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The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr., president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, dies at 93

The acclaimed ethicist brought in Phyllis Trible, Cornel West and James Forbes to teach at the seminary he led

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York mourns the loss of its president emeritus, the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr. (Photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr., acclaimed ethicist and president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, died July 28 at 93.

According to a remembrance published on the seminary’s website, Shriver was president of the seminary from 1975-91, presiding over one of the most pivotal periods in the institution’s history.

“Don Shriver saved Union Theological Seminary,” said Dr. Larry Rasmussen, a professor emeritus at the seminary. “That should serve as tribute enough. But more than that, he navigated changes that put in place a vibrant future Union, markedly different from the institution he joined in 1975.”

“It has been an honor to know President Emeritus Shriver,” said the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Union Theological Seminary president. “As much as he was known as an ethicist and pastor and someone who passionately denounced white supremacy, he was a truly great man on a personal level and will be missed by many.”

The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr. (Photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary)

Born in 1927 in Norfolk, Virginia to a father who supported segregation, Shriver was perhaps an unlikely candidate to become, in the words of Professor Cornel West, “the most prophetic seminary president in the late 20th century.”

Shriver graduated from Davidson College in 1951, and subsequently enrolled at Union Theological Seminary, where he received his BD (M.Div.) in 1955. After seminary, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and served as a parish minister at Linwood Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C., from 1956-59, when he enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard University. After graduating, he embarked on a lengthy career in which he fought racism in church, culture and academia alike.

According to a remembrance posted by the Rev. Dr. Robert Foltz-Morrison, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of New York City, Shriver became university minister and professor of religion at North Carolina State University from 1963-72 and director of its University Program on Science and Society from 1968-72. He was professor of ethics and society at Emory University from 1972-75 before becoming president of Union Theological Seminary, where he was the William E. Dodge Professor of Applied Christianity. He also served as adjunct professor of business ethics at Columbia University, was professor of ethics in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and was a senior fellow at the Columbia Journalism School. He was a lecturer at Duke University, Georgia State University and at numerous other colleges and universities in Canada, Kenya, Japan and Korea.

A minister-member of the Presbytery of New York City since joining Union’s faculty and as its president, Shriver remained active as an honorably retired minister up until his death.

Shriver’s first book, “The Unsilent South: Prophetic Preaching in Racial Crisis,” collected 19 sermons across the Presbyterian South speaking out against the evil of white supremacy. That same year, church elders tried to have him fired from North Carolina State University campus ministry because of his participation in the march on Selma, but Shriver refused to back down.

In the ensuing years, Shriver became one of the nation’s foremost social ethicists, catapulting him to national renown. When he was appointed president of Union Theological Seminary, Shriver succeeded Roger Shinn. He assumed the presidency amid considerable doubt that UTS would be able to stay open, due to severe financial woes. However, through the timely sale of Van Dusen Hall, Shriver was able to usher UTS through its 1980 accreditation.

His tenure as president transformed more than financial stability. Through hiring now-legendary professors like Cornel West, James Forbes, Phyllis Trible, James Washington, Beverly Wildung Harrison, Larry Rasmussen and more, he ignited the seminary’s modern era as a diverse and justice-oriented institution.

Both during his presidency and after, Shriver remained a leader of national renown. From his service as the 1979 President of the Society of Christian Ethics to his longstanding tenure as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1988 until his death, Shriver shaped both the academy and national politics. In 2009, he was awarded the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his 2005 magnum opus, “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds.”

Shriver is survived by his wife Peggy, who was a ubiquitous presence on the UTS campus. As Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, together they helped shape the broader church’s witness on issues from the Vietnam War to economic and environmental justice. She also has authored many books of poetry, which Don was known to fondly read aloud. The couple were long-standing members of The Riverside Church and were awarded the Union Medal together, the seminary’s highest honor, on “Don’s Day,” May 13, 1991, a day-long tribute to Shriver’s 16-year presidency.

The Rev. Dr. Bill Crawford, a former interim dean of students and fellow Union Theological Seminary alumnus, said that long after his student days — which included sit-in protests at President Shriver’s office — “I came to sit with him at his Morningside Heights apartment. He loved poetry — most especially the poems of Peggy … Our talks were heartfelt, intense, rich and prayerful. I felt too, at certain times, that I was a part of — and privileged to be — an advanced seminar or master class with this esteemed scholar, ethicist and theologian. We prayed and sang gospel tunes and shared seemingly sacramental chocolate chip cookies and coffee.

“And Don would invariably, in the course of our times together, reach over to that sagging bookshelf and pick out a poem from one of Peggy’s collection and read it to us. And he would end the reading and this exchange would ensue, as he placed his hand on Peggy’s shoulder: ‘I love you, Peggy Shriver.’ And she would say, ‘I love you too.’ And he would say, enthusiastically, ‘I agree!’”

Crawford sat with Don and Peggy at the hospital in the moments before Shriver’s death. Crawford was reading Peggy’s poetry out loud, including this one from her collection, “Pinches of Salt”:

“Bless the waning of our days.

If confusion clouds our sight, should disease our bodies blight,

Steer in gentle, calming ways faltering steps into the night,

Till the breaking forth of night.”

“We have lost a great and giving person,” Crawford said. “A real force in the world, and such a great friend. Thanks be to God for Donald W. Shriver Jr.”

In addition to Peggy, Shriver is survived by their children, Lionel and Timothy. He was preceded in death by their beloved son Gregory. A public memorial service is being planned for mid-September. Additional information will be announced about the time, location and details for the memorial.

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