Georgia Harkness

Harkness was a theologian whose thought developed in response to the changing socio-political landscape of the twentieth century. Her work furthered scholarly discourse surrounding issues of immigration, international relations, and women’s ordination.

She was born into a provincial life in the far reaches of upstate New York. Even to this day, the town of Harkness, named for Georgia’s great-grandfather, is little more than a hamlet near Lake Champlain. From her humble beginnings, however, she would rise to greatness—finding herself at the center of local and global church politics. Georgia was the youngest of Warren and Lillie Harkness’ four children, and their second daughter. When she was born in 1891, the family had been living on the farm for nearly 90 years.[1] It would be wrong, however, to assume that the isolation of the family gave them a backward outlook on life. On the contrary, they valued education greatly. Georgia’s older sister, Hattie, excelled in all school subjects, but her life was cut unfortunately short. Georgia shared her sister’s love of learning, and endeavored to be just as talented. Her parents encouraged her to feed her great hunger for learning, and Georgia passed all of her regent’s exams by the age of 14—two years ahead of time. There was little question that Georgia was college bound; yet she stayed in High School to mature before moving away from home.[2]

It was also in her fourteenth year that Georgia joined the Methodist Church. The Harknesses had been members of the Methodist Church since the Quakers shunned her great-grandfather. Georgia loved to tell the story. Her great-grandfather and the first Harkness settler in the region, Daniel, married a woman named Abigail. Abigail was not a Quaker, and to the horror of the Society of Friends, she wore worldly clothing—specifically a red coat. Daniel refused to apologize for his wife’s dress.  To make matters worse,, he actually supported her decision. As he refused to accept the discipline of the elders, they wrote Daniel out of the flock. Thus, they found a comfortable home in the Methodist Church, where, evidently, Abigail could wear her red coat.[3] As Methodists, they often participated in revival meetings. Travelling preachers wandered throughout the countryside, gathering people from all walks of life, calling them to confess their sins and walk in newness of life with deeper commitment to Christ. It was at one such meeting that at the age of nine, Georgia was convicted, and she began her journey toward membership in the Church. She also began her life-long quest after God and the ethical life.[4]

Harkness’ first step out of her small town in New York came when she won a scholarship to Cornell University. Cornell was one of the few major American universities that accepted women as undergraduates along with men. The coeducational status of the school did not, however, mean that the system was blind to gender. Even though men and women took the same classes, there was still a general assumption that a woman’s true career path would be to build a solid home for a husband and children. Likewise, while Cornell men participated in a robust Greek life, women often found themselves both greatly outnumbered, ignored, and lonely.[5] Yet Harkness was not completely alone; she found her own niche within the Student Christian Association and the Student Volunteer Movement. John Mott served as chairman of the SVM from the organization’s inception in 1888 until 1913. The aim of the organization was to “secure student volunteers who will actually go forth from the United States and Canada and spend their lives in non-Christian lands in the work of establishing Christ’s kingdom.” Harkness signed her name to a document, declaring, “It is my purpose, if God permits, to become a foreign missionary.” Yet more than an organization that focused on preparing young people for a life of mission work, the SVM provided a space where young, college age students could get together and have a good time. In fact, on one of the camping trips, she fell off a cliff into a deep body of water and almost drowned.[6]

Harkness graduated from Cornell in 1912 and thought that she should settle back into a quiet life as a teacher. Between 1912 and 1918, she taught in high schools in Schuylerville and Scotia, New York. During those years, she taught an impressive array of languages, including Latin, German, and French. Yet Harkness was deeply unsatisfied with her job. She found her students were not serious about their studies, and she spent most of her time acting as a disciplinarian. During these years, Harkness remained active within the Church. She spent all day Sunday teaching Sunday school, running the children’s Junior League, and helping with the Epworth League. Harkness was passionate about Religious Education, and she was thrilled to find that there were many careers opening for women in those fields. She wrote, “When I read an article in The Christian Advocate about a new profession for women in religious education which was opening up, I decided forthwith that if I could not be a missionary, this was my calling.”[7]

