Called to Old South: John Edgerton (SF04) Named Senior Minister of Historic Boston Church
August 25, 2023 | By Jennifer Levin
In 1669, a group of 50 men and women established Old South Church in Boston to make the waters of baptism available to a diverse set of worshippers. The founders of Old South included merchants, craftsmen, elected officials, and teachers descended from the same religious reformers who fled England in the 17th century to escape persecution. Now, more than 350 years later, the esteemed institution has called Reverend John Edgerton (SF04) to be its 21st senior minister.
Edgerton, 41, returned to Old South Church in Boston this summer; he was an associate minister there from 2012 to 2019. He spent the past four years as senior minister for First United Church in Oak Park, Illinois, about a 20-minute train ride from where he grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park. The South Side neighborhood is home to the University of Chicago, where Edgerton attended divinity school, as well as Chicago Theological Seminary, the seminary associated with his denomination, United Church of Christ. His father was a professor there, and Edgerton grew up surrounded by seminary faculty and students.
“When I was little, my dad was a minister at a church in Wisconsin, but I don’t remember that. For me, he’s always been a teacher,” Edgerton says. He was brought up on Bible stories, which his father included within a spectrum of children’s literature and creation stories. “They weren’t presented as fact, as if you could jump into a time machine and go see David hit Goliath with a rock. It was the truth of a Socratic dialogue, the passing down of true things through storytelling. It’s a modern imposition on an ancient text to say that what we have [in the Christian Bible] is a narrative account of historical fact as we understand it today.”
Edgerton discovered his passion for scriptural interpretation while writing his senior essay at St. John’s about Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and the four stories of Abraham and Isaac. “It’s this mystery of finding and encountering the living God by encountering paradox,” he says. “Until the writing period, I hadn’t really realized that the work that you’re doing and something that you really love doing could be the same thing. Spending a month wrestling meaning out of something very challenging and finding something worth saying—I really loved that. I thought it meant I should go study more theology.”
His vocation, or calling, he says, was more a matter of discernment than a moment of divine inspiration. He borrows a description from writer and theologian Fred Buechner (1926-2022): “He wrote that your calling is the intersection between your own deep gladness and the world’s deep need, or deep hunger. They align, and that’s life as it should truly be lived; that’s leaning into your calling as a Christian.”
Edgerton has worked extensively with United Church of Christ’s religious mission of inclusivity and social justice, first as associate minister at Old South, and then as senior minister at First United. He made national headlines in 2022 when his congregation engaged in a Lenten program called “Fasting from Whiteness,” which Edgerton implemented to raise awareness of Christianity as a multicultural world religion.
“Lent is one of two penitential seasons. Advent can be very fun and lighthearted, leading up to Christmas, but Lent is more somber,” he says. “It’s a time for moral introspection, intentional moral improvement of yourself. One of those ways is through fasting, and in the Protestant world, we have an expansive notion of what fasting can encompass.”
The program included an all-ages Sunday School curriculum about the history of racism in the United States, anti-racist readings for adult congregants, themed worship services with liturgy written by non-white theologians and pastors, and music by non-white composers. “Not a single word of the Bible’s written by a white person, so that’s fair game,” Edgerton says.
Many people outside the church were angered by the effort, and the church received threats of violence. Even some who were supportive thought the name was too provocative, to which Edgerton says, “Provocative is OK. There doesn’t exist a way to talk about race in this country that is honest and also unprovocative. Your choices are not talking about race, or having very challenging conversations about race that are hard for people.”
As a result of the negative attention, Edgerton now counsels other ministers with the United Church of Christ when they receive threats. He knows who at the FBI handles these crimes, and how to talk to the media. He focuses on the positive. “Don’t give their opposition any of your mic time," he says. “Everyone already knows what they did. I counsel people to say beautiful things about God’s love for people and the world.”