Frank Reynolds, 1930-2019

Tributes paid to Chicago authority on Buddhism

February 7, 2019
Frank Reynolds obituary

An outstanding teacher and authority on Buddhism has died.

Frank Reynolds was born in 1930, grew up in Connecticut and was educated at Princeton University, Oberlin College and the Yale Divinity School. By then an ordained Baptist minister, he spent three years as programme director at the Student Christian Center in Thailand, yet his experience of working among Buddhists and Muslims as well as Christians spurred a desire to study religions from a more detached, non-sectarian perspective.

He therefore returned to the US to undertake a PhD on the history of religions programme at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He joined the faculty in 1967 and remained there until he retired, as emeritus professor of the history of religions and Buddhist studies, in 2001.

A particular expert in Theravada Buddhism, mainly practised in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia, Professor Reynolds also wrote about topics such as Thai civic religion and religious studies in the liberal arts. Indeed, he played a crucial role in the development of the discipline, ensuring that religious studies engaged with and adapted insights from right across the social sciences and humanities. He was for many years a co-editor of the journal History of Religions and, with his wife Mani Bloch, published a translation of a 14th-century work of Thai Buddhist cosmology known as Three Worlds of King Ruang (1982).

“He trained some of the greatest scholars of Buddhism, and of the broader history of religions, in our generation,” said Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade distinguished service emeritus professor of the history of religions at Chicago. “His influence on both fields has been profound and far-reaching.” 

Professor Doniger also described Professor Reynolds as “the finest teacher I’ve ever known. He taught me how to teach, everything I know not only about the discipline of the history of religions, what questions to ask and what answers to value, but also about collegiality. His generosity to his students, and to me, was part of a far deeper and broader virtue that he had in great abundance; a combination of incorruptible integrity, unflinching self-understanding, and genuine concern for other human beings. His decency, goodness and compassion were blessings to anyone who was lucky enough to know him.” 

Even well after retirement, in 2010, Professor Reynolds received the Norman Maclean Faculty Award from Chicago in recognition of his outstanding contributions to teaching and to the student experience of life on campus.

Professor Reynolds died on 9 January and is survived by his long-term partner, anthropologist June Nash, three sons and nine grandchildren.

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