John Boswell (1947-1994) was a prominent scholar who researched and wrote about the importance of gays and lesbians in Christian history. He was born on March 20, 1947.
Boswell, a history professor at Yale University, wrote such influential classics as Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994).
John Eastburn “Jeb” Boswell converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing to Roman Catholicism at age 16. He attended mass daily until his death, even though as an openly gay Christian he disagreed with church teachings on homosexuality. He also helped found Yale’s Lesbian and Gay Studies Center in the late 1980s.
A linguistic genius, he used his knowledge of more than 15 languages to argue that the Roman Catholic Church did not condemn homosexuality until at least the 12th century in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th Century. A 35th-anniversary edition was published in 2015 with a foreword by queer religion scholar Mark Jordan.
Using some of his last strength as he battled AIDS, Boswell translated many rites of adelphopoiesis (Greek for making brothers) in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, presenting evidence that they were same-sex unions similar to marriage.
Boswell can be seen in a 1986 video lecturing on “Jews, Gay People, and Bicycle Riders” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the series “Out & About: Celebrating Gay and Lesbian Culture.”
A 25th-anniversary collection analyzing Boswell’s work was published as “The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” edited by Mathew Kuefler. Scholars take many different approaches, looking at Boswell’s career and influence, a Roman emperor’s love letters to another man; suspected sodomy among medieval monks; and genderbending visions of mystics and saints.
A scholar challenges Boswell’s interpretations in the 2016 book “Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual” by Claudia Rapp. She offers evidence that the brother-making rite bears no resemblance to marriage. The author is professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Vienna in Austria. It is included in the Top 35 LGBTQ Christian books of 2016.
Boswell died an untimely death at age 47 from AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve 1994. He remains an unofficial saint to the many LGBTQ Christians who find life-giving spiritual value in his historical research that affirms queer people in Christian history.
Shared gravestone of John Boswell and his life partner Jerone Hart (photo by Kickstand)
Boswell is buried beside his longtime partner Jerone Hart (1946-2010) at Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut. They are pictured together in photos on Boswell’s Findagave page with the caption, “partners in life, for life.” Their shared headstone is shaped to look like a book. An inscription reads, “To live in one’s memory is never to die.”
Books by John Boswell
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
Links related to John Boswell
John Boswell Page at Fordham University
John Boswell profile at LGBT Religious Archives Network
John Boswell tribute at Yale AIDS Memorial Project (yamp.org)
John Boswell profile at Elisa Reviews and Ramblings
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
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Few books have had the social, cultural, and scholarly impact of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Arguing that neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition was nearly as hostile to homoeroticism as was generally thought, its initial publication sent shock waves through university classrooms, gay communities, and religious congregations. Twenty-five years later, the aftershocks still reverberate. The Boswell Thesis brings together fifteen leading scholars at the intersection of religious and sexuality studies to comment on this book's immense impact, the endless debates it generated, and the many contributions it has made to our culture.
The essays in this magnificent volume examine a variety of aspects of Boswell's interpretation of events in the development of sexuality from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, including a Roman emperor's love letters to another man; suspicions of sodomy among medieval monks, knights, and crusaders; and the gender-bending visions of Christian saints and mystics. Also included are discussions of Boswell's career, including his influence among gay and lesbian Christians and his role in academic debates between essentialists and social constructionists.
Elegant and thought-provoking, this collection provides a fitting twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to the incalculable influence of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and its author.