Freedom for the Quest

Distinguished Alumnus Address by J. Robert Moffett October 9, 1999

J. Robert Moffett began his Bachelor of Divinity studies at the University of Chicago as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar in 1943. He had a rare familiarity with the House: his grandfather had been a member of one of the earliest classes. In addition, he followed fellow graduates of Drury College, including Bob Thomas and Ned Romine, to the House.

During his Chicago days he served as student assistant and then as interim at Austin Boulevard Christian Church in Oak Park. There he met and married Janet McHale. After graduation, they moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where their three children where born. Bob had begun his service of First Christian Churches: First Christian Church of Fayetteville; First Christian Church of Alliance, Ohio; First Christian Church of Tucson, Arizona; and First Christian Church of Houston, Texas.

These ministries shared more than the same name. In every place of service, congregants encountered a minister who led them in worship with a sense of the majesty of God and who prayed with an awareness of the encompassing nearness of the divine. They were nurtured, taught, challenged, and led.

Mr. Moffett also gave church-wide, ecumenical, and civic leadership. For example, he was president of the Disciples Student Workers Association (1949), and of the Disciples Peace Fellowship (1956-57). Before Restructure in 1968, he was a member of the Board of Managers of the United Christian Missionary Society, and the Home and State Missions Planning Council. He was a member of the Commission on Brotherhood Restructure from 1962-68 and, after Restructure, was a member of the first General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He also traveled throughout the Southwest, interpreting the work of the Restructure Commission. His ability to make things understandable and to elicit participation was doubtless a real gift in that work. He served on numerous state and regional boards and commissions. He was a member of the Board of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, and of Texas Christian University. He has given civic leadership through the Houston Urban League, "War on Poverty" boards in Tucson and Houston, and more.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Robert Moffett was honored by his undergraduate alma mater with an honorary doctorate in 1967 and by Texas Christian University with another honorary doctorate in 1970. Note that he received these honors when he had barely begun his distinguished Houston pastorate, and he served there for twenty-three years.

His service to the Disciples Divinity House has been immense. He has twice served on the Alumni/ae Council, he was a member of the Centennial Planning Committee and the Centennial Campaign Committee. His greatest gifts have been in embodying and extending the work of the House through his exemplary ministry. The Distinguished Alumnus Award commended him "for epitomizing the educated ministry, wherein the spiritual and the intellectual, the moral and the aesthetic, are not sundered; for uncommon understanding and exemplary leadership of congregations; for extensive service to the wider church and society; for comprehensive vision of the church, that is deeply rooted historically, anchored in but transcending congregational life, and ecumenically encompassing; and for extraordinary service to the Disciples Divinity House."

This came as a real surprise and I appreciate it deeply. I would like to share this honor with those of the entering class of 1943 with whom I have maintained some contact: Ned Romine, a local minister as I was; Paul Kennedy, with NBA; Lewis Deer, in social action with the General Office; and Carl Robinson, in hospital chaplaincy. Each of these four is representative of the divergence of ministry for which the House prepares us.

Many years ago, my mother attended a dinner at which a man, unaccustomed to public speaking, was honored. He began his speech by saying, I deserve this honor, but I certainly don't appreciate it!" I simply say thank you. I do appreciate this recognition from my peers. My response could be called a reflection.

As I look back, I can identify two factors that seem to have set me on the straight and narrow road that leads to the University of Chicago. One very strong factor was Drury College and Dean R. W. Hoffman, my religion professor. Many years before he had done graduate work at the Disciples House. He was a committed and appreciative supporter of the University and the House. Recently, he had sent Dick Pope, Bob Thomas, and Bill Reese to DDH, and Ned Romine, my classmate, had decided on the House. Since Thomas, Reese, Romine, and I were fraternity brothers, who was I to swim against the stream?

Dean Hoffman encouraged our individual pilgrimages without stamping us with his own personal point of view. Until my senior year, Hoffman never would give specific answers to our questions. His usual response was: "Well now, each one of us would express that in a different way." In retrospect, it was under Dean Hoffman that I began to re-define "liberal" as an open mind, not a particular position. He was for me the quintessential Disciple.

