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.