David N. Hempton announced Thursday that he will step down as dean of the Divinity School at the end of the 2022–23 academic year. Hempton will remain on the faculty of the School, where he will resume his career as a dedicated teacher and writer.
“As I look back, there have been countless highlights — from our bicentennial celebrations in 2017 to the opening of Swartz Hall in 2021 — but perhaps the most satisfying part of our work together has been the thousands of challenging classes and hundreds of graduating students who have gone out to illuminate, engage, and serve our world in multiple capacities,” Hempton said in a message to the HDS community. “Nothing brings greater pleasure than knowing that we have all used our gifts and talents to help one another make a difference in the world.”
In a message to the HDS community, Harvard President Larry Bacow described Hempton as “inviting and open, authentic and dignified, dynamic and engaging.” He went on to note the impact of those qualities on Harvard and HDS through Hempton’s leadership. “Throughout a decade of leadership, David has realized those same qualities more fully across the Divinity School — in the faculty and students you attract, in the research and scholarship you pursue, and in the initiatives and programs you launch. With inspiring conviction, he has expanded and elevated ambitions and perspectives, ever faithful to the ideal of a just world, a world at peace.”
Bacow said he and Provost Alan M. Garber will share information in the coming weeks regarding the search process for Hempton’s successor.
Hempton grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was the first in his family to attend university. As a result of living through the “troubles,” he developed a strong interest in religion and political culture, which became the subject of his doctoral study at the University of St. Andrews. He came to the U.S. in 1998 as a Distinguished University Professor at Boston University before moving to Harvard in 2007. He soon built a reputation as a dedicated teacher and popular lecturer with a trademark sense of humor and care for his students. He won prestigious teaching awards at both Boston University and Harvard.
Appointed dean of HDS in 2012 by President Drew Faust, Hempton has been a champion of multireligious education, religious literacy, and global networks. His leadership has led to significant transformations at the School — from the strengthening and diversification of the faculty and student body to the physical space of the campus. These achievements have put HDS on a path to prepare and train religiously literate, ethical scholars and leaders for generations.
Hempton encouraged a pluralistic approach to teaching and learning, a value reflected in his impact on the faculty and student body. One-third of the current faculty of divinity were appointed over the course of Hempton’s tenure as dean. These leading scholars build on the School’s expertise in areas such as African and African American religious studies, early Christianity and its connection to Judaism, and Islamic studies. He has steadfastly supported the School’s highly successful Women’s Studies in Religion Program and its Center for the Study of World Religions.
Also within the last decade, HDS expanded its global reach by strengthening its international networks. Hindu monastics, Buddhist monks, and other visiting scholars from across the globe have joined the HDS community in recent years. This effort can also be seen in the School’s most recent class, of which a quarter joined the HDS community from abroad.
In fall 2020, HDS launched Religion and Public Life, a new center of excellence that leverages the School’s traditional leadership in ministry education and the academic study of religion to prepare religiously literate, ethical leaders working in all fields for a just world at peace. The program includes the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, which breaks new ground in conflict transformation using a robust understanding of the power of religion in human experience and contemporary global affairs. With the RPL program came a new degree, the master’s of religion and public life (MRPL), HDS’s first new degree in more than 50 years, and the certificate in religion and public life.
Over the last several years, Hempton actively worked toward building a restorative anti-racist and anti-oppressive Harvard Divinity School. In fall 2020, the School established the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and named Melissa Wood Bartholomew, M.Div. ’15, to serve as the associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
Under Hempton’s deanship, the School has built strong connections with partners across the faculties and graduate Schools as part of the University’s “One Harvard” efforts. Hempton also saw the establishment of “Making Change,” an intensive, five-day professional and lifelong learning program of personal and spiritual development on the HDS campus.
“David is an extraordinarily eloquent, brilliant, and kind leader who has been tireless in his devotion to the Divinity School,” said Garber. “Throughout his deanship, he could be counted on to approach every challenge, large and small, with compassion and integrity. His fellow deans and I have long been grateful for his counsel, which is always incisive and wise, delivered with humor and warmth. We wish him every success in his next chapter.”
Hempton steered the School through its bicentennial celebration, a capital campaign, and record fundraising that led to the transformation of the School’s campus. Swartz Hall opened in 2021 as a true campus center after the building underwent its first major renewal since its construction a century ago. The renewal included the renaming of the building’s storied chapel as the Preston N. Williams Chapel in honor of the first tenured African American member of the HDS faculty and the first to lead the School as acting dean from 1974 to ’75.
Through his steady leadership during the pandemic, Hempton enabled HDS to continue its teaching and learning mission while expanding the School’s reach in the world. The move to remote learning enabled faculty to host global scholars in their virtual “classrooms,” and HDS experienced exponential growth in attendance at online educational, alumni, and cultural events. The technology advances made available through the Swartz Hall renewal have allowed the School to reach deeper into these new ways of teaching and learning.
The Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity, Hempton focuses in his research and teaching on religion and political culture, religious identities and ethnic conflicts, the interdisciplinary study of lived religion, the global history of Christianity since 1500, and religious disenchantment and comparative secularization in Europe and North America. He has published many prize-winning books and articles.
Hempton is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, and former professor of modern history and director of the School of History in the Queen’s University of Belfast. In October 2021, Hempton delivered the Gifford Lectures, one of the most prestigious honors in the academic study of religion, in a series titled, “Networks, Nodes, and Nuclei in the History of Christianity, c. 1500-2020.” He looks forward to turning these lectures into a book and to becoming an even more star-struck grandparent.