Norma H. Thompson
By Kathy Winings
Norma H. Thompson (1917 - ): Professor of Religious Education at New York University from 1954 to 1981. Norma was a dedicated teacher and mentor to her doctoral students that was a large reason for receiving NYU’s “Service Citation” and being named “Professor of the Year” in 1981. Influenced professionally by D. Campbell Wyckoff and Randolph Miller, Thompson developed a passion for the theoretical and curricular aspects of the field of Religious Education. Outside of her two edited books and several articles, Thompson is also known as one of the eight founding professors of he Association for Professors and Researchers of Religious Education (APRRE).
Norma Hoyt Thompson
Norma Hoyt Thompson was born on October 7, 1915 in Burlington Junction, Missouri a small rural town. One of ten children, Norma did well in school, even though her family moved several times while she was young. She spent her elementary school years in Quitman, Missouri and her teen years in Burlington, Missouri, ending up in Graham, Missouri as the validictorian of her senior class.
Norma’s religious formation was not a major event in her young life. Though her mother had been raised in the Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints and her father has been brought up in a Methodist home, church did not figure prominently in her life. However, the one thing that did remain with Norma from those early years were the values of hard work, helping others, and honesty. This is not to say that Norma did not attend church. She did at times visit a local Methodist church when she wasn’t helping with her younger brothers and sisters or helping on around the home (Blumberg, 1997, p.89).
Though she had done well in school, Norma did not feel particularly drawn to attending college after her high school graduation. After all, most young girls either helped on the farm, took local jobs as secretaries to help their families and married early. Norma decided that it would be better to be practical and have practical skills such as typing, shorthand and finance. Therefore, she worked for two years as she decided what she would do while taking a correspondence course.
Eventually, Norma moved to Chillicotte, Missouri. It was while working in Chillicotte that Norma was given a $100 certificate by a man who said he was opening a new business school. He was advertising this new school by passing out the tuition certificates. It sounded like a good idea at the time and so Norma decided to enter the Jackson University of Business, receiving her diploma in 1935. Jackson University was also where Norma would meet her future husband, Paul Thompson (N. Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
Norma and Paul both decided to seek jobs in Kansas City, Missouri. Fortunately, Norma found a job as a secretary for the Ford Insurance Agency initially, later moving to the Equitable Life Insurance company as a secretary. As Paul had been raised as a Southern Baptist, they were both interested when they say an advertisement for a special evening program featuring testimonies of some missionaries which had just returned from their time in Africa. Norma was most intrigued by the testimonies and approached the missionaries at the end of the program, expressing her desire to maybe be a missionary herself and help people. For the first time in her life, Norma felt called to a specific vocation in life – that of a missionary.
After speaking with the missionaries at some length, Norma asked them how she could best prepare for such a calling. They suggested that she study theology and Bible at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After speaking with her friend from Jackson University, Paul Thompson, both of them decided to pack up and move to Chicago and enroll in Moody. But such an education did not come cheap – even for the 1930s. Therefore, Norma worked in the secretarial pool throughout her time at Moody to help pay for her four year degree program in Christian Education.
Throughout their four years at Moody, Norma and Paul both experienced a theological change. They asked many questions but were never satisfied with the responses from the faculty members. At the end of their studies at Moody, Norma and Paul found that they still had profound theological questions and doubts. In fact, there were many experiences at Moody that they found to be difficult, restrictive, and uncomfortable. Their most difficult moment came right before graduation when they were asked to sign a declaration of faith. Because of their continued questions, they both refused to sign the declaration. On Norma’s part, because she had been chosen to be the Speaker of the Class for Women, she was allowed to graduate in 1939. Paul however, was not allowed to graduate because of his refusal to sign the statement.
These years in Chicago also became Norma’s first strong exposure to the field of Christian Education through her experience teaching at a local evangelical Lutheran Church. Yet, she did not see Christian Education as a future field of endeavor for her (N.Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
The next question then became, ‘what do we do next?’ Paul still felt a strong pull to the ministry. Consequently, after talking with one of Paul’s classmates, it was suggested that they go to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. As a Universalist seminary, it was thought that they might be happier there and would find answers to some of their questions. So it was off to Canton for Norma and Paul.
But they both quickly learned that St. Lawrence was far more expensive than Moody Bible Institute. Norma decided that she would go to St. Lawrence early in August of 1939 to seek a job. Norma’s early studies at Jackson University proved to be a wise investment as she found a job as secretary to Dr. Walter Atwood, the Dean of the Theological School at St. Lawrence. Paul also found a government job. The year Norma spent at St. Lawrence would prove to be most critical for her theologically because she finally discovered what religion meant to people and why. Many of the questions that had been raised while at Moody were beginning to be answered through her studies at St. Lawrence. Her courses with Dr. Atwood in particular proved to be most enlightening for Norma and became one of several formative experiences for her future work as a Christian Educator. Unfortunately, because of the high tuition, Norma and Paul could only remain in Canton one year. Their time in Canton would also prove memorable for Norma in a personal way; she married Paul Thompson during Christmas 1941 during a visit to Kansas City.
