(RNS) — The Rev. William Bobby McClain, a longtime leader in the United Methodist Church and the civil rights movement, died Wednesday (Nov. 18) at age 82.
McClain was a pastor and professor who not only shaped the lives of the students he taught but also countless United Methodists with the creation of the groundbreaking hymnal “Songs of Zion” and as an original member of the group that organized Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
“One of the last of the young leaders of the Civil Rights Movement has passed. And a great hole opens up in the heart of the Wesley Seminary community,” Wesley Theological Seminary President David McAllister-Wilson said in a written statement.
McClain began preaching as a teenager in his hometown of Gadsden, Alabama, and met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, according to Wesley Theological Seminary’s statement.
He returned to Alabama in 1962 after earning his bachelor’s degree from Clark College in Atlanta and his master’s from Boston University School of Theology. There, he worked with King and the civil rights movement while pastoring Haven Chapel Methodist Church in Anniston, Alabama.
He earned his doctorate from Boston University School of Theology, where he later served on the Dean’s Advisory Board and recently was recognized as one of its outstanding alumni.
McClain went on to pastor several prominent churches, including Union United Methodist Church in Boston and Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, according to the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the UMC, which shared the news of his death.
He was one of the original board members of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the organized Black caucus of the United Methodist Church, according to the United Methodist News Service. The caucus was founded in 1967 by Black Methodist leaders anticipating the formation of the new United Methodist Church the next year.
He also launched and chaired the committee that produced the hymnal, “Songs of Zion,” in 1981. The hymnal — featuring spirituals, Gospel music and songs from Black religious traditions — sold more than 2.5 million copies and “changed the composition of Christian hymnals of every denomination,” according to Wesley Theological Seminary.
And he wrote “Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion,” “The Preaching of Zion: The African American Church and the Bible” and “Black People in the Methodist Church: Whither Thou Goest.”
But McClain will be best remembered for his impact on his students, according to the president of Wesley Theological Seminary.
“What will be the legacy of Dr. William B. McClain?” McAllister-Wilson said.
“About 2 million biblically grounded, theologically sound, prophetically and pastorally infused sermons have been shaped by the teaching of Dr. McClain. After 34 years in the Wesley classroom, it is foremost his students who are his legacy. And they will rise up and call him blessed.”
For 34 years McClain taught preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, where, in 1999, he was named to the Mary Elizabeth McGehee Joyce Chair in Preaching and Worship, the first fully endowed chair in the seminary’s history. He continued as professor emeritus after retiring in 2013.
He also taught at Boston College, Harvard University, Northeastern University and Emerson College and founded, and served as the executive director of, the Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
McClain died Wednesday at his home in Fort Washington, Maryland, according to The Gadsden Times. No cause of death has been shared.
He is survived by his wife Jo Ann McClain, the former executive administrator of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, and sons William Bobby McClain Jr. and David McClain.