Frederick Buechner, 96, who at the age of ten suffered his father’s suicide and later became, “alongside C. S. Lewis, one of the most significant Christian writers of the twentieth century” according to Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling and Western Theological Seminary Vice President Jeff Munroe, died on August 15, 2022 in Rupert, Vermont. He died peacefully in his sleep, as stated by David Altshuler, his son-in-law.
Buechner was an ordained Presbyterian clergyman whose nearly forty books, spanning the genres of fiction, autobiography, theology, essays, and sermons, were centrally informed by his Christian faith. Widely regarded as “one of our finest religious writers” (The London Free Press) and “one of the most insightful spiritual writers of our age” (The Kansas City Star), reviewers have lauded his work as “entrancing... poetically rich... a singularly graceful synthesis of memoir and theological [perspective]” (The Washington Post). The New York Times Book Review writes: “Frederick Buechner brings the reader to his knees, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in an astonishment very close to prayer, and at the best of times in a combination of both.”
Acclaimed for his literary gifts, he was called “a major talent" by The New York Times and “a master craftsman” by The Philadelphia Inquirer. His novel Lion Country, called “a splendid book” by The Boston Globe, was a finalist for the 1972 National Book Award. Godric, a retelling of the life of the medieval Catholic saint, Godric of Finchale, was a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The work was recognized internationally, with Michael Lloyd, Principal at Wycliffe Hall Seminary, Oxford University, commenting that “the first line of Godric is one of the best in all of literature.”
Buechner’s work has spoken to readers both secular and religious, and has won praise from several of America’s most acclaimed authors. Novelist John Irving, a former student of Buechner’s, writes: “You don’t have to be in the habit of going to church to listen to such a literary minister; you don’t have to be a believer to be moved by Mr. Buechner’s faith.” Louis Auchincloss, recipient of the National Medal of the Arts in 2005, recognized Buechner as “a worthy member of the great prose stylists—Blaise Pascal, John Henry Newman, and Thomas Merton—who harnessed their art to a passionate religious faith.” Bestselling spirituality writer Anne Lamott named Buechner “America’s most important living theologian” and wrote that "anyone interested in God, grace, meaning, and truth needs to immerse his or herself in his memoirs, essays, novels, and sermons.”
Within the religious community, Buechner is admired by Christians of all denominations. Rev. Dr. Samuel T. Lloyd III, an Episcopalian priest who served as Dean of Washington National Cathedral and Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, said that Buechner’s words “have nurtured the lives of untold seekers and followers” through “his capacity to see into the heart of every day.” Rob Bell—spiritual teacher, bestselling author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, and founder of one of the fastest-growing churches in America—praised Buechner for “the way [he] speaks to people of all ages.” John Ortberg, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at Menlo Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, noted that “Buechner has had a disproportionate impact on countless souls, including mine.” Buechner has also been placed “in the ranks of great contemporary writers like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Kathleen Norris” by Jesuit Reverend James Martin. His literary and theological significance has regularly been compared to that of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton by writers such as Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, and Brian McLaren, a leading figure of the emerging church movement. Yancey, in particular, observed that "just like C. S. Lewis, Buechner focuses on the elements of faith that unite us rather than those that divide us."
Buechner frequently encouraged ministers to share the truth of their personal experience, including their moments of doubt and darkness, instead of speaking abstractly about theological principles. This style of ministry was exhibited in Buechner’s own writing, as Rachel Held Evans, a New York Times bestselling author and millennial blogger, observed: “It isn’t easy to bleed all over the page like he often did.” Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes said of Buechner, whom he called “the minister’s minister,” that he “has taught a whole generation of preachers to take risks and to tell the truth,” adding: “you can't imagine how many people have been affected by his writing and speaking.” “If you allow him to coach you,” claims Western Theological Seminary President Tim Brown, “Frederick Buechner will make you a more honest preacher.”
