Robert Brown, 81; Championed Liberation Theology


Robert McAfee Brown, a liberal Presbyterian theologian who initiated dialogue and cooperation among religions and brought liberation theology to the attention of the mainstream church, has died. He was 81.

Brown, who lived in Palo Alto and had a summer home in Heath, Mass., died Tuesday at a nursing home in Greenfield, Mass., after suffering a fall three weeks ago.

Throughout his career as a theology teacher and author, Brown put his strong convictions into action.


During the civil rights struggle, he was jailed as a Freedom Rider. He joined other clergymen in protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. And as recently as 1997, he protested nuclear weapons in a fast that he and Daniel Ellsberg staged at the United Nations.

“Christians,” Brown told a Pasadena Presbyterian Church congregation in 1974, “have to be subversives in relation to racism, sexism, economic injustice, war--all things found in the world today.”

As a Protestant leader in the ecumenical movement, Brown worked to counter concerns about John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism during his presidential campaign in 1960 and, at Pope John XXIII’s invitation, served as an official observer at the Second Vatican Council.

Time magazine in 1962 dubbed Brown the “Catholics’ favorite Protestant.”

Brown’s interest in improving relations among Christian denominations began in the early 1950s. While a professor of religion and head of the department of religion at Macalester College in St. Paul, he became friends with then-Rep. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose Catholicism had made him a target for Protestant bigotry during his reelection campaign.

Brown also was one of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s first appointees to the Holocaust Commission after President Jimmy Carter named Wiesel its chairman.

And Brown was passionately committed to the struggles of the poor in Latin America and other Third World areas, a subject he wrote about frequently. His book “Gustavo Gutierrez” is subtitled “An Introduction to Liberation Theology,” which calls upon Christians to participate in the liberation of those who are socially, economically and racially oppressed.


At the Pacific School of Religion at UC Berkeley, where Brown taught for 10 years, the Robert McAfee Brown Scholarship was established after his retirement in 1985 for students who have a special interest in Third World justice issues.

“He was one of the faculty members and scholars who did the most to bring global issues to the attention of the religious world,” said Riess Potterveld, acting dean. “He generally wrote and taught in the area of theological ethics, but he was very much focused on global issues and issues that rose out of the Third World. He had a big heart and a very keen mind, so he put those together.”

The son of a clergyman, Brown was born in Carthage, Ill., and graduated from Amherst College in 1943. After his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, he earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. He served briefly as a chaplain in the Navy at the end of World War II and became an assistant chaplain and religion instructor at Amherst in 1946.

While studying at Columbia University, Brown won a Fulbright grant to study at Oxford University. His doctoral dissertation on a 19th century Scottish clergyman, which he completed at Columbia, was published in 1952 as a book, “P.T. Forsyth: Prophet for Today.”

Brown, who also taught at Stanford University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was a prolific author. Among his 28 books are “The Spirit of Protestantism,” “The Bible Speaks to You,” and “Is Faith Obsolete?” Known to be eminently readable, he said he wrote his theological books for “those who haven’t had three years in a seminary.”

Potterveld said Brown was in demand as a speaker, “just because he was so clear and also so passionately committed.”


Brown is survived by his wife, Sydney Thompson; a daughter, Allison Brown Ehara of Richmond, Calif.; three sons, Peter of Houston, Mark of Mountain View, Calif., and Thomas of Chesterfield, Mass.; two sisters; and six grandchildren.