The Legacy of Dr. Delores S. Williams

The Legacy of Dr. Delores S. Williams

Categories: Union News

5 min read

On November 17, 2022, Union Professor Emerita Dr. Delores S. Williams ’91 passed away at the age of 85. Dr. Williams earned her PhD from Union and later became the first Black woman to hold a named chair here as the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture. Her groundbreaking book, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, remains a crucial and influential text in womanist theological thought. In honor of her profound legacy as an author, teacher, and revolutionary trailblazer of womanist theology, we are sharing reflections from our community members on her impact both here at Union and in the world at large. 

Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

“Delores Williams was a pioneer of womanist thought who shifted the paradigm of how we think about the cross. With boldness and courageousness, she claimed her voice even as many in the church rejected her claim that there is no ‘power in the blood.’ Her work created a pathway for Black women to discover our unique voices. I remember her as a supportive friend and mentor to me and so many others. On any topic, from ministry to theology or otherwise, Delores was there to listen selflessly and was at the ready to offer sage advice and wisdom. I will miss her spirit, and I pray that we cherish and carry forward her pioneering legacy with the courageousness she demonstrated throughout her life.” 

Professor of Worship at Union, the Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes

“Professor Delores Williams was one of my PhD advisors, along with Professor Janet Walton. I can say that Professor Williams was the most brilliant theologian I have ever witnessed here at Union Seminary. Her breadth of knowledge was incommensurable, to the point that those who heard her would always be in awe. And yet, she was so humble. You would never imagine she was this giant theologian if you didn’t know her work. She will be so missed.” 

Dean of Faculty and Chief Academic Officer at Starr King School for the Ministry, the Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini 

“Dr. Delores S. Williams made a pivotal contribution to the world of Christian theologies, leaving a body of work and a life witness that continues to inspire and challenge new generations of scholars, preachers, liturgists, spiritual leaders, and activists. 

As one of the first published Womanist scholars, Dr. Williams put the traditionally silenced voices, stories, issues, and faith witnesses of Black women at the center of her theological work, highlighting the universalizing and hegemonic  tendencies of white feminism and Black liberation theologies, and offering new ways to think of and encounter God. 

Dr. Williams’ work was intentionally relational and open to dialogue, while being firm on the condemnations of the evils of white supremacy, patriarchy, and Western colonialism. She modeled challenging truth-telling and constructive re-imagining in her ‘Emerging Issues in Feminist and Womanist Theologies’ that she co-taught for years with Dr. Beverly Harrison, a white feminist ethicist. That class was one of the most formative experiences for many of her students at Union Theological Seminary, as Dr. Williams showed us how to do theology in relational ways, in context, in words and actions, keeping accountable to each other and our communities, while always striving to understand who may not yet be present in our circles, possibly being silenced and erased. 

Dr. Williams’ work pointed out the uniqueness of Black women’s oppression in the experience of coerced surrogacy. This led her to ask groundbreaking questions about the understanding of atonement and the nature of what was salvific in Jesus of Nazareth. Dr. Williams challenged us to see God’s redemptive action in Jesus in the ways Jesus lived, embodying love, countering oppressions, and creating alternative communities to the status quo. 

Reimagining Christian liturgies to be anti-oppressive, liberating and life-affirming was an important aspect of Dr. Williams’ work and something she both challenged us and gave us permission to do.” 

President of Union Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones

“[Dr. Williams’] passing is a great loss to the world, to theological education, to womanist theology, and to our Union community. Although she is no longer with us, her incredible legacy lives on through the many lives she impacted including myself, her many students here at Union, and the many who continue to read her groundbreaking womanist work.”