Meet Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner: Posted 9/99

Frederick Buechner’s literary talent has garnered universal acclaim in both secular and Christian publishing circles. His multiple awards include a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Godric in 1980. And though the controversial content of some of his novels has raised eyebrows among some Christians, there’s no doubt that his deep underlying faith has shaped his memorable works.

Frederick’s early childhood was hardly a catalyst for belief in a loving God. Born July 11, 1926, in New York City, he was just 10 years old when his father committed suicide. Although Frederick and his younger brother Jamie witnessed their mother and grandmother trying to revive the man from carbon monoxide poisoning, Frederick respected his mother’s desire to keep it a family secret.

Following the tragic death, the family moved to Bermuda, but returned to America during World War II evacuations. Frederick attended boarding school in New Jersey, earned a degree at Princeton University, served in the army from 1944–46, and then returned to the boarding school to teach English and begin his first novel. When published in 1950, A Long Day’s Dying was praised in publications like The New York Times, Life, Time, and Newsweek for its poignant and insightful look at human relationships.

Frederick moved to New York to write full-time, and began attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. The sermons of famed pastor George Buttrick not only converted Frederick to Christianity, they inspired him to enroll at Union Theological Seminary. After taking a year off from his studies to marry Judith Friedrike Merck and write The Return of Ansel Gibbs (which won the Rosenthal Award), Frederick completed his degree in 1958 and was ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church.

From then on, Frederick’s works would follow a different theme: one centered on spiritual rebirth and religious life. Writing in The New York Times, Elizabeth Janeway explained, "Part of Frederick Buechner is a writer of imagination and insight. Part of him is a man with a Christian mission so strong that he decided to enter the Presbyterian ministry. There is no reason why the two shouldn’t combine to write excellent and powerful novels." And yet Frederick’s efforts to marry his artistic, humorous side with his spiritual side have generated differing opinions. One reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented that ". . . there is something disconcerting about a minister who can write a novel . . . containing some vivid sex scenes and a four-letter word or two." On the other hand, many Christians have said that Buechner’s powerfully realistic books have reawakened and deepened their faith.

Frederick became chairman of the department of religion at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, but his work there—and at home raising three daughters: Katherine, Dinah, and Sharman—left little time for writing. Believing that his writing is a ministry, in 1967 he moved to an isolated farm near Rupert, Vermont, to write full-time again. His novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, meditations, and nonfiction books are numerous and noteworthy. His three autobiographical titles, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets (in which he finally revealed the full story of his father’s death) are more personal accounts of the life of this remarkable preacher, teacher, and writer.

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