With the death of the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Elmer Rowe, United Methodist history grieves the loss of voice that sought to ever-expand the United Methodist narrative. He passed away late October 8, 2021. He was a renowned librarian, bibliographer, editor, historian, and scholar. A two-time graduate of Drew University (B.A., 1959 and Ph.D. 1969), of Yale University (B.D. 1962), and Rutgers University (MLS 1970), Rowe’s scholarship placed Drew University as the place for studying United Methodist history.
An ordained elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference who served for three years at Gethsemane UMC, Rowe continued his ministry as Methodist Librarian at the United Methodist Archives and History Center on the campus of Drew University for thirty-two years (1970-2002). In fact, Rowe is responsible for re-locating the United Methodist Archives from Lake Junaluska, NC to the campus of Drew University in Madison, NJ, where under his leadership it became one of the premier centers of United Methodist research in the world. During his tenure as Methodist Librarian, he served as Professor of Modern Church History at Drew Theological School, where his teaching influenced future scholars of Methodism including the two previous General Secretaries of GCAH, Rev. Dr. Fred Day and Rev. Dr. Robert J. Williams.
As a Methodist historian, very few others have the extensive bibliography of Dr. Rowe (reprinted here). He has researched, written, co-authored, and edited for over five decades. He completely reshaped how we understand the narrative of Methodism in America, expanding it to include indigenous persons, women, and LGBTQ+ persons. Rowe intentionally collected papers from LGBTQ+ United Methodists in order to ensure their legacies were included, preserved, and honored at the United Methodist Archives and History Center. During the last few years of his scholarship, Rowe looked back on his own works and re-assessed them to ensure that LGBTQ+ voices, who have contributed so vastly to the United Methodist narrative, were more boldly present. Aside from written scholarship, Dr. Rowe was a renowned bibliographer. He founded the ATLA Bibliography Series, and for the field of Methodist history wrote the Methodist Union Catalog, which traces the vast nomenclature of denominational literature.
He retired in 2002 and eventually moved back to North Carolina where he continued to make history. In 2014, he married his partner of over thirty years, James, and the two were the first same-sex couple to be legally married in North Carolina.
Thank you, Rev. Dr. Rowe for your ministry of memory.
Below, we present memories and blessings from those who knew Dr. Rowe, studied with him, or were influenced by his scholarship.
Dr. Ken Rowe is one of the scholars whose research inspired me to focus on Methodist history. I remember having my entire way of understanding the United Methodist connection turned upside down by his “How Do Caucuses Contribute to Connection” in which he argues that the entire history, even the origin, of Methodism(s) is a history of caucus groups, trying to change the denomination from the inside. He had a brilliant way of rethinking and reshaping Methodist histories that allow our pasts to truly speak to and even shape United Methodism today. I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rowe in person, but I still feel like I know him. I feel like we’ve had many conversations because the way he writes allows you in. It begins a conversation between you and pages of history. He was a giant in United Methodist history. His scholarship will be missed but never forgotten. Thank you, Ken, for your dedication and ministry. May you rest in peace.
– Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff, General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History
Drew Theological School mourns the passing of the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Rowe. With his research, curation, teaching, and vibrant spirit he deeply shaped what Drew is today, and what we will continue to be as a theological school dedicated to the critical understanding and bold interpretations of Methodist history and identity. Thank you, Ken, for your abiding gifts to all who pass through the Forest. Your memory is in every way a blessing.
– Rev. Dr. Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Interim Dean, Drew Theological School
Professor Ken Rowe’s passing is a blow to anyone who cares deeply about the history of Christianity, and especially about American Methodism. As the former Methodist Librarian, a Theo faculty member, and Convener of the Liturgical Studies area of the PhD program, Ken was an engaging teacher with a deep knowledge of historical facts and their significance. His students loved him, no doubt for his capacious knowledge yet also for his incisive sense of humor. Ken was a brilliant bibliophile and an imaginative collector. He built a library that included important and sometimes rare books and also ephemera—stuff other folks might throw away—that has preserved the history of modern social movements within The United Methodist Church. For example, our knowledge about early attempts to organize LGBTQ Methodists would be much more impoverished had it not been for Ken’s tireless efforts to preserve and collect. I will miss Ken’s sharp intellect and imagination, delightful quips about church hypocrisy and misplaced priorities, and his infectious laughter. Ken Rowe taught us to take ourselves less seriously, even as we continued to take with utter seriousness our responsibilities to tell the truth about the past.
