Rev. B. Davie Napier, 91; civil rights activist led Pacific School of Religion

Times Staff Writer

Rev. B. Davie Napier, a Protestant minister and civil rights activist who was president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and earlier taught at Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, died Saturday. He was 91.

Napier, an Old Testament scholar who wrote several books in his field, died at Pilgrim Place Health Services Center in Claremont, Calif., his daughter Anne Napier Caffery said Monday. The cause was complications from a heart condition.

He had been a resident of Pilgrim Place retirement community.

Napier was the son of missionaries. He was born in Kuling, now Lushan, China and also lived in Kobe, Japan before he moved to Birmingham, Ala. with his parents.


His teenage years in the Deep South helped form his social conscience.

“My first memories of my father are of him going to civil rights marches in the South,” Caffery said Monday.

He joined the faculty at Yale Divinity School in 1949, 10 years after he graduated from the school. He had also earned a doctoral degree at Yale in 1944.

“He was a revered professor,” Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School, said in an interview with The Times this week. He was also known as a charismatic preacher and a poet. He wrote his first book, “From Faith to Faith,” in 1955 while he was at Yale.


Nappier moved to Stanford in 1966, just before a storm of protest erupted over the Vietnam War and the ROTC program was removed from the campus.

“He was very active in the antiwar movement at Stanford,” Caffery said of her father. A photograph from those years shows him and colleagues with their arms locked together, blocking the entrance to a military recruiting office.

Friends said Napier’s passion for social justice had its scriptural roots in the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. He was always on the side of the oppressed, Caffery said.

Napier was born July 12, 1915. He graduated from Samford University in Birmingham before he enrolled at Yale.

He was ordained a Congregational minister in 1939. Three years later he married Joy White. The couple had two children.

He was appointed president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in 1971, when the antiwar movement was still strong.

“Our school was embroiled in conflict,” said William McKinney, president of the school, in an interview with The Times this week. “Davie enabled the school to come back together.”

Napier brought people together around the issues, sometimes at the informal afternoon teas for students and faculty that he and his wife hosted at their home.


“Davie understood the students,” McKinney said.

Napier remained politically active after he retired. He demonstrated against U.S. involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s, and, more recently, the war in Iraq.

In addition to his daughter, Napier is survived by several grandchildren and great grandchildren. His son, John, died in 2001. His wife died in 2003.

A memorial service is planned for 3:30 p.m. March 18 at the Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont.

Contributions in his name may be made to Pilgrim Place, 660 Avery Road, Claremont, CA 91711.