At the end of their year at St. Lawrence, the young couple decided to move to Waco, Texas and Baylor University so that Paul could continue his ministerial studies. Because money was not easy to come by, they agreed that Paul would attend Baylor full- time and Norma would attend classes on a part-time basis so that she could work. Because of the start of World War II, Norma was able to find a job in a local law office but ended up quitting over what she felt was a case of racial injustice. However, she was able to move to another position for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Norma took evening classes while Paul finished his A.B. degree in Physics and Mathematics, though he was not completely happy with Baylor’s theological positions either. (N.Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
However, the Thompsons still had the feeling that God was calling Paul to the ministry though Norma had not yet really felt the call to teaching or Religious Education because she was still unclear as to her future vocation. The question became, though, which school best reflected their theological viewpoint. After prayer and discussion, plus the war, they decided to move New York City and Union Theological Seminary.
While Paul enrolled in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Union, Norma once again decided to support their education through working as a stenographer and attending courses at Hunter College. It was at this time that Norma began to visit various vacation church schools in the Bronx and Manhattan, eventually becoming a supervisor for the Greater New York Federation of Churches (later to be known as the Protestant Council of the City of New York). This was to become an important step in Norma’s eventual work in the field of Religious Education as her area of responsibility was to visit the “Weekday Religious School” programs in Public Schools throughout the Bronx and Staten Island. It was here that Norma began to appreciate both the ecumenical perspective of theology and education as well as recognize a love for teaching. During her work in these different locations, Norma was able to utilize the information and skills she had gained through her earlier courses at Moody and St. Lawrence. Watching and advising other teachers on how to engage the students through creative modes of teaching that helped awaken her love of teaching.
In addition, the move to New York also was formative for Norma in another way – it broadened her understanding of multiculturalism and ethnic concerns. She began working with children from Eastern Europe and other cultures that differed from her own Mid-Western life. She also began working with African-American students. All of this together began to develop into a respect for an inter-religious view of faith, religion and education that would become a hallmark of her eventual Religious Education theory. Norma finished her A.B. degree in Psychology and Philosophy at Hunter College, New York in June of 1946, graduating summa cum laude.
With a new sense of vocation and direction, Norma immediately applied to the M.A. program at New York University, studying under D. Campbell Wykoff and Lee A. Belford. She continued her work with the Protestant Council of Churches of New York by becoming the director of the new Bronx division, thus allowing her to shape her theory and theology of Religious Education. At the same time, she also began to utilize her growing Religious Education skills and theory through her work at the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church – a growing church in the heart of Manhattan, and a simple Czechoslovakian Church, also in New York City. These three experiences offered Norma the experiential balance to the theoretical work that she was doing for her Masters degree. These positions were critical in her decision to continue her studies in the field of Religious Education and to make a vocation of it.
It was during this time that she would work with the one person, outside of her husband, who would most influence her professional career as a religious educator – D. Campbell Wyckoff. Between 1947 and 1954, Wyckoff was able to challenge her thinking about the essence of Religious Education and what it means to be religious. Wyckoff’s main influence was primarily in the areas of defining the principles of religious education and in formulating an effective curriculum in religious education (N. Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
During her last year of her Masters Program, 1954, D. Campbell Wyckoff became the professor of Christian Education at Princeton University. This left a vacancy at NYU. At his encouragement and suggestion, Norma was given the position of lecturer at NYU and became the first woman professor on the faculty. Working under Dr. Lee Belford, the head of the department, Norma’s teaching schedule included courses such as “Curriculum in Religious Education,” “Workshop in Religious Education,” “Administration of Religious Education,” “Psychology of Religion,” and “The World’s Religions.” Though initially, she was teaching undergraduate students, she began teaching graduate courses as soon as the department became part of the Graduate School. She would finish her Masters Degree in 1955.
Norma naturally continued her doctoral studies at NYU, completing her degree in 1961 and with that degree, she was named assistant professor of Religious Education at NYU. She would become full professor in 1972. Throughout the entire time, her passion was teaching with a special place in her heart for courses in Comparative Religion and Curricular Theory as both courses reflected the two poles of interest for Norma – ecumenism/interfaith and curriculum and teaching. For that, Norma was also grateful to Dr. Belford for his continued support and grounding in the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the field of Religious Education.
