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Christian Eloquence: Franklin I. ‘Chris’ Gamwell (1937-2023)

It wasn't the inspiring speech given by the Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge that set the tone for the movie Chariots of Fire. It certainly wasn't Dumbledore's welcome of new pupils to Hogwarts—in a scene set also in an Oxbridge dining hall. It was, however, the next best thing.

I had driven in to Chicago mid-morning from my master's studies at Wheaton College in the western suburbs. In the oak-paneled Common Room of Swift Hall, home of the fabled Divinity School of The University of Chicago, I was beginning a day of orientation for incoming students.

I had been accepted to study under the redoubtable Martin E. Marty, for four decades the best-known historian of American religion in the world. I was eagerly anticipating learning from scholars as estimable as Bernard McGinn in medieval mysticism, Langdon Gilkey in contemporary theology, and Brian Gerrish in Calvin and Schleiermacher studies. But on that morning, under a maroon banner displaying the University's coat of arms, the Dean of the Divinity School took centre stage by storm.

I had heard good speakers before. Very good ones. John Stott, Os Guinness, Billy Graham, and other eminent evangelicals had graced pulpits at Wheaton. My own professors there, pre-eminently a young Mark Noll, gave sterling lectures. But I had not encountered anyone like Franklin Gamwell. And to this day I haven't heard his like.

Mr. Gamwell (we called everyone "Mr." and "Ms." at Chicago, although he, like most of his colleagues, had an earned Ph.D.—in his case, from the U of C also) spoke for ten minutes about the glories of academic religious studies pursued at the highest levels: the highest level of curiosity, the highest level of industry, the highest level of analysis, the highest level of synthesis, the highest level of comprehensiveness, the highest level of coherence, the highest level of expression, and the highest level of openness to critique. I'm confident he didn't say those things exactly. I don't remember exactly what he said. It was fully 40 years ago. But I remember that he spoke what he spoke exactly. And as the old saying has it, I can remember how he made me feel.

I had never encountered someone who could speak with such lapidary precision, never repeating a telling word, constantly pouring out new ideas, and moving inexorably to his lucid and cogent conclusion. His mellifluous baritone avoided anything mannered: never stentorian, but always serious, even solemn, about the great task before us as we learned to participate more fully and fruitfully in the Great Conversation in a great university. I was transfixed.

A few years later, I happened to tell Marty about my experience and he just grinned. Marty was no slouch himself as a speaker, but he happily confessed that "No one is like Chris." I then added that Gamwell had uttered this golden encomium to religious scholarship without consulting a single note. "Yes," Marty beamed, "that's Chris for sure."

Lest anyone be tempted to write off Mr. Gamwell as an ivory tower aesthete, the record shows him to have been a conscientious pastor who was deeply enough involved in the real world to have joined with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the historic March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. His academic work was always in service to the Church and the World, a high-level ethicist who knew the mean streets of the South Side.

Dean Gamwell was no academic poseur, reaching into the depths of the thesaurus to flaunt his learning. He was, instead, a consummate communicator, selecting pitch, tone, vocabulary, and syntax for the moment and the audience. Mark Noll and Brian Gerrish showed me what lecturing could be: each sentence, paragraph, and section crafted to do its job and do it harmoniously with the rest. Martin Marty showed me the merits of the bon mot, the clever epitome, that pulled together in a compact gift the essence of a speech that had previously coruscated with quotations, statistics, narratives, and wry observations.

From Franklin I. Gamwell I learned not to apologize for a large lexicon and a love of verbal rhythm. To know that in some settings and for some auditors one was free to search diligently for le mot juste and say it without the high-schoolish fear of being accused of showing off. To partake of the Great Conversation at the highest level I could handle and to know that others were there to welcome me and then get on with the work.

I have occasionally had to offer "a few appropriate remarks" with little notice and hardly a note on occasions of some small moment: thanking the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, in his spectacular official dining room, for hosting a banquet concluding an international conference; addressing the Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales in her mansion adjoining the Sydney Opera House; giving an impromptu lecture on Christianity and the arts to a keen group of theatre students in an American college; and articulating a Christian view of science and faith at St. Anne's College, Oxford. I have done my level best, and the results seemed adequate. But I have never come close to offering my audiences what Chris Gamwell offered all of us that day in what to him must have been a relatively routine assignment: introduce yet another crop of newcomers to the electric atmosphere and very brisk pace of The University of Chicago.

I have rarely been truly thrilled by a speech. But this one lingers, dazzling, in my memory as a paragon of perfectly poised eloquence. Unpretentious, but also determinedly exact, erudite, demanding, and inspiring. I never got the chance to study with Professor Gamwell, but his students testify that he was like that all the time. We mortals must simply do what we can to carry the torch he leaves for us, flickering and smoking as we are compared to the brilliant torch he was—and, I say of my brother Christian, I trust he will be forever.


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