Letty M. Russell
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Letty Mandeville Russell (1929 in Westfield, New Jersey – 12 July 2007 in Guilford, Connecticut) was a feminist theologian and professor. She was a member of the first class of women admitted to Harvard Divinity School, and one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church. After earning a doctorate in theology at Union Theological Seminary, she joined the faculty at Yale Divinity School, where she taught for 28 years. Russell authored, co-authored or edited over 17 books, including Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (1985), Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (1993) and Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (1996). She has been described as a "prominent matriarch of contemporary feminist bible criticism".
Early life and education
Letty M. Russell was born in Westfield, New Jersey, on September 20, 1929, the second of three daughters to Miriam (née Towl) and Ricketson B. Russell. Her mother was a bacteriologist who worked on a floating hospital in New York harbor during World War I. Her father was a trade-show salesman.
Russell graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in biblical history and philosophy in 1951 from Wellesley College, and she was among the first women to receive a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B.) from Harvard Divinity School in theology and ethics in 1958. She earned a Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Union Theological Seminary in New York in Christian education and theology in 1967. Two years later, Russell received a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) in mission theology and ecumenics also from Union Theological Seminary.
Russell, one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, served the East Harlem Protestant Parish from 1952–1968, as well as ten years as pastor of the Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church in New York City. In the East Harlem Protestant Parish, Russell focused her ministry on equipping her congregation of mostly Black and Hispanic people to claim their voices as leaders in the parish and the community. Her experiences in Harlem led her to develop Bible studies that encouraged "people of color" to explore ways in which the Bible gives them voice and liberation.
At various times Russell was employed as a consultant to the U.S. Working Group on the participation of Women in the World Council of Churches and as religious consultant to the National Board of the YWCA. A leader for many years in the ecumenical movement, she served on numerous units of the World Council of Churches, including the Faith and Order Commission; the National Council of Churches, including the Task Force on the Bible and Sexism; and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the successor to the United Presbyterian Church.
She joined the faculty of Yale University Divinity School in 1974 as an assistant professor of theology, rose to the rank of full professor in 1985, and retired in 2001. In retirement, she continued to teach a few courses at Yale Divinity School as an emerita professor.
In an introduction to a Festschrift published in Russell's honor in 1999 under the title Liberating Eschatology, fellow Yale Divinity School theologians Margaret Farley and Serene Jones called Russell's influence on contemporary theology "monumental" and wrote of her "uncanny ability to articulate a vision of the church that is radical in its feminist-liberationist critique but that nonetheless remains anchored in the historic traditions and communities of the Christian church."
Farley said about Russell, "She leaves a legacy of wisdom, integrity, and indomitable hope. Voices will rise from women and men throughout the world to bear witness to her gifts to them, not the least of which is her gift of faithful friendship... There is perhaps no other feminist theologian who has been more dedicated to ecumenical, interfaith, and international theological dialogue. Hers has been the influence not of imposition but of partnership. Yet her work has challenged everyone, not only because of its substance but because of her own commitment to making the world both more just and more hospitable."
In one of her last major public addresses, the annual Paul Tillich Lecture delivered at Harvard University in May 2006, Russell spoke to the role of the Church in confronting injustice. She said, "Our struggle is to overcome the fear of difference and to break the bars that keep us apart. [Others] want what we want. They want to work, they want to change the social structure. They want hospitality with justice."
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the Krister Stendahl Professor at Harvard Divinity School, said, "She pioneered feminist theology not only in theology and ethics but also in biblical studies....Letty was not only a great liberation theologian but also a great church-woman. She knew how to utilize the resources of church and university for nurturing a feminist movement around the world....As a skilled organizer she worked tirelessly for wo/men and feminist liberation theology."
In 1999 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) bestowed Russell with its Women of Faith award, and Union Theological Seminary in New York named her a Unitas Distinguished Alumnae. She was recognized as a distinguished alumna with the Rabbi Martin Katzentein Award from Harvard Divinity School in 1998. Wellesley College named her the first recipient of its Emmavail Luce Severinghaus Award for Work in Religion in 1986.
At Yale Divinity School, Russell's influence extended far beyond the confines of classrooms on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. She was the inspiration behind creation of the school's international travel seminar program—now known as "The Letty Russell Travel Seminar"— under which Yale Divinity School students have traveled to countries around the globe for direct encounters with the realities of religion on the world stage, frequently in impoverished countries.
Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said that, through the travel seminar, Russell’s “legacy of commitment to a universal vision of engaged theology will continue as a vital part of Yale Divinity School.”
M. Shawn Copeland, an American scholar and associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College, said, "Letty Russell has been the towering feminist theologian of her generation. She devoted her theological career to making it possible for women in various parts of the world to do theology, to dialogue and to collaborate with one another, and with all women and men of good will in mending creation. The seeds she has sown have flowered and will bear fruit for years to come.”
A global advocate for women, Russell was a member of the Yale Divinity School Women's Initiative on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa and was co-coordinator of the International Feminist Doctor of Ministry Program at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The author or editor of over 17 books, her book Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church and her co-edited work, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, characterized her commitment to feminist/liberation theologies and to the renewal of the church. In 2006, she co-edited a book with Phyllis Trible of Wake Forest University entitled, Hagar, Sarah and Their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives.
- Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective - A Theology (1974) ISBN 978-0664249915
- The Liberating Word: A Guide to Nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible (1977) ISBN 978-0664247515
- The Future of Partnership (1979) ISBN 978-0664242404
- Growth in Partnership (1981) ISBN 978-0664243784
- Becoming Human (1982) ISBN 978-0664244088
- Changing Contexts of Our Faith (1985) ISBN 978-0800618629
- Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (1985) ISBN 978-0664246396
- Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology (1987) ISBN 978-0664240172
- Inheriting Our Mothers' Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective (1988) ISBN 978-0664250195
- The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis (1990) ISBN 978-0664251116
- Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (1993) ISBN 978-0664250706
- Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (1996) ISBN 978-0664220587
- Hagar, Sarah and Their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives (2006) ISBN 978-0664229825
- Just Hospitality: God's Welcome in a World of Difference (2009) ISBN 978-0664233150
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- "Audio: Encountering the 'Other' in a World of Difference and Danger". hds.harvard.edu. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
- "Rev. Letty Russell, at 77; feminist theologian at Yale - The Boston Globe". archive.boston.com. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
- "Feminist theologian pioneer Letty Russell dies at 77". Episcopal Church. 2007-07-24. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
- Brenner, Athalya. "Quo Vadis Domina? Reflections on What We Have Become and Want to Be". lectio difficilor. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
- Lawrence, J.M. "Rev. Letty Russell, at 77; feminist theologian at Yale". Boston.com News. The Boston Globe. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
- "Farewell Letty Russell". Retrieved 8 July 2016.
- Clarkson, J. Shannon. "Farewell Letty Russell". Judy's research blog. Retrieved 9 July 2016.