The world lost a brilliant young American religious history scholar over the Thanksgiving holiday. And those of us who were lucky enough to know Sarah Hammond lost a funny, quick-witted, loyal, overthinky, compassionate, scrupulous, empathetic, and delightfully nerdy presence in our lives—whether that presence was expressed in the role of friend, colleague, teacher, student, aunt, daughter, or sister.
Mark Oppenheimer and Linn Tonstad have already written tributes, and they capture well Sarah’s brilliance, quirkiness, compassion, and scholarly promise. I don’t have a lot to add to what they wrote, beyond just sharing the context in which I was lucky enough to know her. Sarah and I, through a stroke of good fortune on my part, were assigned to the same five-person suite our freshman year of college. A couple of arcane theological jokes later and we realized we were fellow religion nerds. In short order we were good friends, because that’s typically how it goes with religion nerds. We both majored in religious studies and went on for PhDs in related fields, which made it easy to keep in touch. In fact, we roomed together at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting just a week and a half ago. I had no idea that she had only days left to live. I prefer to think that she didn’t either.
In classical antiquity, the mind was sometimes envisioned as a malleable wax tablet that could receive and store impressions of things. Sarah’s mind was a wax tablet that couldn’t not receive impressions. She couldn’t turn it off. Whether she had the energy for it or not, her mind would attempt to take in the whole world and all its history, all the time. Her senior year, for example, Sarah became consumed by a research project on bladderball. Bladderball was a weird Yale tradition involving a giant inflatable ball and rowdy undergraduate behavior, but Sarah saw a bigger story about aristocracy and meritocracy, changing gender norms, and a bunch of other things that I’d give anything to hear her frenetically explain again. Here’s the thing: this was not her senior thesis. Oh, many people remember it as her senior thesis, and it was certainly thesis-length, but no. She did her thesis on something else. The bladderball thing was mostly just for fun, because she found it interesting. And by golly, she made it interesting to a lot of other people too.
Sarah was the friend many of us turned to when we were sad. (Once, in college, she made me a mix tape called “Hymns for Sarahs” to help get me through a despondent period.) Part of why she was able to do this was that she knew inner darkness more intimately, I guess, than the rest of us. It really seems like the most creative and supple minds—the very minds that can grasp subtle shades in meaning, banishing distortion with the light of nuance—are most prone to the distorting effects of depression. Why is that? Sarah could pick apart the historical and theological antecedents to the Left Behind series. She could give support, comfort, encouragement, and empathy to anyone who felt like the world was too much. Why was she the only person who didn’t see all the things she’d given to others, and all the promise that lay ahead?
Rest in peace, Sarah. And may all who are grieving her loss or any loss, and all those afflicted by a sadness that won’t go away, find peace.