Professor Charles Swezey remembered as master theological teacher

RICHMOND, VA (January 22, 2022) – Charles M. Swezey, the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary), died January 20 after a short illness.

Dr. Swezey received an A.B. from Washington and Lee University. He received several master’s degrees, beginning with the B.D. at Union Theological Seminary, the S.T.M. at Yale Divinity School, and the M.A. at Vanderbilt University. He received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt in 1978.

Prior to his time on the Union faculty, Dr. Swezey taught at Mary Baldwin College and Vanderbilt University. He joined the Union faculty in 1974 and remained at Union until his retirement in 2003. Because of his wonderful leadership abilities and administrative acumen, he served seven of his faculty years as dean of the faculty.

An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Dr. Swezey served as assistant minister at Lexington Presbyterian Church, stated clerk of Lexington Presbytery, and as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates.

He was equally engaged in the community, serving on the board of directors of the Virginia Blood Services. He was also a member of the advisory board of the Library of Theological Ethics, and a consultant panel member of an advisory committee to the director of the National Institutes of Health.

As a scholar, Dr. Swezey served for many years as a member of the editorial board for Union’s Interpretation Journal. He also published several books, including What is theological ethics? A study of the thought of James M. Gustafson.

Dr. Swezey was a gifted teacher and influential mentor for scores of students, many of whom went on to become scholars and teachers themselves. He is remembered with great fondness and deep appreciation.

Columbia Theological Seminary biblical scholar, William Brown, who began his teaching career at Union, writes: “Charlie was the best Dean a young colleague could have. He was so supportive of junior faculty at Union and always a source of great wisdom and guidance. From Charlie’s wisdom I’ve come to regard the entirety of seminary education as a journey of ‘theological inquiry,’ one of Charlie’s favorite phrases. He embodied an insatiable curiosity that championed Anselm’s definition of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding.’ He was a down-to-earth sage, a theologian on the ground always ready to work among the weeds with alacrity and wit. And he was the model of modesty when it came to his own achievements to the point of self-effacement. Charles Swezey was the consummate ‘servant of the Word.’”

Davidson College Professor Douglas Ottati, who served many years as a colleague of Dr. Swezey on the Union Seminary faculty, writes: “Charles served the seminary as a conscientious teacher, colleague, and dean. Those who studied with him will recall extensive lecture outlines on the blackboard in Watts Hall, his pronounced Waynesboro accent, and his always generous care.”

Union Presbyterian biblical scholar, John Carroll, who taught alongside Dr. Swezey for many years, writes: “Charlie was meticulous and careful and attentive to process as an academic dean. I still recall well Charlie welcoming me into his office and patiently and graciously listening to my concerns and apprehensions as a young, new member of the faculty at Union. He was a wonderful support to me. He was forthright and a person of deep integrity committed to robust theological thinking and just ethical practice. He was a master teacher.”

Union Presbyterian historian and missiologist Stan Skreslet also taught alongside Dr. Swezey. He writes: “I will never forget the way that Charles conducted discussion sections. He was masterful in the way that he encouraged and enabled students to discover unfamiliar but profound insights in a wide variety of classic texts. As a faculty colleague, he was a great encourager to younger faculty members especially.”

Recently retired as senior pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, Roger Gench (Th.M. ’81, Ph.D. ’88) treasured working with Dr. Swezey as a student. “Charlie Swezey was a brilliant Christian ethicist who never ceased to astonish me with the breadth and depth of his voracious reading to the very end of his life, keeping up with his field as well as anyone I know. He was an unusually keen listener who asked probing, often uncomfortable, questions that made you think more deeply about any subject under discussion. He once impressed upon me that we need to listen to another’s perspective so thoroughly that we can repeat it back to them in a manner they would accept as an accurate presentation of their position. He was a masterful teacher, and a warm and caring mentor and friend — I give thanks for the enormous blessing he has been in our lives!”

A private memorial service for family members will be held at a later date.

Cards of condolence may be mailed to:

Mrs. Mary E. Swezey
7121 Magnolia Cottage Drive
Mechanicsville, VA  23111

high-resolution image