‘That’s an A Right There’: Noel Erskine Retires


Elliott Robinson 16T
May 3, 2023

Erskine’s signature wide smile has brightened the Candler community for 46 years. Photo: Ty'Reanna N. Harris 22T, Ty'Nichole PhotographyAs the Candler Black Church Studies Elders Send-Off on April 13 drew to its conclusion, the Rev. Dr. Noel Erskine was asked to provide closing comments. The annual event honors graduating students in Candler’s Black Church Studies program. This year, Erskine—who retires this spring from his post as professor of theology and ethics after 46 years on the faculty—was also celebrated. There were testimonials both funny and heartwarming. There were recollections of his trademark sayings, “Glory!” and “That’s an A right there.” There were stories of the ways he impacted the lives of students, alumni and faculty. They all weaved together a patchwork of relationships, encounters and memories that attempted to paint the picture of someone as lovingly complex as Erskine.
In the end, though, perhaps Erskine’s own closing words best summarize both him and his journey: “Don’t second guess God. Don’t doubt yourself. When God puts you into a space or place, know that God walks with you. One of my children always says, ‘Daddy, God goes before us.’ God will always go before you, to guide you.”

God has always walked before and guided Noel Leo Erskine. Born and raised in Jamaica, his father was a Baptist preacher and his mother played the organ in church. As Erskine would say, he was “nurtured and nourished in the bosom of the church.” This spiritual formation led him to seminary after high school and in 1964 he graduated with a diploma in theology from both Calabar College in Jamaica and the University of London. After graduation, he would pastor five churches in Westmoreland and Hanover, Jamaica, while also teaching religion, geography, and Spanish at Cornwell College in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

In 1970, Erskine and his wife, Glenda, migrated to North Carolina and began his journey in post-secondary education. In 1971, he received his master in theology from Duke University Divinity School, before moving to New York to attend Union Theological Seminary. His time at Union would help forge his path towards marrying Caribbean life-experience with the liberative nature of the biblical text. Erskine studied under and was mentored by the late James Cone (pictured right with Erskine below), the father of Black liberation theology, and this relationship would help shape Erskine’s systematic and liberation theological scholarship and journey. In 1978, he earned his PhD from Union in systematic theology.

Erskine and his mentor James Cone co-taught a Candler A-term course on Black liberation theology, ca.1990. Photo courtesy of Erskine.

Erskine and his mentor James Cone co-taught a Candler A-term course on Black liberation theology, ca.1990. Photo courtesy of Erskine.

Erskine began his teaching career at Emory in 1977, teaching courses at both Candler and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. During his tenure at Emory, the scholarship he birthed was a testament to both his academic courage and willingness to be a voice for communities often overlooked or ignored in academia. While he has written many books, book contributions and journal articles, some of Erskine’s groundbreaking titles include: Decolonizing Theology: A Caribbean Perspective (Orbis Press, 1981); King Among the Theologians (Pilgrim Press, 1995); From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida, 2005); Black Theology and Pedagogy (Macmillan, 2008); and Plantation Church: How African American Religion was Born in Caribbean Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Robert M. Franklin, Jr., James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, reflects on Erskine’s scholarship this way: “Noel brought his elegant Caribbean approach to everything. Long before others talked about reckoning with hundreds of years of colonization, he wrote the book on decolonizing theology. Before many others paid attention to popular culture and indigenous wisdom, thanks to Noel, Bob Marley’s name started slipping into curricula and even meetings on Emory’s campus.”

The variety of courses he has taught over the decades is a testament to the way he probes the boundaries of theology, culture, and humanity. They include Systematic Theology, Black Theology and Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., Theologies of Hope and Liberation, Christology and Ethics, Rastafari Religion, and Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Spring 1980 (l-r): Lawrence E. Carter, Sr., founding dean of Morehouse College's Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel; L. Harold DeWolf, King's dissertation director; Coretta Scott King; and Erskine. Photo courtesy of Erskine.

