Michael H.C. McDowell ’79
A former foreign affairs writer, McDowell has worked for a number of nonprofits, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Gates Foundation
We've all heard of “God and Man at Yale,” by the young William F. Buckley. And then there is the phrase "Godless Harvard," the Crimson equivalent. This is a small tale of God coming to the godless ink-stained wretches of the Nieman Fellowships, in 1979.
The Rev. Peter Gomes, minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard University and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals (he preferred "Moral Professor of Christian Plumbing"), brought the message of the Gospel to Walter Lippmann House during my Fellowship year and delivered a regular Epistle to the Cynical Scribblers thereafter. This Crimson circuit-rider would then become a "regular" at Nieman seminars. And I claim the John-the-Baptist role in paving the way for the eloquent, witty, erudite, mellifluous divine bringing his message to not just Godless Harvard but the even less Godly Niemans. My mission, as Jim Thomson, our curator, told me, would be a "first" for the Niemans.
Yes, I had a (shaky, Anglican-leaning) faith myself, but would the hard-bitten types of my Nieman class not give this dignified divine a rhetorical roasting? I worried. But hell, he was welcomed with open arms, the uneasy atmosphere broken when he asked for a strong gin and tonic before he opined! He charmed the skeptical scribes, discussing his favorites like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, no mean communicators themselves. He held the doubters in his hands.
I heard Peter preach in my first attendance at Memorial Church that September of 1978 and I was spellbound by his learning, great sense of humor, and ability to hold a crowd of none-too-serious "worshippers" young and old. I was sold. I have never met a preacher to match him and we would meet every couple of years or so in Washington at our church, St. John's Episcopal, Lafayette Square, opposite the White House, when Peter was guest preacher.
Now Peter was a Baptist and this puzzled me; I told him I had assumed he was an Episcopalian. With that attractive and authoritative baritone voice he replied: "Michael," pointing above his head and then to his toes, " Michael, there are Baptists … and Baptists." He was clearly of the celestial variety of dunkers.
What a Nieman guest he was. God bless him. Peter passed away all too young, in his late 60s just about two years ago. We shall not see his like again. Rest in peace, Plummer Professor!