Her interests were also evident in the two books she edited: The Future of Christian-Jewish Relations, co-edited with Rabbi Bruce K. Cole, and Religious Education and Theology, edited in 1982. Her continued interest in other cultures and faiths was also the impetus for her becoming a guest faculty member on several occasions within the Asian arena. Because of her love of teaching and mentoring doctoral students, Norma did not publish a great deal but her enduring influence can be seen in those students that she guided throughout her tenure at NYU. This influence has continued through the work of her students who have, in turn, continued to shape the field of Religious Education. This long list of students has included Donald Russo, Perry Downs, Young Bong Oh, Ernestine Galloway, Val Karen and Dimitra Richardson to mention just a few. In fact, Norma chose not to retire until the last doctoral student that had entered NYU while Norma was the Department Chair had graduated, which took place in 1981.
Her dedication to the field of Religious Education and to teaching earned her the “Service Citation” from NYU and the “Professor of the Year” award in 1981, presented by Dean Daniel E. Griffiths for the School of Education, Health, Nursing and Arts Professions. Faculty members described Norma as one of those rare professors who could be patient yet always challenging her students to go beyond their limitations. Her own background of hard work and learning patience the hard way – through experience – served her well as a professor at NYU.
Norma was also honored with an Honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1984 by General Theological Seminary. She and her husband Paul then retired to Great Barrington, Massachusetts where Norma lives today after the passing of her life-long friend, partner, and husband, Paul Thompson, in 2002 (N. Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
Contributions to Christian Education
Besides her husband Paul, Dr. Atwood – President of St. Lawrence Theological School, and D. Campbell Wykoff, the other influence on her professional and personal life was Randall Crump Miller. Each of these men surrounded Norma with a questioning mind, a seeking heart, and a love and respect for students that remained with her throughout her professional career. Paul Thompson became her partner in life with whom she could ask those challenging and unanswerable questions. Dr. Atwood helped Norma solidify her thinking as to what religion really meant to herself and others. D. Campbell Wykoff introduced her to the wonderful field of Religious Education and provided clear principles of the field for her. And Randall Crump Miller encouraged her to consider the relationship of faith, religion, and curricula and to ask the essential question: “What’s it all about?” Wyckoff and Miller in particular also gave Norma a framework around which to work. It was their guidance that encouraged her to ask such questions as: “What are my guiding lights?” “To what extent can religion be taught? Or, is religion something you ‘catch?’” Both educators taught Norma that you may not be able to answer all the questions or do it all, but that you must at least try.
What interested Norma most about the field of Religious Education was that it was an area in which students could think freely; where students could see, be exposed to, and experience so many different approaches to philosophy and life. Her doctoral dissertation entitled “Contemporary Trends in the Philosophy of Protestant Religious Education,” further attests to her interest in Religious Education. In this work, Norma researched the philosophical underpinnings of Protestant approaches as a way to see how philosophy influenced and shaped denominational theories and programs in religious education. Norma also believed that Religious Education gave one permission to find meaning while, at the same time, being ecumenical and therefore tolerant and respectful of the other.
Norma taught that, rather than teaching specifics and doctrinal particularities, Religious Education as a field challenged one to look for the principles behind religion and to wrestle with the bigger picture of how we think about religion and faith, and how religion influences us. It was the bringing together of theological questions more solidly with the methodological issues that was one of Norma’s main contributions as well as an indication of the influence of both Wyckoff and Miller in her professional life. This may also have contributed to Norma’s decision to support the formation of APRRE so that the theological issue could be more squarely addressed than it had been throughout the Religious Education Association. As Norma expressed it, “A liberal theology formed the background in this effort, but it was not clearly enunciated… An adequate theology was never developed for progressive religious education as a framework for the educational task in the mainstream of Protestant Christianity” (Thompson, 1982, pg.3).
Proof of Norma’s enduring contribution to the field of Religious Education is the fact that her book, Religious Education and Theology, is one of the most quoted books in the field. The essays in that book have left a wide mark on the field as expressed in one review of the book: “A benchmark book in the sense that it provides the standard against which any future discussion of the relationship of religious education and theology will have to be measured” (Mayr, 1983, entry 116).
Beyond the theological question, the other contribution of Norma’s was that of her love and respect for religious pluralism. As noted by Harold Burgess in his historical overview, Models of Religious Education, Norma Thompson was to be attributed with providing the field of Religious Education with the “most important scholarly study” in the area of the value and role of pluralism in religious education (Burgess, 1996, pg.224). Norma herself had repeatedly offered that throughout her years of teaching, both with the Protestant Council of New York and at NYU “stretched her mind … and taught me more than can ever be expressed” (Thompson, 1988, pg.2).