– Dr. J. Terry Todd on behalf of Drew Theological School faculty
With great sadness, the Drew University Library acknowledges the passing of Kenneth E. Rowe. Although known to many current Library employees only by reputation (I myself did not know him very well), Dr. Rowe was long a Library fixture as Methodist Librarian at Drew. Some of us remember Ken’s occasional lively visits after his retirement, and I have a small collection of boldly written emails in which Ken urged the library to maintain its prominent engagement with Methodist materials. Happily, with the recent hire of a new “curator of Methodist Collections,” the library has renewed its commitment to its Methodist holdings and will thereby honor Ken Rowe’s memory in the very way he wished for.
– Dr. Jesse Mann, on behalf of the Drew Library Faculty
If Methodist history is a treasure trove of documents and the stories those documents represent about denominational identity, Ken, more than anyone else in the contemporary UMC, knows where to lay hands on every jewel. At some point in his work, Ken held every one of these in his hand, studied them, and made sure they found their way from the library shelf into the hands of the Church and scholars alike. Ken was a major influence in the development of Drew University’s world class Methodist collection attaining that lofty status in the global academic community. The General Commission on Archives and History making its home in a state-of-the-art archival facility, arriving to Drew in 1982, was something he staked his career on. A cradle Methodist from the coal region Pennsylvania, Mauch Chunk and the Jim Thorpe UMC (Easter PA Conference), Ken was extremely proud and devoted to Methodist heritage. Not only did his keen wit and art for turning a phrase make reading and studying history enlightening and fun, his passion for the subject material, especially around times when the UMC failed to live up to its roots in radical grace and inclusion, gave way to occasional expletives in his lectures. Students would sit there and say “Did I just hear that?”
– Rev. Dr. Fred Day, former General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History
I started graduate work at Drew University in the fall of 1975. Ken was my advisor, instructor for at least four courses, and chair of my dissertation committee. At that time, he was early in his career and little did I know that he would become the premier bibliographer of Methodist studies and instrumental in bringing the Methodist archives to Drew. He was able to engage Methodist history with phrases that grabbed your attention and made it relevant to the contemporary life of the church. He was professor, then mentor, colleague and friend. He shaped the way I taught the Methodist courses as an adjunct instructor at Princeton Theological Seminary and laid the foundation that allowed me to become General Secretary at GCAH.
– Rev. Dr. Robert J. Williams, former General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History.
Ken’s passion for American Methodism was infectious! Through his scholarship, I fell more deeply in love with our tradition. My own academic work is indebted to his commitment to capture just about everything that was ever written about The United Methodist Church and homosexuality. As I was researching this topic in the United Methodist Archives, Ken would bring box after box filled with newspaper articles, sermons, flyers, sermons, and more to my study table. This history would have been overlooked if it weren’t for Ken.
– Bishop Karen P. Oliveto
After reading the other tributes, they remind me of the many times Ken’s devotion to nurturing future church historians throughout my GCAH career. But Ken’s nurturing did not stop with students. Rather his passionate empathy extended beyond the classroom to all who became part of Ken’s sometimes frantic world. It was a world that I felt privileged to live in over the past thirty-six years. Our relationship began as colleagues that matured into a deep friendship over the years. The Ken I knew had great pathos for the many viewpoints that gave meaning to his life. He was a champion for the underdog both within the church and beyond. Never afraid to fight injustice, he made sure the archives collected a voice for the silenced. He brought out United Methodism’s humanity, imperfections, and all.