Common themes of Buechner’s books include faith despite doubt, hope through grace, and saintly sinners. Underlying all his writing is a timeless call to pay attention to the beauty of human experience and our shared story. Episcopal priest Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said that "from [Buechner] I've learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look." Indeed, of his central message, Buechner wrote: “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Frederick Buechner was born on July 11, 1926 in New York City, the eldest son of Katherine Kuhn and Frederick Buechner Sr. At the age of ten, Buechner suffered his father’s death by suicide—a loss that would haunt him through his four volumes of memoirs and many of his other works. Following the suicide, his family moved to Bermuda, where Buechner experienced “the blessed relief of coming out of the dark and unmentionable sadness of my father's life and death into fragrance and greenness and light.”
World War II forced the evacuation of Americans from the island, and after a brief stay in Tryon, North Carolina, Buechner enrolled in The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, graduating in 1943. At Lawrenceville, he began a lifelong friendship and lighthearted literary rivalry with the young James Merrill, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his poetry, among other honors. Merrill later claimed that “Buechner writes better than almost anyone;” indeed, it was Buechner who beat Merrill to become Class Poet their final year at Lawrenceville.
Buechner matriculated to Princeton University, where he began his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, as part of his undergraduate thesis. After a two year leave for military service in World War II (1944–46), he graduated in the Class of 1947 with a degree in English. Buechner returned to Lawrenceville to teach English until 1952, when he moved to New York City to lecture at N.Y.U. and focus on his literary career. In 1953, his short story “The Tiger” was published in The New Yorker and later won the O. Henry Award.
Soon after arriving in New York, Buechner began attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where he heard the pastor, George Buttrick, preach that “Christ is crowned again and again in the hearts of those who believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.” Buttrick’s sermon so resonated with Buechner that he decided to enroll in the Union Theological Seminary, where he was awarded a Rockefeller Brothers Theological Fellowship. There he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, James Muilenburg, and Paul Tillich during what came to be known as the ‘golden age’ of the institution.
Buechner married Judith Merck on April 6, 1956 in Montclair, New Jersey. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1958 and that same year launched the religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he taught for nine years. One of his students at Exeter, the author and screenwriter John Irving, thanked him “most of all” in the acknowledgements to bestseller A Prayer for Owen Meany, noting “how much I owe to the writing of my former teacher Frederick Buechner.”
In 1967, Buechner moved with his family to a farm in Rupert, Vermont, where he devoted the rest of his career to writing books in the home library he fondly called his ‘Magic Kingdom.’
Buechner was awarded nine honorary degrees from institutions such as Yale University, Cornell College, Wake Forest University, Sewanee, and Virginia Theological Seminary. He was the recipient of the Christianity and Literature Belles-Lettres Prize and was recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also awarded the Noble Lectureship at Harvard University, the Beecher Lectureship at Yale University, and teaching positions at Tufts University, Calvin College, and Wheaton College. His manuscripts and archives are housed at Wheaton College alongside those of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Buechner’s works have been translated into twenty-seven languages and have attracted significant a global readership. They have also been incorporated into the curricula of more than forty leading seminaries and universities on six continents, including Oxford University (U.K.), Trinity Theological College (Singapore), China Graduate School of Theology (Hong Kong), Whitley College (Australia), South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (India), Hekima University College (Kenya), and Seminario Biblico de Colombia (Colombia). Princeton Theological Seminary, in particular, has hosted an annual Buechner Writing Workshop, designed to “encourage, educate, and inspire writers to communicate their Christian faith with clarity and power in the tradition of Frederick Buechner.” Past workshops have included leaders such as Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Philip Yancey, and Kathleen Norris.
With over 2,000,000 followers on Facebook and 300,000 followers on Twitter, Buechner’s work has inspired an unusually devoted fan base who fondly refer to themselves as “Buechnerds.” Among Buechner’s most frequently quoted lines, shared widely on social media and elsewhere, is his idea of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Buechner, who split his time between his farm in Vermont and a home in Florida, is survived by his wife, three daughters, ten grandchildren, and one son-in-law. Memorial services will be held in Boston, Massachusetts, on a date to be announced.