If Norma Thompson were asked to offer her advice for today’s student of Religious Education, she would quickly say: ‘Don’t let yourself be tied down to one view of religion or education. Be open to what these religions and educators have to say. You don’t have to agree with them but you need to be open to them. Your own view will then emerge” (N. Thompson, personal interview, April 2, 2003).
- Blumberg, Sherry. (1997). Committed to Interreligious Dialogue. In Barbara Anne Keely, Faith of our foremothers: Women changing religious education. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, p.89.
- Burgess, H. (1996) Models of religious education: Theory and practice in historical and contemporary perspective. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, p.224.
- Mayr, Marlene. (Ed.). (1983). Modern masters of religious education. Birmingham, AL: REP, entry 116.
- Thompson, N. (Ed). (1982) Religious education and theology .Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, p.3
- Thompson, N. (Ed). (1988) Religious pluralism and religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, p.2.
- Thompson, N., & Cole, Bruce Rabbi (Eds). (1982). The future of Jewish-Christian relations. Schenectady, NY: Character Research Press.
- Thompson, N. (Ed). (1982) Religious education and theology .Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
- Thompson, N. (Ed). (1988) Religious pluralism and religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
- Thompson, N. (1979). Art and the Religious experience. In G. Durka & J. Smith, Aesthetic dimensions of religious education. New York: Paulist Press.
- Thompson, N. (1984). Adult Religious Life and Nurture. In Marvin J. Taylor, (Ed.). Changing patterns of religious education. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
- Thompson, N. (1964). Christian Education Where You Find It. In International Journal of Religious Education, 41, (3), 6-8.
- Thompson, N. (1982). The Covenant Concept in Judaism and Christianity. In Anglican Theological Review, XLIV, (4), 502-24.
- Thompson, N. Meaning or Jargon. In (??)
- Thompson, N. (1984). Religious Education – Theory and Practice. In Religious Education Journal, 79, (1), 51-55.
- Thompson, N. (1991). [Review of the book Key Dimensions of Religious Education]. Religious Education Journal, 86, (1), 164-5.
Excerpts from Publications
Thompson, N. (1988) Religious Pluralism and Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: REP. p.19.
“A crucial question for religious education is: ‘What is it all about?’ In fact, much of the failure of religious education arises from the confusion in the minds of most of the practitioners in this field about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. They have a lot of commitment and what to help in the educational task, but their objectives are rarely clear. Neither are the objectives of the leaders in local churches and temples clear, even when the focus is upon transmitting the heritage of the particular religion. How much more confusing and complicated must the objectives become when these persons are faced with relating what they are doing in one religious group to what is being done by their counterparts in many other religious groups.”
Thompson, N. (1982) Religious Education and Theology. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press. pp. 2-3.
“With theology holding such a dominant place in the churches, it is small wonder that the role of theology in religious education has been and continues to be one of the major issues… No adequate history traces the relation of theology to religious education. Such a work would provide an excellent resource for the study of this field, but it remains for the future.”
Thompson, N. (1984). Religious Education – Theory and Practice. Religious Education Journal, 79 (1), 54.
“Are the problems of the present so distinctive that the answers of the past have nothing to say to us? Is there some foundational work to be found in the writings and experiences of those earlier religious educators that we can use to move the field forward, to explore it in great depth, to be more effective in our work with people in religion? It seems to me tat history provides a rich resource which we should be utilizing more effectively than we are.”
Books & Articles
Boys, M. (1989) Educating in Faith: Maps & Visions. New York: Harper and Row.
Burgess, H. (1996). Models of Religious Education: Theory and Practice in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
English, Leona. (1998). Mentoring in Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Giltner, Fern. (Ed). (1985). Women’s Issues in Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Keely, Barbara Anne. (Ed). (1997). Faith of Our Foremothers: Women Changing Religious Education. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Lee, James Michael. (1985). The Content of Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Lines, Timothy Arthur. (1987). Systemic Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Mayr, Marlene. (Ed.). (1988). Does the Church Really Need Religious Education?. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Mayr, Marlene. (Ed.). (1983). Modern Masters of Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Miller, Randall Crump.(Ed.). (1995). Theologies of Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Schreiter, Robert J. (Review). Religious Pluralism and Religious Education. In Religious Education Journal, 84, (2), 294.
Wyckoff, D. Campbell, Brown, George, Jr. (Compiled by). (1995). Religious Education, 1960-1993: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp.151-152.
Kathy Winings is Associate Professor of Religious Education and Ministry and Dean of Campus at the Unification Theological Seminary, where she teaches courses in the foundations of Religious Education, history and methodology of Religious Education, curriculum, design, administration, religious educational leadership, and courses in age-based educational and ministerial programs. Her doctoral dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University (1996) explored the work of diverse campus ministries throughout American higher education.