James W. Fowler, 75: Theologian, author ‘embodied the faith he studied’

As an educator, ethicist and theologian, James W. Fowler III gained international renown for his trailblazing work on faith development and practical theology.

He also was admired for his humility, generous spirit and for helping others to find their purpose in life.

During his nearly 30-year tenure at Emory University, Fowler inspired colleagues and students as the Howard Candler professor of theology and human development and as director of Emory’s Center for Ethics and Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development.

“Jim was a marvelous faculty member and world-renowned scholar who embodied the faith he studied, explained and discussed,” said former Emory president and Candler School of Theology dean James T. Laney. “He was a man of great faith, loyalty and was an inspiration to us all as a scholar, a faculty member and a friend.”

Fowler of Decatur died Oct. 16 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 75. His funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the Emory campus, followed by a reception in the church fellowship hall.

Born on Oct. 12, 1940, in Reidsville, N.C., Fowler developed a lifelong love for the western North Carolina mountains early on. His parents’ religious beliefs also were a big influence on his life.

His father was a Methodist minister. His mother grew up a Quaker, who instilled the religion’s principles of social justice.

After graduating from Duke University and the Drew Theological Seminary, Fowler received his doctorate in religion and society from Harvard University in 1971.

From 1969 to 1975, Fowler taught at Harvard Divinity School, followed by a yearlong teaching stint at Boston College before joining the faculty at Emory’s Candler School in 1977. He also was an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

While at Emory, Fowler helped found the Center for Ethics in 1994 and served as its first director until his retirement in 2005. His legacy of programs, scholarship and inclusive leadership at the ethics center continues to inspire generations of scholars, friends and former colleagues said.

“I continue to meet people who studied under him and were influenced by his work,” said his brother-in-law and former college roommate Lawrence McCleskey, a retired United Methodist bishop. “He was optimistic and hopeful about life and the world and human potential. He believed people could make a positive difference in the world.”

A prolific author, Fowler is best known for his groundbreaking book “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning,” which has become a staple text in theology schools around the world. Now translated into German, Korean and Portuguese, the book outlines six stages of faith development that people experience from infancy to maturity.

As a mentor and ethicist, Fowler also set an example of empathy and kindness and helped many others find their calling, friends said.

“What Jim cared most about was creating a world in which everyone could find purposes for their lives that are part of the purposes of God,” said Andy Fleming, a former Fowler student and colleague at the Center for Ethics. “How people search for meaning in their lives changes over the course of their lives. His work integrated insights into human development, vocation and spirituality.”

In 1994, Fowler received the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association and the William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science.

A music lover who played trumpet and sang tenor, Fowler enjoyed singing, spending time with his family and horseback riding near his childhood home in the Smoky Mountains.

“We married young. Life presented us with challenges, opportunities and many, many gifts of joy,” said his wife Lurline Fowler. “I am deeply grateful for our 53 years together.”

In addition to his wife, Fowler is survived by his daughters Joan Smythie Fowler Ray of Tucker and Margaret Lesesne Adams of Decatur; sisters Margaret Fowler McCleskey and Nina Elizabeth Fowler of Waynesville, N.C.; and four grandchildren.

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