Dictionary of Virginia Biography

John Bright (25 September 1908–26 March 1995), biblical scholar, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of John Bright, a Railway Express cashier, and Elizabeth Nall Bright. After graduating from the McCallie School in Chattanooga in June 1924, he entered the Presbyterian College of South Carolina in Clinton, from which he graduated with a B.A. in May 1928. Bright then matriculated at Union Theological Seminary (later Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond, and during his attendance there he did fieldwork at Presbyterian churches in Moorefield, West Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina. He received a B.D. in 1931.

Bright remained at the seminary as the Walter W. Moore Fellow, working toward a degree in theology and teaching in the Department of the Old Testament as an assistant professor of Greek and Hebrew. He received a master's degree on 9 May 1933 with a thesis entitled "A Psychological Study of the Major Prophets." During the summers of 1932 and 1934 Bright worked on excavation teams at two biblical sites. He was not an archaeologist, only a student earning his keep by driving a truck and doing odd jobs, but this experience and the influence of the archaeologists William Foxwell Albright and James Leon Kelso caused Bright to devote his life to biblical study.

Licensed and ordained on 17 May 1935 by the Atlanta Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Bright entered the doctoral program in oriental studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He soon found himself struggling with the role of human reason in understanding and interpreting Scripture. Bright wondered whether the literary and archaeological tools employed in secular scholarship could be used to unlock the meaning and to enrich understanding of sacred writings. He specifically asked how higher criticism could contribute to biblical scholarship. With these unanswered questions in mind, Bright withdrew from the degree program to become associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. In October 1936 he applied to enter the doctor of theology program at Union Theological Seminary, for which he embarked on a study of the poetic books of the Old Testament with a minor in the Pauline epistles. Bright still struggled with the questions he had raised, and in September 1937, after accepting charge of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church in Maryland, he was allowed to withdraw from his graduate work with the privilege of rematriculating at his discretion. Bright served at Catonsville until 1 January 1940, when he resigned to complete his doctoral residence work at the Johns Hopkins. His dissertation, completed in June 1940, was entitled "The Age of King David: A Study in the Institutional History of Israel."

On 1 July 1940 Bright became associate professor in the biblical department of Union Theological Seminary and on 13 May of the following year was elected Cyrus H. McCormick Professor of Hebrew and the Interpretation of the Old Testament. He retained the latter post until he retired on 31 May 1975. Bright was granted a leave of absence on 12 July 1943 to serve as a United States Army chaplain. Assigned to several artillery units, from the final months of 1944 until the end of the war he participated in campaigns in Europe, part of the time in central Germany, where his only brother had died in a prisoner of war camp. Bright returned to the United States with the rank of captain in February 1946 and resumed teaching at the seminary that spring.

Bright published The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church (1953) and Early Israel in Recent History Writing (1956). Using his archaeological experience and a writing style readable equally by specialists and the laity, he provided evidence in support of biblical narrative and won acclaim as one of the world's foremost biblical scholars. Bright's third book, A History of Israel (1959), expanded on his doctoral dissertation and quickly won acceptance as a standard textbook. This brilliant work answered the questions that he had struggled with early in his career. Bright's approach employed the tools of modern secular scholarship without denying a role for revelation. He used both science and faith to enhance scriptural exegesis and deepen understanding of God's revealed will. A History of Israel was reprinted six times during Bright's life including translation into several other languages. He published a definitive study of the book of Jeremiah for an Anchor Bible series on books of the Bible in 1965 and concluded his scholarly publications with The Authority of the Old Testament (1967) and Covenant and Promise: The Prophetic Understanding of the Future in Pre-Exilic Israel (1976).

Bright received an honorary D.D. from Presbyterian College of South Carolina in 1947 and was named its Man of the Year and recipient of its principal alumni award in 1953. From June 1963 to January 1964 he lectured at Presbyterian theological seminaries in Brazil, and during the summer of 1966 he preached and taught in South Africa as part of an exchange program. Later in 1966 Bright lectured at Cambridge, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, and elsewhere in Great Britain, and in 1968 he was one of four United States delegates to the assembly of the World Council of Churches in Sweden. In November 1975 Bright was the fifth man to be named honorary president of the ninety-five-year-old Society of Biblical Literature, the world's largest organization of biblical scholars.

On 28 July 1938 in Atlanta, Bright married Carrie Lena McMullen, director of religious education at First Presbyterian Church in that city and a daughter of missionary parents in China. They had two sons. John Bright died in Richmond on 26 March 1995 and was buried at the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia Cemetery at Hampden-Sydney College. He left his large library to the seminary.

Sources Consulted:
Birth date and personal and professional information from archives, alumni records, files on deceased faculty members, and oral history videotapes, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.; "How to Win Funds and Influence PeopleóDr. John Bright Knows," Star and Lamp of Pi Kappa Phi (May 1954): 4–5 (portrait), 13; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 Nov. 1952, 1 Feb. 1965, 15 June, 5 July 1968, 8 Nov. 1975; Richmond News Leader, 4 Jan. 1956, 19 Feb. 1966, 17 May 1975; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 28 Mar. 1995 (portrait), and New York Times, 1 Apr. 1995.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Daphne Gentry and G. Scott Henry.

How to cite this page:
Daphne Gentry and G. Scott Henry,"John Bright (1908–1995)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001, rev. 2019 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Bright_John, accessed [today's date]).

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