A leading American Methodist and ecumenical theologian, Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was named Churchwoman of the Year in 1958 by the Religious Heritage Society of America.
Georgia Harkness was born April 21, 1891, the youngest of four children of Joseph Warren and Lillie (Merrill) Harkness. She grew up in Harkness, New York, a small Adirondack town named for her grandfather, and graduated from Cornell University in 1912. She had long been interested in the Methodist Church, and after teaching high school for six years she went to Boston University for graduate studies in religion, earning the Ph.D. in 1923 with a dissertation titled "The Relations between the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green."
Harkness then spent 15 years teaching religion and philosophy at Elmira College for Women in Elmira, New York. She studied for brief periods during this time at Harvard University, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She also began to write regularly, eventually publishing more than 30 books. In 1937 she joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and in 1940 she became professor of applied theology at what was then called Garrett Biblical Institute, a Methodist graduate seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Harkness concluded her teaching career at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, where in 1949 she became the first woman to hold the professorship in applied theology. For the year 1956-1957 she was a visiting professor at both the International Christian University of Japan and the Union Theological Seminary of Manila.
As these last positions suggest, Georgia Harkness long had an interest in global and ecumenical Christianity. She had planned to do missionary work after graduating from Cornell, but family problems prevented that. She contented herself with international work for the Methodist Church, and after World War II for the World Council of Churches. Through service on such Methodist organizations as the Board of World Peace and the Board of Social and Economic Relations and on different commissions of the World Council of Churches, she influenced many international meetings. In fact, her hymn "Hope of the World" was selected by the Hymn Society of America for use at the assembly of the World Council of Churches at Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. She served as a consultant for the 1937 Conference on Life and Work at Oxford, England, and worked on statements on social and economic matters for the World Council of Church's assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. She also served international Christian meetings in Madras, India, in 1938 and in Lund, Sweden, in 1952.
Harkness was ordained a minister of the Methodist Church in 1926 but, like all other women, she was not able to become a full member of a Methodist conference until 1956. Throughout her life she remained a loyal supporter of the church, and many of her books dealt with ecclesiastic themes. Her position on women's roles in the church was moderate. For example, it was typical of her to have advocated women's equality with men in aptitude for the Christian ministry prior to the 1956 Methodist meeting in Minneapolis that opened full pastoral status to women yet to not herself battle on the floor for this motion.
Harkness did, however, receive considerable notice as a leading female theologian and churchperson. In 1941 the General Federation of Women's Clubs awarded her a scroll for pioneer work in religion, and a poll taken by the magazine Christian Advocate in 1947 listed her as one of the ten most influential living Methodists. The magazine The Christian Century considered her one of six leading churchwomen in 1952, and in 1958 she was named Churchwoman of the Year by the Religious Heritage Society of America. She also received numerous honorary degrees from such schools as her alma mater Boston University in 1938 and MacMurray College in Texas in 1943.
Among Harkness' many books one might single out Prayer and the Common Life (1947), which was a cowinner of the $7, 500 Abingdon-Cokesbury award for the book that would accomplish the most good for Christian faith and living, and her 1964 autobiography, A Special Way to Victory. Reviewers generally praised the lucidity and forcefulness of her style, although fellow scholars sometimes judged that she purchased availability to the laity at the price of originality or profundity. One regularly finds Harkness concerned for the significance that articles of faith ought to bear in practical life. This latter term she understood to include both the personal and the community life of prayer and the political realm of economic and social justice. From 1924 she followed a pacifist position, and in 1950 she went on record against the retaliatory use of atomic weapons.
Professionally Georgia Harkness was a model of clarity on the podium, and privately she enjoyed summers with her brothers and sisters in New York state and gardening and cooking at her own cottage there. From girlhood she found a home in the Christian church, and for all of her activity a certain peacefulness pervaded her books and the trail of her person, as though that home was quite pleasing.
Georgia Harkness' own books are quite readable. People interested in her life should begin with her autobiography, A Special Way to Victory (1964). Among the books probably considered both more important and more representative of the development of her thought the following stand out: Prayer and the Common Life (1948); The Sources of Western Morality (1954); The Providence of God (1960); The Church and Its Laity (1962); and The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit (1966).
Keller, Rosemary Skinner, Georgia Harkness: for such a time as this, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.