As a newly minted graduate of Harvard’s doctoral program in education, John Snarey wrote an article that could have gone south quickly. He reviewed the research of his professor and mentor, Lawrence Kohlberg, the leading figure in social and moral development theory at that time. Published in Psychological Bulletin in 1985, Snarey’s article respectfully challenged Kohlberg’s notion of universality and made recommendations for bringing his mentor’s moral stage theory into cross-cultural dialogue. Kohlberg had based his six stages of moral development on a longitudinal study of 84 white boys. Snarey pushed his mentor, and the field, to do better.
His criticism found a hearing. The article would become a landmark publication, cited over a thousand times across multiple disciplines. The publication launched Snarey on a trajectory of courageous scholarship that has continued to this day.
When he retires from Candler in May 2023, Snarey leaves a legacy not only as a nationally respected psychologist of religion, moral development, and the human life cycle, but also as a faithful teacher, friend, and university servant. He has come to embody the subject that has driven his life’s work: What does it mean to become good?
A fearless researcher
A son of Pennsylvania, Snarey studied education and psychology as an undergraduate at Geneva College, earned his MA at Wheaton, and received a doctorate in human development from Harvard. He joined the Candler faculty in 1987, also teaching in the Graduate Division of Religion and the Graduate Department of Psychology. He held an additional appointment in Emory’s Division of Educational Studies and became affiliated with Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture.
In 2014, Snarey was installed as the Franklin Nutting Parker Professor of Human Development and Ethics at Candler. Named for Candler’s second dean, the Parker professorship recognizes outstanding research, teaching, and service.
“Professor Snarey has for a number of years been regarded as among the most accomplished scholars in his field of human development and ethics,” Dean Jan Love said at his installation. “His scholarly achievements warrant a chaired professorship.”
Praised by the Association for Moral Education as an “innovative and fearless researcher,” Snarey has written and published prolifically, including several books and more than one hundred articles, chapters, and reviews. His book How Fathers Care for the Next Generation: A Four-Decade Study (Harvard, 1993), cited over a thousand times across multiple disciplines, is still widely regarded as among the most important studies of fatherhood in the social sciences.
Mary Brabeck, professor and dean emerita at New York University, says that Snarey made significant marks across multiple disciplines using multiple frameworks: Kohlberg’s moral stages, James Fowler’s theory of faith development, Erik Erikson’s virtues and strengths, Carol Gilligan’s ethic of care, William James’s types of religious experience, and “John’s own, original conception of caring fathers who achieve generativity,” she says. She calls his fatherhood book “the best to date on the subject of fathers,” noting its longitudinal empirical sophistication.
“John’s marks on developmental psychology and moral psychology are deep and wide, and we all have benefited from his productive and creative career,” Brabeck says.
Scholarship rooted in faith
For Snarey, asking how people become good has not just been a theoretical exploration. It has also been an exercise in faith. With roots in both the Quaker and Presbyterian traditions, he holds a deep commitment to the life of faith and to the habits or practices that such a life entails.
For M. Patrick Graham 83G, Margaret A. Pitts Professor Emeritus of Theological Bibliography, there has always been more to Snarey than mere ivory-tower pursuits. “He’s a man of sincere faith,” Graham says. “A serious and virtuous man who kept his word and earned the trust and respect of those who crossed his path.”
Early in his career, Snarey spent time living and studying on an Israeli kibbutz. The insights he gleaned from those immersive experiences helped him think in new ways about faith and education for social justice back in the United States.
“John appreciated the social justice implications [of the kibbutz] … as very few others have,” says F. Clark Power, a professor at Notre Dame and Snarey’s former Harvard classmate. One of Snarey’s principal contributions over his lifetime, Power says, has been his “profound commitment to social justice.”
This commitment, rooted in faith and informed by empirical investigation, led to Race-ing Moral Formation, a volume co-edited by Snarey and Vanessa Siddle Walker (Columbia Teachers College Press, 2004). Dedicated to the intersection of race, African American experiences, and moral formation, the book delivers a vital message: “In a truly moral community, justice and caring are its mutual, not separate, foundations,” one reviewer noted.
Stepping into such conversations as a white man from a position of privilege was not an obvious or easy choice to make. Snarey stepped forward anyway, guided by a desire to learn. Brabeck remembers her friend’s readiness to acknowledge the weaknesses of his own measures, the limitations of his samples, and the shortcomings of social science methods. Bringing theological and philosophical reflection into the conversation, Snarey challenged gaps in the science and in his own understanding, and he called for more voices and perspectives to be heard beyond his own.
“Humility is the virtue that I came to associate with him most often,” Graham says.
Snarey might not have wanted the spotlight, but it found him. He was elected a fellow of the American Psychological Association and an inaugural fellow of the American Educational Research Association. He received the Albert E. Levy Scientific Research Award from Emory in 2007. In 2014, he received the Kuhmerker Career Award from the Association for Moral Education. Snarey, the AME statement declared, “puts his theoretical ideas and research findings into action by honoring multiple voices in the morality conversation.”
