The Late President Wayland

THE last Sunday of October, 1823, dripped a chill farewell on the streets of Boston. The papers had given notice of a sermon to be preached before the Baptist Foreign Mission Society ; yet few were found, punctual to the hour, wending their way along the wet plank walk, and down the narrow alley, to the unsightly wooden meeting-house at the North End where the service had been appointed. Nor did the interior of the little sanctuary seem much more inviting. So cheerless was it that the preacher shivered through his duties buttoned in a stout surtout; in his case, fortunately, a slight impediment to oratorical display, since he profited little in any bodily exercise, save as he now and then drew one hand from his pocket to turn a leaf. So he stood, a young man of seven-and-twenty, with stooping shoulders, and spare, ungainly frame; his sallow complexion casting into more marked relief his dark, deepset eyes, and his strangely arched eyebrows. Neither fame nor influence enforced his words. Son of an English currier, who in the latter part of the preceding century had settled in New York, and afterwards forsook a profitable trade to become a Baptist preacher, he had breathed from birth an air charged with sturdy religious principle. With inherited fidelity to his convictions, after completing his course at Union College he abandoned the profession for which he was in part prepared, and followed the example of his father. A single year at Andover — where his means were so straitened that he had once to choose between a coat and a copy of Schleusner’s Lexicon — summed up his study of theology, yet he had made such diligent use of his time, that, when the call was given him to become pastor of the First Baptist Church in Boston, Moses Stuart urged him to accept, for the reason “that his society in Boston was the best place in this country to begin the cure of that malady that reigned among his brethren on the subject of educating preachers.” The consciousness that he had been thus put forward to promote the combined interests “of Evangelical religion and literature among the Baptists” naturally led the young minister to cultivate a style of preaching which most of his hearers neither relished nor approved; and as he delivered himself, the evening already mentioned, of one and another of his stately and sonorous periods, it is not unlikely that the catastrophe at Troas might have been repeated, had the crowded condition of the pews forced any of the congregation to seek accommodation in the windows. To say the least, the discourse kindled no enthusiasm; and, with pardonable chagrin, the preacher next morning flung himself upon a lounge in the study of a friend, exclaiming, “ It was a complete failure, — it fell perfectly dead.” It chanced, however, that among the hearers was a shrewd printer, withal a deacon in the church, who insisted that the sermon should be put to press. “ I was brought,” said the author, “seemingly by accident, into a position in which I was obliged, really against my will, to publish it.” Never was author’s judgment more happily overruled. The first edition, which made its appearance in December, was at once exhausted. A second and a third directly followed. The discourse on “The Moral Dignity of the Missionary Enterprise” marks, indeed, an era in the history of modern missions. It struck a chord that sounded far beyond the confines of sect or country. A leading Presbyterian magazine, published in Virginia, reviewed it with high praise ; it was reprinted in England, where it passed through many editions ; and Robert Hall, whose splendid faculties disease had not yet clouded, is said, on reading it, to have predicted still greater distinction for the preacher. And three years later, the Presidency of Brown University becoming vacant by the resignation of Dr. Messer, Francis Wayland was elected to the office almost by acclamation.

When near the close of his career, and when physical infirmity and the seeming failure of some favorite schemes had perhaps imbittered his more recent recollections, Dr. Wayland expressed the feeling that he had erred in relinquishing his parish. “ With my present judgment,” he writes, in an autobiographical sketch with which he solaced the leisure of some of his later days, “ I should have remained where I was.” But who will be found to echo this opinion ? Who will refuse to count those fates propitious that called him to the shores of the Narragansett ? Though not a Rhode-Islander after the flesh, he yet belonged to the true spiritual seed of Roger Williams. For him the difference between Providence and Boston was not in latitude alone. Had he remained in Massachusetts, the straight lines of sect would have still enclosed him; in his new home, he came into contact with broader interests, and breathed a freer air. In the organization of the College, described in its charter as “catholic and liberal,” four distinct forms of faith were recognized; and the most intimate associate of the new President, an associate whose genial contact may be traced in his whole subsequent development, was a member of the Protestant Episcopal communion. Who can doubt that Dr. Wayland was more a man for the change he made ? We reconcile ourselves to the loss of a few sermons on the evils of infant baptism, for the sake of the most vigorous assault upon utilitarian ethics that has appeared in the present century. We can never regret a step which, at a time when the sophisms of the Protective system were held in New England as hardly less sacred than the injunctions of the decalogue, gave us, in one of our chief seats of learning, a bold advocate of correct principles of trade.

