Harkness, Georgia (1891–1974)

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Harkness, Georgia (1891–1974)

American scholar and one of the most prominent female Protestant theologians during the 20th century. Born Georgia Elma Harkness on April 21, 1891, inHarkness, New York; died at Pomona Valley Community Hospital on August 21, 1974; daughter of Joseph Warren Harkness (a farmer) and Lillie (Merrill) Harkness; attended Keeseville, New York, high school; awarded A.B., Cornell University, 1912; M.A., Boston University, 1920; M.R.E., Boston University, 1920; Ph.D., Boston University, 1923; lived with Verna Miller; never married; no children.

Taught Latin and French at a high school in Schuylerville, New York (1912–14), and Scotia, New York (1915–18); was an instructor at English Bible, Boston University School of Religious Education (1919–20); was a member of faculty, Elmira College, advancing to rank of professor of philosophy (1922–37); was an associate professor of religion, Mount Holyoke College (1937–39); was a professor of applied theology, Garrett Biblical Institute (1939–50); was a professor of applied theology, Pacific School of Theology at Berkeley (1950–61).


The Church and the Immigrant (George H. Doran, 1921); Conflicts in Religious Thought (Harper, 1929); John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics (Holt, 1931); Holy Flame (B. Humphries, 1935); The Resources of Religion (Holt, 1936); Religious Living (Association, 1937); The Recovery of Ideals (Scribner, 1937); The Faith by Which the Church Lives (Abington, 1940); The Glory of God (Abington, 1943); The Dark Night of the Soul (Abington-Cokes-bury, 1945); Prayer and the Common Life (Abington-Cokesbury, 1948); The Gospel and Our World (Abington-Cokesbury, 1949); Through Christ Our Lord: A Devotional Manual Based on the Recorded Words of Jesus (Abington-Cokesbury, 1950); The Modern Rival of the Christian Faith (Abington-Cokesbury, 1952); Be Still and Know (Abington-Cokesbury, 1953); Toward Understanding the Bible (Scribner, 1954); The Sources of Western Morality (Scribner, 1954); Foundations of Christian Knowledge (Abington, 1955); The Providence of God (Abington, 1960); Beliefs That Count (Abington, 1961); The Church and the Faith (Abington, 1962); The Methodist Church in Social Thought and Action (Abington, 1964); What Christians Believe (Abington, 1965); The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit (Abington, 1966); Christian Ethics (Abington, 1967); Disciples of the Christian Life (John Knox, 1968); Stability Amid Change (Abington, 1969); Grace Abounding (Abington, 1969); Women in Church and Society: A Historical and Theological Inquiry (Abington, 1971); The Ministry of Reconciliation (Abington, 1971); Mysticism: Its Meaning (Abington, 1973); Understanding the Kingdom of God (Abington, 1974); (with Charles F. Kraft) Biblical Foundations of the Middle East Conflict (Abington, 1976).

Until 1939, life had gone surprisingly well for Georgia Harkness. Two years earlier, Time magazine had referred to the middle-aged scholar as the "famed woman theologian," a unique compliment in a sphere dominated by men. Harkness was a theologian of the more liberal persuasion, a circumstance that undoubtedly helped her face the world with some confidence. She wrote in 1939:

I believe in the essential greatness of man, in a Christian social gospel which calls us to action as co-workers with God in the redemptive process, in a Kingdom which will come in this world by growth as Christians accept responsibility in the spirit of the cross. My Christian faith has its central focus, not in Paul's theology or Luther's or Calvin's, but in the incarnation of God in the Jesus of the Gospels.

"A union of divine with human resources," she had written two years earlier, "is a possibility worth the effort." Indeed, it could create "an active saintliness of character."

Exhibiting the rare combination of being a highly productive academician and an articulate platform speaker, Harkness had always worked with frantic energy. In the process, she piled up an enviable number of "firsts" to her credit: the first woman participant of the Fellowship of Younger Christian Thinkers; the first woman member of the American Theological Society; the first full-time woman professor of theological studies at an American seminary; and the first major woman theologian to be part of the worldwide Protestant ecumenical circle.

