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Emilie Townes

University Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society; Divinity School Dean, Emerita

An expert in Christian ethics, womanist theology and womanist perspectives on health care, economic justice, poetry and literary theory.


Emilie M. Townes, an American Baptist clergywoman, is a native of Durham, North Carolina. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a PhD in Religion in Society and Personality from Northwestern University. Townes became the first African American to serve as Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2013. She is the former Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology at Yale University Divinity School and in the fall of 2005, she was the first African American woman elected to the presidential line of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and served as president in 2008. She was the first African American and first woman to serve as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Yale Divinity School. She is the former Carolyn Williams Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Social Ethics at Saint Paul School of Theology. Editor of two collection of essays, A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering and Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation; she has also authored Womanist Ethics, Womanist Hope, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care, and her groundbreaking book, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. She is co-editor with Stephanie Y. Mitchem of the Faith, Health, and Healing in African American Life and co-editor with the late Katie Geneva Cannon and Angela Sims for the Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader done with was published in November 2011. Her most recent co-editorship is with Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Alison Gise Johnson, and Angela Sims for Walking Through the Valley: Essays: Womanist Explorations in the Spirit of Katie Geneva Cannon (2022). Townes was elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She was the first Black woman to serve as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2008 and served a four-year term as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion from 2012 to 2016. In 2022, Townes was elected to the presidential line of the Society of Christian Ethics. Her presidential year will be 2025. At that time, she will be the first Black woman to hold this office.

Media Appearances

  • We Talked to People of Faith About Being Both Religious and Pro-Choice

    “I've listened to all of the arguments about when life happens, and I think of something my mother, who was a scientist, once told me. She said, ‘As scientists, we can run the experiments. We can give you explanations for how things happen on a cellular level. We can do all these things, but at a certain point it becomes a mystery, and in that mystery is God.’ And I think she's right on target with that: This is something that God handles, and what any one person would do in this situation shouldn't infringe upon someone else's right to make a different decision. It is a choice that calls for deep discernment. I do know that we need to be a lot more responsible once life gets here. We focus so much on the unborn that we fail to see that we have a miserable safety net in this country when it comes to helping women and children have healthy lives with adequate health care. We should ultimately be caring for folks wherever they are.”

    July 16th, 2019

  • Vanderbilt names university chaplain

    Dr. Emilie Townes, who serves as dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and as E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, said “the Divinity School look forward to continuing its “strong working relationship with the Office of Religious Life under Christopher’s leadership.”

    April 3rd, 2019

  • Academics, Experts Share Diversity Dreams for 2019

    Dr. Emilie M. Townes, professor of American studies and womanist ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said she wants to see ” the upper administration in colleges and universities begin to reflect the diversity, access and inclusion being encouraged in the student and faculty populations of those universities.”

    January 2nd, 2019

  • Black Lives Matter co-founder to speak at Vanderbilt University event

    “This symposium represents the spirit of collaboration and the importance that we, as a university, place on open and mutual conversations about the important issues of our day,” said Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. “The importance of our addressing racial justice as a university and as a nation is as important today as it has ever been in the life of this country.”

    September 11th, 2018

  • Katie Cannon, 68, Dies; Lifted Black Women’s Perspective in Theology

    “What Cannon launched insists that God’s creation is much larger and more diverse when we listen to and learn from the moral wisdom found in the everyday lives of Black women,” the Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes, dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email. “Her insistence that we listen and learn also helped give other groups who had been left out of scholarship or ministry a way to claim their space under the sun.”

    August 14th, 2018

  • Six Black Women at the Center of Gravity in Theological Education

    And they follow in the footsteps of other firsts, like Dr. Emilie M. Townes who was named dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 2012. She was one of the first African-American female deans of a theological institution, according to reports, and only the second woman at Vanderbilt.

    July 10th, 2017

  • The Future of Religion Is Ascendant

    Far from a dying thing, religion is flourishing and will continue to do so. This is a trend driven not so much by ideology (whether conservative, progressive or in between) or by issues of the day that generate religious debate (prayer in schools, for example, or same-gender marriage). Rather, it springs from the simple fact that the world’s population keeps growing, and by most predictions will continue to do so for the foreseeable future—barring disease, famine, political upheaval, war or other factors we cannot predict.

    April 26th, 2015


Ph.D., The Joint Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

D.Min., University of Chicago

M.A., University of Chicago

B.A., University of Chicago


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