Yet the Ken I know is more personal. At one time we worked out together at the Drew gym during lunchtime. When Ken became sore and tired, he would express himself in words that never appeared in any liturgical lectionary. His love for antique Chrysler cars matched my own. Ken bought cars to collect, whereas I bought them for cheap transportation. We often compared notes on his 1964 Imperial and my 1963 New Yorker. There were many times his frustration with word processing programs often resulted in frequent vocalized calls for help to which I gladly answered, knowing we would have a good chuckle afterward.
There was a side of Ken that many casual acquaintances never knew: his deep empathy when it counted. I witnessed his heart-felt advice many times. Whether it be talking with an individual struggling to become a whole person or instances of helping a person’s hard work published through Scarecrow Press when other publishers could not recognize its value. There were plenty of moments going the second mile when time and energy were in short supply. My best example of his empathy happened when my father died. Many offered standard condolences but Ken’s was from the heart and his pastoral words were a balm to my soul. It is now hard to walk in the halls of the United Methodist History and Archives Center. Ken’s spirit is everywhere. There is not a single space that does not have his stamp on it. Yankee Stadium may be the house Babe Ruth built but the United Methodist Archives is the House Ken Rowe built. And like Yankee Stadium it will stand the test of time along with Ken Rowe’s imprint on understanding United Methodism.
– Mark Shenise, friend, Associate Archivist, General Commission on Archives and History
I met Ken Rowe when I arrived at Drew University’s Graduate School in the fall of 1979. He became one of the major forces in my education. Ken’s teaching focused students on the
“Methodist Mavericks.” Individuals and groups who often disagreed with the direction that “mainline” methodism was taking: groups like the Methodist Protestants, Free Methodists, and others. Ken felt these mavericks need to be included in the story of Methodism because their departure told us—today—something about our movement. We needed to hear those voices to understand ourselves. Not that the mavericks were necessarily the true arc of methodism, but that their existence must be understood and explored. Ken was the type of scholar archivists loved to work with. Ken never conducted a class without handouts. His excitement for history was real and palpable. He would bring to class copies of documents, diaries, newspapers as well as his own hand drawn summaries of points he was making. He would pass out the handouts and then excitedly take his students into an analysis of the document, noting how it was worded, to whom it was directed and bits of information which brought the document and its historical context alive. He continued to collect and update his handouts even after he retired. Ken has left a rich legacy to Methodist studies.
– Dr. L. Dale Patterson, retired Archivist, GCAH
Ken’s death takes heavenward one of the premier shapers of Methodist historiography. His critical importance to the crafting of the denominational story certainly includes the books, articles, bibliographies, and studies on which his name appears. Among those are the 2 volumes of THE METHODIST EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA, PERSPECTIVES ON AMERICAN METHODISM, and AMERICAN METHODISM and THE METHODISTS. However, the appearance of his name second (or third on the last) in these coauthored volumes “hides” his role in resourcing them, shaping the narrative, and providing text, ideas, illustrative materials, and much else. Similarly, much of Methodist history ought to bear his name as researchers in the collections know. Scholars, graduate students, seminarians, and other users of the Drew/GCAH collections will recall how critically instrumental Ken was in their studies. They would request specific books, journals, or manuscripts. An hour or so later, Rowe would run into the reading room with materials key to the users’ studies but of which they were unaware. Ken would continue that as long as the researchers were there. The historian guild will miss him as it has suffered a great loss.
– Dr. Russell E. Richey, friend, Methodist historian
Ken was the busiest, fastest-moving scholar I ever knew. I remember him, from the first time I met him as a young masters student, running through the Archives, carrying a box or pushing a cart, speaking quickly, aways in the middle of something. His urgency was palpable. I imagined it was because he was worried there was never enough time to tell all the important and hidden stories, to uncover all those who had been ignored, to gather the remnants of their lives and preserve them. But he didn’t worry about preservation for its own sake. He was mounting a lifelong campaign to reclaim the history of the Methodist movement that meant so much to him, and he spent his career expanding the physical evidence for that better history. Despite his big personality, he was private, and I am honored to have known what little he allowed. It will take some time to fully account for his immense influence on all of us.
– Dr. Morris L. Davis, former student, Methodist historian