Then, just as she was beginning her new faculty position at one of Methodism's leading seminaries, she found herself suddenly in deep melancholia. Although not yet 50, she started to experience a series of severe illnesses which included sacroiliac arthritis, a condition that precipitated several years of nagging pain. Her entire nervous system was disrupted. The result: one of the most energetic professors in the United States suddenly fell into severe lethargy. She later wrote, "This combination of low energy, a 'thorn in the flesh' and frustration at 'suffering many things at the hands of many physicians,' plunged me into insomnia and acute depression."

Worst of all, she felt that God was abandoning her. Always before, she found her Lord an abundant source of strength and support. Now, as she said in her letter to the seminary's president asking for a brief leave, she felt a "spiritual defeat in not being able to trust God and live triumphantly." She claimed to have no easy answers for the person who experiences "this the deepest hell," which she defined as a condition wherein one's reason "tells him there are things to live for, but to his emotions life is meaningless and the future bleak."

At this very point, however, when she felt absolutely cut off from her Creator, she experienced the realization that God was always bestowing his divine grace, irrespective of her subjective attitudes or efforts. No longer did it matter to be "well thought of as a servant of God" or to sense "satisfaction in being able to do the work of God." She wrote:

It is the Christian's rightful faith that, however dark the night, God's love surrounds us.… When we are assured that God ceases not to love us, we can watch with patience through the night and wait for the dawn.… If with all our hearts we truly seek him, we can know that God finds us and gives rest to our souls.

While experiencing her new conversion, Harkness steeped herself in the works of the great Christian mystics of history, among them Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, George Fox, and John Bunyan. Although she never wrote directly about her experiences, the title of her more general study was more revealing: The Dark Night of the Soul (1945). It was borrowed from a Spanish mystic she much admired, St. John of the Cross. By the end of 1945, she had emerged from her ordeal a transformed woman.

God lives, Christ lives, the church which is the carrier of Christ's gospel still lives, goodness lives. All of these will endure to the end of time, and beyond it to eternity.

—Georgia Harkness, Grace Abounding

Georgia Elma Harkness was born on April 21, 1891, the youngest of four children, in a rural Adirondack town named for her paternal grandfather. Indeed, she was raised in a large white farmhouse that had belonged to her father's family since 1801. Her father, whom she always called the greatest influence on her life, was not only a prosperous farmer, he was also a pious Methodist lay-leader who, from ages 16 to 84, taught his own Sunday School class. Furthermore, J. Warren Harkness organized the local grange, introduced free rural mail delivery, established a cooperative fire insurance company, and was the moving spirit behind the establishment of Plattsburgh Normal School. Her mother, the frail Lillie Merrill Harkness , was far more retiring. Georgia remembers with gratitude Lillie's nursing efforts during the flu epidemic of 1918, for Lillie might well have sacrificed years of her own life to save that of her daughter.

As a child, Georgia was educated in a one-room schoolhouse that also served on Sunday as the community Methodist church. An extremely bright adolescent, she entered Keeseville High School at age 12, accumulated enough credits to graduate at age 14, and completed the equivalent of an eight-year program over the next two and a half years. When the school introduced a Greek class, she was its only student. Midway through high school, she experienced a religious conversion at an evangelistic meeting. "I felt no great upheaval of soul," she later wrote, "but I did feel that from then on I must be a Christian."

Always an outstanding student and highly competitive, Harkness won a state scholarship to Cornell University. "I was shy, green, and countrified," she recalled. "My clothes were queer; I had no social graces; and I did not come within gunshot of being asked to join a sorority." She found a congenial peer group, however, and a sense of direction in the Student Christian Association and the Student Volunteer Movement and, until prevented by the illness of her parents, planned to become a missionary. Moreover, through the teaching of Professor James E. Creighton, she also discovered philosophy, a field that—in Creighton's eyes—must center on the wisdom needed for "a common basis of life in society."

Upon graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1912, Harkness taught Latin, German, and French in high schools in Schuylerville and Scotia, villages near Schenectady. Finding little stimulation in this experience, she enrolled in 1918 in Boston University's School of Religious Education and Social Science, a Methodist lay-training institution. She wrote a master's thesis that was later published under the title The Church and the Immigrant (1921), a most appropriate topic for a school that stressed the Social Gospel and urban ministry.