In 1917, Boston University opened the School of Religious Education and Social Service. Walter Scott Athearn, George W. Tupper, and Charles E. Carroll were the faculty who supported the school. These men were steeped in the tradition of the social gospel—they consciously sought both to bring people to Christ and to improve the material conditions of their lives. The school sought to, in the words of Carroll, “bring religion from the stars to the streets.” Carroll further wrote,

That social end is a regenerated society, regenerated bodies and regenerated soul: the achievement of the Kingdom of God in this world, and the better preparation for the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven in the next. As the gardener must first clear and break the soil in which he sows the seed, so the worker for the Kingdom of God must remove social and economic conditions unfavorable for Christian growth.[8]

At the School of Religious Education, Harkness found herself confronted with the great social questions of the day—immigration. Boston was a major east coast city with a large influx of Irish and Italian immigrants. How would the church respond to the influx of “new immigrants”? What kinds of problems did they face? What were some of the possible solutions?

In her thesis, The Church and the Immigrant Problem, Harkness attempted to answer some of these questions. In an age of xenophobia, Harkness’ tone proved to be very conciliatory; she dedicated her work “to our brothers: the new Americans.” The book is also decidedly optimistic. She addresses a number of problems—racism, health and hygiene concerns, assimilation concerns, lack of adequate housing, etc.—and then proposes a number of solutions that Churches could undertake. Ultimately, her program began within the home. Here, one finds a tone that, while charitable, was also decidedly paternalistic. She wrote,

The homes of the foreign-born are perhaps in greatest need of reconstruction. The low standard of living which is prevalent is due in part to insufficient incomes, but even more to lack of knowledge of proper home making. It must be the task of the church to help the foreign-born to have better and happier homes.[9]

In order to build such a foundation, Harkness encouraged home visitation. These visits were to be friendly and all criticism was to be offered gently and tactfully. Likewise, Harkness suggested that immigrant and American women had a lot to learn from each other. As she wrote, “The home visitor must recognize that she had not a monopoly on everything worth knowing, for the immigrant woman can often teach her much about foreign cookery and lace-making that the wise American will do well to learn.”[10]

Beyond the home, there was much work to be done throughout the city. Churches could host mother’s meetings, where people could exchange tips and strategies, and they could also run day nurseries for working women. Harkness was also an advocate for public health nursing, public health campaigns, public bathhouses, and free school lunch programs. She said that churches needed to be vigilant against the greed of landlords, using the health department as a weapon to ensure that all housing was healthy and sanitary. Furthermore, in this vision, the church was to build public recreation areas, show “uplifting and attractive” films, and offer opportunities and spaces for social gatherings. Harkness also envisioned community living spaces where women who lived in “lodging houses or squalid homes” could meet gentlemen callers. She wrote, “A proper place at the community house where they may receive callers goes far toward safeguarding their morals.” Finally, Harkness called on the Church to secure legislation against “destructive institutions” such as “the saloon, the house of prostitution, and the gambling den [that] are ever on the alert to draw in the unwary immigrant.”[11] Harkness envisioned a robust civil society that allowed for the cultivation of a Christian morality. If the church could sponsor and fund a society that took care of the needs and entertainment of people, they would not have to go looking for such things in less reputable establishments. In a tone that was characteristic of the optimism of the social gospel movement, Harkness wrote, “We must seek always to ‘overcome evil with good.’”[12]

Harkness continued her academic career, earning a Ph.D. under the direction of Edgar Brightman. Following in the traditions of Liberal Protestantism, Brightman was heavily influenced by the ideas of textual criticism, which he learned in Germany, as well as philosophical idealism, which placed the individual at the center of metaphysical reflection. He took up the chair of Borden Parker Bowne, and followed much of his teaching that has come to be known as Boston Personalism. According to her biographer, Rosemary Skinner Keller, Harkness encapsulated the germ of Personalism when she wrote,

As the highest reaches of human personality are found in love and goodness, wisdom and creativity…so also the personality of God may manifest these qualities in infinite degree….We must think of God, if at all, in terms of the highest that we know. Life gives us nothing higher than personality.[13]

