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McClain, theologian and civil rights leader, dies at 82

The Rev. William Bobby McClain, the Black theologian and civil rights leader who championed the United Methodist worship book “Songs of Zion,” died after a short illness on Nov. 18. He was 82. “Bobby, as we called him even in those early years, was articulate, outspoken and radically committed to ridding the world of segregation and discrimination,” said retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie White. “He went on to become one of Methodism’s greatest preachers and civil rights advocates,” White said. McClain was born in Gadsden, Alabama, on May 19, 1938. As a teenage pastor, he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery.

McClain attended then-Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta), a historically Black college in Atlanta. After completing his seminary degree at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology, he returned to Alabama in 1962 to work with King and to serve as pastor of Haven Chapel Methodist Church in Anniston.

He established and served as the executive director of the Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, in 1978. There he wrote “Travelling Light: Christian Perspectives on Pluralism.” He is also the author of “Black People in the Methodist Church: Whither Thou Goest” and with the late Grant Shockley and Karen Collier wrote, “Heritage and Hope: African American Presence in United Methodism.” In 1999, he was named to the Mary Elizabeth McGehee Joyce Chair in Preaching and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary. He taught preaching and worship for 34 years, then retired in 2013 and served as a professor emeritus. From 1968 to 1978, he served as senior pastor of the historic Union United Methodist Church in Boston. During that same period, he taught at Boston College, Harvard University, Northeastern University and Emerson College. From 2001 to 2003, McClain served as the senior pastor of Philadelphia’s Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley served as pastor and wrote many of his famous and beloved Gospel songs.

As a professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, he laid the groundwork for “Songs of Zion,” which sold more than 2 million copies and brought the sacred music and worship traditions of the African American culture to the pews of predominantly white denominations. It was published by the United Methodist Publishing House and Abingdon Press in 1980. At the time, McClain said, “It was a labor of love and an effort to lay our contribution on the altar of the church we all loved so much.”

The Rev. Carlton R. "Sam" Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, also spoke about McClain's contributions.

“Dr. McClain was the guiding force for the widely acclaimed Songs of Zion (1981-1982), and as a consultant to the hymnal revision committee his expertise significantly contributed to the inclusion in The United Methodist Hymnal of 51 spirituals and hymns and songs by African American composers and poets,” Young said.

Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling, who leads the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said that through his dynamic teaching, McClain, “helped many young minds understand the necessity of wrestling with Scripture in light of God’s liberative preferential option for the poor.” “His theological genius and incisive truth-telling led many to understand the harm done by injustice, oppression and hatred,” she said in a tribute to McClain. The Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, said McClain’s students are his legacy and those students will, “Rise up and call him blessed.” “One of the last of the young leaders of the civil rights movement has passed. What will be the legacy of Dr. William B. McClain? About 2 million biblically grounded, theologically sound, prophetically and pastorally infused sermons have been shaped by the teaching of Dr. McClain,” McAllister-Wilson said. One of those students is the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt, pastor in the the Baltimore-Washington Conference and a professor.

“The Rev. Dr. William B. McClain was the very first professor I had when I started seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in 1989,” Hunt said. “That course set the trajectory for my ministry as a pastor, teacher and church executive.”

Hunt also followed in McClain’s footsteps as the fourth executive director of the Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry at Drew University. “His prophetic and pastoral zeal, from the pulpit to the classroom, from Alabama to Boston and beyond will be missed, and his legacy will live. Rest well Dr. William McClain,” Hunt said. McClain was a “history-maker,” said the Rev. Alfred “Fred” T. Day III, retired top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. “He was a giant and his immense influence. … will be felt for generations,” Day said. He said McClain molded the minds of United Methodism’s leading clergy, congregations and members of the academy and was influential as a church historian and homilist. The Rev. Eric W. Carr Jr., coordinator of the Philadelphia Black Methodists for Church Renewal, extolled McClain as “a founder and giant of BMCR and the progressive movement of people of color particularly within The United Methodist Church. Words cannot express how much he will be missed.” BMCR is the Black caucus of the denomination. McClain faithfully participated in national meetings of the caucus he helped establish in 1967. He was the keynoter at its 50th anniversary gathering in 2017. “He was also a sought-after seminary professor and advocate for justice and equality,” Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson wrote in a tribute. “The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference was blessed to have Dr. Bobby McClain serve as the senior pastor of Tindley Temple a number of years ago.” “Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in the Council of Bishops’ webinar on Dismantling Racism, and he called the church to keep pressing forward in the struggle. The United Methodist Church has lost a prophet among us and we grieve his passing. We pray for his wife, Jo Ann, and his family at this time. May we find comfort in the hope of resurrection that Dr. McClain lived and proclaimed.” Bishop White said the church was already mourning the deaths of other civil rights giants this year. “Now, we mourn him, much too soon. I lost a lifelong friend and Methodism has lost a greater leader.” McClain is survived by his wife, Jo Ann McClain, and two sons, William Bobby McClain Jr. and David Wilson McClain. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Gilbert is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact her at 615-742-5470 or To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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