In a sermon some years ago, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard University’s longtime spiritual leader, offered a precise, if unconventional, definition of hell. He said hell is “being defined by your circumstances, and believing that definition.”
Gomes, 68, who died of stroke complications Monday in Boston, was never one to let circumstances or the opinions of others dictate his sense of himself. He was a black Republican, a Baptist preacher in a stronghold of secularism, a descendant of escaped slaves who rose to become president of the Pilgrim Society.
Further complicating this bundle of contradictions was his voice, a baritone that was as commanding as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s but flowed with the accents and cadences of a Yankee blueblood. “It was as if Cotton Mather had returned from the dead, and in black face at that,” Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a New Yorker remembrance last week.
Gates’ description probably would have delighted Gomes (which rhymes with homes), who knew he was peculiar. At Harvard he was no doubt a celebrity, preaching for three decades to standing-room-only crowds at the university’s church where he was its first black minister.
Chosen by Time magazine as “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America,” he participated in the inauguration of two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was also a biblical scholar and bestselling author, whose works include “The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart” (1996), “The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need” (2002) and “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus” (2008).
In 1991, he added another distinction. After a conservative student magazine devoted an issue to attacking gays, he publicly declared his homosexuality. The crowd of 200 students in Harvard Yard gasped and then cheered the stunning disclosure from a member of the university’s establishment.
Defying expectations may have been in Gomes’ blood. His mother was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and a member of one of Boston’s oldest black families. During a drive in the country, she met her future husband, a multilingual immigrant from the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast who was a laborer in the cranberry bogs. They doted on Peter, their only child, who was born in Boston on May 22, 1942.
Growing up in predominantly white Plymouth, he took music lessons, absorbed books and attended a Baptist church. The grandson of a Baptist minister, he practiced preaching on cranberry crates in his basement and gave his first sermon when he was 12. After graduating from Plymouth High School he worked as an organist and choirmaster to pay his tuition at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, graduating with a history degree in 1965.
He intended to become a museum curator, but a Bates professor persuaded him to try a year at Harvard Divinity School. Realizing what his true calling was, he earned a bachelor’s in divinity in 1968 and was ordained in the American Baptist Church.
Then came another unexpected turn. Gomes, who had never been to the Deep South, took a faculty position at Tuskegee Institute, a predominantly black college in Alabama. “I saw more black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life,” he said in a 1996 New Yorker profile. Compared with many of his colleagues and students, who were immersed in the racial politics and fashions of the late 1960s, “I was the strangest Negro they had ever seen,” he recalled, “because I didn’t talk or dress like them.”
In 1970, after two years at Tuskegee, he was invited back to Harvard as assistant minister of the non-denominational Memorial Church. In 1974 he was appointed minister and Plummer professor of Christian morals. Worshipers jammed the pews to hear his well-crafted sermons, which were as likely to quote Woody Allen or T.S. Eliot as Scripture. (Forty of Gomes’ addresses were collected in a 1998 volume, “Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living.”)
In 1991, after reading the anti-gay diatribes in the student magazine Peninsula, Gomes fumed. The articles cited a variety of religious texts, including the Koran, the Torah and the Bible, to support a condemnation of homosexuality. At a protest rally the next day, Gomes asserted a new identity: “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay,” he declared. “Those realities, which are irreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.”
The unmarried, celibate pastor weathered calls for his resignation. Although he was loath to be labeled a gay activist, he announced that he had a new mission: addressing the religious roots of the hatred of gays. In “The Good Book,” which examines what the Bible says about a number of controversial issues, he calls homophobia “the last prejudice.” Critics attacked his interpretations as “the gospel according to Gomes.”
In 2006, he became a registered Democrat to vote for Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts. The minister who had taken flak from liberal colleagues for his roles at the Reagan and Bush inaugural ceremonies quipped that it had been “much easier coming out as a homosexual than it was as a Republican.”
His extravagances made him one of the most colorful pillars of Harvard. He lived in a grand, 19th century house owned by the university and crammed with the antiques he loved to collect. Every Wednesday he hosted 50 students for afternoon tea poured by local volunteers, who at one time included his Cambridge neighbor Julia Child. He exchanged cordialities with his guests for precisely an hour before ushering them out by banging on a gong.
“He was an original,” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. To that, Gomes might have added, “Amen.”