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Davie Napier, YDS professor emeritus and former Yale Corporation fellow, dies at 91

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

NapierB. Davie Napier, Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ministry at Yale Divinity School, died at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA on February 24, 2007. Napier, who earned a B.D. cum laude at YDS in 1939 and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1944, joined the YDS faculty in 1949 before rising to the rank of associate professor and then the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation in 1956. He served as master of Yale's Calhoun College from 1964-65 and from 1980-84, when he was Professor of Bible and Ministry at Yale University. From 1975-80 he was a fellow of the Yale Corporation.

Born in Kuling, China on July 12, 1915, to missionaries Dr. and Mrs. A.Y. Napier, he and his late brother Campbell Napier attended schools throughout China and Japan, graduating from high school in Birmingham, AL.

He married Joyce Robertson White, now deceased, of Bethel, CT in 1941. Together they had two children, John, also deceased, and Anne Napier Caffery of Yakima, WA. Among the survivors are three granddaughters, Whisper Napier Baricevic of Sacramento, CA, Abigail Joy Mott of Seattle, WA, and Amanda Davie Magee of Glens Falls, NY.; and three great grandchildren, Briar, Avery, and Ava, with a fourth due this spring.

Napier earned his undergraduate degree from Howard College (now Samford University) in 1936. He also had associations with Wesleyan University, Bucknell University, University of Redlands, Alfred University, Lycoming College and Saint Patrick's College. His zeal for life and passion for education led to lifelong relationships with students and faculty. Beyond his time at Yale Divinity School and Yale University, a long, distinguished and joyful career took him to Judson College, Alfred University, University of Georgia, Stanford University, and the Pacific School of Religion, which he served as president from 1972-78. He also spent time in the 1970's and 1980's as a visiting professor and guest lecturer throughout the country.

Ordained in 1939 in the Congregational Church, he was a minister of music at Westport and Bethel, CT and later served interim ministries in Athens, GA; Hamden and Middletown, CT; and Eugene, Oregon.

Among his fondest adventures were the times he spent abroad, mixing professional opportunity with precious family time. The Napiers lived in Heidelberg, Germany as part of a Fulbright Act exchange grant. They traveled to Palestine, Spain, Puerto Rico, Jerusalem and the Near East. Later, he and his wife traveled extensively through Central and Latin America.

Brevard Childs, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Divinity, described Napier as not a scholar in the "traditional" way but, rather, as a powerful presence who "brought excitement back to teaching Old Testament at Yale Divinity School."

"Davie Napier was a particularly popular lecturer," said Childs. "For years, he had the big Old Testament course.. But he was mainly known for his preaching. His preaching was very, very imaginative and charismatic. That was where you saw him with tremendous imagination."

Dick Stazesky '52 B.D. of Hockessin, DE noted that just about all YDS students in his era took introductory Old Testament from Napier, whom Stazesky described as an excellent teacher and "friendly man who took an interest in the person involved... people-oriented."

"Davie, as I recall, always stressed the basic themes, the larger picture and didn't get lost in the minutiae," said Stazesky, who graded papers for Napier as a student. When Napier taught Genesis, for example, he made a big point of the tree being in the middle of the Garden of Eden. "This is just one brief sentence in the story, but in the middle of the garden, so that when this relationship to God was violated it affected everything else, like the hub of a wheel," Stazesky said. "And I remember that after all these years."

Indeed, in the preface to his book Song of the Vineyard: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Napier underscored his attention to that which is basic: "In the common but not the technical sense of the word, this is an introduction to the Old Testament. I have tried to restrain my professional instincts by constant address to the question, 'What is essential to a genuine understanding of the Old Testament?'"

In a review of Napier's first book, From Faith to Faith, published in 1955, Bernard Boyd of the University of North Carolina wrote, "He has something to say and he communicates it in a fresh and vigorous and even exciting style... Professor Napier has the rare gift of lucidity without compromise of scholarship and has written a book which any intelligent layman can understand."

The YDS Class of 1952 had a special relationship with Napier, having entered YDS at precisely the time Napier joined the faculty. From the time of graduation until the present, Stazesky has sent Napier and other faculty from 1949-52 the annual class notes of alumni activity. "Davie always felt that we kept him in the class," he said, noting that, despite ill health, Napier came East from California for the class's 50 th reunion in 2002. Napier was a strong supporter of efforts to keep YDS on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, and he attended the rededication of the Quadrangle in September 2003.

