In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. James E. Dittes

In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. James E. Dittes

The Rev. Dr. James E. Dittes, who wrote about and taught the Psychology of Religion at Yale University Divinity School for 47 years, died on August 24, 2009, at his home in Hamden, CT after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.

Dr. Dittes was born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, the only child of Mary Freeman Dittes and Mercein E. Dittes.  After his first year at Oberlin College, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy serving as a radio technician in the Pacific during WWII.  He returned to Oberlin after the war to earn his BA in 1949, when he married Frances Skinner.  He immediately enrolled in the degree program at Yale Divinity School.  After only a year he took a leave of absence and he and Frances taught for two years at the American School for Boys in Talas, Turkey, under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) of the Congregational Churches.  At that time, the historic Muslim resistance to missionary proselytizing made it illegal to overtly discuss religion in the classroom.  Nonetheless, he believed that during his time there as a teacher he was able to share Christian values with his students.

In an article about his missionary experience in Turkey, Dr. Dittes wrote, “The Christian teacher here is forced to distil out what is truly vital in his faith.  In doing so he realizes that Turkish restrictions apply largely to lesser things.  He is perfectly free to communicate many of the rich basic values of the Christian faith.  For this, he finds a welcome.  All that is needed is the daring and the imagination to develop a new means of communication.”

Dr. Dittes was ordained into the Christian ministry in 1954 by the Cleveland Baptist Association.  He published numerous articles and books, including Psychology and Religion: An Unfinished Dialogue; Ministers on the Spot; Vocational Guidance of Theological Students: A Manual for the Use of the Theological School Inventory; Re-calling Ministry; Pastoral Counseling: The Basics; and Men at Work: Life Beyond the Office.  He served as Executive Secretary, journal editor, and President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and held Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.

Dr. Dittes will be remembered by several generations of students as a teacher of pastoral theology who straddled the disciplines of psychology and religion, instrumental in helping future ministers shape the way they put their faith into practice, especially on the practical level of interaction with parishioners.  He was keenly interested in the way religious values are communicated, not only in church settings but also in the secular world, and believed firmly in the value of teaching by example.

He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Anne Hebert Smith, and by his former wife of 30 years, Frances S. Dittes; his three daughters, Nancy Dittes (Curt Johnson) of Branford, CT, Carolyn Dittes (Frank McNamara) of Acton MA, and Joanne Dittes Yepsen of Saratoga Springs NY; and six grandchildren.  His son, Larry, died in 1959.

A service in celebration of Dr. Dittes’ life and ministry was held on Sunday, September 13, at the Yale Divinity School Marquand Chapel in New Haven, CT.  Contributions in lieu of flowers can be sent to the Connecticut Parkinson’s Association (“Restrict for Research”), 27 Allendale Dr., North Haven, CT 06473; to the James E. Dittes Scholarship at Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511; or to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, 205 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06511.

Messages of condolence can be sent to Ms. Anne Hebert Smith, 200 Leeder Hill Dr Apt 300A, Hamden, CT 06517-2727, or Ms. Frances Dittes, 75 Washington Street, Apt 1-208, Hamden, CT, 06518.