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In Memoriam: Leon Fanniel and Laird Stuart

January 25, 2019
Leon Fanniel and Laird Stuart courtesy of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

--by Beth Shalom Hessel, Executive Director

The Presbyterian Historical Society staff, board, and volunteers join with our sisters and brothers in Christ across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in mourning the loss of two fellow disciples and leaders in our denomination, the Rev. Dr. Leon Fanniel and the Rev. Dr. Laird Stuart. As we grieve their deaths, we also rejoice in the sure knowledge that Leon and Laird are living the promised fullness of life with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Famously and fondly remembered as “the Bishop” by pastors and lay leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Leon Fanniel mentored countless women and men during his years of ministry. PHS Board member Michael Livingston served as Assistant Pastor under Leon at St. Paul’s United Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. “I could not have had a more experienced and creative boss, colleague, and friend,” Michael said. “Lessons learned under Leon’s wisdom and guidance have supported me in my own ministry ever since.” Similarly, PHS Board Chair George Abdo shared fond memories of his forty-year friendship with Leon. “His was always a measured voice of wisdom in deliberations.”

Elected in 1972 as the first Executive Director of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly Mission Council and tasked with guiding both the GAMC and the denomination through a restructuring process, Leon would later recall his tenure as a time of “excitement, loneliness, joyful accomplishments, and frustrations.” In his 1974 letter of resignation he also encouraged the GAMC to reassess how it defined leadership and encouraged the council to nurture and use charismatic leadership across the denomination. “It is only as we acknowledge that our particular areas of responsibility are only a part of the greater whole and direct our energies toward the good of the whole, [that we will] emerge as a healthy vibrant and vital church.”

First page of letter of resignation, 1974. Click here for full letter. RG 414.

Leon also served the denomination as a pastor, a synod and presbytery executive, and on numerous committees and councils. He taught at San Francisco Theological Seminary and was instrumental in the creation of the Eugene H. Farlough Chair in African American Christianity as part of his efforts to encourage greater diversity and recognition of the gifts of African American pastors and scholars. A gifted singer, Leon passed up a career in music to serve God in ordained ministry. His infectious attitude toward our ecclesial task was summed up in his own words: “We are called not only to be serious about this task but also joyful; not only mindful of our problems, but mindful of the promise that, through ways we might not know, all will be well in the end. I believe it and I will bear witness to that.”

Friends and colleagues remember Laird Stuart (1943-12/19/2018) as a consummate pastor with a deep intellect, genuine wit, and faithfulness to God. His passion for the life and health of our church showed itself in his service as a pastor of congregations in New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California; as a trustee of three seminaries (Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Princeton); as interim President of San Francisco Theological Seminary; and as a board member of the Medical Benevolence Foundation and the Board of Pensions.

Laird ably led the Covenant Network of Presbyterians as a co-moderator. His open-hearted embrace of the fullness and diversity of Christ’s church led him to develop deep friendships across the theological spectrum. During his many years of ministry, Laird served as a commissioner to four General Assemblies: in 1986 as Vice Moderator of the GA Committee on Mission Design, in 1997 as Chair of the GA Committee on the Book of Order, and in 2002 as a candidate for Moderator. George Abdo remembers that Laird’s “wise voice and good humor” stood out at every turn.

Laird J. Stuart sermon, August 18, 1996. To view Laird J. Stuart's sermons from 1996-2016, visit the LGBTQIA+ History Digital Collection in Pearl. 

As Laird worked with others to foster a more hospitable and diverse church, he lifted up our common legacy in Reformed theology. In Robert H. Bullock’s Presbyterians Being Reformed: Reflections on What the Church Needs Today (WJKP 2006, available at PC(USA) Store), Laird invited the church to set aside the stereotypes, adversarial postures, and partisan theologies that separate us. “We cannot simply resist but constructively challenge the polarizing and segregating tendencies that are so much at work among us,” he wrote. “We can do so by drawing into our discussions about faith and life the deep and broad resources of our Reformed tradition.”

We are grateful for the friendship and support both Leon and Laird offered to the Presbyterian Historical Society, and for their donation of personal papers and an oral history to our archives. These collections further our ability to preserve and share both their individual and our corporate witness to the grace, truth, and love of God as borne out in the mission and ministry of our church.