Feast of Gerald Kennedy (August 30)   6 comments

Above:  The Logos of The Methodist Church (1939-1968) and The United Methodist Church (1968f), from Copies of The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), Pre-Merger and Post-Merger

Photographer = Kenneth Randolph Taylor



U.S. Methodist Bishop and Hymn Writer


Any church that starts out to be a success in the world’s eyes is doomed to failure.

–Bishop Gerald Kennedy, 1960; quoted in TIME magazine, April 11, 1960


Most of the so-called devotional material is shallow and meaningless tripe that makes me sick to my stomach.

–Bishop Gerald Kennedy, on religious publications




Bishop Gerald Hamilton Kennedy comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via The Methodist Hymnal (1966).

As I looked for an image to place at the top of this post, I found pictures of Bishop Kennedy here and here. Given questions of copyright, I have chosen to provide links instead of risking invoking the wrath of the copyright enforcers. I have also trusted that using the camera on my smartphone to take a photograph of book spines from my library, transferring that image my computer, cropping that image, flipping it in my computer, and inserting that photograph at the top of this post has not angered the high gods and enforcers of copyright laws.

Kennedy was one of the most prominent preachers in the United States of America and one of the greatest bishops in The Methodist Church (1939-1968) and The United Methodist Church (1968f).  He, like anyone who has lived a long time, changed his mind as he aged.  Kennedy, for example, moved from the theological left to Neo-orthodoxy then out of it.  By 1961, our saint was also openly dismissive of Norman Vincent Peale‘s “Power of Positive Thinking.”  Kennedy called that message,

a spiritual aspirin tablet, a spiritual glass of Ovaltine.

Yet Kennedy was, according to Presbyterian arch-fundamentalist Carl McIntire (1906-2002), in 1963,

a liberal, leftist apostate

–redundant, given McIntire’s narrow, combative theology.

In other words, Kennedy was by the standards of his time, somewhere in the middle.

  1. He opposed communism vigorously.
  2. He opposed the “Death of God” movement.
  3. In 1963, he invited ostracized, pro-civil rights ministers in Mississippi into the California-Pacific Conference.
  4. He ridiculed supporters of the proposed Methodist-Episcopal-United Church of Christ-United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merger (1960; the beginning of the Consultation on Church Union) as “ecumaniacs” in 1961.
  5. He endorsed the Anti-Defamation League’s protest against Soviet repression of Jewry, in 1964.
  6. He supported Billy Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles in 1963.
  7. He favored ecumenical cooperation yet opposed the creation of an allegedly unwieldy Protestant super-church.  As Kennedy said in 1967, he liked having guests yet did not want to have them move in.
  8. His critics came from both his right and his left.




Gerald Hamilton Kennedy knew when he was a very young child that he had a vocation to ordained ministry.  He, born in Benzonia, Michigan, on August 30, 1907, was a son of Herbert Grant Kennedy and Marian Phelps Kennedy.  Our saint studied at the College of the Pacific (B.A., 1929).  Upon graduation, he had already married Mary Grace Leeper, on June 2, 1928.  The M.A. (1931) and the Ph.D. (1932) from the Pacific School of Religion followed.  Then Kennedy studied at Hartford Theological Seminary (S.T.M., 1933; Ph.D., 1934).

Kennedy, as an ordained minister, served in congregations in four denominations, three of them Methodist.  His first parish was the First Congregational Church (The General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches in the United States), Collinsville, Connecticut (1932-1936).  (This congregation has become the Christ Community Church of Collinsville, an affiliate of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.)  Kennedy, ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1784-1939), had graduated from a Congregationalist theological seminary.  Starting in 1936, he ministered within the bounds of his tradition–in the Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Church (1939-1968), and The United Methodist Church (1968f).  He served at Calvary Methodist Episcopal (Methodist, 1939-1940) Church, San Jose, California (1936-1940), now Calvary United Methodist Church.  Then he served at the First Methodist (now United Methodist) Church of Palo Alto, California (1940-1942).  Kennedy was also the Acting Professor of Homiletics at the Pacific School of Religion (1938-1942) and the Director of the Wesley Foundation at Stanford University (1940-1942).   Then Kennedy relocated to Nebraska.  He served at Saint Paul Methodist (now United Methodist) Church, Lincoln (1942-1948).  He was also Lecturer in Religion at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1942.  While in Lincoln, furthermore, Kennedy preached on the radio (1945-1948) and sat on the Executive Committee of the Community Chest (1945-1948).




In 1948, at the age of forty years, Kennedy became the youngest Methodist bishop in the United States.  Portland, Oregon, was his base of operations for four years.  Then, in 1952, our saint, reassigned to the California-Pacific Conference (Hawaii, Arizona, and Southern California), moved to Los Angeles.  He served as the bishop there for two decades.