Napier was an academic, but not one to keep his thoughts confined to the academy. His biblical interpretations, sometimes literally, ended up in the streets.

Gaynl Trotter '66 M.A.R. and her husband, Irwin Trotter '54 B.D., professor emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, were friends of Napier and his late wife, Joy, in California. They recall attending demonstrations with Napier against U.S. involvement in Central America and against nuclear arms.

"He was always on the side of the poor and the oppressed and for justice," said Gaynl Trotter. "That was really his great passion as far as I could see...That came out his great passion for the prophets and the Old Testament." Stavesky, too, believes Napier's activist bent can be traced to his teaching of the prophets.

Another side to Napier, and one well-known to students and friends, was his musical ability. He was a talented pianist. Irwin Trotter believes the baby grand piano Napier had in his Pilgrim Place home took up most of the space in the living room.

According to Stazesky, Napier would play the piano in the YDS common room at lunch or after supper. "He would play the piano, and he knew a few bawdy songs," quipped Stazesky. "You might say, 'Old Testament earthiness'... There's plenty of earthiness to the Bible. But Davie knew all the earthiness, and he knew these songs, and he was a great favorite with many, many students. And part of it was this piano playing."

Childs called Napier "a brilliant pianist...very exuberant and full of fun" who would sometimes even play while he was lecturing.

Napier's daughter, Anne Napier Caffery of Yakima, WA, said her father always had a particularly warm spot in his heart for Yale Divinity School, which she used to visit with her father when he came in on the weekends to pick up his mail. Despite the many accolades her father received throughout his life, Caffery said, it was always his Yale degree and his time at the Divinity School that meant most to him. And his many and continuing contacts with the Class of 1952, she said, made the class "just relentlessly a part of his life."

In academia, Napier had a reputation as a scholar who also had his hand very much on the pulse of the student population.

Harvard University's Peter Gomes, reminiscing about his own arrival at Harvard in 1970 in his book The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need, recalled the time when Napier, then the dean of Stanford Chapel, delivered the William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard. Napier titled his series "To Unbelieving Believers."

"In retrospect, I think Napier was on to something," wrote Gomes, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard. "He understood that an appeal to a pre-modern, pre-secular faith was not likely to succeed on the kind of campus that he and I served, yet he was also aware that we were serving an increasingly sophisticated and spiritually dissatisfied constituency of people who were neither easily persuaded by the old pieties nor easily seduced by the secularities widely presumed to be replacing them."

Time Magazine, in a 1966 article about a "renaissance of religion at Stanford" and the role of Napier as the Stanford chaplain, noted that Napier "has turned the once staid services at the pseudo-Romanesque Memorial Church into an experiment in worship." The combination of Napier's chapel services and the academic study of religion at Stanford, Time said, resulted in "an enlightening case study of how Christianity on a secular campus can be imaginatively brought to life."

A prolific writer, Napier was the author of a number of books, including: From Faith to Faith (Harpers, 1955); Song of the Vineyard (Harper and Row, 1962, Revised Edition, Fortress Press, 1981); Prophets in Perspective (Abingdon, 1963); Commentary of Exodus in the Layman's bible Commentary, Vol. 3 (John Knox Press, 1963); come, Sweet Death (United Church Press, 1967, Revised Edition 1981); Time of Burning, (Pilgrim Press, 1970); On New Creation (Louisiana State University Press, 1971); Word of God, Word of Earth (Pilgrim Press, 1976); Advent and Christmas (with Frederick Borsch) in Proclamation Series (Fortress Press, 1980).

He was also a contributor to Vetus Testamentum, The Journal of Biblical Literature, Interpretation, Christian Century, and Encyclopedia Britannica.

A memorial service will be held at the UCC Church in Claremont, CA on Sunday, March 18 at 3:30 p.m.

At the request of the family, memorial gifts may be made to:

Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511
Pilgrim Place, 660 Avery Road, Claremont, CA 91711
Children's Village, 2701 Tieton Drive, Yakima, WA 98902

For further information, please contact: Barb Sperry at: barb@memfound.org or (509) 576-5794