Dr. James McDowell Richards, Columbia Seminary’s Longest Serving President

Dr. James McDowell Richards, Columbia Seminary’s Longest Serving President

March 7, 2020—The C. Benton Kline, Jr., Special Collections and Archives and the John Bulow Campbell Library invite you to the library’s first floor reading room to view the current exhibit, “An Appeal to Fellow Christians.” The exhibit highlights the work of Dr. James McDowell Richards, president of Columbia Theological Seminary from 1932-1971. His archival papers document four decades as president and detail his leadership and involvement with local and regional racial justice organizations.

The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers (and Columbia Seminary graduates), Richards grew up in Statesville, NC. From 1923-1926, Richards studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Christ Church College, Oxford. His years at Oxford overlapped with Hitler’s failed coup d’état in Munich, the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin to power in the Soviet Union, and the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across national borders. On exhibit are his diary pages from this time, which indicate the effect these events had on his ideas of racial justice in America.

Richards earned his BD from Columbia Seminary in 1928, and five years later, at the age of 29, he was named president. Aware of the brutal poverty caused by the Great Depression, Richards’s inaugural address asks two key questions that exemplified the work ahead of him and the mission of the Seminary community: “Shall Columbia continue to serve the expanding South?” And if so, “what kind of service will Columbia Theological Seminary render?”

Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Richards devoted considerable time to Presbyterian governing bodies and ecumenical groups, encouraging them to heed the call for racial justice. He preached his best-known sermon, Brothers in Black, as his final address as retiring moderator of the Atlanta Presbytery in 1941. The original version of the sermon is on display in the library entryway and can also be viewed in the Archives’ digital collection.

The exhibit also includes correspondence between Richards and local civil rights leaders. Through his membership with the Atlanta Christian Council and the Georgia Committee on Interracial Cooperation, Richards met and corresponded with Martin Luther King, Sr., Morehouse President Benjamin E. Mays, and Allen Temple AME Bishop William R. Wilkes, Sr. The ministers voiced many concerns facing the Black community for Richards to advocate on their behalf to Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield.

Richards’s response to segregation is highlighted in the “Minister’s Manifesto” of 1957 and the text and audio of a chapel service given in Campbell Hall in 1961. Audio HERE The exhibit is on display through the end of May, while the rest of Richards’s papers are available in the archives for immediate research. To arrange a visit to use archival material, please contact the archives via email (archives@ctsnet.edu) or telephone (404-687-4628). 

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