Thomas Ogletree, 1933-2023

January 9, 2023

Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling sent the following message to the YDS community today.


Dear Colleagues,

I write with sad news. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Warren Ogletree, Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at Yale Divinity School and Dean of YDS from 1990 to 1996, has died at age 89. We send our prayers and condolences to his family and remember with great appreciation his many contributions to YDS, the church, and the world. 

Tom was a native of Alabama. He earned his B.A. from Birmingham Southern University, graduating summa cum laude, his B.D. from Garrett Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. 

After three years teaching at his undergraduate alma mater, he joined the faculty of Chicago Theological Seminary, serving as Assistant Professor of Constructive Theology from 1965 to 1968 and as Associate Professor until 1970. From there, Tom went to the Divinity School at Vanderbilt, where he served as Professor of Theological Ethics until 1981, and then to the Theological School at Drew University, where he served as Dean and Professor of Theological Ethics through 1990. It was at that point that Tom was appointed to the faculty and deanship of YDS. He served in the latter position through 1996 and continued on the faculty until his retirement in 2009.

A productive scholar, Tom authored, coauthored, or edited seven books and published numerous articles. His books are Christian Faith and History: A Critical Comparison of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth (1965); The Death of God Controversy (1966); The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (1983); Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding (1985); and The World Calling: The Church’s Witness in Politics and Society (2004). He was coauthor of From Hope to Liberation: Towards a New Marxist-Christian Dialogue (1974) and coeditor of Lifeboat Ethics: Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger (1976). In addition, he published 35 scholarly articles in journals, encyclopedias, and essay collections and served as editor of Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal and founding editor of The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics. He also served The Journal of Religious Ethics as a trustee and member of the editorial board. 

As YDS Dean, Tom brought a liberationist theological passion to his work, urging the School to carry its legacy into more pluralistic directions and forge a vision for congregational renewal that challenged the increasing privatization of religion. Alluding to “grand errand” references in Yale’s founding documents, he wrote in 1990: “Yale shall not escape present risks by withdrawing to the familiar patterns of a glorious past. It must venture uncharted paths. It must undertake a new ‘errand’ into a new postmodern ‘wilderness.’”

Tom led YDS faculty assemblies on the School’s mission, reorganized the board of advisors, and upgraded alum-focused fundraising mechanisms. He was a vocal supporter of the Quad in the debate about relocating YDS to a downtown location.

In addition to his work in academia, Tom was a leader in the United Methodist Church. An ordained minister, he pastored congregations in in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Tennessee and was one of the principal drafters of the current United Methodist Disciplinary statement on doctrinal standards. 

It was in retirement and in his role as a Methodist minister that Tom made an impact that drew national media coverage. In 2012, despite denominational prohibitions, he officiated at the wedding of his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree ‘03 B.A., to Nicholas Haddad at the Yale Club of New York. Traditionalists wanted Tom placed on church trial for officiating, but the effort failed. (Read more here in Yale Alumni Magazine.) Tom was hailed nationally for taking a stand of compassion as a church elder and a father. As I said in my public statement at the time, “Efforts to turn the act of a loving father into an act of ecclesiastical disobedience only make Christianity appear to be loveless. Tom is a man of faith and principle. As a colleague and Christian, I want to express my full support for him. Our world does not have enough Tom Ogletrees.”

In recent years, Tom has been residing at Artis Senior Living in Branford, where he died last Wednesday. He is survived by his wife, Mary-Lynn Ogletree, of Branford; his five children and their spouses: Dr. Frank Ogletree and Dr. Marie Paule Delplancke of Berkeley, Calif., and Brussels, Belgium; Julie Ogletree and Loie Hayes of Boston; Lauren Reitter and Mark Reitter of Sebastian, Fla.; Tom Ogletree and Nick Haddad of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Kathryn Ogletree and Ben Story of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren: James Bernick, Rachel Bernick, Avery Hayes, Micah Hayes, Rowan Story, and Finley Story.
A funeral service will take place this Saturday, January 14, at 11:30 a.m. in Marquand Chapel. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to a special memorial fund for student financial aid, using this link.

Please keep the family in your prayers. It is a great loss to the YDS community and the world we serve that Tom Ogletree is no longer with us. As I said a decade ago, the world does not have enough Tom Ogletrees.

Best wishes,

Greg Sterling

January 9, 2023