Remarks given at Signet event in honor of Peter J. Gomes
April 20, 2012
by Anne Fadiman '74
I’d like to start by reading the beginning of a little article I wrote 32 years ago. It was called “The Reverend Peter J. Gomes: A Victorian Preacher at Godless Harvard.”
Two years ago a Harvard freshman from Arizona sat in Peter Gomes’s office being interviewed for admission to a seminar on early New England history. The freshman was terrified. Gomes is minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals; he is a celebrated orator, named by Time magazine as one of America’s seven greatest preachers; his voice, even to the freshman’s western ears, was unmistakably Brahmin; he was wearing a three-piece pin-striped suit with a gold watch chain across the waistcoat; and above him loomed a large, threatening portrait of George Whitefield, a cross-eyed 18th-century divine.“And what, sir, after you leave fair Harvard, do you intend to become?” boomed Gomes.“A lawyer,” said the freshman.“Oh my,” said Gomes. What a pity to waste a good mind on something so speculative. I prefer to deal with more solid matters.”“Like what?”There was a hint of a smile. “Like the Holy Trinity.”
I’d met Peter in Mem Church in 1970 as a half-Jewish, half-Mormon, incurably agnostic freshman. I’d gotten to know him here at the Signet as a sophomore and junior. You might call those the gateway years. But I craved the harder stuff of spending even more time with Peter, and so, in my senior spring, I took his glorious seminar, The New England Sense of the Past, where I met the freshman from Arizona I mentioned earlier.
The most thrilling aspect of that seminar was that every week we went on a field trip led by the world’s wittiest and most knowledgeable docent. Peter took us to the Boston Atheneum, to Providence, and, best of all, to Plymouth, where he’d grown up, and where we had tea with Orissa Gomes, his formidable mother, a church organist who had told Peter as a boy that he was destined for greatness and must therefore act like a gentleman at all times.
After I graduated, I moved to New York and entered a period of painful Peter withdrawal. So I cooked up an assignment from Life that would allow me to spend a few days interviewing Peter in Cambridge and Plymouth. I learned that when he was eight, he built a pulpit out of wooden crates in the basement and, every Sunday afternoon, preached from memory the sermon he had heard that morning in Plymouth’s First Baptist Church; that before he went to teach at Tuskegee, he had never been south of the Cape Cod Canal; and that he viewed the ecumenical movement as “the bland leading the bland.”
When I returned home, I received the following note from Peter. I find it remarkably apropos on the evening on which his portrait is to be unveiled.
My dear Anne:. . . After you left for New York, . . . I must confess rather to missing having you about. It was a bit like the “Stockholm Syndrome” where the hostages end up loving their captors.. . . Now the worst is yet to come, the proof of the pudding, and any other cliché I can resurrect to describe what is to grace the pages of Life in July. I think I would rather look at the photographs than read the text, not that I doubt the justice of what you will do, but perhaps the “justice” will be more than I can bear on a hot July day. I now know why people who sit for their portraits hate to see the thing unveiled: it is a confrontation with judgement, and even clergymen do not relish that moment.
After my piece came out, a letter arrived from Orissa Gomes [Peter's mother]:
Anne dear,How wonderfully you pinpointed so many facets of our pompous rascal whom we have to love in spite of himself! Whenever I hear Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, it reminds me of Peter and me–he the pomp and I the circumstance.
I’ll close by reading the very end of my article:
Peter Gomes once baptized a young couple by immersion in Walden Pond, all three of them wearing Harvard sweat clothes with large red H’s on the front. He took the opportunity to preach a brief sermon on John the Baptist to a crowd of curious onlookers that had assembled on the shore. When the baptized couple raised their heads from the water, the crowd burst into applause. Today’s baptism in Appleton Chapel will be more conventional and, one suspects, more to Peter’s taste.
I described the baptism of Geoffrey Levitt, a Harvard law student, and then:
After a final prayer, Gomes raises Geoffrey to his feet by clasping his head with both hands and then by placing hands on hands. He and Geoffrey look each other straight in the eyes. Then the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the retrograde pastor of Godless Harvard, gathers Geoffrey in a full embrace.“Welcome,” he says.