblical scholarship. It examines what the Bible has to say on many controversial subjects. The book received largely favorable reviews and generated even more media attention than Gomess emergence as a high-profile gay preacher.The Good Book became a New York Times national bestseller.

Always Loved the Church

Peter John Gomes was born May 22, 1942, in Boston, an only child. His father, Peter Lobo Gomes, was born in the Cape Verde Islands in 1908. The elder Gomes immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He found work in the cranberry bogs around the area, eventually rising to the position of superintendent at one of them. Fluent in several languages, he now serves as an interpreter for the Spanish and Portuguese immigrants in the area, helping them compose letters to send home. Gomess mother, Orissa Josephine White, was born on Bostons wealthy Beacon Hill in 1901. One of nine children, she was the daughter of Jacob Merrit Pedford White, a well-to-do Baptist minister originally from Virginia. Her parents family trees date before the U.S. Civil War. Hailing from the Rhode Island and Massachusetts areas, she was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and was the first black woman to work in the Massachusetts State House, where she was a clerk.

Boynton wrote, It is often commented that Peter Gomes was born an old man and has since grown progressively younger. His status as an only child meant he was indulged by attentive parents who expected him to be an exemplary son. His education went beyond the Plymouth public school system, and included piano lessons, science kits, and regular cultural outings. His mother read classical literature to him on a nightly basis. Gomes was very bright, writing the entry on Plymouth, Massachusetts for the 1960 edition of the Americana Encyclopedia when he was in the eleventh grade, and he showed early promise as a man of the cloth. As a child he routinely reprised the Sunday sermon from a basement pulpit constructed of cranberry boxes. He first preached his own sermon when he was only 12. Gomes described the lure of the church to Boynton: Church for me was what the basketball court is to most black kids: a place where my imagination was unleashed and I was given free reign on the stage.

As a youth, Gomes worked as a page in the Plymouth Public Library, where he had charge of the research and genealogy department. He also worked as a houseboy in some of New Englands grandest homes. He regularly attended the Baptist Church in Plymouth and was very involved in all its programs. Gomes graduated as president of his class from Plymouth High School in 1961, and enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, that fall. He paid his way through school with work as the organist and choirmaster of the First Congregational Church in Lewiston, and by working summers at the Pilgrim Hall museum in Plymouth. He also held the Theodore Presser Scholarship in music during all of his four years at Bates.

Assumed Religious Mantle

A history major, Gomes was not yet convinced that the clergy was his calling. I thought religion was for nice but weak-minded people and believed I had to give it up if I wanted to be a real intellectual, he told Boynton. By his senior year he planned to become the first curator of American Decorative Arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon graduation in 1965, he was persuaded to spend a trial year at the Harvard Divinity School. One year stretched into three, and Gomes earned his Bachelor of Divinity in 1968. While there, he won the Harvard preaching prize, served as proctor of Divinity Hall, and chaired both the Worship and Publications committees.

Following graduation, Gomes was offered a position teaching history at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He taught Western Civilization there from 1968 to 1970. The embodiment of a Yankee blueblood, Gomes experienced some culture shock in Alabama. I saw more black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life, he commented in the New Yorker. During his two years at Tuskegee Gomes directed the Freshman Experimental Program, which he has described as an innovative seminar-based experiment in the reorganization of the freshman year.

Gomes also served as choirmaster at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Tuskegee and assisted in the Institute Chapel. Although he expressed to Boynton that he would have been content to spend the rest of his life at Tuskegee, fate intervened. In 1970 Gomes was appointed assistant minister of Harvards Memorial Church as well as tutor in Divinity. His rise was rapid. In 1972, he was acting minister, and, by 1974, he held the dual positions of minister to the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.

Addressed Societal Prejudices

Gomes acquired a new celebrity in 1991, when he declared his status as a Christian who happens as well to be gay before a cheering crowd of students in Harvard Yard. Gomes and other faculty members had been asked to comment at a protest against a student publication devoted to denouncing homosexuality. Although a few outraged calls for his resignation were made, Gomes ignored them. Harvards president, Neil Rudenstine, stated in Time that it was not up to the school to apply a doctrinal test concerning issues that may be controversial but that are part of current theological debate, where reasonable people of different religious persuasions hold different views.

Gomes has stated that he does not regret his declaration, although he does not wish to become a gay activist. He told the Washington Post in 1992, I now have an unambiguous vocation-a mission-to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia.... I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the religious case against gays. Toward that end, he published The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart in 1996.