Spring 1980 (l-r): Lawrence E. Carter, Sr., founding dean of Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel; L. Harold DeWolf, King’s dissertation director; Coretta Scott King; and Erskine. Photo courtesy of Erskine.

When reflecting on his most memorable course, Erskine recalls a class he taught on the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Co-teaching a class with Mrs. Coretta Scott King for two years at Candler was a big deal. To have had Martin Luther King, Sr. (Daddy King), David Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Mrs. Abernathy, and King’s sister Christine King Farris in class was special.”

Erskine believes that at its core, teaching “is an invitation to love God with colleagues and students. Integral to the teaching task is the discovery that love listens. The first task in teaching is to listen—to students, the church, the academy, the wider culture—to God.” It is his approach to the teaching moment as an “invitation to love God” that has made him a favorite of students for generations.

Aaron Parker 83G recalls the impact Erskine’s arrival at Emory had on his life. “Having come to Emory as a new student in the Graduate School of Arts and Science just two years prior, I gleefully welcomed the arrival of Noel Erskine, a second-generation liberation theologian and consummate scholar with a marvelously captivating Caribbean flair. Initially he was my role model, however, he soon became my advisor, academic protector/defender, and finally my friend. I overflow with abundant gratitude for his stellar service to me individually and to the entire Emory community.”

Within his “invitation to love God,” Erskine also creates room for risk. He says, “We often talk about the risk of faith. Growth includes risk. You have to allow the classroom to be a safe space. A space where students are free to risk. And to help students understand they won’t be penalized for risking… The classroom becomes that special… divine… sacred space, where we give each other permission to be human. Permission to grow. Permission to love—and love includes risk.”

Within his classroom, students are allowed to probe, explore, risk, and even doubt. Graduating MDiv student Cerise Barton 23T recently shared, “Dr. Erskine helped me learn to have faith big enough to doubt.” In recalling Erskine’s impact on her life, Alisha Gordon 15T, founder and executive director of The Current Project, says that he not only brought scholarship and excellence to the classroom, but empathy. “His approach to teaching allowed for deep curiosity about sacred texts, sacred communities, and the sacred self. This curiosity made room for exponential growth beyond the classroom and is integral to my life after seminary.”

Erskine speaks at the 2023 Heritage Ball. Photo: BowTie Photos, LLC

Erskine speaks at the 2023 Heritage Ball. Photo: BowTie Photos, LLC

Erskine has always viewed the classroom as a reciprocal space where learning happens for both the student and the teacher. Given the space Erskine was able to carve out for his students, it should be no surprise that he has received Candler’s “On Eagle’s Wings” Award for Excellence in Teaching twice (in 2004 and 2021) and was recognized by students as Faculty Person of the Year in 2003. He has also shared his love of teaching as a visiting professor both near (Spelman College and the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Payne Theological Seminary in Ohio) and far (University of Ife in Nigeria, Facolta Valdese di Teologia in Italy, Kenya University, and Yonsei University in South Korea).

He is also the consummate mentor for his teaching assistants. “I’ve encouraged my teaching assistants to embrace the task of discovering that students are teachers and teachers are students. It’s in that give and take of teachers learning and students teaching that something new happens. Especially for teaching assistants as they see themselves sometimes in the teaching role.” Erskine’s love for his teaching assistants and his success in helping to guide them towards doctoral studies is powerful.

“Dr. Erskine is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the sole reason I am currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame,” writes his former teaching assistant LaRyssa Herrington 20T. “One of the most beautiful things about him is his gift for discernment and his ability to see with the eyes of faith what God has destined for each of his students. In my case, he knew that I was being called to be a theologian long before I did. When others told me that I was too young to pursue doctoral studies, that I was naïve, immature, and needed more ‘life experience,’ he reminded me that behind their ‘no’s’ was God’s already, predetermined and definitive ‘yes.’ I would not be the woman and scholar I am today without him, and my love for him is immense. Thank you, Dr. Erskine, for believing in me when no one else did.”

