Kenneth W. Morgan, 103, Helped Create the Center for the Study of World Religions

January 26, 2012
Kenneth W. Morgan, 103, Helped Create the Center for the Study of World Religions

Kenneth W. Morgan with HDS professor Diana Eck

Kenneth W. Morgan died at the age of 103 on December 23, 2011, bringing a long life of accomplishment to a close. In noting his death here, the Center for the Study of World Religions also wants to celebrate all that Kenneth Morgan did that continues to have generous effects, and especially his crucial role in the creation of the CSWR itself.

Kenneth Morgan told the story in "The Establishment of the Center," a talk he gave in March 1976, although he was quite modest about his role in the process. This talk was published in the summer 1977 issue of the Bulletin of the CSWR. The talk gives a wonderful sense of Morgan's style and generosity as a scholar and teacher, but many of the things that he said in it, albeit in a mood of "looking back," remain quite relevant for us today, including his closing words: "Much has been accomplished here at the Center since the Little Lady decided in 1957 to offer Harvard University half a million dollars to get it started. The need was great, the Harvard indifference was not overwhelming, more has been done than we dared to hope could be done, and there is a greater need than ever for the Center for the Study of World Religions."

Kenneth Morgan's association with Harvard Divinity School went back to the 1930s. He received an STB from HDS in 1935, after receiving an undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. While he was a student at Harvard Divinity School, he met some members of the Hindu Ramakrishna Order that had established a branch in Boston in 1910. After graduation, Kenneth Morgan spent a year living in India, including at some of the Ramakrishna Order's ashrams. During that year, he met prominent figures like Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore; Morgan lived at Gandhi's ashram for a time as well. That year in India left an enduring mark on how Kenneth Morgan envisioned the study of religions, and he drew from what he had learned that year again and again in the decades that followed.

During the Second World War, Kenneth Morgan was the director of education for the American Friends Service Committee. Morgan joined the faculty of Colgate University in 1946, and over the next three decades he served as university chaplain, professor of religion, director of Chapel House, and director of the Fund for the Study of the Great Religions. He retired from Colgate University in 1974.

Like the Center for the Study of World Religions itself, Chapel House and the Fund for the Study of the Great Religions are among the enduring legacies of Morgan's vision and his efforts to create institutions that would encourage the teaching and study of religions. He also worked with the Hazen Foundation to support programs for teaching about Asian religions, which included creating resources in which Asian perspectives on Asian religions could be made available to American teachers and students. Among these resources are three volumes on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, which consist of essays by Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims about their own religions.

In creating institutions and resources that could encourage and sustain the study of and teaching about Asian religions, Morgan was careful to create structures that would not constrict those in the future in how they might come to study the religions of the world. His open, generous, and confident spirit in this regard was made clear in his talk "The Establishment of the Center":  "All we were asking was that the religions of the world be taught according to the best lights of the people who are here, according to the best insights of people of integrity. They might approach the study in ways we have not dreamed of, even in ways we might not approve, but they must be free to teach and do research as best they can."

Kenneth Morgan did, of course, have his own way of approaching the study of religions. One distinctive contour of it is an openness not only to learning about religious people in other places, but also to learning from them about ourselves. Like so much of what he did as a student of religion, Morgan remains prescient in this vision, one which turns our attention toward a future horizon against which we allow the possibility not only of learning about Asian religions, but of learning from them because we allow the possibility to ourselves to be transformed as knowers by what we try to learn about. He spoke about that horizon in an anecdote he told in his last book, Reaching for the Moon (Chambersburg, Pa.: Anima, 1990), in which he also returned to his memories of that year in India:

One day, when we were chatting after the noon meal, I asked the Swamis a question that had been raised for me by a conversation in Lucknow earlier that year. In the dining room of the hotel there I had met an American, an agricultural specialist from Wisconsin, in India on an experimental project supported by Jawaharlal Nehru to try to increase the production of wheat in the northern provinces. He had no previous experience in India but he assured me that farmers are the same everywhere, reluctant to change, but willing to adopt new methods shown to be profitable. He had gone to a village and persuaded one villager to join him in experimenting with the wheat crop. They made a small metal plow that could cultivate deeper than was customary, used the fertilizer and the seed he provided and their crop was so good that the villager could pay for the seed and fertilizer for that year and the next, and still have enough to support his family for a year and to build a new house. I was excited by the story of what they had accomplished and thought it was the first step toward producing enough food to free the Indians from hunger. But he said I should not expect such results: the increased production was attracting more monkeys to the fields, and since the farmers would not kill the monkeys, little increase in the food for the villagers could be expected as the improved cultivation spread. He pointed out that back home in Wisconsin a shotgun would have solved the problem, but had only horrified his villagers by that suggestion.

I told the Swamis that story and asked them why, when there is not enough food for everyone, they did not kill their monkeys, since in effect they killed babies and old people in order that monkeys could eat. They smiles indulgently, and replied that I ate quite a bit of wheat and rice, certainly as much as several monkeys, and I should remember that God made me, and God made the monkeys, and the babies and the old people, and who are we to decide which will be allowed to live? They took the opportunity to answer my question with a question to make clear to me their view that a human being is only a minor part of the changing scene of living plants and animals—self-conscious, yes, but not a superior being appointed to use all the rest of creation to satisfy human whims or desires. . . .

In the quiet routine of the ashram in the Himalayas, when I reflected on my efforts to learn about religious ways other than my own, I realized that what started as learning about had become learning from. (21-23)