Charles Anthony Ryerson III, who expanded the thinking of a generation of prospective Christian pastors and countless others in his teachings about the religions of South Asia, died peacefully surrounded by former students and friends on Saturday, Sept. 24, at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. He was 83.
The son of Ada Littlefield and Charles Ryerson of Middletown, Rhode Island, he earned a bachelor’s of arts degree in 1955 from Oberlin College, a master’s of divinity degree in 1961 from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and a master’s of philosophy and doctorate degree from Columbia University.
While at Union, he was selected as an international fellow, part of an inter-disciplinary group of scholars drawn from the institutions associated with Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation “The Cultural Renaissance in Tamil, India” received a “distinction,” the highest dissertation honor that Columbia bestows.
In the years between his degree programs, Dr. Ryerson, known to his friends and students as “Charlie” spent time studying and teaching in India. From 1955 to 1958, he took part in a teaching fellow program sponsored by Oberlin College. In the 1960s, he was an overseas fellow as part of an Episcopal Church program. He also participated in student protest activities related to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. From 1970 to 1972, he conducted doctoral research at Madurai University and was an associate lecturer at the Tamil Nadu Theological College in Madurai, India. In 1972 and 1973, he was instructor of oriental studies at Columbia University, and in 1973 he became a lecturer of religion at Hunter College, the City University of New York. He then went to Wichita State University in Kansas, where he was assistant professor of Religion for the 1976-77 academic year before returning to Hunter as an assistant professor.
In 1979, Dr. Ryerson joined the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty as assistant professor of the history of religions, and was promoted to associate professor in 1986. During these years, he regularly taught a course titled, “Religion and Society in India” for Princeton University’s religion department. In 1994, he was inaugurated as the Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Professor of the History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1995, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity by the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology in Madras, India, in recognition of his services to the Indian church and Indian higher education. In June of 1999, he retired from Princeton Theological Seminary and became a professor emeritus. He lived in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood of Princeton until his death.
He wrote two books on the religious experience of South India, “Encounter in South India,” and “Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular Hinduism,” an autobiographical account “India Reflections, 1955-2003,” and numerous articles.
He also developed a summer internship program in which Princeton seminary students traveled to India to experience the culture and the religious phenomena that they had read about in class. This trip, part of the seminary’s cross-cultural program, became a formative experience for dozens of future ministers and educators, and Dr. Ryerson saw it as an “arduous and exhilarating adventure to guide theological students into voyages of discovery, pilgrimages into new worlds of meaning, explorations of other understandings of the universe.” The historian of religions, he said, was “always trying to understand the un-understandable, and to experience what others experience.”
With Dr. Charles West, Dr. Ryerson initiated the Missions, Ecumenics, and History of Religions doctoral program at Princeton Seminary. For many years, he also served as a trustee of The American College Foundation in Madurai, and was president of the board for several years.
He is survived by his sister, Ruth Bouliew of Saginaw, Michigan, nephews Kenneth Bell and Charles Bell; grand-nephews and nieces Andrew Bell, Anthony Bell, Melissa Bell Petzold, Melonie Bell Brown, Ashley Bell Jordan, Jack Cohoon, and Casey Cohoon of South Carolina; and many great grand-nephews and nieces.
A funeral service will be held at on Saturday, October 1 at 1:30 p.m., at the Berkeley Memorial Chapel of St. Columbia’s Chapel, 55 Vaucluse Avenue, in Middletown, Rhode Island. A memorial service will be planned for a date and time to be determined at Princeton Theological Seminary. Gifts in Dr. Charles Ryerson’s memory may be made to the “The Trustees of the Endowment Fund of the American College, Madurai, India,” 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1020, New York, NY 10115.