John Barnes 17T 18T, former teaching assistant and current doctoral student at Fordham University, said this about Erskine: “As a professor, Dr. Erskine always brought his full self to the classroom: his Caribbean pride, his doubts and questions, and his infectious love for the Word of God and the people of God. His kindness, mentorship, and most of all, his prayers were the foundation to my success at Candler and have continued to be in all of my work in the church and the academy beyond Candler. If I can impact just a small fraction of the lives that Dr. Erskine has during his time at Candler, that will be enough for me.”

Outside Cannon Chapel. Photo: Cindy Brown 09T

Outside Cannon Chapel. Photo: Cindy Brown 09T

Erskine also impacted the lives of his faculty colleagues with his innate ability to bring people back to the heart of a matter…God. D.W. and Ruth Brooks Professor of World Christianity Jehu Hanciles recalls one of the ways Erskine’s presence will be missed by his faculty peers: “There are times when faculty can come together and conversations can become very abstract, very theological, very much straying off the reservation. And Noel has this one phrase he would use in those moments to bring clarity. He would say, “Well, what do you do with Jesus?” And that’s it. What Noel packed within that one phrase was who we are—ultimately reminding us that this is all about Christ, our identity with Him, being called by Him and choosing to follow Him. I hope that reminder always stays with us.”

The respect from his peers is also evident in the words of Associate Dean of Worship and Spiritual Formation Khalia Williams: “It’s not every day that one can say they had the opportunity to witness a legend. To engage the great mind and humble heart of one who has the most transformative voice and spirit in theological education. And yet, I and so many others have the ability of saying so because we had the divine opportunity of knowing Noel Erskine, a gift to the world. A gift to Emory.”

Franklin echoes Williams’ sentiments, praising Erskine directly: “You’ve been our guiding light. You’ve been our social conscience. You’ve been our sense of humor and assurance. We will miss your interdisciplinary genius. Your special way of expressing the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”

The presence and place of God for both head and heart are integral for Erskine. Another former teaching assistant and current Fordham doctoral student, Antavius Franklin 19T 20T, recalls a recent phone call they had. “Dr. Erskine remarked that we tend to place our things on the altar. We are told to place our hearts on the altar, our bodies, our spirits. But what we neglect to remember is that we must also place our minds on the altar. This is what he has committed his life to. Placing his mind and his heart on the altar. In the way that he thinks and especially how he teaches. And more important, how he loves. To love God is to love all of God’s people and this is the work to which he has been committed for almost five decades.”

Emmanuel Lartey (left) reads part of the litany he wrote for Erskine’s retirement. Photo: Ty'Reanna N. Harris 22T, Ty'Nichole Photography

Emmanuel Lartey (left) reads part of the litany he wrote for Erskine’s retirement. Photo: Ty’Reanna N. Harris 22T, Ty’Nichole Photography

For the occasion of the retirement of his colleague and friend, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Pastoral Theology and Spiritual Care Emmanuel Lartey penned a litany. Within that litany, he wrote, “Retirement is a Sankofa moment. A moment where you can look back with graciousness and thanks. All of your great and quiet achievements… Sankofa is also a moment of going forward in faith. Don’t worry about a thing. He stands on the shore of new invitations. So open your life to what is left undone. Let your heart enjoy a different rhythm. Chanting down Babylon.”

Noel Leo Erskine is in the midst of a wonderful Sankofa moment. He’s standing on the shore gratefully looking back, and also looking forward to the books that will soon be released (Black Theology and Black Faith from Eerdmans and George Liele: Liberated Slave and Missionary to Jamaica) and scholarship to explore, including a “theology of sabbath.”

However, in the short-term, Erskine plans to simply rest. A rest that is well deserved.

Top: Erskine outside his office in Candler’s Rita Anne Rollins Building. Photo: Cindy Brown 09T