Kennedy remained busy building up church and society.  He was a preacher, not an administrator.  He sat on various denominational boards and committees.  He served on the state Board of Education.  Our saint spent a year (1960-1961) as the President of the Council of Bishops.  He wrote most of his twenty-one books.  Kennedy served on the texts subcommittee for The Methodist Hymnal (1966).  And he lectured at universities and theological seminaries, as he had done since 1946.  Meanwhile, Kennedy tended conscientiously to to his flock and maintained a rigorous travel schedule.

By 1968, however, Kennedy needed to travel less frequently; his health had begun to fail.  Denominational law permitted early retirement at the age of 65 years–in August 1972, in our saint’s case.  In this context, Kennedy appointed himself the Senior Minister of the First United Methodist Church, Pasadena, California, effective December 8, 1968.  In laymen’s terms, the organic fertilizer hit the ecclesiastical fan.

An active bishop doubling as a parish minister was without precedent in the Methodist tradition, but not in other denominations.  In my adopted denomination, The Episcopal Church, for example, William White (1747-1836) served as the Rector of Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1779-1836); the Bishop of Pennsylvania (1787-1836); and the Presiding Bishop of the denomination (1789, 1795-1836).  In my home state, Stephen Elliott (1806-1866), the first Bishop of Georgia (1841-1866), served also as the Rector of Christ Church, Savannah (1852-1859, 1861-1866); as well as the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America (1862-1866).

I also note that Mark A. Cowell, the Episcopal Bishop of Western Kansas (2018f), doubles as the Vicar of Holy Nativity, Kinsley; the Vicar of Saints Mary and Martha, Larned; the Municipal Prosecutor in Dodge; and the County Attorney in Hodgerman County.  In other words, an active bishop doubling as a parish minister can be a workable situation.

Kennedy’s self-appointment triggered a denominational bureaucratic-judicial series of events that resulted in a settlement.  He got to serve as the Senior Minister of the First United Methodist Church, Pasadena, without administrative responsibilities and a second salary, so long as he was an active bishop.  Kennedy also preached three Sundays a month.  This arrangement was mutually agreeable, and consistent with Kennedy’s intentions anyway.  

Kennedy retired twice.  He retired as an active bishop in August 1972, after his sixty-fifth birthday.  He had already suffered a mild stroke at the 1972 General Conference, in Atlanta, earlier in the year.  Then our saint retired from parish ministry in 1973.

Gerald and Mary Kennedy moved into an apartment in Laguna Hills, California, in September 1973.  The bishop’s health continued to deteriorate.  A series of strokes robbed the great orator of his voice.  Kennedy, aged 72 years, died at the hospital in Laguna Hills on February 17, 1980.




Kennedy wrote a hymn, “God of Love and God of Power,” while at Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church, San Jose, California, in the late 1930s.  That hymn debuted in a hymnal when The Methodist Hymnal (1966) included it.  The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) has retained the hymn.

We are not the first to be

banished by our fears from thee;

give us courage, let us hear

heaven’s trumpets ringing clear.

God of love and God of power,

thou hast called us to this hour.

That stanza from Kennedy’s hymn speaks to the mission of the Church.  The bishop’s example, bound by time and other circumstances, contains a timeless principle–the need to have courage and to banish fears that separate us from God.

Kennedy certainly behaved courageously, according to the demands of the Gospel, as he understood it, upon his life.  He lived and worked in a different political climate and a different societal milieu.  The Cold War defined Kennedy’s time.  In the early 1960s, when our saint derided attempts to merge denominations from different Christian traditions, membership was increasing in the United States.

(Aside:  Frankly, I do not know how merging The Methodist Church, The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. would have been feasible or desirable.  Ecumenism works better via cooperation than organic union sometimes.  Reformed denominations merging can make sense.  So can uniting Wesleyan denominations.  Likewise, merging Lutheran denominations can be feasible and desirable.  Baptist denominations divide more often than they merge, but Baptist mergers can be workable, too.  This is not to say that breaking down lines separating traditions is never a good idea.  The Church of South India, formed in 1947, seems to work well, for example. And my denomination, The Episcopal Church, has joint congregations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  I do not know how well a merger of the denominations would work, though.  I am open to the idea, however.)

God of love and God of power,

thou hast called us for this hour.

The hour of 2021, when I write and publish this blog post, is unlike any of Bishop Kennedy’s hours.  Nevertheless, the refrain from his hymn joins his example in challenging us to ask ourselves what his hour requires of us in the Church.  We may disagree with Kennedy of certain points.  I do.  Yet we can still recognize the greatness of the faith that animated him and defined his life.









Heavenly Father, shepherd of your people,

we thank you for your servant Gerald Hamilton Kennedy,

who was faithful in the care and nurture of your flock;

and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life,

we may by your grace grow into the full stature of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Ezekiel 34:11-16 or Acts 20:17-35

Psalm 84

1 Peter 5:1-4 or Ephesians 3:14-21

John 21:15-17 or Matthew 24:42-47

–Adapted from Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 38


6 responses to “Feast of Gerald Kennedy (August 30)

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  1. Thank you for sharing his story with us!

  2. Pingback: Feast of G. Bromley Oxnam (August 13) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  3. Pingback: Feast of G. Bromley Oxnam (August 14) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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