Robert T. Handy, Church Historian (Obit.)





The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Handy, Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, died at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on January 8. He was 90 years old.

During the 36 years he taught at the Seminary, Handy made a name for himself as an impressive scholar of American church history, an exceptional teacher, and a gifted administrator.

"From the very first I knew him to be one of a cluster of faculty who could be counted on always to put the good of the school above their own good," said former UTS president Donald W. Shriver, Jr. As a member of Union's presidential search committee, Handy in 1975 had helped to bring Shriver to Union. Shriver in turn appointed Handy dean of the faculty in 1976, a post Handy held for two years.

"By the end of those two years, he felt obliged to return to full time teaching of church history," Shriver reminisced recently in an email, "but by then he had restored many fractured relationships among faculty, administration, students and board.

"Bob was a born reconciler," Shriver continued. "He brought to academic work the skills and commitments of a Baptist pastor as well as the training of a disciplined scholar. His is a combination rare in the halls of academe, rare among human beings, too."

Handy's students and colleagues have long since acknowledged him as a leading historian of American church history. His work on church and state, on religious liberty, on nineteenth-century attempts to establish a "Christian America," and his labor with fellow Union professors David W. Lotz and Richard A. Norris, Jr., in revising and updating Williston Walker's standard, A History of the Christian Church, produced books that are still in use and considered classics. Among his great contributions to the Seminary was A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York, published in 1987 as part of Union's sesquicentennial celebration.

Handy's tenure at Union as a member of both the faculty and the administration gave him particular insight into the critical issues affecting the Seminary during his time. He also successfully illuminated events of other eras of Union's past, particularly the troubled times of the Charles A. Briggs trial in the late nineteenth century. An exacting and tireless researcher, Handy spent countless hours in the Seminary's archives, fact-checking details and building on the work of earlier scholars of Union's history, among them former Union president Henry Sloane Coffin and faculty members G.L. Prentiss and Charles R. Gillett. The result was a readable and entertaining history, both objective and accurate, yet tempered by Handy's respect and affection for the sons and daughters of Union Seminary.

Robert Handy was born on June 30, 1918 in Rockville, Connecticut and attended Brown University, where he majored in European history and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1940. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (later upgraded to a Master of Divinity) at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1943. He was ordained a Baptist minister in May of that year.

At the time, Handy was still looking for a way to combine his two interests, history and the church, into one vocation. "A congregation in Illinois," he later wrote, "which I then served as minister for two years, enabled me to take some courses at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago 'to fill some gaps.'

"At first I had no plans to earn a further degree," he continued, "but a wise dean advised me to put whatever work I did on a doctoral program anyway… Then, during an interim of nearly two years while I was serving as an Army chaplain, I concluded that my attraction to both ministry and historical scholarship could come together in the role of church historian."

After leaving the Army, Handy returned to Chicago Divinity School, where he completed his doctorate in 1949. The following year he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for a three-year term, "primarily to assist John T. McNeil and Paul Tillich in their foundational surveys of church history and the history of Christian thought, but also to teach courses in the modern and American periods.

"Little did I know that the three years would stretch into twelve times that number to the time of retirement," he later marveled. Handy's full reflections on his career were published in Religious Studies Review in April 1993. He taught at Union from 1950 to 1986, retiring as Henry Sloane Coffin Professor of Church History....



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