In Memoriam: Henry B. Clark II, 78

The professor emeritus of religion and social ethicist advocated for racial and economic justice.
ByPamela J. Johnson

Henry B. Clark II, professor emeritus of religion in USC College and champion of social justice, has died. He was 78. 

Clark had spent two weeks in July at a lakeside cabin in Vermont with his children and grandchildren. He was returning from a subsequent visit to friends in Nova Scotia when he suffered a heart attack while on a ferry 45 minutes outside Portland, Maine, and died on July 23.

“The Vermont trip was the best holiday we ever had,” said his daughter April Netzer of Richmond, Calif. “He read aloud for us some of the Hardy Boys books, his favorites as a child. He was a great orator and had a wonderful, resonant voice. It was charming.” 

An expert on social ethics, Clark joined USC College in 1975, retiring in 1994. In his role as associate director of the USC Center for the Humanities, he organized many major conferences and research programs. He earned the California Distinguished Humanist Award in 1979. 

Donald Miller, Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion and professor of sociology, called Clark a “champion of social justice.” 

“He applied his commitment in the area of business ethics as well as global issues of human rights,” said Miller, executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “Henry was a passionate progressive to the end.”  

Clark authored more than a dozen scholarly books, including The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer, The Church Under Thatcher, and Serenity, Courage, Wisdom: The Abiding Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. His book Ministries of Dialogue was awarded the 1972 Christopher medal. 

His research explored how religious values affect modern politics and living ethically in an imperfect world. He believed in religious ideals, but maintained that religion has no official place in government. 

In a 2004 letter to the USC Trojan Family Magazine, Clark wrote: 

“In addition to awareness and knowledge, students must cultivate the powers of discernment that will enable them to evaluate faith traditions in terms of whether they support or endanger human well-being. Above all, they must come to recognize Enlightenment principles of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience as one of the greatest achievements of European civilization.” 

Bill May, associate professor emeritus of religion, had suggested that Clark be recruited to USC College. May emphasized the human side of the professor, his longtime friend and colleague. Clark had a natural ability to stimulate camaraderie among faculty and students, May said.

“Henry was very gregarious,” May said. “I still hear from former graduate students who talk about Henry’s vitality and love of life.”

Jack Crossley, professor emeritus and former director of religion, befriended Clark upon Clark’s arrival in the College. Crossley, also a social ethicist, attended gatherings organized by Clark, in which faculty and graduate students would watch political films and plays, then discuss them over coffee. 

Clark was a lifelong golfer, Crossley recalled, who also loved traveling, theatre and the arts. He was especially passionate about religious art and architecture, including Romanesque churches, the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, Chartres Cathedral, and the Renaissance splendor of Florence.

“Henry’s death is a tragedy — a real loss,” Crossley said. “He was a highly educated, intelligent man who was deeply involved in working for the good of people. He was a model American citizen.” 

Born in Reidsville, N.C., Clark graduated from Duke University, where he was co-captain of the golf team. He attended Union Theological Seminary, where he was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, a celebrated theologian best known for his study of the Christian faith and modern politics.  

Earning his Ph.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1963, Clark also taught at Union, Howard University and Duke University. 

Settling in Sacramento after his retirement, Clark began writing novels, including Trophy Boy (AuthorHouse, 2006), an autobiographical coming of age story. A dedicated political activist, Clark took part in some of the most significant crusades of recent American history, from serving jail time as part of the civil rights movement to protesting against globalization in the streets of Seattle.

Clark’s wife of more than 40 years, Lyn, preceded him in death by a year. He is survived by five children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.  

A memorial service will take place at 3 p.m., Aug. 23, at the Pacific School of Religion Chapel, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94709. A reception will follow. Please RSVP to the Clark family at or (916) 739-0231.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Patricia Codron Memorial Endowment for the Pacific Coast Theological Society. Proceeds will provide a yearly award for a book or research project. Checks in memory of Dr. Clark can be made to the Graduate Theological Union, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, Calif. 94709. For credit card transactions: (510) 649-2531.