As a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary from 1957 to 1983, Dr. Mary Alice Douty Edwards influenced generations of graduates in both ministry and scholarship. At the forefront of the women academics who would transform a male-dominated field, Edwards’ scholarship and instruction in Christian Education continues to have an impact on churches around the world. When she passed away at the age of 101 in 2014, her legacy at Wesley Theological Seminary will be ensured for generations to come, by her estate bequest exceeding $500,000.
“This legacy gift from Mary Alice Edwards makes me think of the legacy that is her life,” President David McAllister-Wilson said. Noting her pioneering spirit, he said that Edwards joined the faculty when the school was still known as Westminster Seminary and situated in rural Maryland.
“One thinks of Sandra Day O’Connor or Dorothy Height or Jane Goodall,” he said. “They didn’t choose their professions because they were women. Indeed they were encouraged not to. And they did not excel because they were women, though they faced many extra obstacles. But because of women like this, many other women have been able to flourish.”
A colleague and friend who served as dean during much of Edwards’ tenure, Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, said, “We were eager to increase the number of women on the faculty, and that was partly prompted by her urging. She helped to open that floodgate. Her presence became an impetus for the wave of women who arrived throughout the 1970s.”
In addition to being a model for women theologians, ministers, and educators, Edwards helped create the broadminded atmosphere that became a Wesley hallmark. “This is a very open, collegial place,” Wogaman said. “She enhanced that. She was part of the glue that held the place together.”
Edwards’ teaching style was in keeping with that collegial focus. “It was very interactive,” Wogaman remembered. “Her style was not a 50 minute lecture with three or four questions at the end. She modeled in the classroom what she hoped her students in Christian Education would be taking into their churches.”
The Rev. Jeanne Klauda, who became Edwards’ companion and caretaker in later years, remembers her own days as a Wesley student, noting Edwards’ focus on innovation. “She created classes that no one else even thought of,” she said, naming a class on aging and ministry as an example. “She had this wonderful ability to reach out to people who ordinarily would be ignored.”
Klauda’s own work was profoundly shaped by lessons learned from Edwards. “She always said that there were two gifts of God that we should cultivate—curiosity and love,” she said. “She lived her life that way, and she taught that way. She had a wonderful, curious, and expansive mind. And she was a very loving teacher.”
Those values are now embodied in Edwards’ bequest, which funds scholarships and helps students graduate without an overwhelming burden of debt. “Bequests by longtime friends of the institution are the building blocks of our ability to be innovative, to offer scholarships, and to offer theological education in the way that Wesley does,” the Rev. Laura Norvell, Vice President for Development, said.
For Norvell, the bequest epitomizes Edwards’ own theological perspective.
“So often, the people who give their lives to Wesley do so out of their personal vision of ministry,” she said. “This gift represents Dr. Edwards’ deep belief that preparing people to think theologically is critical to the building of strong communities.”
“I hope this plants a seed with people, about how their vision for creating a better world can be met through a charitable gift,” Norvell said, adding that such gifts demonstrate an abiding trust in the future. “We move in the already and the not-yet,” she explained. “We’re building leaders for a church that we can’t yet see, but that we move toward with ultimate faith that God is with us and will meet us.”
McAllister-Wilson cherishes memories of Edwards as a person of strength and determination – and as an avid sailor.
“She was, indeed, the captain of her own boat,” he said. “Some years ago, as she started to go blind, she undertook to memorize the whole United Methodist Hymnal so that she could continue to sing along confidently. To paraphrase that great ending of the poem ‘Invictus,’ she was the master of her fate, the captain of her soul.”
For information on bequests and other charitable giving, contact the Wesley Development Office at 202-885-8630 or https://wesleyseminary.edu/support/