The Rev. James Kenneth Echols, 67, of Philadelphia, a noted scholar and the first African American to serve as president of a North American Lutheran seminary and as the academic dean at the former Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, died Sunday, Dec. 23, from complications after falling in his Philadelphia home last week.
He was as well known for his quiet and reserved manner as he was for his vision and leadership, which brought together churches of different faiths to teach religion and serve those most in need.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pastor Echols attended public schools and was a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia. He then enrolled at Temple University, graduating cum laude, and attended Lutheran Theological Seminary, earning his master’s degree in divinity. He attended Yale University, studying psychology, religion, and theology, obtaining another master’s and his doctorate. In 1999 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Carthage College.
To know him was to love him, said his wife, Donna Skinner Echols. Mrs. Echols and her husband recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary.
“It was a wonderful life,” she said, noting an overwhelming number of visitors paying respects. “He has just touched so many lives.”
Donna Echols said she traveled with her husband, an expert on the history of American Christianity and the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was invited to speak and teach around the world.
In 1982, Pastor Echols became the first African American professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary (now United Lutheran Seminary), and from 1991 through 1997 served as dean. He led the seminary’s first globalization trip, to Namibia and South Africa in 1992, prior to the end of apartheid.
In 1997, he was appointed president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he remained for 14 years. In 2017, the school awarded him a doctorate of divinity degree that recognized more than 37 years of service in parish ministry, theological education, and ecumenical and interfaith work. He was also recognized for his service to communities of color throughout the world.
In 2008, the James Kenneth Echols Prize for Excellence in Preaching was established at the Chicago school. In addition to honors and awards from Wagner College and Carthage, Pastor Echols received a Luther Institute Wittenberg Award in 2000 and a Wheat Ridge Ministries Seeds of Hope Award in 2005.
Pastor Donna Wright, a friend who worked with Pastor Echols in Philadelphia, said he had an “immense intellectual gift and tremendous compassion.” Although he was mild-mannered, she said, he could be driven by anger when he witnessed injustice.
In Chicago, Pastor Echols helped create the Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice. He held an endowed chair in Christian-Muslim studies and interfaith relations, and was an advocate for spiritual youth programs. He also served as director of the Theological Education and Networks Office of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prior to his retirement.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Jennifer Hope Echols and Courtney Lynne Echols Penn; a granddaughter; and a brother.
A visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 27, at the United Lutheran Seminary, 7301 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19119. A service will be held at the seminary at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 28.