Remembering Freda Gardner

The Seminary’s first permanent female faculty member, Gardner broke down barriers
News Freda Gardner

Freda Gardner could see changes ahead for Princeton Theological Seminary.

And that thrilled her.

It was the spring of 1970, and Gardner, the first woman to become a permanent faculty member, had learned that a second woman would be arriving in the fall.

“Freda had been the only woman on the faculty for nine years,” says Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, the faculty member who joined that year as the second woman. “She used to tell me: ‘Kathie, I wouldn’t have cared if you had three heads.’’’

Kind and composed, but firm in her commitment to break down barriers, Gardner was spoken of as the conscience of the faculty. She helped pave the way for women and pushed for wider acceptance of those marginalized by race, class, and sexual orientation. And she inspired generations of seminary students to embrace Christian education as a prophetic calling central to the church.

Gardner, the Thomas W. Synnott Professor of Christian Education, died May 9, 2020 in Troy, New York, at the age of 91.

Her influence continues to be deeply felt.

“The Gospel of John speaks of Christ coming full of grace and truth,” says Gordon S. Mikoski, an associate professor of Christian education who was a student of Gardner’s in the 1980s. “That was what Freda was like in the classroom.”

“She had grace and compassion, but also truth about breaking down dehumanizing practices,” Mikoski said.

In the mid-70s, Gardner and Sakenfeld teamed up to teach a new course, “Teaching the Bible as Liberating Word,” that became a Seminary staple due its focus on women in Scripture, and which also incorporated issues of race, class, and sexuality.

Sakenfeld, William Albright Eisenberger Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis Emerita, recalled that she was amazed by Gardner’s ability to come up with creative ideas for courses and in-class activities that drove home the content.

“Anything I have learned about how to be a good teacher came from watching and teaching with Freda,” she said.

To her students, Gardner was both prophetic and practical. She taught them strategies for effective Christian education, but also inspired them to challenge practices that she felt didn’t work.

“She put some backbone into me,” Mikoski said. “She changed people, not through hectoring or preaching, but through teaching that engaged you and raised deep questions that you had to sit with.”

After retiring in 1992, Gardner was persuaded to run in 1999 for moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As candidates competed for votes and with cameras rolling, Gardner gave a speech that praised the simple but powerful compassion shown by lay Christians.

“They who think they have no power may help the rest of us…to be more than polite or tolerant — but free to see Christ in the other,” she said.

Gardner won a decisive second-ballot victory, defeating three men.

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