The Rev. Peter Gomes, a Harvard University minister and a Bates College graduate described as a “brilliant,” “very loyal,” and value-oriented advocate of the Bates and Lewiston communities, died in Boston on Monday from complications related to a stroke. He was 68.

Gomes received a bachelor’s degree in history from Bates in 1965, and went on to earn a divinity degree from Harvard. He was an ordained Baptist minister who was named one of America’s most influential preachers by Time Magazine in 1979. He prayed at the inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

“He was one of the best preachers in the world,” longtime Bates administrator Bill Hiss said Monday evening. “Everybody who knew Peter Gomes talked about his brilliance as a public speaker.”

As a member of the the Bates Board of Trustees for a total of 25 years during several stints from 1973 to 2007, Gomes had an immeasurable impact on the college, Hiss said.

“Peter urged Bates students to get involved with the local community from his position on the board,” Hiss said. “He had a clear impact on the Harward Center for Community Partnership,” a Bates institution that encourages cooperation between students and the Lewiston community.

“He would always be saying, ‘What are the values that we hope to instill in our young people?’” Hiss said.


In a speech at Bates’ 150th anniversary in 2005, Gomes said, “We do not at Bates simply want to be great, though we want to be great. We also were taught that we wanted to be good as well. Being great is not all that it’s cracked up to be, without being good. We didn’t want to collect here just wisdom, though a lot of that was dispensed to us in one form or another, but we also were given a large dose of virtue — that we were meant to stand for something and to make a difference in the world.”

Gomes “was able to inspire all sorts of people on all sorts of issues, but was always able to acknowledge his love and appreciation of Bates,” the college’s president, Elaine Hansen, said.

“Except for my parents, I owe everything valuable, precious, and honorable to Bates. My ultimate epitaph should be, ‘I went to Bates,'” Gomes said during his acceptance speech when he was awarded the college’s highest honor, the Benjamin Mays Award, in 1998.

“His influence on Bates is measured most by how many people come to Bates because they’ve heard him talk about how great it is,” Hansen said.

Bates sophomore Elizabeth Lawson, a biology major from Cambridge, Mass., knew Gomes for most of her life: Her father was a student of Gomes’ at Harvard Divinity School, and she grew up attending his sermons regularly. Gomes performed her baptism and served as a mentor and family friend.

“He was very happy to hear that I was going to Bates. He changed my life in so many ways,” Lawson said. “The world has lost a great man.”


Indeed, Gomes’ impact stretched beyond the Bates campus during the years he was linked to Lewiston.

“He knew a lot about the religious history of Androscoggin County and encouraged many people like me to make commitments to understanding it,” Hiss said. “He saw the insides of most of the churches in L-A at one time or another, and many of them from the pulpit or the organ bench.” Hiss studied at both Bates and Harvard with Gomes and completed a Ph.D. thesis on a Lisbon Falls religious community with Gomes’ encouragement.

After graduating from Harvard in 1968, Gomes taught for two years at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He returned to Harvard in 1970 as an assistant minister at the university’s nondenominational Memorial Church, where he became the Pusey minister in 1974, in addition to the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School. He authored two popular books on the Bible and published dozens of sermons.

Gomes was a complex man who embraced a number of seeming dualities: he was an African-American just two generations removed from slavery and, at the age of 19, the official historian for his white-bred hometown of Plymouth, Mass.; a serious theologian with a wit sharp enough to appear on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report;” and a gay, nearly lifelong Republican who switched to the Democratic Party to support Deval Patrick’s run for governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

“He was a black, gay, Baptist minister with very dignified tastes,” Hiss said. “There was nobody like him.”

Gomes became a major advocate for religious tolerance, especially of homosexuality, after announcing he was gay in 1991 when a conservative Harvard magazine published an attack on homosexuality.

“Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant,” Gomes wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 1992. “Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.”

Gomes’ career was cut short by a stroke he suffered several months ago, which sent him to a rehabilitation hospital in Boston. A brain aneurysm early Monday morning ended his life, said Lawson, the Bates student. Her father had spent the previous day with Gomes.

“It’s not often you get the chance for a 50-year friendship,” Hiss said. “I feel like part of the sky has gone dark. And it has.”

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