The Radical Baptist: Howard Moody in Memoriam (1921-2012)

A staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights and a patron of the avant-garde arts, an anti-war, anti-censorship, and civil rights activist, an outspoken advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution and marijuana and…. a Baptist minister? A brief sketch of Howard Moody’s activities reads like an episode of the 1980s quiz show “Odd One Out.” But for nearly thirty-five years parishioners flocked to Judson Memorial Church on 55 Washington Square South to join the Reverend in his sometimes shocking, often provocative, and always stimulating call to social activism.

Reverend Moody’s passing this September has left a profound void in the Greenwich community, one quickly filled with critical recognition and creative reflection. In the recent flood of obituaries and editorials, Moody has emerged as a foundational figure in Greenwich’s history of social and cultural resistance. A self-proclaimed “Christian agnostic,” his radical ministry spanned three American conflicts abroad, a social and sexual revolution, landmark legal decisions, and the ongoing tragedy of the AIDS epidemic (Gold 1). A quick scan through a list of sermons in the Judson Archives sketches an expansive outline of the Reverend’s radical activities. His explosive 1978 lecture “Humanizing the Hooker” and the somewhat esoteric “Symbols and Fetishes: A Left Handed Salute to the Flag” suggest only a few of Moody’s many engagements with controversial issues (Guide to the Judson Archive). As the Reverend himself reflects in a recent interview, “I’ve been swimming upstream a lot of my ministerial life” (Moody, “Voices of Choice”).

Not surprisingly, anecdotes abound. Moody was known for handing out cookies (and medical supplies) to prostitutes working the streets. In the swinging 60s he reportedly invited Yoko Ono and other crazy cats into his sanctuary to perform – a sanctuary he had “renovated” by discarding his pulpit and all the pews! Perhaps one of the most iconoclastic Moody-sponsored acts, “Meat Joy,” is rumored to have involved scantily clad female performers and a deceased fish (Martin A25).

Moody’s religious roots certainly don’t suggest a social radical in the making. Born April 13, 1921 into a traditional southern Baptist family in Dallas Texas, Moody set aside his ministerial aspirations after a two-year stint at Baylor University. He enlisted in the Marines in June of 1941, a mere six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Quickly rising to the rank of sergeant, Moody was assigned to the Solomon Islands as an aerial photographer and side gunner. Upon his return to the United States he enrolled in Yale Divinity School, and by 1956 had accepted the post of senior minister at the Judson Memorial Church (Martin A25). Founded by Edward Judson in the late 19th century, the church developed its reputation for community activism early on with outreach programs aimed at poor Italian immigrants (Gold 1).

Although Moody gave voice to three decades worth of liberal causes during his ministry, his most prominent legacy remains as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights to reproductive determination. Dubbed the “Harriet Tubman of abortion rights movement” by the PRCH, Moody worked tirelessly in the years prior to Roe vs. Wade to secure women safe and affordable abortions (Moody, “Voices of Choice”). As the primary architect in the construction of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion – an extensive network of nearly 1400 pro-choice clergy members and rabbis nationwide – Moody was integral in guiding countless women to safe and successful medical procedures (Martin A25). Moody reflected, “as soon as we opened that door, women came from all over the country. They came by plane and train and bus and car and we were deluged” (Moody, “Voices of Choice”). Rather than obscure this technically “illegal” operation, Moody boldly chose to go public. In May of 1967 the radical reverend approached the New York Times himself. Shockingly, the subsequent article resulted in no legal action against Moody (Martin A25).

In Moody’s passing we have lost a formidable voice for change in Greenwich’s history of resistance. But quite fittingly this loss has opened up a vital space for community reflection and recognition – a rediscovery of one man’s lifetime of freedom fighting. It couldn’t have come at a better time. In a contemporary political climate where buzz of “eroding family values” is used to justify restricted access to contraception (Abdullah 1), Moody’s early campaign for self-determination leaves us with a crucial legacy of strength and political action. Where the Reverend himself once mobilized his own diverse congregation on behalf of controversial issues, his memory and writings continue to remind us that the right to control one’s own body is an essential freedom. No amount of time, fear, or political moralizing can obscure that truth.

 

Works Cited

 Abdullah, Halimah. “Why Birth Control is Pushing Political Buttons.” MSNBC Today. NBC News, 23 February 2012. Web. 28 September 2012. < http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/46500633/ns/today-today_news/t/why-birth-control-pushing-political-buttons/#.UGnpK1FgPzI>

Gold, Ed. “Rev. Howard Moody Reflects on 50 Years of Activism.” The Villager 73.34 (2003). Community Media LLC. Web. 27 September 2012. < http://www.thevillager.com/villager_34/reverendhoward.html>

“Guide to the Judson Memorial Church Archive 1838-1995 MSS 094.” Fales Library & Special Collections. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. Web. 28 September 2012.  < http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/judson/judson.html>

Martin, Douglas. “Howard Moody, Who Led a Historic Church, Dies at 91.” New York Times 13 September 2012: A25. Web. September 28 2012. < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/14/nyregion/howard-moody-minister-of-judson-memorial-church-dead-at-91.html?_r=0>

Moody, Howard. Transcript from Voices of Choice. 1 January 2003. Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. Web. 28 September 2012. <http://www.prch.org/reverend-howard-moody>

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