In 1920, Harkness began doctoral work under the direction of Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a scholar only seven years her senior. Brightman proved to be a warm personal friend, a hard taskmaster, and an astute theological mentor, who expounded a theology known as personalism. For the rest of her life, Harkness was influenced by this thought system, which centered on the individual person as the ultimate reality and personality as the explanatory principle of all life, human and divine. Her dissertation on an English exponent of philosophical idealism was entitled "The Relations Between the Philosophy and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green." The final draft weighed six pounds and was 399 pages long.

Harkness first taught at Elmira College in Elmira, New York, where from 1923 to 1937 she was a member of the philosophy department. Despite the heavy teaching load characteristic of small colleges, Harkness—who often taught five courses per semester—was a prolific writer. Her Conflicts in Religious Thought (1929) dealt with universal problems of faith. Religion, she said, must be a way of life rather than a set of intellectual functions, offering the "strength to meet the storms and battles." In a study of John Calvin published in 1931, Harkness claimed to hold no brief for either the man or his theology. She nonetheless called Calvinism "an enduring structure, and one not wholly lacking in a stern sort of beauty." Somewhat like sociologist Max Weber, she saw in Calvinism many of the seeds of capitalism.

In The Resources of Religion (1935), she offered a more distinctly Christian focus than in Conflicts. The work epitomized the theological liberalism of her generation. The man Jesus embodied "the self-giving, suffering love of God for men"; the cross was "the eternal symbol of a loving, suffering God"; the resurrection conveyed the "triumphant living" that Christianity calls salvation; and the incarnation was "the high mark of ethical idealism." She went so far as to claim that a person could gain a "Christ-like personality" through moral striving and wrote of creating an entire society patterned on the Kingdom of God.

Two other works—The Recovery of Ideals (1937) and Religious Living (1937)—contained a perfectionist thrust. In both, Harkness asserted that the truly dedicated believer was capable of fulfilling Christianity's highest ideals. As she said in Recovery, "Living in Christ, one could look the world in the face, do a mighty work, and know that nothing could daunt the soul." As noted by her biographer, Rosemary Skinner Keller , Harkness believed that a person could develop a genuinely Christ like personality "through high moral striving, not through a genuine grappling with a deeper experience of spiritual death and resurrection."

Harkness was busy on other fronts, almost compulsively so. She frequently contributed articles and poems to a host of religious journals, including the prestigious Christian Century. She

was a frequent speaker on campuses and at various Methodist conferences. Even though she spent much time caring for her aged parents, she took sabbaticals to study at Harvard University, Yale Divinity School (where she had been awarded the coveted Sterling Fellowship), and New York's Union Theological Seminary.

All during this time, the professor of philosophy was becoming increasingly attracted to theology. Harkness saw her intellectual quest centering increasingly less on philosophical objectivity, increasingly more on overt Christian commitment. In 1937, she leapt at the opportunity to join the faculty at Mount Holyoke College. She was hired by president Mary Emma Woolley , an internationally known educator, to teach the history and literature of religion. She arrived amid faculty strife over a new president, and in 1939 she welcomed a bid to teach applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute, a major Methodist seminary in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.

Here began her ordeal, the illness that led her to believe that God had abandoned her. The years of speaking engagements and professional seminars, some of them overseas, had taken their toll. It took her several years to regain her footing. In 1944, the prominent Evanston minister Ernest Fremont Tittle introduced Harkness to Verna Miller , thinking that Miller—an administrative secretary and musician—might be an ideal companion for the overwrought professor. The two women became close friends, sharing a home for the rest of their lives.

Once she had recovered from her personal crisis, Harkness produced what was essentially a trilogy on the life of faith. Now a "chastened" liberal, she increasingly emphasized the power of evil and the role of sin. Yet in Understanding the Christian Faith (1947), she revealed that her theological liberalism was only tempered, not abandoned. Christians, she insisted, must remain continually open to new truth, at times even suspending judgment until relative certainty emerged. Her Prayer and the Common Life (1948) centered on her very definition of prayer: living one's whole life as a response to God and utilizing this relationship to foster the welfare of the world itself. The Gospel and the World (1949) showed her praising Protestant neo-orthodoxy for focusing on human pride and rebellion, but found it inadequate in recognizing divine grace and individual acts of love.

