Two eminent church historians are retiring this spring from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, but the combined 82 years of research, writing and teaching by Russell Richey and Brooks Holifield are expected to have a lasting impact on not only the school, but the church as well.

“Candler School of Theology and students of theology across the country will be reaping the rewards of contributions made to teaching, research and service by Brooks Holifield and Russ Richey for generations to come,” says the school’s dean, Jan Love. “Emory University is a much stronger institution because of their leadership, and the church will continue to harvest the results of their faithful engagement.”

While each took a different route to Candler—Holifield arriving as an assistant professor in the same year he earned his doctorate, Richey exactly 30 years later as dean—each has made the theology school and the university stronger, more resilient and more highly regarded.

Holifield’s Four Decades of Influence

Brooks HolifieldIn Holifield’s case, time had much to do with his impact. Across four decades, he taught more than 1,000 Candler alumni now serving parishes throughout the world, while helping to prepare a new generation of church historians.

“Brooks Holifield did what good teachers invariably do: he made disciples,” says Carl R. Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Studies at Candler. “He converted his students, not to himself, but to a way of looking at the world that would forever change them.”

Holifield garnered nearly every prize offered by Candler and Emory for excellent teaching and scholarship. He won the Emory Williams Teaching Award, Emory’s Scholar-Teacher Award, an invitation to deliver the Distinguished Faculty Lecture, and a Charles Howard Candler Professorship. He picked up laurels elsewhere as well: two honorary doctorates, several research fellowships and election this year to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Holifield has contributed as editor or editorial board member of major journals and has delivered invited lectures throughout the United States and Europe—most recently regaling a large audience at Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt, Germany, in German. He also is a celebrated preacher, delivering both university and Candler convocation addresses, and filling pulpits around Atlanta by frequent invitation.

His seven books and 60 major articles have ranged across the history of Christianity in America, from Puritanism in Old and New England to theology and culture in the American South, and from a history of pastoral care to the history of Christian clergy in the United States.

“Holifield emerged as an eminent shaper of the field in American religious history, not only nationally but also internationally,” says Holladay.

Richey Balanced Needs of Academy, Church

Russ RicheyRuss Richey made significant contributions to the academy and the church at two other Methodist universities before coming to Candler. Taking a position in church history at Drew University’s theology school and graduate school, he rose to the rank of professor while serving for three years as assistant to then-president Paul Hardin (later chancellor of the University of North Carolina). Recruited to Duke Divinity School in 1986, he served as professor and associate dean until being recruited to Candler in 2000, in a search chaired by Holifield.

“We were looking on the one hand for someone who understood our academic and intellectual work from the inside and could represent that to the university and, on the other hand, who understood our commitment to the church and could represent that to the United Methodist constituency,” says Carol A. Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament. “No one—no one—could question Russ’s absolute commitment to the well-being of the church.”

Richey’s six-year term as Candler’s eighth dean was one of real achievement. Arriving after a decade or more of frayed relationships between Emory and The United Methodist Church, he set about the physically demanding work of attending annual conferences, visiting churches and shoring up relations with alumni. He was able to persuade significant church donors to contribute more than $6.5 million to support church-related scholarship and teaching at Candler.

Richey’s mission also included sharpening and strengthening the work of other denominations at the school. Under his leadership, the programs in Baptist studies and Anglican studies gained focus and energy. At the same time, he worked to make Candler a center for Wesleyan studies.

In the context of graduate study of religion, Richey worked to keep the balance between the school of theology, with its focus on Christianity and theology, and the Department of Religion in Emory College, where the study of world religions and culture predominates. He helped secure a $10 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to develop programs aimed at training Ph.D. candidates in the fields of religious practices and practical theology.

A cradle Methodist, Richey’s contributions to Methodism are unprecedented. He has authored, co-authored or co-edited some 20 books on Methodism, as well as dozens of articles and reviews. He also was the principal writer of the report of the UMC Task Force to Study the Episcopacy, which culminates in a series of recommendations on how to strengthen the capacity of UMC bishops to provide visionary leadership.

To honor Richey’s work, Rex Matthews, Associate Professor in the Practice of Historical Theology, organized an academic conference in March. Titled “The Methodist Experience in America,” it included presentations and scholarly papers that focused on several distinctive areas that have featured prominently in Richey’s work: 1) Ministry and Mission: Richard P. Heitzenrater and Thomas E. Frank; (2) Denominationalism and Connectionalism: Ted A. Campbell and Hendrik R. Pieterse; (3) Doctrine and Theology: Randy L. Maddox and Mary Elizabeth Moore; and (4) Ecclesiology and Evangelism: Wendy Deichman Edwards and W. Stephen Gunter. 

“Russ Richey has created defining work in the field of Methodist history, and several of his books will define the teaching of Methodist history for a generation,” says Newsom. “‘Marks of Methodism’ establishes that Methodists have in fact practiced an ecclesiology that a historical theologian can describe and put into words. But without his work, that knowledge simply would not have been possible.”