Franklin I. ‘Chris’ Gamwell, religious ethics scholar devoted to justice, 1937-2023

Former dean of UChicago’s Divinity School known for precise thinking, deep commitment to political participation

Franklin I. “Chris” Gamwell, the Shailer Mathews Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Religious Ethics, Philosophy of Religions, and Theology and dean of the Divinity School from 1980-1990, died Sept. 8 at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 85.

Gamwell, an ordained Presbyterian minister, studied the intersection of philosophy, Christian theology and political theory. His work centered on 20th-century thinkers, such as Alfred North Whitehead, Iris Murdoch, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. 

“For those who had the opportunity to listen to him lecture or to read his many books,” said former student Brett Wilmot, AM’94, PhD’02, “it was also abundantly clear that he was equal in capacity to the intellectual giants with whom he engaged in his work.”

A prolific writer of the philosophy of religions, Gamwell argued for the importance of God and religion within democratic debate. He also was an ardent believer in political participation as an integral part of religious ethics.

Throughout his life, Gamwell was deeply involved in economic and racial justice work. He participated in the historic March from Selma to Montgomery during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Later, his work with Protestants for the Common Good sought to address issues of poverty.

Gamwell joined the Divinity School as a faculty member in 1979 and led the School as dean for a decade. A beloved teacher and generous mentor, he is remembered by many of his colleagues and former students for his meticulous care to understand others’ arguments and his remarkable clarity of thought.

“Recognizing the difficulties that come with trying to think clearly, Chris nonetheless was never content with anything less,” said former student Joe Pettit, MA’92, PhD’98. “As a teacher, I found him to be unmatched in his ability to present ideas clearly. As a scholar, I have found none more careful in presenting the ideas of others.”

“Chris Gamwell was an extraordinary leader as dean, professor, mentor and friend,” said his colleague, Prof. Margaret M. Mitchell. “His intellectual precision, eloquence, dignity and respect for persons animated everything he did.”

A servant of ideas

Gamwell was born Dec. 25, 1937. He received his B.A. in economics in 1959 from Yale University. He then pivoted to theology, earning his B.D. from Union Theological Seminary in 1963. That same year, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister.

In 1965, Gamwell, then a young pastor at Chicago’s West Side Christian Parish, drove down to Selma, Alabama, to march with thousands of protesters led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would join the third attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge—only two weeks after the horrific violence of Bloody Sunday shocked the nation.

“Moral appeal to the democratic promise was vindicated by the awesome courage of people long debased,” remarked Gamwell during the Divinity School’s 50th commemoration of Selma, “even while the movement also confirmed that social advantage will not yield to justice without a contrary exercise of power.”

Continuing his studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Gamwell obtained his M.A. in 1970 and his Ph.D. in 1973 with a focus on religious ethics. He joined the faculty of the Divinity School in 1979 as the Director of Field Work and Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society.

Gamwell served as dean of the Divinity School from 1980 to 1990 and remained on the faculty until his retirement in 2011. That same year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As a scholar, Gamwell made major contributions to the field of religious ethics, particularly applied to politics and issues related to the common good. “Chris’s own scholarship combined a commitment to rigorous metaphysics with a deep consideration of democratic ideals in the service of racial and economic justice,” said colleague Prof. Richard A. Rosengarten. “As a result, he was equally well-versed in the writings of Charles Hartshorne and of Abraham Lincoln.”

He authored many books including “The Divine Good: Modern Moral Theory and the Necessity of God” (1990); “The Meaning of Religious Freedom: Modern Politics and the Democratic Resolution” (1995); “Democracy on Purpose: Justice and the Reality of God” (2000); and most recently “Religion Among We the People: Conversations on Democracy and the Divine Good” (2015).

“His is the strongest argued intellectual challenge to the common misbelief that, in the modern world, religion is merely private, and the equally unfortunate misbelief of the Christian political right that Christianity (or any other religion) should dominate public discourse,” said Prof. Emeritus David Tracy in the announcement of a 2011 conference held in honor of Gamwell’s retirement. “He has provided a third and persuasive way of thinking about religion in the public realm beyond these blind alleys.”

A conscientious mentor

Beyond his extensive scholarly achievements, Gamwell was known as a generous, kind teacher and conscientious mentor. Many fondly recall the parties he and his wife, Fran, held for students at their Hyde Park home.

Gamwell applied the same rigorous attention to the arguments of his students as he did to the great minds he studied. He was known for both charitable readings and thoughtful comments on his students’ work.

“Whether one was a new student or the most senior of scholars, he would try his best first to make sure that he understood what one was arguing, and only then to appreciate both the insights and the oversights of what was said,” said Pettit.

“As a lecturer and a writer, he induced a kind of orderliness and lucidity you could only hope to muster on your own,” said former student Ken Bigger, AM’94, PhD’05. “As a mentor, he conveyed respect for what you brought to the table, and made you feel as though he felt he was learning from you. You wanted to lift your game in that kind of feedback environment.”

In 2004, Gamwell was awarded the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate teaching. Upon receiving the honor, he said, “One of the joys of teaching at this university and, specifically, the Divinity School, is that the students so quickly become peers, in the sense of independent critics of and contributors to the intellectual projects with which one is engaged.”

“In so many ways Chris exemplified the best of the Divinity School and the University of Chicago,” said Mitchell. “He is already greatly missed.”

A lifelong fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gamwell was often seen walking his dogs in Hyde Park wearing a Dodgers jacket from which the “LA” had been removed.

Gamwell was preceded in death by his wife, Frances, and daughter, Lisa. He is survived by his son, Christopher Snider.