In 1950, Harkness again changed posts, becoming professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. She took a break in 1956–57, when she spent a sabbatical year teaching at Tokyo's International Christian University and Manila's Union Theological Seminary. Only in 1961, at the age of 70, did she retire; at which point, she moved to Claremont, California.

Again, Harkness' productivity could only shame many younger colleagues. Towards Understanding the Bible (1952) explained higher criticism to the laity and challenged the Fundamentalist belief in inerrancy. Offering her own criteria for the genuine "Voice of God," she said that one must hold up any passage to "the life, the words, and mind of Christ." In Formulations of Christian Knowledge (1955), she combined a rationalistic defense of Christianity with a call to the devotional life. "The Word of God" within the Bible, she said, "must be a living language, or it is not a word at all." Other works centered on providence (1961), the laity (1962), women in Western religious culture (1972), and mysticism (1973). Her final book, published two years after her death, centered on Middle East tensions and included an impassioned plea for dispossessed Palestinians.

In examining Harkness' career, certain themes predominate. Foremost is the status of women. Always steeped in Methodist life, Harkness was ordained locally as deacon in 1926 and elder in 1938. Under such local ordination, she was permitted to exercise most ministerial roles but denied membership in Annual Conference. To Methodist clergy, such membership was crucial, for it meant that district superintendents were obliged to find a parish for any willing applicant. She continually advocated full equality, calling the church in 1937 "the most impregnable stronghold of male dominance."

In 1948, at the World Council of Churches Assembly at Amsterdam, Swiss theologian Karl Barth—perhaps in jest—first cited Genesis to the effect that woman was made from Adam's rib, then quoted the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians on man as head of the woman. Harkness responded with Galatians 3:28: "There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." When Barth was reminded of the encounter a year later, he just remarked, "Remind me not of that woman."

When in May 1956 at the denominational assembly in Minneapolis, Methodist women were admitted to full pastoral status, Harkness attended but took no part in the debate. She later said, "The Bible says that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. This was the time for me to be silent." Yet, when the entire gathering gave her a standing ovation later that evening, it was in recognition that she had been the leading spirit behind the move.

A second theme revolved around Harkness' pacifism. "War," she said in the late 1930s, "destroys every value for which Christianity stands, and to oppose war by more war is only to deepen the morass into which humanity has fallen." Denying that she was naive, she conceded that no motives were wholly pure and that life always involved choices between alternative evils. However, some evils were worse than others, war being primary. Indeed, it was precisely because humans were sinful and life full of conflict that no good could emerge from war. She realized, she said in 1938, that pacifists were unable to stop war from breaking out, but once it did, they were obligated to withhold support, even if it meant death.

Harkness became a pacifist in 1924, when she participated in a group tour of Europe directed by the prominent Christian reformer Sherwood Eddy. Made aware of Germany's grievances under the Versailles Treaty, she returned to America denying that Germany bore sole guilt for World War I; in fact, she accused the Allied blockade of starving over 700,000 people. She joined the international pacifist body, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and she remained an anti-interventionist during World War II. During the conflict, she sought to earmark her taxes for strictly civilian use, but was told by the Treasury Department that such action was unlawful.

Late in 1950, Harkness was appointed to the Commission of Christian Scholars on the Moral Obligations of Obliteration Bombing and the Use of the Hydrogen Bomb for Mass Destruction. A task force sponsored by the Federal Council of Churches, it was chaired by Angus Dun, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., and had in its ranks such eminent theologians as Paul Tillich, John C. Bennett, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The majority issued a statement approving American use of atomic weapons in retaliation for an atomic strike against the United States or its allies. Harkness, together with Robert Calhoun of Yale Divinity School, issued a strong dissent. Noting that the task force called for "all possible restraint" in Western use of nuclear weapons, she asked:

Is this realistic? Can we have a major war that is not "all-out" war? Is not such restraint, if practiced, the very antithesis of military success? And is this not the very reason why some influential members of the commission refused during the last war to condemn food blockades and obliteration bombing of civilians?

