John “Jack” Shelby Spong

John (“Jack”) Shelby Spong
1931 – 2021

Andrew D. Scrimgeour
For The Fourth R, 20 September 2021

Westar has lost a great friend. John Shelby Spong died at his home in Richmond, Virginia, on September 12. 

For the past thirty years, Spong has been known around the world as a powerful advocate of progressive Christianity. Raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Spong’s public life began as an Episcopal parish priest in the South. He served three churches, taking lonely positions on issues of social justice. Upon becoming rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, he insisted that the Confederate battle flag no longer fly on the parish flagpole. After seven years in that powerful public pulpit, he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (NJ), a position he held for 24 years (1976-2000).

Spong had a lover’s quarrel with Christianity. In his words, “If Christianity was going to engage the world of my generation, it must rethink all of its images, reformulate all of its understandings, reinterpret all of its words.” His call for a credible faith made him the target of fundamentalist fury as well as hostility from his own beloved denomination. Yet, his advocacy offered hope to countless others that he called “the church alumni association.” They became the focus of his ministry, and the demand for his books and lectures escalated.

HarperOne has sold over 1.2 million copies of the bishop’s books. Of his twenty-five books, the best-selling titles include: Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (1988), Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991), Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), and A New Christianity for a New World (2002). His last book was Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today (2018), a manuscript he completed by force of will after a stroke in 2016. His lectures in churches, at conferences, and on university campuses attracted large audiences. Many of his lectures on YouTube have been watched by more than 80,000 viewers.

Characteristic of Spong was the care that he took to publicly thank the people who assisted him in his work. The acknowledgements in his books consume many pages. A name that appears in every preface is Christine Spong, his wife. She was the sparkle in his eyes. She also edited every draft of his books and speeches and organized his schedule and his travels. In Robert Frost’s words, they were “together wing to wing, and oar to oar.”

We mourn his passing.