Robert Wood Lynn


Honorary Degree (2004)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Adam William Herbert


Scholars throughout the United States have praised Robert Lynn for his efforts to revive and redefine the discipline of religious studies. Columbia University Professor Emeritus Douglas Sloan, for example, has called The Big Little School, the history of American Sunday school that Lynn co-authored with Elliot Smith, "a classic in the field." Sloan adds that "of great value to many of us ... have been Dr. Lynn's many, many personal friendships and his conversations, his insights and his encouragement to young and established scholars alike."

Lynn attended Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in 1948, and Yale University, from which he earned a bachelor of divinity in 1952. Early in his career, he was an assistant minister at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and then an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary, where he earned a doctorate in theology in 1962. For 15 years, Lynn served as dean of the Auburn Theological Seminary and during the same period taught at Columbia University's Teachers College and at Fordham University. Lynn has also been awarded three honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees, from Emory University (1989), Christian Theological Seminary (1989), and Wabash College (1995).

In 1976 Lynn joined the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment as its senior program officer. He served the organization as vice president and then senior vice president, retiring from the endowment in 1989. IUPUI Department of Religious Studies Chair Thomas J. Davis notes that in Lynn's years there, the Lilly Endowment awarded nearly 1,900 grants totaling more than $100 million." Aside from his depth of scholarship," Davis says, "Dr. Lynn encouraged a breadth that makes for a very inclusive approach to studies of American religion. Rather consistently, those who look back and evaluate Dr. Lynn's work speak of how he was always ahead of the curve, anticipating what would become the major issues in the study of American religion."

Professor Emerita Jan Shipps of IUPUI details how, in 1989, she and Indiana University Bloomington Professor David Smith organized "what we anticipated would be a small conference" to honor the work Lynn had performed over the previous 13 years of directing the Religion Division of the Lilly Endowment.
"We expected that we might attract a dozen scholars," Shipps recalls. "What happened instead was a huge gathering of scholars from throughout the academy whose work had benefited not only from financial assistance in the form of grants from the Lilly Endowment, but also from Bob's intellectual counsel. In a little more than a dozen years, this one individual scholar had virtually jump-started a revitalization of the study of American religion, moving it forward from simply telling denominational stories to considering how religion in all its manifestations had functioned and was functioning in our nation's culture."

Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of Yale University, recounts Lynn's contributions to the Yale Corporation (that university's board of trustees). A year after Lynn joined the board, he was asked to chair a search committee to select a new president for Yale. "Just as he worked to bring out the best in applicants to the Lilly Endowment, he worked to bring out the best from each individual on the board of trustees and to have us collectively make our best decisions," says Lorimer. "My only regret about his career is that he has not taken time (yet) to write the definitive treatise on how university trustees should conduct a presidential search."

Lynn has been the recipient of many honors, including a Woodrow Wilson fellowship and a Protestant Graduate fellowship. Besides The Big Little School, his writings include the book Protestant Strategies in Education as well as more than 40 articles on religion and education. He has also served on the visiting committees of the divinity schools at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University. Lynn now lives in Maine, where he served as a scholar in residence at Bangor Theological Seminary until 1995. Throughout his career, he has, in the words of IUPUI Chancellor Charles R. Bantz, "fostered a line of intellectual inquiry that has become important not only as an academic discipline but also as a way of shaping and improving society."