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1921 Dr. James 2022

Dr. James Phillips Noble

August 18, 1921 — March 12, 2022

Dr. James Phillips Noble was born on August 18, 1921 on a farm near the small town of Learned, Mississippi.  His father was William Alexander Noble, who was born in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.  His mother was Ida Pecquet Phillips, who died when Dr. Noble was just two and a half years old.  He was the eighth of nine children.  His father had already lost two wives prior to the death of Dr. Noble’s mother, leaving him with nine children to raise.


His grandfather came to Mississippi from the upcountry of South Carolina, where his family had lived since 1750, a part of the Calhoun, Pickens and Noble clans who had emigrated from Scotland/Ireland.  From the time they settled in South Carolina, his extended family was quite involved in the political issues of their day.  His ancestors include General Andrew Pickens of the Revolutionary War, John C. Calhoun, Vice President of U.S., Edward Noble, who called the meeting for secession in Abbeville, SC in 1860, and three governors of South Carolina: Andrew Pickens, Jr., Francis Wilkinson Pickens and Patrick Noble. His maternal grandmother, Ida Cary Pecquet Phillips, came to the U.S. at the age of four from Paris, France.  Her grandfather, Dr. Louis Joseph Pecquet du Bellet, was a surgeon in the army of Napoleon I and her parents were in the French Court of Napoleon II. Her family dates back to the sixteenth century in France.  He had a very strong family heritage from both sides of his family, which was very important to him and was passed on to his children.  Many delightful family trips were spent exploring family history sites.


Dr. Noble grew up on a share cropper farm, playing with his brother, 12 months older, and the children of the African American share croppers.  He used to comment that even at that young age he had some awareness of the plight of blacks in the harsh system of segregation.


He often delighted the family telling humorous stories of growing up on the farm, raising pigs, riding horses, growing crops, milking cows, hoeing and picking cotton and the many other chores a farm requires.  He often talked about their bird dogs and his love of hunting quail.


His early education was in a three room school house in Learned for grades 1-8, with grades 9-12 at Raymond High School.  He was involved in the 4-H club and won a trip to Chicago when he was 14 years old for growing the most corn on an acre.  During his junior high and high school years he participated in sports, specifically football and baseball.  He came from a very athletic family.  His oldest brother, Dudy Noble, was the athletic director and baseball coach at Mississippi State for over 30 years and was in the Olympic trials.  


During his early teen years he was very involved in the youth group at the Learned Presbyterian Church.  When he was 14 years old, he said “yes” to God.  He often talked about this experience and showed the family the church pew where he was sitting when he made that commitment.  He considered that decision to be one of the defining moments of his life.  In the high school days that followed, he decided to become a Presbyterian minister.  


In 1939 he went to King College and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in English and History in 1943.  He then attended Columbia Theological Seminary, graduating in 1945 with a Masters of Divinity in Ministry, followed by ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1945.


During his seminary years he met Betty Pope Scott Noble (Popesy), the great-great-granddaughter of Agnes Irvine Scott for whom Agnes Scott College is named.  They were married September 4, 1945 and began their life of shared ministry.  Their first ministry (1945-1947) was in two churches, McDonough Presbyterian Church in McDonough, Georgia and Timberridge Presbyterian Church, also in McDonough. Their second ministry (1947-1956) was the Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, where their three children, Betty, Phillips and Scott were born.  


Their third ministry was First Presbyterian Church in Anniston, Alabama, where they served from 1956-1971.  While in Anniston, a beautiful new church building was erected.  During these years Dr. Noble was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and chaired a city appointed Biracial Human Relations Council that successfully led the integration movement in the city.  President John F. Kennedy lauded the council and its work as a “model” for other Southern cities.  These years were very turbulent in the South and Dr. Noble and his wife bravely took on the role, in spite of the ever-present risks and dangers, because they felt it was “the right” thing to do.  Only years later did he find out about the Ku Klux Klan plans to kill him and bomb his church.  He had the dubious honor of being number one on the hit list for the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.  He checked his car every morning to see if a bomb had been put in the car.  He was so humble about his role that his family had to beg him for forty years to write about his experiences during those years.  In 1961, Anniston was the site of the burning of the Freedom Rider’s Bus, a major incident in the Civil Rights Movement.  His first book, Beyond the Burning Bus:  The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town, tells the story of his involvement in Anniston.  


In 1971, when Dr. Noble left Anniston, the City Council passed a special resolution written by Dr. Gordon A. Rodgers, a black dentist who was the first black person on the city’s governing board.  The resolution read: “All too seldom there comes to a community a man who in truth is a ‘man for all seasons.’  A man who serves the community in troubled times and in times secure.  A man who was so often the bridge over troubled waters.  A man who had the great faculty for bringing out the best in all of us.  A man whose dedication to God and his fellow man knew no limits-even when faced with great personal tragedy*.  Such a man is the Revered J. Phillips Noble.  On behalf of a grateful city, we, the Anniston City Council, extend to him our sincerest thanks-and we wish him Godspeed in all his future endeavors.” Passed and Adopted this 20th day of July, 1971.

*A reference to the death of Dr. Noble’s thirteen-year-old son, Scott, who died of leukemia in 1968.


Some years later, an article in the Anniston Star on November 22, 2013 referred to his role in the Civil Rights Movement in these words, “To many, James Phillips Noble is a hero, and for good reason, as he was an active participant in history.  To many in Anniston and Calhoun County, his name is synonymous with courage and hope, change and the power of the human spirit to stand for what’s right.”   Because of his role in the Civil Rights Movement, his outstanding work in his local congregation and also in the Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly, in 1971 he was awarded an honorary degree, Doctorate of Divinity, from Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College.


