Gomes was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the son of Orissa, née White, and Peter Lobo Gomes. His father was from the Cape Verde Islands and his mother was African-American. DNA testing revealed that he was likely descended from the Tikar from Cameroon and Fulani and Hausa peoples of West Africa, and that his patrilineal line likely leads to some Sephardic Jewish ancestry. He was baptized as a Roman Catholic, but later became an American Baptist.
After earning his AB from Bates College in 1965 and STB from Harvard Divinity School in 1968, Gomes was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts, (where he occasionally preached throughout his life). After a two-year tenure at Tuskeegee, he returned in 1970 to Harvard, where he became Pusey Minister in Harvard's nondenominational Memorial Church, and in 1974 was made Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.
Gomes was a leading expert on early American religiosity. On faculty at both Harvard's Divinity School and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Gomes taught graduate and undergraduate courses — his History of Harvard and Its Presidents explored the interplay between shifting religious attitudes and changes in national (and educational) politics in America — and served as faculty adviser of the Harvard Ichthus.
In 2000, he delivered The University Sermon before The University of Cambridge, England, and The Millennial Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, England; and he presented The Beecher Lectures on Preaching, in Yale Divinity School.
Gomes was also a visiting professor at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Profiled by Robert Boynton in The New Yorker, and interviewed by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes, Gomes was included in the premiere issue of Talk magazine as part of its feature article, "The Best Talkers in America: Fifty Big Mouths We Hope Will Never Shut Up."
Hospitalized after a stroke in December, 2010, Gomes hoped to return to Memorial Church in time for the following Easter. He died on February 28, 2011.
Speakers at his memorial service at the Memorial Church on April 6, 2011, included Derek C. Bok, a former president of Harvard University; Drew Gilpin Faust, president of the University; and Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts.
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