Robert McAfee Brown, leader of liberation theology movement dead at 81

Associated Press
Sunday September 09, 2001

PALO ALTO, (AP) — Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian theologian who bridged tensions between Protestants and Catholics and became one of the best-known advocates of the liberation theology movement, has died. He was 81. 

Brown, who lived in Palo Alto, died at a nursing home Tuesday in Greenfield, Mass., where he kept a summer home. His wife, Sydney Thomson Brown, said he never fully recovered from a broken hip three weeks earlier. 

Born May 28, 1920, in Carthage, Ill., Brown was the son of a clergyman. He graduated from Amherst College in 1943, was ordained a Presbyterian minister the next year and in 1945 earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

He married in 1944 and had four children. Brown served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy during WWII, studied at Columbia University and won a Fulbright grant to study at Oxford for two years. 

Brown wrote 28 books, spent decades teaching religion at such schools as St. Paul’s Macalester College, New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Stanford University and the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley. He also was known for his sly wit, once writing an essay called “Six Elegant Proofs for the Existence of Santa Claus.” 

He moved his family to California in 1962, where he protested the Vietnam War and co-founded the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. 

Brown was jailed as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement, and later emerged as an advocate of Latin America’s liberation theology movement, advancing the idea that Christians should help emancipate oppressed people from unjust political, economic or social subjection. 

“He was a giant. Always on the cutting edge,” said Paul Masquelier, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of San Jose. 

In 1962, Time magazine called Brown “Catholics’ favorite Protestant,” after he rebutted Protestants concerned about John F. Kennedy’s religion and served as an official Protestant observer to the Vatican Council II at the invitation of Pope John XXIII. 

In the mid 1990s, Brown joined three other religious leaders for a week-long hunger strike outside the United Nations. Brown wanted to protest the American position on nuclear arms control, against his doctor’s advice. 

“He was a rare person,” said the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who co-founded the anti-war group. “All the trumpets have sounded on the other side.”