Under Brightman, Harkness’ philosophical imagination was allowed to grow and influence her understanding of ethics. Her dissertation, “The Relation Between Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of T. H. Green,” would launch her onto the academic stage, where she worked both as a scholar and an intellectual for the Church. While she was writing her dissertation, Harkness took a job at Elmira College—an institution devoted to women’s education in western New York. Harkness would work there for 15 years.[14]

As an intellectual of the Church, Harkness found herself travelling across the world, meeting new people and gaining new perspective. In 1924, she went on the American Seminar sponsored by the Sherwood Eddy of the British YMCA. Along with Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, they went to cities in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. In Germany, she learned that all wars have two perspectives, and was influenced to become a pacifist, joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She wrote, “My trip to Rheims and the battlefields, what I saw in Germany of the effects of the hunger blockage and the ‘war peace,’ have made me a pacifist, I think, forevermore.”[15]

During the interwar period, Harkness travelled widely to church conferences. She was among the first women to participate in the ecumenical movement, attending the Oxford Conference from July 12-27, 1937, where she took part in the conversations that laid the groundwork for the World Council of Churches. She also attended the Madras Conference of the International Missionary Council from December 12-29, 1938. There  Harkness claimed to have experienced the “great democracy of God.” She remembered, “I have never seen elsewhere so complete a transcendence of distinction of race, color, age, sex, denomination, and (most difficult of all) ecclesiastical prerogative.”[16] For Harkness, the meeting affirmed the unity of the Church amid the vast diversity, but it did not go far enough to address the problems of gender discrimination within the Church. Harkness also took the time, while in India, to visit Mahatma Ghandi’s ashram along with the social reformer Muriel Lester.[17] Only months before the start of the Second World War, in June of 1939, Harkness attended the Geneva Conference, where Church leaders gathered to discuss the a possible plan to avoid the coming conflict. The war delayed the work of the World Council of Churches until 1948.

Harkness crossed not only geographical boundaries but also social ones. She was ordained as a local deacon in 1926, and 12 years later she became a local elder. In this way, she was permitted most ministerial privileges at the local level, but she was not allowed to participate in the annual conference. As early as 1924, she wrote an article entitled “The Ministry as a Vocation for Women.” In the article, Harkness listed various arguments against women’s ordination and then attempted to discredit each of them. Ultimately, she argues that the Church needs the skills and talents of educated women. She wrote, “If there are men enough in the ministry to do the work and do it well, we are willing to let them. But where are they? We wonder if the advancement of the Kingdom is not more important than the maintenance of an ancient prejudice.”[18] Harkness remained a strong advocate of women’s ordination, and she found herself pressing the issue at world wide ecumenical venues. The World Council of Churches was finally able to meet in 1948, when the war smoke cleared and rubble was swept away. At that meeting, Harkness squared off against Karl Barth on the question of women’s roles within the Church. Her account of the story is worth quoting at length:

With a few other men, Karl Barth chose to participate in the section on the Life and Work of Women in the Churches. At the beginning of the discussion Sarah Chakko, the chairman, asked me without warning to state its theological basis. I said briefly that in the Old Testament it is stated that both male and female are created in the image of God; in the New Testament Jesus assumed always that men and women were equal before God, and in our Christian faith is the chief foundation of sex equality. Barth claimed the floor; said that this was completely wrong; that the Old Testament conception of woman is that she was made from Adam’s rib and the New Testament that of Ephesians 5, that as Christ is the head of the Church, so man is the head of woman. Then followed a lively interchange in which I did little but to quote Galatians 3:28, but the room buzzed. Barth convinced nobody, and if I have been told he was trying to have some fun with the women, his joke back-fired. A year later when a friend of mine asked him if he recalled meeting a woman theologian from America, his cryptic reply was, “Remember me not of that woman.”[19]

