President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on February 8, 2021:
With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Percy Linwood Urban Jr., the Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Religion, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease in Haverford, Pa., on Friday, Jan. 29. He was 96.
Lin, who served on the faculty for 32 years, is remembered as the founding architect of the College’s Religion Department whose graceful and welcoming spirit inspired generations of students and colleagues alike.
Lin is survived by Nancy, his wife of nearly 70 years; their children Joan, David, and Ann; and four grandchildren, including Nathaniel Urban ’18. He was predeceased by a daughter, Catherine, and a son, Richard. While COVID-19 prevents a public gathering at this time, any gifts in his name may be directed to Partners in Ministry, c/o Swarthmore College, which he helped establish and serves the College.
I invite you to read more below about Lin and his many contributions to our community.
In Honor of P. Linwood Urban Jr., Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Religion
Percy Linwood Urban Jr., the Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Religion, died Friday, Jan. 29, at age 96. Urban’s tenure at the College spanned the second half of the 20th century, and, with his passing, Swarthmore has lost one of its last connections to that era as well as an influential, generous, and beloved colleague.
“Lin was a model of the teacher-scholar, a commanding presence at the College for decades who dedicated his considerable energies not only to his scholarship, which continued long past his retirement, but in service to the College most broadly, his home department, and his students,” says Steven Hopkins, the Mari S. Michener Professor of Religion and coordinator of Asian Studies and Medieval Studies.
“Lin was committed to the life of the spirit and the mind, the study of religion, and Swarthmore,” says Professor and Chair of Religion Yvonne Chireau. “I am extremely grateful to him for laying the groundwork that made it possible for me and other scholars of religion to join the faculty at the College.”
“When I think of Lin, I think of his love of teaching and of his dedication to Swarthmore,” says Ellen Ross, the Howard M. and Charles F. Jenkins Professor of Quakerism and Peace Studies. “Lin was always gracious, welcoming, and supportive. Graduates returning to the College over the years speak of how much he meant to them.”
Urban, the eldest of three children, was born in Philadelphia and raised in North Haven, Conn. After graduating from the Choate School, he followed his father to Princeton University, where he earned a B.A. with honors in philosophy, and to ordination in the Episcopal Church, after receiving a bachelor of sacred theology at General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York City. He then served as an assistant minister at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Conn.
Urban ultimately returned to New York and GTS, where he pursued a master’s and a doctor of theology degree while also ministering to underserved communities, first as first priest-in-charge at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and then as chaplain at the Leake and Watts Children’s Home in Yonkers. Following his calling to teach, he joined Swarthmore's faculty as an instructor in philosophy in 1957.
At Swarthmore, Urban taught a wide range of courses in Western religious thought, spanning periods from Constantine to Martin Luther King Jr., as well as in the philosophy of religion, the Bible, and comparative theology. He also taught a seminar in non-Western thought that included archaic and classical Indian traditions.
Donald Swearer, the Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Religion, credits Urban with “successfully negotiating the early years of teaching religion as an academic subject when that endeavor was looked upon with some suspicion.” Earlier, as department chair when he was looking for Urban’s successor, Swearer said, “They just don’t come with such breadth anymore.”
Along with numerous articles and reviews, Urban authored The Power of God: Readings on Omnipotence and Evil with Douglas Walton (Oxford University Press, 1978) and A Short History of Christian Thought (Oxford University Press, 1986). In the latter, he analyzed questions of doctrine, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, as well as issues in natural theology such as the existence of God, freedom of the will, and the problem of evil. In the second edition, issued in 1995 and still in print, Urban included two new chapters, as well as a revised epilogue in which he discussed women’s ordination and the relationship between Christianity and other religions.
Urban’s persistent efforts to establish religion as its own department, separate from philosophy, began soon after his arrival on campus. His work, and that of his colleagues, took form in 1969 with the department’s creation and with Urban as its first chair, a position he held for many years.
Urban also fully committed himself in service to the College as a whole. He wrote columns for the Phoenix and led a student-faculty discussion group, once addressing whether human nature is compatible with freedom. He also led similar discussions among alumni, issuing long reading lists on topics such as existentialism and on the writings of noted theologians.
A trusted campus figure, Urban was frequently sought to address matters of College governance. As a member of the Council on Educational Policy and the Committee on Faculty Procedures, he contributed proposals that resulted in the credit/no credit option that remains in place for first-year students, as well as the addition of a fall break to the College calendar. He adjudicated student conduct cases as chair of the College Judicial Committee and advocated for students as a member of the Scholarship Selection Committee and in campus discussions of student life. Urban represented his peers as well, in discussions of faculty compensation, in the search for a new president, and as chair of a faculty grievance committee.