A wise university servant
When Russ Richey arrived at Candler in 2000 to begin his tenure as dean, he quickly learned that Snarey was someone he wanted in his corner. “I soon discovered that John was and would be a gentle, generous, supportive colleague I could rely on,” he says. He notes Snarey’s service as chair of the Faculty Council and president of the University Senate, university-wide committees that advocated for shared governance.
William Branch, Carter Smith Sr. Professor of Medicine at Emory, served as president of the University Senate and chair of the Faculty Council during the year that Snarey stood next in line for these roles. The two of them forged a bond as they navigated the challenges and opportunities that came with having an interim Emory University president. “John and I wanted to accomplish some things,” Branch says. “Chiefly to reach an agreement to appoint selected faculty members as counselors to the Board of Trustee committees.” Strengthening faculty governance was their shared aim, and they succeeded in this mission.
“John was an amazing support,” Branch recalls. “He was strong, straightforward, honest, and wise through it all. I so much enjoyed this essential relationship.”
Graham, who arrived at Candler in 1988, calls Snarey “a kind and compassionate man and a faithful friend.” He remembers Snarey good-naturedly enduring the indignities of an office in what was then the basement of Pitts Library, which at the time was prone to flooding. He is grateful for Snarey’s years of service on the Pitts Library Committee, where he shouldered significant responsibility and remained unstintingly generous with his time and attention.
“He has a delightful sense of humor,” Graham says. “His respect for library staff and their profession was clear, and this endeared him to them. He will be missed.”
Investing in the next generation
While Snarey’s colleagues remember him as a loyal friend and servant of the university, his students remember him for his unswerving support of their careers and life goals.
Kurt Keljo’s dissertation was the first that Snarey chaired at Emory. Recently retired from an environmental career in watershed management, Keljo 95G says that Snarey created a classroom where ideas came to life and meaningful discussion flourished.
“John did not impose his agenda on me,” he says. “Rather, he helped me develop and speak in my own voice.” That support, he says, was “a very good gift.”
Keith Menhinick 22G, now a visiting assistant professor of spiritual care and pastoral theology at Candler, says Snarey was an inspiration in and out of the classroom. “He’s adept at helping students understand difficult texts and draw connections to their personal lives,” he says. “He made Carl Jung and William James come alive for me, ultimately helping me know myself better.”
Snarey went out of his way to help students like Menhinick find their professional footing. “John is willing to share who he is with students,” he says.
Phyllis Curtis-Tweed 93G, now vice president of academic and student affairs at Bermuda College, describes her former mentor as a “source of encouragement throughout my career.” The first student from Emory’s Division of Education with whom Snarey worked, Curtis-Tweed went on to co-publish with Snarey; she remembers his careful editing and quiet wit.
“He attended my wedding,” she says. “He has a gentle, warm, generous, embracing spirit.”
Ashley Coleman Taylor 16G began working as Snarey’s research assistant while a junior at Spelman College. Later he became her advisor. Today an assistant professor of religious studies and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Taylor says that Snarey’s impact on her teaching and thinking continues to this day. “Long after our time together, I still come back to the work of William James,” she says. “As a religion professor myself, I learned from John how to be an encouraging, patient, and gracious mentor who teaches with my whole heart.”
Shelby Hall 21T, today a PhD student at Boston University, says that Snarey’s mentorship when she was at Candler inspired her decision to pursue doctoral work in psychology and religion. “I only hope to bring the same humor, kindness, and welcoming atmosphere of inquiry into the classroom one day myself,” she says. “I have been truly fortunate to learn from Dr. Snarey.”
And GDR alum David Bell 09G, now a senior lecturer at Georgia State University, sums up these affirmations when he says that he “could not have been luckier” than to work with Snarey for his doctoral program. “John served as my PhD supervisor over eight years,” Bell says. “He wanted it to be faster, but I wanted to keep reading! His wonderful guidance and shared interests made my experience at Emory the foundation for my own academic and personal identity. Thank you, John, for your kindness and wisdom!”
The fundamental question
For Brabeck, Snarey’s life has been shaped and molded by one overarching preoccupation. “Over almost five decades, John has tenaciously pursued the fundamental question: How do people become good?” she says.
Decades ago, another moral psychologist of some renown, Carol Gilligan, argued that Kohlberg had neglected relationality within moral development. Gilligan famously introduced the notion of an ethic of care within moral formation, as opposed to an ethic of justice alone. In his scholarship and in his life, Snarey models the best of both approaches.
A commitment to justice and caring, to fairness and empathy, to faith both rigorous and gentle: Many would say that John Snarey has become what he spent his life studying; he has become good.
For those who know him well, it’s hard to imagine he was ever anything else.
Top photo: Tyrae Campbell
Fourth photo: Tom Broadnax