Robert Wood, urged Christian tolerance for gay people, dies at 95
NEW YORK — The Rev. Robert W. Wood, who in a 1960 book urged Christian clergymen to welcome gay men and women to their churches, marched in early gay rights protests, and performed same-sex marriages, died on Aug. 19 at his home in Concord, N.H. He was 95.
Rejean Blanchette, a friend who helped care for Rev. Wood in recent years, confirmed the death.
Rev. Wood’s book “Christ and the Homosexual” was a rare plea by a gay clergyman for equality at a time when local and state laws criminalized the sexual acts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, and churchmen condemned homosexuality from their pulpits.
Rev. Wood was a United Church of Christ minister in Spring Valley, N.Y., when he decided to write the book. He was reluctant at first, believing there were others more qualified. But when no one else wrote such a book, he borrowed against his life insurance policy to pay for the publication of a few thousand copies by a vanity press.
Blending social science and cultural analysis with his experiences ministering to closeted gay men, Rev. Wood made a powerful appeal for the full acceptance of gay people by churches and American society.
“The yardstick for Christian behavior is always: What would Jesus Christ do in this situation?” he wrote.
Christ’s teachings made the answer obvious to Rev. Wood, who concluded that the “saving message of Christ and the freely flowing grace of God are as much for the homosexual as the heterosexual,” and that “the church must minister equally to both; that the demands of Christ apply to both; that both are capable of being moral, as well as immoral and amoral.”
Rev. Wood’s book came well before the gay-rights movement gained traction with critical moments such as the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969. But “Christ and the Homosexual” did not make much of a ripple outside of largely positive reviews in gay publications and the granting of an award of merit to Rev. Wood by the Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights organization.
There were several reasons for the book’s lack of impact, according to Bernard Schlager, a professor of historical and cultural studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. In a 2015 article for the journal Theology & Sexuality, Schlager said a lack of promotion for the book led to a lack of reviews in major publications; gay men and women were still largely invisible to mainstream society in the early 1960s; and Christian denominations were still a decade or so from forming advocacy groups that educated church members about homosexuality.
But he suggested a fourth reason: Rev. Wood did not out himself in the book. In fact, he would not do so until he retired as a pastor in 1986, although he lived openly for many years with his partner, Hugh Coulter, a former rodeo cowboy and artist, at parishes in Spring Valley, Newark, N.J., and Maynard, Mass.
“Perhaps had he written as an ‘out’ gay author who spoke openly from his own experiences,” Schlager wrote, “the book may have attracted a wider readership.”
Rev. Wood was at ease with his decision to remain quiet about his sexuality.
“We chose not to ‘out’ ourselves but to live our lives as a caring, loving couple and let parishioners and everyone else accept us as they found us,” he said in an interview in 2007 for a 50th-anniversary book published by the United Church.
Coulter died in 1989. Rev. Wood leaves no survivors.
Robert Watson Wood was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on May 21, 1923, to Harold and Edith (Beard) Wood. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a homemaker.
Rev. Wood left the University of Pennsylvania to fight in World War II in North Africa and Italy with the 36th Infantry division. He was wounded in battle — earning a Bronze Star and other medals — and spent nearly two years recovering. After being discharged, he completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and later graduated from the Oberlin School of Theology in Ohio.
He was ordained in 1951 and joined the staff of the Broadway Tabernacle in Manhattan before becoming pastor at the First Congregational Church of Spring Valley.