Julian Norris Hartt, former YDS professor, dies at 99

Theologian Julian Norris Hartt, who taught at Yale Divinity School and Yale’s Department of Religious Studies for three decades, died Nov. 29 in Greenfield, MA. He was 99 and died of natural causes with his wife and two of his children at his side.


David Kelsey ’58 B.D., ’64 Ph.D., Luther A. Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology, recalls Julian Hartt as teacher, colleague

I knew Julian first as one of my teachers and then, somewhat later, as a very senior faculty colleague at YDS. I cannot say that we were particularly close personally, but I do know that I learned a great deal from him.

Julian was a richly talented man with a vivid and powerful personality. Above all, he was a brilliant theological mind, both in the give and take of seminar discussion and in the creativity of his own theological work.

A remarkably gifted preacher, skilled in the arts of rhetoric, oratory, and formal debate that were a standard part of much late 19th and early 20th century high school and college education and are now virtually lost arts, he knew when and when not to use them homiletically.

Julian was a humorist with an exquisite gift of timing. The student Community Life Committee often invited Hartt and his colleague William Muehl, the similarly talented Professor of Homiletics, to be joint Masters of Ceremonies at all-school social events (think of a two-person version of the panel on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”).

A serious University citizen, Julian cared a great deal about the academic and institutional vigor of Yale Divinity School. The School is in his debt for the considerable amount of time and energy he invested in its governance.

Hartt was the founding chair of Yale’s Department of Religious Studies and taught at YDS and in Religious Studies from 1943-1972.  When he left Yale for the University of Virginia, he was the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology.  At Virginia, he occupied the William Kenan, Jr. Chair of Religious Studies until he retired in 1981 and was named professor emeritus.

His students included scores of scholars and ministers such as William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 B.A., ’56 B.D., Ray Hart ’59 Div, ’59 Ph.D., William May ’52 B.D., ’62 Ph.D., Stanley Hauerwas ’65 B.D., ’68 Ph.D., and James Carse ’57 B.D., ’63 S.T.M.

“Julian was obviously a strong presence at the Divinity School,” said Harry B. Adams ’47 B.A., ’51 B.D., the Horace Bushnell Professor Emeritus of Christian Nurture.  “I knew him both as a student and as a colleague.  He was a lively and engaging teacher who was constantly seeking new language in which to express Christian theology.

“Personally he was at the center of the faculty.  When I came to the faculty, there was no faculty lounge, and so a considerable number of the faculty assembled in Julian's office every day for lunch and lively conversation.

Richard Stazesky '52 BD, '53 STM, '55 MA never studied under Hartt but recalls well his preaching style:  “As a preacher in chapel, he was great—easy to follow, humorous, down to earth...He had a pastoral touch.”

Ethicist William May observed:  “As a teacher, Julian Hartt never tried to play the role of father or to supply his students with a sheltering intellectual home.  But he gave many of us a sense of calling.  Roger Gustavsson ’55 B.D., ’63 Ph.D. tells the story of Julian's visit to Princeton, where Roger, as a student, also had the privilege of hearing such guests as Tillich, Buber, Maritain, and H. Richard Niebuhr.

“However, after attending a senior seminar, where he watched Hartt at work, Roger thought to himself, 'So, this is how it's done.'  Thoughts in the course of a session with a fine teacher come and go; but leaving the class with a sense, ‘So, this is how it's done,’ has staying power.  So Gustavsson and many others of us have felt.”

Leander Keck ’57 Div., ’57 Ph.D., the Winkley Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology, also remembers Hartt for his sense of humor:  “Professor Hartt was a popular teacher, for his lectures not only combined astute observations with personal engagement but were salted by his lively wit.”

Hartt was born June 13, 1911 in Selby, SD, the son of Albert Hartt, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Laura Beals Hartt. He was educated in the small Dakota towns in which his father was assigned churches. He attended high school in Doland, SD, where he became life-long friends of Hubert H. Humphrey. One example of their closeness was that Hartt gave the grace at the luncheon following the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson and Humphrey. For decades, Hartt regaled students with Humphrey/Hartt stories.

Hartt earned his B.A. from Dakota Wesleyan University in 1932, majoring in philosophy and psychology. During his junior and senior years he served Methodist churches in southeast South Dakota and for two years was a minister in Harrisburg, SD, south of Sioux Falls.

He graduated with honors in 1937 from Garrett Biblical Institute in
Evanston, IL and received a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology in 1940 from Yale. He taught at Berea College for three years before returning to teach at Yale Divinity School in 1943.

Hartt continued to do some teaching after his retirement but devoted most of his time to writing. He is the author of many books and articles, including A Christian Critique of American Culture, and memoirs published in several volumes by Soundings. Eight of his books have recently been reissued by Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Hartt's brother James and one sister, Helen, predeceased him. His sister Betty Strand (Sagle, ID) survives him. His first wife, Neva Beverly, to whom he was married for 50 years, predeceased him. He is survived by three children: Beverly Ann Gouaux (Denton, TX), Susan L. Hartt (Hamden, CT), and Julian N. Hartt, Jr. (West Hartford, CT); and two grandsons, Brendan J. Hartt (North Haven, CT) and Amos Gouaux (Denton, TX). He is also survived by his wife, the artist Elinor N. Hartt, currently of Greenfield, MA, and three stepchildren, Katlin Roberts (New York, NY), Wendy Roberts (Dover, DE), Diana Robert (Greenfield, MA), and three step-grandchildren.

A small memorial service will be held in Greenfield, MA on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 1:00 pm at St. James Episcopal Church, 8 Church St. In April or early May a service will be held at the University of Virginia.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, contributions in his name be made to the Yale Divinity School, Dean's Fund, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511 or St. Joseph's Indian School, Chamberlain, SD 57326.

Revised 12/8/2010