The Good Book takes a close look at what the Bible actually says about many controversial subjects. Gomes examines the Bibles literal words on these subjects and then offers thoughtful reinterpretations of the scripture, based on original language translations and contexts, both cultural and historical. Boynton described The Good Book as an engaging study of the purported Biblical roots of homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, and other prejudices... and as a Biblical primer and a critique of the religious right.... A Library Journal review called the book honest, down-to-earth, personal, and thoughtful, and Booklist suggested it would be a source of endless discussion, both internal and external.

Although, as Time noted, fundamentalists will have little use for this book, Gomes stressed the need for interpretive commentary as an additional resource for understanding the Bible. The Bible alone is the most dangerous thing I can think of, he commented in the Los Angeles Times.You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest. Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement. It was this attitude that Gomes promotes, that allowed religious institutions to finally condemn slavery and racism on moral grounds, despite the Biblical tradition.

Gomes denounces the use of the Bible to disenfranchise other groups as well. The legitimization of violence against homosexuals and Jews and women and blacks, as we have seen, he wrote, comes from the view that the Bible stigmatizes these people, thereby making them fair game. With regard to homosexuality, Gomes argues that Biblical citations used to condemn it ignore contexts and fail to account for the fact that the term homosexual was coined in the nineteenth century by scientists. As for women, Gomes concluded that feminist interpreters of scripture have much to teach us, and we ignore these lessons to the peril of scripture and of the church. Gomes also attacks anti-Semitism, writing, If any good can come out of the worlds descent into the abyss that was [Nazi death camp] Auschwitz, a thoroughgoing reassessment of the biblical basis for Christian anti-Semitism is one such good.

In his attempt to speak out against an act of hate, Gomes succeeded in changing his life forever. Despite his self-declared mission to campaign against religion-based homophobia, Lively noted that Gomes doesnt want homosexuality to become the issue that defines him. Unmarried, Gomes is celibate by choice. Boynton wrote that with his crushing work schedule and busy social life, Gomes has neither the time not the inclination for romantic entanglement. Lively quoted Gomes as saying, I am more than my race. I am more than my sexuality. I am more than my professorship. The one thing I am known by is [as] a Christian.

Selected writings

History of the Pilgrim Society, 1820-1970, 1971.

(with Lawrence D. Geller)The Books of the Pilgrims,

Garland Books, 1975.The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and

Heart, William Morrow & Co., 1996.



Gomes, Peter J.,The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart, William Morrow & Co., 1996.


Booklist, October 1, 1996.

Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1996.

Christianity Today, April 7, 1997.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10,


Library Journal, December 1996.Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1996.Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 5, 1997.New Yorker, November 11, 1996.People, March 3, 1997.Time, December 31, 1979; March 16, 1992, January

27, 1997.

U.S.News & World Report, December 23, 1996.Washington Post, April 15, 1992.


Additional information for this profile was obtained through correspondence with Peter J. Gomes.

Ellen Dennis French

Gomes, Peter John

views updated Jun 11 2018

Gomes, Peter John

May 22, 1942

Theologian Peter Gomes, whom Time magazine called "one of America's great preachers," was born in Boston and grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. His father was a Cape Verdean immigrant who labored in the local cranberry bogs, while his mother was a fourth-generation African-American Bostonian, from an affluent family, who had studied music at the New England Conservatory before becoming the first African American to work in Cambridge's city hall. Gomes attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he received his B.A. in 1965, then attended Harvard University Divinity School. After Gomes earned an S.T.B. degree from Harvard in 1968, he was ordained a minister in the American Baptist Church. He subsequently took a position as professor of history and director of Freshman Studies at the Tuskegee Institute.

In 1970 Gomes accepted the post of assistant minister at Harvard's prestigious Memorial Church and was named professor of Christian morals. Over the following two decades he was a notable figure at Harvard for his dynamic preaching and thoughtful biblical exegesis and for his conservative Republican politics. In 1984 and 1988 Gomes was selected to deliver sermons at the inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

In 1991, at a rally held in protest of an antigay piece in the conservative Harvard magazine Peninsula, Gomes came out as "a Christian who happens as well to be gay." He thereafter became an important figure in the gay rights movement. In 1998, two years after he published a bestselling Bible analysis, The Good Book, Gomes announced that Memorial Church would solemnize same-sex unions.

Gomes was named Clergy of the Year in 1998 by Religion in American Life. Gomes has spoken and delivered sermons all over the world, has been a guest on numerous television programs, and has been the subject of many magazine articles.

See also Baptists; Gay Men; Lesbians; Theology


Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: Morrow, 1996.

Higgins, Richard. "Polishing the Truth. (Interview)" The Christian Century 119, no. 11 (May 22, 2002): 1920.

Ostling, Richard N. "Christians Spar in Harvard Yard." Time 139, no. 11 (March 16, 1992): 49.

greg robinson (2001)
Updated by publisher 2005