In her own theological thought, Harkness began her journey with all the joy and optimism of Protestant Liberalism. Her thesis embodied the optimism of American Protestants between the two World Wars. She believed that a Christian social conscience, focused through the findings of the social sciences, could be mobilized to save the world. In this theological line of thought, Jesus was the great example of how a Christian ought to live. Harkness’ position changed, however, as she felt God become distant. The bold and confident voice of her youth gave way to doubt and silence. She experienced sickness, the death of her father, and the outbreak of the Second World War. Her theological reflections took on a mystical tone at this point in her life. In 1944, she published a book entitled, The Dark Night of the Soul. In her youth, Harkness wanted to equip Christians to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Yet the experiences of her life left her disappointed, wondering why God would be so absent. Her answer came from looking at faith with a wider lens. Faith, Harkness argued, is the belief that a loving God cares for us, even in the face of all terrible odds. Faith believes that ultimately, all will turn out as God intends. This faith motivates Christians onward, in spite of the fact that their efforts may seem vain. She wrote,

The Christian gospel is not that we save ourselves by finding God. It is that God finds us and saves us when we let him…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 in patience through the night and wait for dawn….If with all our hearts we truly seek him, we can know that God finds us and gives rest to our souls….

There is one assumption without which this quest cannot be undertaken. This is that there is a way forward out of the dark. One can launch forth with much tentativeness and keep going if he believes that the goal is sure….Such assurance we can have through the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the ultimate conviction of Christian faith that there is no situation in life where spiritual defeat is final. We may be defeated, but God cannot be. It is the message of Christianity—and has been ever since the first Easter morning—that though God’s victory may be deferred it cannot be lost….Across the years he speaks in Christ to say to darkened spirits in our time, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ In his light, we can see light.[20]

Once the confidence of her younger theology was shattered by the tragedies of the middle of the 20th century, Harkness’ theology had to find a new confidence. Rather than placing ultimate hope in human activity, which proved to be ambiguous at best,  Harkness rooted her hope and faith in the promises of God.

The 20th century was a sobering time for the West. The 19th century proved to be a time of science, innovation, and political expansion. Europeans and Americans saw themselves as the moral defenders and civilizers of the world. For Europeans, however, the First World War shook that confidence. Americans still remained hopeful. Georgia Harkness began her career with faith in human progress. Nevertheless, the Second World War and the ensuing nuclear arms race led to terrible anxiety and uncertainly. Human progress had yielded some good, but it also created the potential for the destruction of the entire human race. Harkness knew that hope could no longer be placed in human innovation. Her hymn, “Hope of the World,” reflects this pessimism about humanity. She wrote, “Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion, Speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent. Save us, Thy People, from consuming passion, Who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.” Nevertheless, this was not a theology of withdrawal. Harkness still believed firmly in the cause of progress. The gospel calls Christians to work for the sake of all humanity. Likewise, she encouraged the Church to explore new possibilities in terms of gender equality and leadership. She called people to build a new world in a time of confusion and for humanity to walk humbly with God. In this way, Georgia Harkness lived up to the highest aspiration of the Boston University School of Theology—she became a prophet.

S.J. Lloyd

[1] Dorothy Bass, “Georgia Elma Harkness,” Notable American Women: The Modern Period, ed. Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green (Radcliffe, 1980), 312.

[2] Rebekah Miles, Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 9.

[3] Rosemary Skinner Keller, Georgia Harkness: For Such a Time as This (Abingdon Press, 1992), 33-35.

[4] Bass, 312.

[5] Ibid., 81-83.

[6] Ibid., 90-93.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Carroll in Keller, 104.

[9] Georgia Harkness, The Church and the Immigrant (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921), 90

[10] Ibid., 91

[11] Ibid., 92-100.

[12] Ibid., 98.

[13] Harkness in Keller, 179. This quote also appears in Miles, 32. For a fuller description of this time period, see Keller, 125-128.

[14] Miles, 12.

[15] Harkness in Keller, 140.

[16] Harkness in Keller, 187.

[17] Keller, 152.

[18] Georgia Harkness, “The Ministry as a Vocation for Women,” The Methodist Experience in America Sourcebook, ed. Richey et al. (Abingdon, 2000), 490.

[19] Harkness in Keller, 251.

[20] Ibid., 221.