Urban also drew upon his pastoral experience during one of the College’s most challenging periods. After President Courtney Smith’s death in January 1969, Swarthmore held two services in Clothier Memorial Hall in order to accommodate all who wished to attend. As a minister, Urban was perhaps best suited to address the mourners, and his readings included selections from the service for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer; Psalm 46; the Wisdom of Solomon; and The Faith and Practice of the Yearly Meeting of the Philadelphia Society of Friends.
Shortly before Smith’s death, he appointed Urban as one of three faculty members to serve on an ad hoc Black admissions committee after a student takeover of the College’s Admissions Office. The group ultimately endorsed several student demands, and the committee’s efforts, as noted in a 1969 Phoenix editorial, “played a major role in defusing the explosive situation.”
Throughout and after his time at the College, Urban maintained close ties to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He frequently filled in at area churches where a member of the clergy might be needed for a couple of weeks, or more. Urban also served on several diocesan committees, including chairing one in 1979 whose report recommended the amendment of fair employment legislation to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in places of public accommodation and housing. Later, he served as dean of the Delaware County Deanery, which comprised more than a dozen congregations.
In a spring 1989 talk to Alumni Council, Urban described the changes and growth he had witnessed at the College over the years. “When I came, we had one or two [religion] majors a year, and if we had 75 students a semester, we felt we were doing really well,” he said. “Last year, we enrolled about 15 majors from the sophomore class, and we have over 200 students a semester.”
In addition, Urban said he found it “fascinating” that the enrollment increase occurred at the same time as a rise in pluralism. “Perhaps people want to know what makes people different in ways that they didn’t before,” he said. “Perhaps students have concluded that they cannot live by the natural sciences or the social sciences alone.”
Despite the changes, Urban also observed several constants.
“Students are still looking for answers; they’re still exploring options,” he said. “Swarthmore still has a very intelligent student body. The faculty is still strong. Swarthmore is still very active in social concerns, and many of the same issues keep coming up again and again over the years.”
Hopkins, who came of age in a later generation, describes Urban as “a hard act to follow for junior colleagues like me. He has left a rich legacy of scholarship and service to the study of religion in the liberal arts.”
Tangible markers of Urban’s legacy include the Religion Department’s seminar room in Pearson Hall, which bears his name, and the department’s Hay-Urban Prize, which supports a student internship, summer study, or research in religious studies and was created with funds raised on the occasion of his retirement in 1989.
Professor of Religion Mark Wallace arrived at Swarthmore that fall. “On my first day at the College, Lin met me at the door of his office and swept his hand across the book-lined walls,” he says. “On all four sides, there were hundreds of classic and modern works in theology, philosophy, and literature — a young scholar’s delight. Lin said, ‘All of these books are yours if you want them.’”
Swearer came to the College in 1970 when Urban was department chair and remembers him as “an unfailingly congenial and supportive colleague, encouraging without being overly directive. Lin and his wife, Nancy, generously opened their home to an annual department picnic, which helped engender in the department a sense of family.”
Although mostly retired, Urban still taught the occasional class for three more years. He delivered the 1992 baccalaureate address and a couple of years later spoke again on a subject dear to him: student interest in religion. Urban described its rise as a response to the perception of “oppressive secularism” of American culture and society’s “pervasive skepticism” of the intellectual life that could be found at Swarthmore and in the academy more broadly.
“There is a certain type of secularism that is so empty,” Urban said. “Faith has been around a long time, and many students feel it can’t be so bankrupt as is often claimed. Faith promises that there is real significance to human existence. When people seek meaning in response to the dismissiveness of secularism, it often takes shape in a religious context.”
Urban worked tirelessly to address what he saw as this long-standing need, raising money and awareness for an endowment, since named for him, that supports Protestant ministry on campus and seeks to recognize the importance of a distinctive ecumenical program for the entire College community.
“Lin’s work with Partners in Ministry was profoundly important for calling College attention to the spiritual lives of many of our students and opened the way to the Interfaith Center,” says Ross. “He was a quintessential teacher and scholar, dedicated to Swarthmore’s mission, and wholeheartedly enthusiastic in his commitment to the education of his students.”
In preparing for the Religion Department’s celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2019, Chireau came across a 1966 letter from Urban to then-President Smith, in which he advocated for the establishment of the department:
“A strengthening of the Religion program will result in a strengthening of the college community as a whole. … For most students, the goals and values chosen at this age remain essentially unaltered during the rest of their lifetimes. It is crucial that students ... have as large an opportunity as possible to face fundamental issues and problems that they will confront in the world. In college the student’s life is primarily centered in his academic work, and it is here that she must have the opportunity to evaluate her present insights in terms of the contribution of religion to the long history of mankind.”
“I think it says everything that can be said about Lin’s vision for religion at Swarthmore,” Chireau says, “and why it remains so vital and important for those with whom we work, those we teach, and for the world itself.”