John Boswell (1947-1994) was a prominent scholar who researched and wrote about the importance of gays and lesbians in Christian history. His birthday this week, marks 69 years since his birth 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).
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.
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.
Boswell’s interpretations did not go unchallenged, of course, and in the 2016 Claudia Rapp published Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual. 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.
Boswell died an untimely death at age 47 from AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve 1994. He remains an unofficial saint to the many LGBT Christians who find life-giving spiritual value in his historical research that affirms the value of queer people in Christian history.
Boswell’s books include:
This piece originally appeared on Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love blog, and is part of a new effort to add authors and theologians to the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at that site. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.