Two sons of President Wayland have just discharged a sacred debt, and at the same time rendered a most valuable service, in tracing the successive stages of his long and useful career. The record is full, yet there is little in it that one could wish away. The volumes will be widely read, and we spare ourselves any analysis of their impressive chapters. A life of heroic strain, sedulously devoted to all highest interests, it still invigorates with its stern resolve and unselfish mood. The leading aspects are, of course, familiar. How he poured into a languishing institution the power of his own life, placing it by his untiring energy, in the front ranks of New England colleges ; how he kindled such enthusiasm, and enforced such mental discipline, that his pupils, like those of Dr. Arnold, soon came to be recognized as a distinct and peculiar race ; how he suggested changes in the method of academic study that our leading universities are now hastening to adopt,— need not be repeated here. He left his mark on the college system of America, and posterity will yield him the praise that he never received while living. But it is not the career of the college president so much as the inner history of the man, that gives these volumes their peculiar interest. To many readers they must reveal him in an aspect altogether new ; for while his imperial qualities of mind and will were patent to all, his great, tender, and loving heart revealed itself only to those who knew him best. The genial features are wisely left by his biographers to stand forth in lines of his own projecting. The little journal, for example, of household incidents, that he kept for his sick and absent child, telling the exploits of Ned the terrier, and recording the death of the top-knot pullet, pictures the man better than a dozen Essays on the Limitations of Human Responsibility.

Yet who, after all, that knew Dr. Wayland, will be likely to accept any biography of him as satisfactory ? No analysis of his intellectual qualities, no summary of his personal characteristics, could set him forth. What power in his very presence, defying all description, as the most speaking faces defy the art of the photographer ! What reserved force, sleeping in silent depths till stirred by great occasion! Such as know him only from his writings have gained no adequate impression of the man. There are works that seem vitalized with a writer’s personality. In the vascular sentences of the immortal Essais we clasp hands, across the chasm of three centuries, with the owner of that quaint tower that still looks down the valley of the Dordogne ; and in the pensive periods of the SketchBook we almost catch the beat of Irving’s heart. But what suggestion of flesh and blood was ever associated with a text-book of Moral Science or of Political Economy? Who would infer the uproarious fun of Luther from his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, or trace in the pages of “The Wealth of Nations” the winsome traits of Adam Smith ? Not even in his printed sermons is Dr. Wayland presented with entire accuracy, for, much as he commended an “ unlearned ministry,” he somehow himself selected for publication his more ornate and elaborate productions. He appears in some of these as he used to appear, arrayed in cap and gown, in the stately ceremonial of Commencement-day ; or as he will appear to posterity in the stiff full-length portrait, hanging in Rhode Island Hall, which as an achievement of high art in wood is only equalled by a work of the same artist, — the picture of Mr. Webster in his reply to Hayne, that usurps so undue a share of Faneuil Hall. How little does all this resemble the image so vividly recalled as we turn the pages of these volumes ! That little, ill-lighted chapel, long since numbered among the things that were, with its wide gallery, its narrow dais, its benches carved all over with the images and superscriptions of successive generations, in painful compliance with the monkish maxim, that to labor is to pray ! How distinct, even now, sounds that heavy tread along the narrow hall ! with what emphasis that burly form bursts through the door and up the steps ! with what terrific frown that brow at once is clouded as impatient Sophomores beat, with their heels, an unseemly march ! with what utter disregard of conventional proprieties, yet with what genuine and awful sense of divine sanctities, the voice roils out the strains of Hebrew David, and anon melts in humble, fervent prayer !

Never did Dr. Wayland seem so grand, one might almost say inspired, as in those unbidden gushes of emotion that would sometimes convulsively shake his great frame and choke his utterance. The finest paragraph in his missionary sermon would not compare for eloquence with some of those pungent appeals that at times electrified the students at their Wednesday-evening prayer-meeting. How the chapel would be hushed with the stillness of death itself, as, in tremulous accents, and voice sinking to a whisper, he would dwell on the dread responsibilities of the soul ! There was never any cant of stereotyped exhortation, never any attempt to rouse a superficial emotion, but always direct appeal to conscience and to all the highest instincts of youthful hearts. In this most difficult task of dealing with young men at the crises of their spiritual history, Dr. Wayland was unsurpassed. How wise and tender his counsels at such a time ! How many who have timidly stolen to his studydoor, their souls burdened with strange thoughts, and bewildered with unaccustomed questionings, remember with what instant appreciation of their errand the green shade was lifted from the eye, the volume thrown aside, and with what genuine, hearty interest that whole countenance would beam. At such an interview he would often read the parable of the returning prodigal ; and who that heard can ever forget the pathos with which he would dwell upon the words, “ But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him ” ? These were the moments when the springs of his nature were revealed.

Sometimes in ordinary social intercourse he would burst forth in the same unpremeditated strain. I recall an evening passed with him not very long before his death, when in the course of conversation some question was raised respecting the sincerity of Cromwell, always one of his favorite heroes. Taking up a volume of Carlyle’s “ Life and Letters ” that lay on the table, he read aloud the prayer that the Protector uttered when dying, and with such solemnity, such feeling, such unction, that one might almost fancy that it was the voice itself of the great Puritan, wrestling with the last enemy. “ Then,” said he, throwing the volume down, “ tell me that man was a hypocrite !” Nothing was more marked in Dr. Wayland than the naturalness with which he would glide from common topics to grave and high discourse.