During the years in Anniston he experienced the loss of his youngest son, Milton Scott Noble (“Scott”), at age 13 to leukemia.  This very painful experience resulted in his second book, Getting Beyond Tragedy.  The Milton Scott Noble award was presented at his junior high school for many years to the student that best exhibited the characteristics of Scott.  At Camp Comer, the Boy Scout Camp he attended in Mentone, Alabama, the Milton Scott Noble Chapel was established in his memory.


During his years in Anniston, Dr. Noble was chair of the committee that built the mental health center.  He served on the Board of Stillman, an African American College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  He also served on the Board of Trustees at Columbia Theological Seminary for 26 years, being chair for five years.  Having previously studied at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1966, he returned to England in the fall of 1971 with his wife and son, Phillips, spending a year studying at Cambridge University.


From 1972-1982, Dr. Noble served as minister at historic First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, in Charleston, S.C.  The church was founded in 1731, the year before George Washington was born.  Being in Charleston and at First (Scots) gave him a deepened sense of history.   He was later honored by being named Pastor Emeritus of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church.  


In 1982, he accepted the position of Executive Secretary of the Board of Annuities and Relief of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. and moved to Decatur, Georgia.  He was Co-President of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church, USA (1986-1989), when reunion of the Presbyterian Church occurred.  Although retiring in 1989, he continued his work in the role of Pastor to Pastors in the Greater Atlanta Presbytery from 1992-1996.


In his career in the Presbyterian Church, which spanned approximately fifty years, he served in many roles as a minister, pastor, preacher, social justice advocate, mentor, administrator and author.  


During his years in the ministry he was honored by being invited to preach on three different occasions at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland and at the Shitka Church in China.  He was also honored by being awarded the Columbia Theological Seminary Alumni/Alumnae Distinguished Service Award in 1991.  


Dr. Noble’s work was not confined to the United States, but extended to other countries.  He participated in several mission trips abroad, the most noteworthy being the trips to Zaire in 1982 and Brazil in 1986.  He conducted a workshop on “The Church and Democracy” in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1990, just after the collapse of Communism.  He traveled extensively on six continents, making numerous trips abroad, often involving church members and friends on the trips he and his wife hosted.  A very significant trip was in 1972, retracing the journeys of Paul.


In his retirement he continued his love of writing.  He was the author of four published books, Beyond the Burning Bus:  The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town, 2003, New South Books, Getting Beyond Tragedy: A Minister’s Search for Answers to the ‘Why, God?’ Question Which Torments Grieving Families, 2005, New South Books, Words and Images that Seep into the Soul, 2013, Wipf and Stock Publishers, and his most recent book, Words That Stretch the Mind and Lift the Spirit, 2018, New South Books.  He also wrote several unpublished works, including Twenty Poems for Those Attaining Three Score and Ten Years by An Octogenarian and countless other poems.  The title of another unpublished work, Led by a Gentle Providence:  A Memoir, captures the sentiment of gratitude he felt so deeply and often expressed. Throughout his life, from his early boyhood experiences on the farm in Learned, Mississippi, when he stretched out on the grass, looked up at the white clouds in the blue sky and wondered what his life would be like, he felt the gentle providence of God leading and blessing his life.  He wrote in his memoir, “Through all my life, as I look back over it, I feel that I have been led or guided by a gentle providence.  I never applied for a call to a church or any other church job.  I never sought any of the honors that have come to me.  And yet, the good and wonderful things that have happened to me, far exceeding what I ever dreamed of when I was a young child, seem to me to be like a gentle, loving and gracious God has had his eye and hand on me from my childhood to the present time.  My gratitude is enormous.”


At the time of his 100th birthday, New South Books published a pamphlet entitled, “Reflections on My Journey: Turning 100,” to honor him and his life dedicated to human kindness, compassion and social justice. The reflection was written in response to the question about how he ended up on the right side of history, growing up on a sharecropper farm in Mississippi. He writes that even at a very young age he had a sense something was wrong with a system that did not provide education and other opportunities for the children of sharecroppers he grew up playing with on the farm.


He was married to Betty Pope Scott Noble (Popesy) for 67 years until her death on August 7, 2012.  He established the Betty Pope Scott Noble College Heritage Center at Agnes Scott College in her honor in 2011.  He was the last survivor of his eight brothers and sisters.  Other surviving family include a daughter, Dr. Betty Scott Noble, a son, James Phillips Noble, Jr., an “adopted” daughter, Jean Cleveland, of Greenville, South Carolina, two grandchildren, James Phillips Noble, III and Lizzie Madden Noble, a daughter-in-law, Nancy Madden, of Charleston, S.C., as well as numerous nieces and nephews and extended family in Mississippi and Arkansas.  In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Dr. James Phillips Noble Scholarship Fund at Columbia Theological Seminary, the Milton Scott Noble Scholarship Fund at Columbia Theological Seminary, the Youth and/or Mission Program at Decatur Presbyterian Church, or the Betty Pope Scott Noble College Heritage Center at Agnes Scott College.


Dr. James Phillips Noble, 100 years old, died on Saturday, March 12, 2022 at home in Decatur, Georgia. A Celebration of Life will be held at Decatur Presbyterian Church on Monday, April 11 at 3:00pm, followed by a reception. A private graveside service for family and close friends will be held at 2:00pm in Decatur Cemetery.


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Service Schedule

Past Services

Memorial Service

Monday, April 11, 2022

Starts at 3:00 pm (Eastern time)

Decatur Presbyterian Church

205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030

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