Dr. Beverly Jean Wildung Harrision, internationally renowned scholar and teacher of Christian social ethics and feminist theory, was born on August 4, 1932, in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was the fourth child of Harold Wildung and Adahlia Knodt Wildung. She graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 1954 and received her Master of Religious Education and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Dr. Harrison also received honorary doctorates from Macalester College in 2006 and Chicago Theological Seminary in 2010.
A lifelong Presbyterian who worked as an associate campus minister at University of California in Berkeley in the 1960s, Beverly Harrison increasingly devoted less of her professional time to organized religion and more of her energy to networks of religious feminists who emerged with irrepressible faith, strong intellect, and passionate commitment in the 1970s and 1980s.
Regarded widely by her graduate students and colleagues throughout the world as the “mother of Christian feminist ethics,” Dr. Harrison’s ground-breaking book on abortion, Our Right to Choose (1983) continues to be heralded by theological students and religious scholars for its fine-tuned feminist methodology and its thesis that women’s reproductive freedom is essential to not only women’s lives but moreover to the strength and integrity of the entire social order.
Dr. Harrison’s second book, Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics (edited by Carol S. Robb, 1985), was another major contribution to the emerging field of feminist ethics and theory. One of the essays in it, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” an adaptation of Dr. Harrison’s inaugural address as Carolyn Williams Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in 1980, has been translated into at least eight languages and is considered by religious ethics scholars and feminist leaders throughout the world to be one of the most influential feminist essays ever produced by a religious scholar. Her third book, Justice in the Making: Feminist Social Ethics (2004), which was published after her retirement in collaboration with six of her former graduate students, collected significant essays together in a final volume of her writings.
Beverly Harrison was on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary from 1967 until her retirement in 1999. In addition to working with several generations of students in Christian feminist ethics, Dr. Harrison lectured widely throughout this time. She was visiting scholar in theological settings in places throughout the world, including Uppsala, Seoul, Zurich, Hamburg, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Canberra, and Auckland.
In 2006, Our Right to Choose was published in Spanish and a celebration of this book was held in Mexico City by a Latin American chapter of Catholics for Choice, with Dr. Harrison as featured guest. In 2007, she received an award for her outstanding work by the American Academy of Religion’s Women’s Caucus. In January 2013, Dr. Harrision posthumously received the Society of Christian Ethics “Lifetime Achievement” Award, the second ever recipient of this distinguished recognition. She served as President of this organization in 1983, the first woman to hold this office. Throughout her career, Dr. Harrison was an active member of the Feminist Ethics Consultation of which she was a founder in the 1970s.
In addition to her work in the field of reproductive rights and human sexuality, Dr. Harrison wrote and taught extensively in the field of economic ethics. As she continued to be attuned to the interests and scholarship of her colleagues, she became increasingly involved in environmental studies as they intersect with economic, racial, sexual, and gender issues. As important to her legacy as her written work and teaching, Beverly Harrison's mentoring of younger scholars in feminist ethics has been publicly acknowledged and celebrated in various ways and places since her retirement. The President of Union Seminary reported that she has never received such an outpouring of response to any message as she did to her announcement of Beverly Harrison's death.
For more than thirty years, Dr. Harrison and her beloved life companion and theological colleague Carter Heyward collaborated in workshops, classes, and publications. Drs. Harrison and Heyward were among the co-authors of God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education (1985). In it the authors argued that the basis of theological education and Christian theology needed to shift significantly so as to include the lives, experiences, and intellectual contributions of women of all classes, races and cultures.
In retirement, Beverly Harrison joined Carter Heyward and several other women in forming an intentional residential community of women, “Redbud Springs,” in the mountains of North Carolina. During the last years of her life, Dr. Harrison helped found the Mountain Community of St. Clare, a small justice-based community of “recovering” Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others. She remained active, insofar as she was able, in the work of justice. She was an enthusiastic member of the Democratic Party in Transylvania County and rejoiced in the re-election of President Obama.
During 2012, Dr. Harrison moved to a retirement community in Brevard, North Carolina, with her Pomeranian whom she considered her guardian angel. In August 2012, Beverly’s companions threw an 80th Birthday Bash for her at the Silvermont Mansion in Brevard. More than 100 family, friends, and former students showed up from places as far away as Montana and London to pay tribute to this woman for having touched and changed the lives of so many. Beverly Wildung Harrison died in Transylvania County Community Hospital in Brevard, North Carolina, on December 15, 2012. In addition to Carter Heyward and “Shelly Pom Pom,” she left behind the other members of Redbud Springs--Sue Sasser, Nancy Richards, Gerrie Kiley, and Jennifer Rouse--as well as countless close friends and associates throughout the world.
Carter Heyward wrote these reflections on Beverly Harrison's life:
Beverly Harrison’s life spilled over with a huge passion for justice. She was a proud Christian feminist liberation theologian who loved God and Jesus and who read the Bible through the lenses of a liberation ethic. Bev did not back away from telling the church and the world that the God whom Jesus loved is a Lover of Justice, an Advocate of women, the Voice of Black and Brown people, the Lord of all those driven from their lands, or forced to be slaves, or kept poor by the greed and corruption of those who put profit above people. Throughout her long, distinguished career as a professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Beverly Harrison was a strong critic of advanced global capitalism as a morally bankrupt economic structure that is decimating both humanity and the earth.
Bev did not camouflage her love of justice and her love of women. She taught, spoke, and wrote brilliantly on behalf of women’s lives and well-being. She spoke boldly on behalf of women’s reproductive freedom and made a powerful case for not just women’s right to choose, but moreover, for the moral necessity of our society guaranteeing the availability of birth control and of safe, legal, medical abortions.
She was a passionate advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender justice, including gay marriage. Pastors, priests, and teachers of Christian ethics throughout the world, many her former students, draw on Bev’s understanding of the moral goodness of sex between mutually consenting adults who bring honesty, kindness, and shared responsibility into these relationships.
Folks enjoyed being with her, because she really liked having fun. In her younger days, she went dancing and to the Broadway theater. During these last years, she especially enjoyed movies. People felt welcomed by Bev. Celebrated for her great food and hospitality, she invited friends and strangers alike to her table throughout her time on the Union Seminary faculty. She was also renowned for her generosity. Everyone who knew her received gifts at unexpected times and for no reason at all, except that a particular pair of earrings, or piece of pottery, or book, would remind her of you and, lo, she’d surprise you with it.
Perhaps, in her waning years, Bev was best known among her friends for her cherishing of animals and her insistence that all creatures have a special place in the realm of God, here on earth and beyond. Last January, Bev moved to Tore’s Home from her own home on See Off Mountain, where she and I had lived with other close friends in an intentional community. Happily, Bev was able to take her dog, “Shelly Pom,” with her to Tore’s, where Pom took her work seriously as Bev’s guardian angel. The amazing little dog was constantly at Bev’s side and only a foot behind her wherever she walked. On the day Bev died, Pom laid peacefully beside her on the bed until the paramedics arrived to take Bev away.
So what do you say to a radical lesbian feminist Christian liberation ethicist who prayed and picketed, who loved cooking and serving food to friends and strangers, who enjoyed giving surprises to all her friends just because, and who believed her little Pomeranian was a gift from God who would someday join her in the great beyond? I will love you forever, dearest one. Thank you for helping me find and love God. I love Her fiercely and with grateful heart, thanks to you, my Bev. And don’t worry about Pom. We’ll take care of her.
(This biographical statement taken from an obituary written by Carter Heyward and published in several media outlets as well as an essay by Heyward written for publication in a local newspaper. Photo by Beverly Hall; June 2001.)