Those who have heard of Dr. Wayland, for almost a generation, as the head of a literary institution, or who are familiar with the glowing traditions of his lecture-room, will be surprised to learn that he never regarded himself as possessing any special aptitude for teaching. “ I may here observe,” are his own words, “ that I have never considered myself in any manner peculiarly adapted to the work of an instructor. It seemed my duty to undertake the labor, and I honestly attempted to discharge that duty as well as I knew how. When, however, I compare myself with Pestalozzi, Dr. Arnold, and other teachers, who have apparently been endowed with every faculty needed for their calling, and with an intense love for it, I am compelled to feel and confess my vast deficiency.” The place to which he always looked with greatest reverence was a seat upon the bench. Thus, after he had resigned the Presidency, he writes to a friend : “ The only position the world could offer me which I have thought I should like, is that of a judge of a court whose decisions involved grave questions of right.”

Nor will this surprise those who, acquainted with his mental tendencies, recall some of his favorite illustrations. We find him, as a child, puzzling his brain with legal phrases. He delighted in the biography of great lawyers, and was always holding up the examples of Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Hardwicke, Lord Ellenborough, Sir Samuel Romilly, and, in this country, of Chief Justice Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, and Jeremiah Mason. The speeches of Erskine, which he had almost by heart, he regarded as the most consummate models of forensic reasoning in the English language. When in England, he was nowhere so profoundly impressed as in Westminster Hall. The Queen’s procession to Parliament he sets down as a " slipshod affair”; but in describing the courts of law he kindles into real eloquence. “ Before me,” says he, “ on every bench, were the lights of the world.”

Dr. Wayland was never distinctively a literary man, but only a man of powerful intellect, determined by circumstances to a literary career. He agreed, with the author of “ Christian Morals,” that “ they do most by books, who could do much without them ; and he that chiefly owes himself unto himself is the substantial man.” In cast of mind he was English, or, what means nearly the same thing, insular. Had he been born within sound of Bow-bells he could not have written more ludicrous criticisms upon French character than his journal shows. The results of German speculation he regarded with the same incredulity with which Dugald Stewart viewed the literature of the Hindoos ; although the study of Kant would have shown him how one of his own favorite maxims —that logic should not transgress the limits of finite truth — involved a principle of which the “Critique of Pure Reason” was simply the expansion. To his relative, the Rev. Dr. Bartol, he confesses, “ I have never read any of Calvin’s works.” He always had respect to practical ends : “ We do well,” said he, in an address at Norwich, in 1856, “to revere the genius of Milton, and Dante, and Goethe. But there is talent in a cotton-mill as well as in an epic.”

While in his ethical theories he followed Butler, in his vigor and clearness of expression and love of axiomatic statements he not unfrequently reminds us of a writer whose views were the reverse of Butler’s, — Thomas Hobbes. Sentences might be picked from the “ Leviathan” that strikingly resemble some in the “ Moral Science.” “ Every man has a right to himself,” says the Rhode Island President. “ Every man has a right to everything,” says the philosopher of Malmesbury. Both held in suspicion all attempts at “ declining the force of true reason by verbal forks.” The vigorous line which Cowley addressed to Hobbes might with equal force be applied to Wayland, —

“ The mighty limbs of thy gigantic Sense.”

Few men, in fact, equalled Dr. Wayland in terse and pregnant utterance. “ In a ten minutes’ off-hand speech,” writes the accomplished President of the Cornell University, “he did more to shape my plans of life than any other person has ever done.” How forcibly he describes himself! “ I am built railroad fashion. I can go forwards, and, if necessary, back ; but I can’t go sideways.”

A nature so energetic and abounding could be confined in no single channel. Dr. Wayland was always vastly more than a mere college president. While, during his official career, he refused, on principle, to take any part in political contests, he irrepressibly overflowed into all social and philanthropic enterprises. For wellnigh forty years no important step was taken to promote the public good, in which he did not powerfully co-operate. He gave his voice and his purse to every charity in Providence, from the humble Fuel Society to the stately Hospital whose towers are the chief architectural adornment of the city. Even Massachusetts owes to him the suggestion of her splendid system of public libraries. And although he held no civil office save that of Inspector of the Prison, in which capacity some of his most untiring and affecting labors were performed, yet by common consent he was viewed by the community as its foremost citizen. Of this estimation a most impressive proof was furnished. It was on that dreadful day, when treason had done its worst, and when the nation was reeling with the blow that had smitten its elected chief. A hurried notice was posted in the afternoon, that such citizens as felt disposed would wait on Dr. Wayland, for words of comfort in the appalling sorrow. Night came, and with it rain. On such a night had the young preacher faced his scanty congregation so many years before. But what mattered rain and darkness now ? On thronged the vast and silent column, led by a band, whose measured dirge wailed up the steep hill and along the awe-struck street. Should Rhode Island ever erect a statue to the noblest Roman whose name is written in her history, let the cunning hand of the sculptor chisel him as he stood that night, and by his own door, his gray locks waving in the wind, but with eye undimmed and natural force unabated, bidding his fellow-citizens be of good cheer, for the Lord on high was mightier than the noise of many waters, — his words finding fit response in the solemn burden of the psalm that swelled through the leafless branches against the overhanging blackness of the heavens.

  1. A Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, by his Sons. New York : Sheldon & Co.