During the Korean War, she supported the initial United Nations' action, though she opposed crossing the 38th parallel. While still calling herself a pacifist, she resigned from the FOR in 1951 over its tactics of tax and draft resistance. Once the Vietnam War broke out, however, Harkness strongly opposed it, calling it "so unjust and immoral that its continuance cannot be justified."

A third posture of Harkness involves her socialism. In the 1930s, seeing capitalism riddled with inequity and greed, she found it intrinsically contrary to Christian ethics. A more just distribution of goods was needed. On the international level, she believed, capitalism resulted in economic imperialism, which she saw as the root of both world wars. By 1967, she had mellowed, writing in Christian Ethics that the best economic order involved "a blend of free enterprise and state control in accordance with certain positive Christian principles."

Fourth, Harkness vehemently opposed all forms of racism. She fought segregation within the Methodist Church, even opposing the 1968 merger between Methodists and the Evangelical United Brethren Church on the race issue. The Methodist Church long had a segregated black administrative structure called the Central Jurisdiction. Harkness called the arrangement "a clear contradiction of Christian morality." She said, "This injustice I cannot stomach, and I hope my church cannot."

Fifth, Harkness had a strong sense of the church universal. She was always a leading figure in ecumenical circles, and there was seldom, if ever, a national or international assembly at which she was not present. Her participation reads like a history of the World Council of Churches and its immediate predecessors: the Oxford Conference on Life and Work (1937); the International Missionary Council at Madras, India (1938); the World Council organizational conference at Geneva (1939); the Amsterdam (1948) and Evanston (1954) assemblies of the World Council of Churches; the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs at Cambridge (1946); the conference on Faith and Order at Lund, Sweden (1952). Indeed, the Hymn Society of America selected her hymn, "Hope of the World," to honor the 1954 Evanston Assembly.

Harkness was extremely effective, even in the most sensitive of ecclesiastical matters, in part because of the cogency of her arguments, in part because she possessed a conciliatory personality. Whether dealing with colleagues on the Elmira faculty or delegates to a Methodist convention, she was tactful and fair-minded, trying to reconcile opposing views while pressing for what she saw as genuine reform.

One of the most widely read theologians of the mid-20th century, Harkness wrote over 30 books. No innovator, she sought to present the most profound of mysteries in clear, everyday language and to do so without violating the integrity of the Christian message. Among the first theologians to interpret ministry as the calling of all God's people, not simply the ordained clergy, she challenged pastors to show just how Christian teaching related to everyday life. She wrote in 1947:

Laymen make the greater part of the political, economic, and social decisions on which human destinies depend. There are enough Christian laymen in the world to establish "peace on earth, good will among men," if laymen understand the Christian gospel and act upon it.

At the same time, Harkness' strength—her self-designated role as theologian to the laity—was also her weakness. There is no point where her thinking forced the theological enterprise to take a new turn. Positive responses to her work invariably stress her lucidity of presentation, freshness of expression, and above all deep spirituality, whereas negative comments emphasize her oversimplification of argument, distilling the work of others, writing simply for the novice and the parish clergy—in short—popularization. In the 1990s, Harkness is seldom quoted, in part because contemporary parishes often ignore the entire theological quest, in part because many of her social concerns are obviously dated in the form in which they appeared. Perhaps the best place to begin appreciating Harkness is to start with her poetry which still conveys intensity and power.

God gave Isaiah then the vision high;
His unclean lips were purged with sacred fire.
Out of the smoke a Voice in challenge came;
Unhesitant, he answered, Here am I.
Again the days are dark, the outlook dire;
Lord, touch Thy prophets now with holy flame.

On August 21, 1974, Georgia Harkness suffered a heart attack at home. She died in Claremont.


Frakes, Margaret. "Theology Is Her Province," in Christian Century. Vol. 69. September 24, 1952, pp. 1088–1089.

Keller, Rosemary Skinner. Georgia Harkness: For Such a Time as This. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1992.


The Georgia Harkness papers are located in the archives of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida