Friday, April 5, 2013

In Memory of Gordon Cosby, 1918-2013

Gordon Cosby, founding pastor of Church of the Savior, passed away last month and his memorial service will be held tomorrow, April 6. In contrast to Rachel Corrie (about whom I wrote last month) who was killed at the age of 23, Cosby lived to be just a few months shy of 95. His was a long and productive life.
I first heard of Gordon Cosby in the early 1960s when I was a seminary student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the school from which he had graduated in 1942.
After serving as a chaplain in World War II, in 1947 Cosby founded the Church of the Savior (CoS) in Washington, D.C., and continued in that ministry until he retired just four years ago (at age 91!).
Cosby was introduced to us seminary students as one who had attempted to “do church” and ministry different from the traditional way—and as one who emphasized the integrity of church membership, something that was quite different from the usual practice of Southern Baptist churches.
In January 1977 during our second “furlough” in the States, I met Gordon Cosby for the first time. I was visiting the Sojourners community, which had moved to Washington, D.C., partly because of Cosby. (You can read about that in Jim Wallis’s 3/21 article here.) And that evening I walked over to the Potter’s House, started in 1960 by CoS, one of the first Christian coffeehouses in the U.S.
Upon arriving, I asked if Gordon Cosby was there and was told that he was back washing dishes (as he seemed to do often). I went back to the kitchen, briefly introduced myself, and asked if he would allow me to take his place washing dishes and to talk with me as he rested. He would and he did—and I much enjoyed an hour of delightful conversation with him.
The last time I saw Cosby was at the Seekers Church, one of the “spinoff” congregations from the Church of the Savior now located in Takoma on the outskirts of D.C. Our son Keith and his wife have been core members of Seekers for more than 25 years now.
Seekers used to meet in the same renovated brick house on Massachusetts Ave. where the original CoS congregation met through the years, and I heard Cosby preach there a time or two. But after his retirement, the Cosbys were visiting Seekers one Sunday when we there with Keith and Brenda, and it was a joy to see him again.
Tomorrow’s memorial celebration will be held at Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street. That historic church, which is within walking distance of the White House, is the church Bill and Hillary Clinton attended when he was President.
Cosby was never pastor of a church with a large building, such as Foundry Methodist. But he influenced pastors all across the nation, including Rev. Dean Snyder, the senior pastor at Foundry now. (Snyder’s recent comments in the Washington Post about Cosby are found here.)
And Cosby never sought the limelight, or took advantage of opportunities to receive adulation. Yet, it has been said that he and the Church of the Savior have had a greater impact on the Protestant church in America over the past 50 years than any other institution or movement.
It is impossible to measure how much influence someone has had, but it is certain that Cosby did make a huge impact on American Protestantism. Please join me and the many who gather at Foundry Church tomorrow in memorializing the long life and legacy of Gordon Cosby.


  1. His seem to be a "thick" theology which captured many congregations and has crossed generations, bringing cohesion to small groups of active followers within congregations, and attracting new followers who wanted to be active in service. I have been an active member of two such congregations which were specifically patterned after Church of the Savior - one Baptist, one Anglican, and partnered with another, a Metropolitan.

  2. Thinking Friend (and missionary "sempai," older colleague) Melvin Bradshaw shares this comment about Gordon Cosby:

    "I met Gordon when he came to speak at Winchester First Baptist Church (1961?) and I visited the Potter's House also.

    "I was very much impressed by Gordon personally and by the Potter's House ministry. It was at a time when I was very discouraged by churches in general (still am!).

    "Thanks for reminding me of this special 'minister' of the Gospel."

  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "Gordon was a great soul. When I taught in Richmond, he and Mary spoke at BTSR. When I taught at Catholic University of America in 1987, Gordon invited me to speak at CoS a couple of times.

    "I've never associated with anyone more authentic."

  4. Early this morning I received this comment from Thinking Friend Rob Carr, pastor of the North Oak Christian Church in Kansas City:

    "Thanks for this Leroy--I am indebted to the Cosbys for their formative and fresh ideas."