From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Justice Harry Blackmun was active United Methodist

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 04 Mar 1999 15:24:48

March 4, 1999 News media contact: Thomas S. McAnally* (615)742-5470*
Nashville, Tenn. {122}
By United Methodist News Service
One of United Methodism's best-known members, retired Supreme Court Justice
Harry Andrew Blackmun, died early March 4 at Arlington (Va.) Hospital at the
age of 90.
President Richard Nixon appointed Blackmun to the Supreme Court in 1970, a
decision which many people believed was an effort to make the court more
conservative. During Blackmun's early years on the court he often voted with
Chief Justice Warren Burger. However, he later moved away from Burger and
the court's conservative bloc, and increasingly joined Justices Marshall and
Brennan in dissent.
Blackmun was the first United Methodist to serve on the Supreme Court since
the retirement of Charles E. Whittaker in 1962. 
Blackmun established himself as a passionate supporter of civil liberties.
He is best known for his majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, upholding the
constitutional right of a woman to decide whether to have an abortion. 
In an unusually personal and emotional dissenting opinion issued Feb. 22,
1994, Blackmun condemned the death penalty and said it was time for the
court to abandon the "delusion" that capital punishment could be consistent
with the Constitution. Many members of the United Methodist Church and the
National Council of Churches, which have long opposed the death penalty,
applauded Blackmun's opinion.
Although considered a liberal by court watchers, Blackmun described himself
as a centrist. He was quoted in 1991 as saying, "Republicans think I am a
traitor and Democrats don't trust me." As a result, he said, he owed his
allegiance to no one, and that was exactly as he wanted it.
Blackmun joined Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington
soon after going to the capital. He frequently read Scriptures at Sunday
morning worship. Senior pastor Bill Lawrence said Blackmun always prepared a
contextual statement to precede the reading of the text. "He was active in
the fellowship life of the church," Lawrence said. "He would greet people
during coffee hour Sunday morning. His life was an expression of his faith."
Praise for Blackmun's serious involvement at Metropolitan was echoed by the
Rev. William Holmes, who retired in 1998 after 24 years as senior pastor of
the church. "He had a great love for the Scripture and was really a scholar
of the biblical literature," Holmes said. "He also had a great love for the
United Methodist Church as a denomination."
On Sept. 20, 1987, the Sunday nearest the bicentennial celebration of the
signing of the U.S. Constitution, Blackmun stepped into the Metropolitan
pulpit and spoke on the document and the Christian faith. His described the
Constitution and Bill of Rights as "short, precise and imperfect." The
Constitution was defective in dealing with the issues of slavery,
disenfranchisement of women and unsatisfactory treatment of Native
The document can be valuable to Christians, he said, because it "provides
roots for our living together and getting along together, presumably as a
family, under the rule of law rather than of force."
At the invitation of Bishop James K. Mathews, Blackmun addressed the members
of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference in the late 1970s and taught a
Bible story based on a book in the Old Testament.
For 12 years, Blackmun was a member of the governing body of the United
Methodist Publishing House in Nashville. During that time, his friend, the
late Emory Stevens Bucke, was book editor. It was a custom for Abingdon, the
agency's book-publishing arm, to send complimentary copies of the 100-plus
books it produced each year to board members. Blackmun would routinely
pencil corrections in each book and return them to Bucke.
Blackmun was born in Nashville, Ill., on Nov. 12, 1908, and grew up in St.
Paul, Minn. He matriculated at Harvard College, majoring in mathematics, and
later attended Harvard Law School. After graduating from law school, he
served as clerk for Judge John Sanborn on the Court of Appeals for the
Eighth Circuit. He practiced law in Minneapolis with the Dorsey firm and
then served as a house counsel for the Mayo Clinic. In 1959, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to replace Sanborn on the Eighth Circuit.
Blackmun retired at the close of the Supreme Court's 1993-94 term. His
authorship of Roe vs. Wade made him the most vilified court member in
history. He reportedly received more than 60,000 pieces of hate mail during
the two decades after the decision. 
Blackmun is survived by his wife Dorothy and three daughters. Funeral
arrangements are pending. 
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