Founding director, Center for Ethics

James W. Fowler III

Former Emory Center for Ethics director James W. Fowler III, an educator, ethicist and distinguished theologian who won international acclaim for his pioneering research into faith development and practical theology, died Friday, October 16, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Fowler, Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of Theology and Human Development in Candler School of Theology, was seventy-five.

At Emory, Fowler helped found the Center for Ethics as its first full-time director, serving from 1994 until his retirement in 2005. Today, his impact still resonates at the center through ongoing programs, scholarship, and a legacy of inclusive leadership, says Kathy Kinlaw, who worked alongside Fowler as associate director of the Center for Ethics.

“Jim Fowler made it possible for the university to make the commitment that it has to the growth and vision for the Center for Ethics,” Kinlaw says. “He has impacted generations of scholars as an inspired thinker, friend, and mentor. He was a remarkable leader and human presence and an important personal figure of strength and kindness in the way he went about his work throughout his career,” she says. “His fingerprints are absolutely everywhere, and we are so thankful for this legacy.”

Born in North Carolina, Fowler was the son of a Methodist minister and wrote of being deeply affected by his father’s preaching from an early age—exposure he credited to his emotional awakening and decision to dedicate his life to God.

He graduated from Duke University and Drew Theological Seminary and earned a PhD in religion and society at Harvard University in 1971, with a focus in ethics and the sociology of religion. Following postdoctoral studies at the Center for Moral Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he taught at Harvard Divinity School from 1969 to 1975 and at Boston College from 1975 to 1976.

Fowler joined the faculty of Emory’s Candler School of Theology in 1977, where he was named Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development in 1987. While at Emory, he also served as director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and as an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Fowler is perhaps most widely recognized for his 1981 book, Stages of Faith. The groundbreaking work, which has become a staple text in theology programs worldwide, describes a developmental process of faith.

“He was the model of what an ethicist should be and how each of us should treat each other,” says Center for Ethics Director Paul Root Wolpe.

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