Associate Professor James Deming Retires - Princeton Theological Seminary

Long before he embarked on a 30-year career teaching modern European church history at Princeton Theological Seminary, Associate Professor James Deming was called to an entirely different playing field.

He was set on pursuing a life as a soccer pro — and even was drafted by the Seattle Sounders. He soon learned, though, that he wasn’t destined for a life in the majors and heeded another call: to teach the history of the modern church in Europe on its own terms — not as a reflection of theological belief.

Deming is considering his own history and future these days as he and his wife set up housekeeping back in their native Washington state, near family and his still beloved Seattle Sounders.

“I admit it was a little heartbreaking to not make it past practice player in soccer,” he says. “But I don’t regret it. That put me on the course that brought me to Princeton Seminary.”

He is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University, where he completed a degree in history while he played all four years for the school’s title-winning soccer team. He worked in inside sales for a construction company for a while before turning to writing his own history.

Raised in a fundamentalist evangelical family, he grew farther and farther away from his roots as he went through college and felt the sting of judgment. Some fellow students looked down on those who played sports and didn’t consider them serious about their piety. He recalls times when students who learned he was involved in soccer and sports simply turned and walked away.

The judgment in the name of righteousness that was so much a part of his young life had turned on him.

The pastor of his church – he and his wife were attending a Presbyterian Church after graduating – recommended he read Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

“That book brought me back to a place where I understood that Christianity and education or academia could go together. The reason I chose Notre Dame over other schools was because I wanted to do church history in a history department, not a theology department.”

His choice was liberating and shaped his teaching for the rest of his career. “My students know exactly where I stand,” he says with a smile. “They sometimes refer to me as the historical evangelist.”

After graduating from Notre Dame, he landed his first tenure-track teaching spot at Penn State-Shenango in western Pennsylvania.

I admit it was a little heartbreaking to not make it past practice player in soccer,” he says. “But I don’t regret it. That put me on the course that brought me to Princeton Seminary.

“We moved there as the last steel mill was closing and the town was in shock. They don’t prepare you in grad school for dealing with students in this situation. About 40 percent of my students were women – wives and daughters of the mill workers – trying to get a nursing degree so they could become the primary earner for their family. The psychological stress for these students was strong.”

“But they were among my favorite students because they were sacrificing a lot, even fighting resistance from their own homes to get by.”

Deming will take some time off post-retirement, seeing family, hiking, and camping. But he will miss his Princeton Seminary life.

On Deming’s impact on Princeton Seminary, President Walton reflects, “For thirty years, Professor Deming approached teaching and engagement with students at Princeton Seminary with the same passion and love that he displayed on the soccer field. If you ask any former student, they will tell you that his love of church history was inspiring.“

“I’m going to miss the classroom. I’ll miss the students. But, it’s time,” he says. “We have a granddaughter 22 months old, another one on the way. And I get to go home. They say that if you’re from the Pacific Northwest you never really leave it.”

But he won’t be sitting idle. He already is at work on a book covering a couple of his favorite subjects: sports and religion.

The idea was born when Deming decided to offer a one-time lecture on sports and religion. It went over so well; he created a course on the subject.

“So little has been done on sports and religion,” he says. “I think it’s important to study. While I don’t think sports is a religion, it fulfills many of the same social and cultural functions that the Church does – or used to fill.

“On any given weekend, there are going to be more men, women and children in soccer stadiums than in churches. So, we had better pay attention to what’s going on here.”