Tom Gillespie dies at 83

Thomas W. Gillespie, retired president of Princeton Theological Seminary and for decades a key figure in Presbyterian theological education, died Nov. 5 of complications from surgery at the University Medical Center in Princeton. He was 83.

Todd Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., and a Princeton Seminary trustee, said Gillespie was widely regarded among fellow pastors as “the embodiment of the Reformed pastor-theologian.” He was a man of strong convictions, but “he never held them arrogantly, and was always willing to listen to other viewpoints,” Jones said.

Gillespie was the fifth president of Princeton Theological Seminary, having served there from 1983 until his retirement in 2004. In a letter to the seminary community, Tom Torrance, Gillespie’s successor as president, said Gillespie firmly understood the seminary as being in service to the church.

Faculty members and colleagues from Gillespie’s time as president invariably praise his excellence as a pastor, Torrance said.

In times of personal difficulty, his sympathetic understanding and pastoral care were always extended helpfully, compassionately and abundantly,” Torrance said.

Gillespie is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Barbara Lugenbill, and three children, Robyn, William and Dayle.

A native of Los Angeles, Gillespie first sensed the call to ministry while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps after World War II. He graduated from Pepperdine University in 1951 and Princeton Seminary in 1954. He later earned a Ph.D. in New Testament at the Claremont Graduate School of Theology.

After graduating from Princeton, he was called by the Presbytery of Los Angeles to plant a church in Garden Grove. In his 12-year tenure, the church drew in 1,800 members.

He then served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, Calif., from 1966-83. During his tenure there, eight women and eight men were called into ministry.

In 1984 he was called to succeed James I. McCord as president of Princeton Seminary. During Gillespie’s presidency, the seminary doubled the number of endowed faculty chairs and nearly quintupled its endowment to about $750 million. The school drew students from 43 denominations and three dozen countries.

Gillespie wrote numerous reviews and articles about faith, church history and ministry, as well as a book, ‘’The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy’’ (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994).

Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary, said Gillespie “knew the church inside out and loved it unsentimentally but very deeply.”

He didn’t flee controversies, she said.

When tensions did develop between the schools and the church, Tom’s judgments about how to resolve them were usually the best and most effective,” and other seminary presidents followed his lead, she said.

The constructive relationship that Presbyterian theological institutions have today with the church at all levels — a lot of that is the long-term result of Tom’s leadership.”

Other seminary presidents spoke of Gillespie as a mentor and friend.

Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said he admired Gillespie “for the way he brought together a deep commitment to solid Reformed theology, a pastoral heart and a love for the local, national and global church.”

Brian Blount, who served on Princeton’s New Testament faculty before being called to the presidency at Union Presbyterian Seminary, said Gillespie “offered to me and many others a template for both pastoral and institutional leadership and service.”

Marj Carpenter, former General Assembly moderator, called Gillespie “one of the historically important people in our denomination.” She said Gillespie and his wife, Barbara, also proved genial traveling companions during a trip she took with them and other seminary presidents behind the Iron Curtain.

It is such a loss to the church to lose him,” Carpenter said. “I dearly loved Tom Gillespie.”

In retirement, Gillespie served as a member of the General Assembly Mission Council. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons called him “a tremendous man of faith,” one who will be “missed by Presbyterians from kindergarten to Princeton alum.”

Jones recalled Gillespie’s reaction when the late Peter Gomes, who was then chaplain of Harvard Divinity School, came out as a gay man and offered to quietly step down as the graduation speaker at Princeton’s commencement. Gomes was aware of Gillespie’s “well-known views in the Presbyterian Church on this issue,” Jones said.

Tom said he would not hear of it or consider it, and that he looked forward to Gomes’ sermon at graduation,” Jones said.

At the graduation ceremony, Jones said, “Gomes looked at the large crowd, and said, ‘May Tom Gillespie’s spirit and number increase on both sides of this issue in the life of the church.’”