Another factor in my decision for the ministry and for my studying at Drury and Disciples House involves the Disciples ministers in my heritage. My great-great-grandfather, Gamer Moffett, grew up in Virginia and, after fighting in the Black Hawk Indian War in northwestern Illinois, went back to Virginia in 1830. There he came under the influence of Alexander Campbell and studied with Campbell at Bethany preparing for Disciples ministry. Five years later, he returned to Illinois where he settled on a homestead just north of Lanark. He organized the Disciples church in Lanark, was Superintendent of Schools for Carroll County, served in the state legislature and was a member of the committee that re-wrote the state constitution in 1850. But primarily he was a farmer-preacher-a pioneer Disciples minister.

Garner had two sons who graduated from Bethany College. One was Robert Moffett, my great-great uncle, who became secretary of the Ohio Christian Missionary Society in 1870. In 1880, he became secretary of the General (later American) Christian Missionary Society and served there until his death in 1909. According to Joey Jeter, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Robert Moffett, he proposed and helped establish the Board of Church Extension in 1883, urged the creation of the Committee that became the Pension Fund of the Christian Church, and promoted "Children's Day" as the first Special Day Offering.

Garner's other son, John, returned from Bethany to farm the homestead when his father died. Like his father, he was a preacher in the Disciples churches of the area. One of John's sons was my grandfather, Frank. He went to Drake University with E.S. Ames and-unique in those days-after eight years in local ministry, decided to seek graduate education. At the urging of Ames, he brought his family to Chicago and entered the University of Chicago through the Disciples Divinity House in 1895. While at DDH, he became an active member of the heretical, newly organized Campbell Institute and was a program participant at its 1896 meeting.

Frank Moffett moved to the South Street Church in Springfield, Missouri, in 1906. As president of the Southwest Missouri Missionary District, he also chaired the Disciples committee that. created the "Drury School of Religion" within the existing Drury College, a Congregational school.

I didn't know my grandfather, but I have his library and his sermons. His library shows the influence of the University of Chicago, with such authors as Harnack, Windelband, McGiffert, and Rauschenbusch. They were still reference books when I was a student here. I cannot help being aware of the overtones of this heritage and the adventurous spirit it evidences.

Coming to Chicago in 1943 was my adventure. I remember the first assembling of the faculty and students on a Thursday evening. As I walked through the door of the Common Room, Dr. Ames, whom I had never met, was standing by the fireplace. He broke out of his conversation and strode purposefully across the room straight to me. (Obviously, he had studied the pictures we had submitted with our applications for admission.) He said in the booming voice of his: "Robert Moffett! I knew your grandfather." (There was a slight significant pause.) "I knew your grandmother better"-followed by a hearty laugh. I was marked, but I never had the nerve to ask him what he meant. I think they both were from Van Meter, Iowa, and came to Drake at the same time.

Promptly at six o'clock, dinner was announced and I met one of those traditions that have no documented origin. We joined to sing lustily, "We're marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God," as we marched down the stairs to a rather drab dining hall.

Another part of my orientation occurred about two o'clock one morning. My room was in that short wing on the third floor overlooking the alley. Something like a pistol shot woke me up and I heard someone running down the alley. The next morning we discovered a broken window in the second floor guest room and a bullet hole in the hall door. Janet and I were guests in that room last summer, and the bullet hole is still there.

Back in 1895, when my grandfather sought out the University of Chicago Divinity School, it was one of very few graduate schools of religion and one of even fewer schools that subscribed to the approach of "Higher Criticism." In 1943, the Divinity School still had the reputation of being radical, and to some, heretical. In Drury I had served four quarter-time churches in the Ozarks. When it became known I was headed for the University of Chicago, one of the country preachers warned me: "If you go up there to the University of Chicago, you will lose what little bit of religion you've got!"

I arrived for the final two years of Edward Scribner Ames's deanship. He retired from the University philosophy chair in 1935, from the ministry of University Church of the Disciples in 1940, and from the House in 1945. At that time, the House and the church were quasi-sister institutions-compatible and mutually supportive. For two formative, creative decades-which included the construction of both the Church and the House, Dr. Ames's strong hand had guided their destinies. He also prepared Irv Lunger to succeed him at the church and Barney Blakemore at the House.

