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Walter Harrelson, 92; ecumenist and bible scholar

September 13, 2012, Winston-Salem, N.C. - The Rev. Dr. Walter Harrelson, 92, Professor Emeritus at Wake Forest University Divinity School and Vanderbilt University and editor of the New Interpreter's Study Bible for the New Revised Standard Version, died September 5.


Harrelson, the author of several books and articles on the Hebrew scriptures, notably The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Fortress Press, 1980) and Interpreting the Old Testament (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964).


He was one of the last living members of the translation team of the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. The NRSV, developed ecumenically under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, was published in 1989. Since then, it has received the widest acclaim and support from academics and church leaders of any modern English translation.

Harrelson's participation in the translation of the NRSV was cited when he became the 2005 recipient of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Award. The award was presented to Harrelson in 2006.
The award is presented annually to a clergy person whose life and work have significantly advanced the cause of  unity among the churches in the U.S.A. and internationally by: fostering dialogue and understanding among the Christian churches; demonstrating a commitment to other churches for common service, witness, worship, and study; challenging churches to give visible witness to their covenant with one another to manifest ever more fully the unity of the church; and offering a strong prophetic voice to the Christian community.

Clare Chapman, National Council of Churches deputy general secretary, said Harrelson was "a towering figure in ecumenical and academic circles. His contributions to the New Revised Standard Version of the bible helped make it the widely used and respected translation it is today. Moreover, his intricate knowledge of scripture not only made him an extraordinary teacher; it also motivated him as a leader of the church unity movement."


Chapman added, “It was my personal privilege to know and work with Walter who was as humble and generous as he was intellectually gifted. He will be greatly missed by the leadership of the National Council of Churches and all who knew him.”

Dean Gail R. O'Day of the Wake Forest University Divinity School said the school owes much to Harrelson and his work.
“He was an incredibly important bridge person between the board’s approval (of a divinity school) and the first dean, O'Day said. "He helped Wake Forest conceptualize what a divinity school for the late 20th century should be.”
From 1994 until 1996, Harrelson brought the vision for a divinity school closer to reality — articulating the need, developing the first curriculum, reaching out to churches, and raising funds and support.
In an email to the School of Divinity community on September 5, O’Day wrote, “All of us here today are in Walter Harrelson’s debt for the work he did from which we, Wake Forest University, and the church now benefit. We give thanks for his life.”
Before coming to Wake Forest Harrelson taught at Andover Newton Theological School and was named dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1955. He taught at Vanderbilt from 1960 until retiring in 1990; he was dean of Vanderbilt’s divinity school from 1967 until 1975.
A memorial service will be held Sunday, September 23, at 3 p.m. in the Divinity School's Wait Chapel.

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Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 37 member communions -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 40 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

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