Gordon Kaufman, longtime Harvard divinity professor

Gordon Dester Kaufman Gordon Dester Kaufman
By Amanda Cedrone
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2011

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Gordon Dester Kaufman, the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, died of multiple myeloma July 22 at his home in Cambridge, surrounded by his family. He was 86.

Born and raised in Newton, Kan., Dr. Kaufman attended Newton High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and social sciences from Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., in 1947. Dr. Kaufman went on to receive multiple degrees, including a master’s degree in sociology from Northwestern University in 1948, a bachelor of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 1951, and a doctorate in philosophical theology from Yale University in 1955.

He met his wife, Dorothy Wedel, during their undergraduate years at Bethel, and the two were married in 1947.

“They were Kansas people,’’ said their son David of Newton, Mass., “She was his bridge to the world in a lot of ways, and she really complemented him and softened some of his edges.’’

Dr. Kaufman dedicated his life to his family and the study and teaching of theology.

He was ordained in 1953 in the General Conference Mennonite Church.

Dr. Kaufman was an assistant professor of religion from 1953 to 1958 at Pomona College in California, and an associate professor of theology from 1958 to 1963 at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He became a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School in 1963. He retired in 1995 but continued to mentor students and teach part time as a research professor until his final class in 2009.

He also spent a lot of time abroad, traveling to China, England, South Africa, Japan, Germany, and Bangalore, India for postdoctoral work, lecturing and teaching.

Dr. Kaufman was a Christian theologian who challenged his students to test and develop their own views instead of preaching the beliefs of others, and he was one of the most influential theology professors at the university, said Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

“He encouraged [his students] to be independent thinkers and to really be concerned with the relationship between religious beliefs and concrete practice in terms of politics, environmental and social concerns,’’ Fiorenza said.

Dr. Kaufman’s former students relished his teaching.

“He was an exceptional teacher and mentor who stimulated discussion and interacted with his students in a way that very few faculty members I’ve had have ever done,’’ said George Rupp, a former student and colleague of Dr. Kaufman.

“His relationship with his students was huge,’’ his son David said. “And I will tell you that we are getting wonderful testimonies from people whose lives were really affected.’’

His passion for teaching extended beyond the classroom to his children, whom he would invite to share their opinions on topics that came up at the dinner table, provoking sometimes intense discussions that occasionally required the help of the Oxford English Dictionary to settle arguments about the meaning of a word. His children also remember the tremendous opportunity they had in traveling with their father to places such as India, China, Germany, and England, something many of their counterparts did not have in the 1960s.

In addition to teaching, Dr. Kaufman served as president of the New England Region of the American Academy of Religion , and later the entire AAR. He served a term as president of the American Theological Society, and was a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies and the Boston Theological Society.

Dr. Kaufman also authored a large number of publications, including books, articles, and reviews.

In addition to his son David, Dr. Kaufman leaves two daughters, Gretchen of Cambridge and Anne of Kathmandu, Nepal; and another son, Edmund of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

He was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy, in 1998.

A public memorial service is being planned for the fall.