Today, Disciples congregations are encouraged to write a "Mission Statement." Dr. Ames had done that early in his ministry. You may remember it well. "This church practices union, has no creed, seeks to make religion as intelligent as science, as appealing as art, as vital as the day's work, as intimate as home, and as inspiring as love." I have used that succinct statement as a guide for my ministry. It meshed perfectly with my studies at Chicago.

The House had a general plan for expanding our experience. The first year, we visited all types of churches on Sunday mornings. The second year each of us was assigned to a specific Christian church as a Sunday student assistant. I was assigned to Austin Boulevard Christian Church where Harold Lunger, lrv's brother, was the minister. The ramifications of that assignment proved to be tremendously significant.

It was not convenient. I took the IC to Randolph Street, the Lake Street El to Austin Boulevard, and walked north on Austin to Chicago Avenue-somewhat more than a one hour trip each way, But, toward of that year, an unexpected opportunity opened up for me. Harold Lunger was returning to Yale that summer for residence work on his Ph.D. He asked me if I would like to come to Oak Park for a three-month interim at the church--the first of two such interims. I said yes.

Incidentally, when our first year class had visited Austin Boulevard, I noticed a beautiful young lady in the choir. She was still there the next year; her name was ]anet! Her grandmother, who was seldom able to attend church, asked her the name of the new student assistant, and heard it was Robert Moffett. She told ]anet to ask me if I knew of a Frank L. Moffett. He had been her grandmother's minister in Sterling, Illinois, from 1890-94.He of course, was my grandfather, and my father was born in Sterling in 1891.

During that summer, Janet and I became acquainted. We had much in common. Both our families were strong Disciples since the early decades of the nineteenth century and we both had life-long involvement in the church. But, growing up 700 miles apart, it was the House that brought us together. We will be celebrating our fifty-third wedding anniversary this December.

The House is a plateau where I spent three and one-half years of challenging study, stimulating exchanges, and impressive encounters with legendary scholars and Christian leaders-both in the faculty and as guests in the House-attending classes taught by some of the men who wrote the books I might only have studied elsewhere, and honing some of the skills of teaching and preaching. I never could "rest" on that plateau, but I have "lived" there.

At the House I was situated to learn from both Lungers. Harold's absence at Austin Boulevard gave me exposure and hands-on experience with his well-organized office and administrative procedures. The following spring I had full responsibility for a Lenten Pastor's class and baptism, a Maundy Thursday communion service, a sunrise service and the celebration-prayer service for the end of World War II. Informal conversations with Irv taught me much about working with people to utilize their capabilities in developing church programs while personally remaining in the background as much as possible.

The House offered emotional and financial security and support, comradeship, and freedom to strike out on my own without jeopardizing any relationships. We were never pampered either by the School or by the House, and we learned how to produce under pressure. The empirical approach, to which we were exposed, expanded the boundaries of biblical, theological, and social probing, but also set rational, intellectual limits beyond which one must proceed only with caution.

Dr. Ames told us that we were not expected to leave the University knowing all that we would need to know; but that we would be expected to possess the necessary tools to find what we needed to know. This is why Frank Moffett came here in 1895, and why I came fifty years later. In 1970, Barney Blakemore wrote a book rightly entitled, Quest for Intelligence in Ministry. I remember the long discussions we had in the Centennial Planning Committee to arrive at the appropriate theme, "Threshold to Excellence." The House remains committed to quality rather than quantity.

Dean Blakemore, in his sermon at my ordination, said directly to me: "Upon many a Wednesday we have stood in a group that sang the Hymn of the Chapel of the Holy Grail: ‘Gather now ye sons of freedom, rise and seize thy heritage.'" He continued, "It may seem strange to you, Robert, if at this time I tell you that never until this moment have you truly possessed the freedom of which we sang. But when we sing it again in a few minutes, you have the opportunity to stand in full possession of that freedom."

Today I am thinking of all those who have inherited that freedom--seized the heritage--and kept the integrity of the quest alive. I am grateful for the uncompromising presence of the House as it has pursued the quest into the future. I am only one of the many whose life has been transformed, channeled, and prepared for the "ministry of the Word" by the years spent within the walls and within the comradeship of the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago.