Amherst College mourns the passing of David Wills, the John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor of Religion, Emeritus, on Jan. 18, 2024. 

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote the following in a Jan. 24 email to faculty and staff:

An accomplished scholar, beloved teacher and mentor, and active and engaged member of the faculty, David taught at Amherst for more than four decades.  At the time of David’s retirement in 2018, his colleagues in the Department of Religion wrote that they would miss his “wealth of knowledge, incisive and penetrating intelligence, persistence and thoroughness in all his doings, and his well-honed dry wit." For those who did not have the pleasure of knowing David personally, I think this description captures what a wonderful person he was.    David joined the Amherst faculty in 1972, after earning an A.B. degree, summa cum laude, in history from Yale; a B.D. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a Ph.D. from Harvard in religion and society.  A highly productive scholar with a wide range of interests, he authored numerous articles, chapters, and books on subjects ranging from Christianity in America, to African American religious history, to persistent racial polarity in American religion and politics.  According to one of David’s favorite students, Laurie Maffly-Kipp ’82, Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, “Intellectually, [David’s] lasting contribution was the insistence (now taken for granted) that race was one of the themes that shaped American history (and religious history) from its beginnings.”  In addition, beginning in the late 1980s, David and Professor Albert Raboteau at Princeton began the Afro-American (later African-American) Documentary History Project, which was funded by three major foundations over the years and headquartered in Amherst's Observatory building for the past several decades. This effort provided support for the work of many scholars and resulted in a collection of documents that span the fifteenth century to the present.    

During the course of his career, David taught courses ranging from American religious history and African-American religious history to religious ethics and the intersection of religion and politics.  While he considered the Department of Religion home, David also held positions in the Department of American Studies and the Department of Black Studies.  Beginning in 1979 and continuing for the next nine years, David also supervised the Luce Program in Comparative Religious Ethics, which brought eminent scholars to Amherst to teach with members in the department.  Reflecting on David’s many gifts as a scholar and teacher, Maria Heim, George Lyman Crosby 1896 and Stanley Warfield Crosby Professor in Religion, noted, “He had a remarkably capacious intellect and range of curiosity.  These he combined with a meticulous historical sensibility that excavated and remembered every detail as he painstakingly pieced together the many narratives of African-American religious history and the fundamental and wide-ranging ways they shape American life.  In the classroom, David was gentle but formidable as he required students to grapple with the historical conditions of their assumptions, while also insisting that they be prepared to live with the entailments of their commitments.”  

David served on numerous college committees over the course of his career, among them, the College Council, the Committee on Special Programs, and the Committee on Affirmative Action and Personnel Policy, all of which he chaired at various times. He was also renowned for his eloquence at faculty meetings. David's service to the profession was extensive; he assumed roles that included convenor of the Northeastern Seminar on Black Religion, intermittently, over two decades; one of the first co-chairpersons of the Afro-American Religious History Group of the American Academy of Religion; co-chair of the Working Group on Afro-American Religion and Politics at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute, and associate editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics. He also delivered papers regularly on a range of subjects at institutions across the country for more than three decades.

Calling hours will be held at Douglass Funeral Home in Amherst, on Monday, January 29, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.  A memorial service, followed by a reception, will be held at Grace Episcopal Church, in Amherst, on Tuesday, January 30, at 11:00 a.m.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to The Hospice House of Fisher, in Amherst, in recognition of the loving care they provided to David in his final days.  David’s obituary can be found here.  

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