Godbey, John Charles

John Charles Godbey
  John Charles Godbey

John Charles Godbey (September 26, 1927-November 5, 1999), a Unitarian Universalist minister, scholar, historian, and teacher, spent his entire professional life, 1962-96, as a faculty member at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. He also taught at the University of Chicago, with which Meadville/Lombard was associated. He was a leading authority on Faustus Socinus and the Radical Reformation of the 16th Century.

Born in Richmond, Kentucky, the son of a Methodist minister and a high school English teacher, John grew up in small towns in Nebraska. At the age of five, he suffered a major hearing loss from an infection. Overcoming this handicap, in 1949 he graduated with a B.A. from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. To prepare for the Methodist ministry he enrolled at the Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, Illinois. He soon departed, however, when he discovered that his religious views were incompatible with those of the faculty.

In 1954, to earn money for graduate studies, Godbey began working in construction in Morrocco. While in Casablanca he met and married Johanna Margareta (“Greta”) Gratama, who was working as a translator for the United States Air Force and as a representative of a laundry and dry cleaning firm. They had four children: Bernard, Charles, Nicholas, and Margaret. After visiting Greta’s family in the Netherlands, in 1955 the Godbeys moved to Chicago, so that John could pursue graduate studies. At first he was primarily interested in studying philosophical dialogue with the thought of the East, particularly India.

In 1957, after being interviewed by a Methodist conference committee, Godbey concluded that he was no longer a Methodist and was, instead, a Unitarian. He and Greta joined the First Unitarian Church of Chicago and he transferred across the street from the University of Chicago Divinity School to Meadville/Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian and Universalist seminary with membership in the Federated Theological Faculty.

One of Godbey’s first acts as a Unitarian was to purchase the two volume History of Unitarianism by Earl Morse Wilbur. These books sparked his lifelong passion for Reformation studies. He persuaded Greta to teach him Dutch so that he could read Johannes Kühler’s Het Socinianisme in Nederland, which he had found in the stacks of the Meadville/Lombard library. Upon receiving his Bachelor of Divinity from Meadville/Lombard in 1958, he was awarded the first of two Harriet Otis Cruft Traveling Fellowships. This allowed him to spend a year in the Netherlands, studying Socinianism at the Remonstrant Seminary at the University of Leiden.

In 1962 Godbey received an M.A. in church history from the University of Chicago Divinity School. That year he began working as an instructor at Meadville/Lombard. At the same time he continued his studies at the University and worked on his dissertation, “A Study of Faustus Socinus’s De Jesu Christo Servatore.” In 1968 he received his Ph.D. and was appointed a professor at Meadville/Lombard. While teaching at the seminary he took language lessons from Polish graduate students in the University Slavics Department. He eventually acquired seven languages besides his own: Latin, Greek, Dutch, German, French, Polish, and Spanish. He put his Polish to use in 1974 and 1979, when, with grants from the Kosjusko Foundation, he studied in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, and in Kolozsvar, Romania.

In his studies Godbey helped to flesh out the various ideas and arguments of the voices within the Radical Reformation. He carefully analyzed the different groups of anti-trinitarians, showing how they agreed or disagreed with one another, and documented the evolution of their disputes and alliances. “Professor Godbey has made life more complicated for [scholars of Magesterial reformers like John Calvin],” wrote colleague Kenneth Sawyer, “by elaborating the specific content of the various dissenting traditions, and by hastening the acknowledgment of the integrity of arguments on both sides of doctrinal divides.”

Godbey regularly taught courses on the Radical Reformation at the University of Chicago. He described these as “a special pleasure.” “The ministry students were looking for religious roots, and what they found was exciting,” he wrote. “The Ph.D. students were a delight. I could assign them a text in French or German, and they would read it. The result was usually a good research paper. So, I enjoyed this work very much.”

In 1964 Godbey was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister by the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He received final fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1969. He did not serve a church as a parish minister, but remained an active member of First Unitarian Church. During these years he was active in in the Civil Rights movement. In 1965 he took part in the march to Montgomery, Alabama.

As a teacher, Godbey set high standards for his students. One of his students recalled: “He did not suffer fools gladly. One term when a student had the nerve to ask for an incomplete on the day before the papers were due, Godbey told him, ‘You are going to be a busy fellow tonight.’ On the other hand, when a student’s wife had just had a miscarriage, and the student was spending much time at the hospital, unasked, Professor Godbey offered the student extra time to finish his paper. When grading, he wrote helpful comments several pages long for each paper. He was the only professor Meadville/Lombard students feared, and was the one they most respected and loved. He would send posers away, but he worked with anyone genuinely interested in Unitarian Universalist history to get them through their classes and the thesis process.”

Godbey was a member of Prairie Group (a minister’s study retreat), Collegium (an organization for liberal religious scholars), the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Society for Historical Research, the Medieval and Renaissance Conference, and the Society of the Larger Ministry (an organization for non-parish ministers which he helped to establish). In 1992 the University of Kolosvar, Hungary awarded him a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree in recognition of his contributions to the history of the Radical Reformation in Eastern Europe.

From 1974 to 1979, while Meadville/Lombard was going through a period of transition, Godbey served as academic dean. After his retirement in 1996 he was named Professor Emeritus. At the symposium held at his retirement Godbey expressed his theological understanding of the scholarly vocation: “In his or her seeking, discovering, organizing, and transmitting new knowledge, the work of the scholar intersects with the aim of God; in this respect it not only has a relationship to ministry, it is a ministry, for the work of the scholar responds to and builds upon the divine aim. Here we say, ‘put off your shoes, for this is holy ground.’ The role of the scholar, as ministry, is to remind us all of that Ultimacy which is the context within which all human living, and all works of ministry, take place. Let us, then, put off our shoes and be about our tasks.”

Godbey taught one course per quarter until just before his death. After he had been disabled by Parkinson’s disease, he held classes in his apartment. Following his death, a memorial service was held at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. His ashes were interred in the crypt below the sanctuary. In 2001 Greta Godbey established the John Godbey Prize at Meadville/Lombard. This is presented annually to the student writing the best historical essay.


Much biographical information on John Godbey can be gleaned from the symposium, Celebrating John Godbey (1996). For other information we are indebted to John’s wife, Greta. Godbey’s writings include “Quaenam sitea in Christum Fides: A Liberal Manifesto” in Peter Ivan Kaufman and Spencer Lavan, editors, Alone Together: Studies in the History of Liberal Religion (1978); “Unitarian Universalist Association,” in Encyclopedia of Religion; “Sixteenth Century Journal,” and “Zygon” in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation; “Bibliography of Unitarian Universalist History,” (1982); “Interpretations of Socinian Theology,” Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (1985-86); Unitarian Universalist History (1996). There are numerous videorecordings of his lectures at the Meadville Lombard Library.

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted March 7, 2008