Leadership Gallery

The Right Reverend John M. Burgess, 1909-2003

John Melville Burgess

The Right Reverend John Melville Burgess, c. 1970.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Burgess earned his bachelor’s degree in 1930 and a year later his master’s degree in sociology, both from the University of Michigan. He continued his education at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and graduated in 1934. After his ordination the following year, Burgess returned to Michigan and ministered to working class parishes in Michigan and Ohio during the Great Depression and WWII. From 1946 to 1956, he served as the Episcopal chaplain of Howard University where he was named the first black canon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in 1951. He used the national pulpit to assert a voice for human and civil rights.

Five years later Burgess returned to Boston as archdeacon of the city’s missions and parishes and superintendent of the Boston City Mission. After restructuring the organization as a catalyst for change rather than a social services provider, he renamed it Episcopal City Mission. He worked to develop an urban mission strategy at the parish level and urged the involvement of city churches in the lives of the poor.

While working to improve urban ministry, Burgess was elected to the position of bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1962. Eight years later, he became the first African American to oversee white congregations upon his election as bishop coadjutor. After his assiduous work to empower minorities in the Church and make the Church more inclusive, Burgess retired in 1975.

Bishop Burgess was active in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches and served the General Convention on numerous commissions and boards. He served as president of the Union of Black Episcopalians from 1979 to 1981. [Sources]