Theodore Dwight Woolsey: Reminiscences


THE late President Woolsey illustrated as it is given to but few men to do in any generation the significance of the familiar phrase “ weight of character ; ” and in his case, as in some others, the effect of his personality was heightened by an unimposing physique. His person, indeed, though slight, was shapely, and his whole bearing and air expressive of courtesy and refinement; but not until the casual observer noticed his finely-formed head and clear-cut features, and looked into his full-orbed, soulful eyes, did he come to a recognition of the fact that he was in the presence of no common man. Who that has ever felt it can forget that direct, thoughtful, kindly look of his ? The Franklin glasses which he wore lent his gaze a semi-mysterious power, as though he scanned alike the distant and the near in you, your lineaments and the recesses of your inner being. For an acquaintance, the look was the precursor of a quiet smile, full of sympathy and good-will ; not the smile of good-breeding merely, but the expression of the hidden man of the heart. By the men of New Haven of the last decade or so, he is remembered as a slight figure, passing with short, quick steps to and from the postoffice ; more often as one who, with head bowed low and thoughtful mien, his right hand perhaps passed behind his back and locked in the bend of the left elbow, brought to mind the college witticism that “ President Woolsey and ” — another highly esteemed university dignitary “ are the stoopedest men in New Haven.”

The casket hardly prepared you for the jewel ; and the jewel did not flash upon you with any diamond-like corruscations. One of the peculiar charms of

President Woolsey was that he seemed so much like an ordinary man. This companionableness was due alike to the simplicity of his character and the symmetry of his culture. No man could be more free, not only from every taint of the vulgar vices of display and pretense, but from that self-consciousness which unintentionally engenders in others selfrecognition. As you looked back upon an hour spent in his society, you marveled that you had felt so completely at your ease, and had borne your part in the conversation on equal terms. His affability and thorough social considerateness resulted not so much from felicitous endowment or rare equipoise of temperament as from moral traits. It was an illustration of the lesson set forth in that characteristic sermon of his on The Virtues which have Truthfulness for their Basis. His finish of character as respects truthfulness made him one of the noblest specimens of Christian manhood. His loyalty to this virtue was so scrupulous that even in composition, it is said, he would not for the sound’s sake change his word, unless there were also a change in his thought. His more noteworthy exemplifications of it were but verifications of that law which makes little things in the realm of character the guarantee of greater. Governed as he was habitually by candor and an impersonal estimate of the merits of every matter, his virtue only awaited great occasions to become heroic. These occasions came with a frequency which is a gratifying indirect evidence of the general craving and admiration for justice. To be sure, his breadth of knowledge, his patient attention, his spherical good sense, his intuitive quickness in getting at the pith of the matter, were no doubt answerable in part for the fact that he was so often called on to adjust clashing interests and disentangle snarled controversies. But, after all, it was the unfaltering trust in his impartiality which made him to be a judge and a ruler over his fellows. “ Ille est Fabricius qui difficilius ab honestate quam sol a cursu suo averti potest: ” this was the feeling with which men made their appeal to him. More than once has it started a discreditable presumption in a case that his arbitrament was declined, or the conditions on which he would consent to give it were refused; and in more than one instance of historic note has the gathering verdict of mankind verified the presumption. This investiture with judicial prerogatives never stirred him to the least assumption of judicial authority. He owed his ascendency to that celestial law by which the eternal heavens are strong. He rendered his decisions, and left them to stand or fall on their merits. Nor did he become ambitious to be known of men as a peacemaker. The frequency with which lie found himself constrained to withhold thorough approval from both sides made arbitration distasteful to him. More than once, when applied to, has he replied that he must decline unless his friends were clear that it was his duty to serve. Yet this contact with good men at their worst did not render him pessimistic. That spectre of the mind he met and laid, as the following early sonnet front his hand testifies : —

“ I thought, thy kingdom was in haste to
That whatsoe’er was good, or true, or free,
High thought, good fife, pure faith, true
At length had built on earth their lasting
But just as this bright dawn I thought to see,
New clouds arose, the sky began to lower,
Doubt strove with faith, religion lost her
Freedom grew wild, or brought forth slavery.
‘ Are these the hopes of man and earth ? ’
I cried.
‘ Must good and evil bear alternate sway ?
Oh, let there shine or one perpetual day,
Or one black night fall on earth’s hope and
pride. ’
‘ O fool! ’ the sky gave answer, ‘ thus to
Darkness and light both speed God’s glorious way,’ ”

To the last he put his trust in good men as the best earthly foundation. Careful restrictions and statutory safeguards, rigorous pledges and elaborate creeds, he had little confidence in. During the disputes, at times heated, which of late years have agitated the ecclesiastical organizations and institutions with which his sympathy was closest, his judgment has leaned to catholicity. “ It ’s the man you ordain,” he would say, " not the doctrine; the teacher, not the creed. Get the best men you can, and then trust them.” The doctrinal simplicity of the Yale foundations he held to be consummate wisdom. In at least one noted example, where an individual’s faith was generally deemed to be fatally defective. Dr. Woolsey remarked. " There is that in him,” to quote his own sweet Biblical phrase, “ which convinces me he is a man of God, and I trust him.” Accordingly. few persons in recent times have done more than he did to strengthen the moral fibre of good men ; to make cowardice, and compromise, and covert or tortuous diplomacy in religious matters disreputable. It is cheering to believe that in some instances, at least, his steadfast loyalty to truth has borne fruit after its kind, and stirred others to “ deeds of daring rectitude.” In the days when the slavery dispute thrust itself forward on all occasions, he was invited to give an address before a religious organization of young men, and the invitation closed with a caveat against the introduction of the troublesome topic. The invitation was declined significantly; but the young man who sent that caveat has since become one of the most fearless public champions of principle in opposition to current opinion.

The granitic integrity which formed the framework of his character, the truthful simplicity and directness which governed him in word and act. while they contributed to a certain reserve, did not pass over into austerity : a result averted chiefly, as has been intimated, by his principled benevolence, but favored by his sense of humor. To a friend who asked familiarly what he was busied with, he replied, “ I ‘ve spent the last month or two in trying to ascertain whether there ’s an i more or less in a man’s name,”— Quirinus or Quirinius. (Luke ii. 2.) On being served at a restaurant with an over-bountiful supply of meat, he repeated the line of the hymn, “And gives this day the food of seven.” Witty and adroit alike was his answer to a memorial, forwarded to him by the head of one of the higher institutions for the education of girls, which prayed that the privileges of Yale might be thrown open to the female sex: “ We ’ll admit your pupils when you ‘ll open your institution to ours.”

As a teacher, he was marked — if the recollections of the average Yale graduate may he trusted — by fidelity rather than by buoyant enthusiasm. The thoroughness of his own daily work begat in his students, almost before they were aware of it, the like faithful preparation on their part. There was a quiet, steady push in his class-room which made it a place of moral training no less than intellectual. The treasures of learning at his command for every sudden and casual occasion were such as to create universal and profound respect for his attainments. A waggish student once offered to wager that “ he and Woolsey knew more Greek than all the rest of New Haven put together.” Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for him among his old pupils would perhaps he a little hard to explain were we to lose sight of the admiration of generous youth for ingenuousness.

At a public examination, when a student, faithful but of moderate parts, was evidently much abashed at the muddy translation he had given of a difficult passage, the professor quietly passed on with the comment, “ I ’m not quite sure I myself know what that Greek means.”

His scholarship combined, to a degree quite exceptional, breadth and thoroughness. His early professional training, first in law, then in theology, then in philological and general studies abroad, fostered a largeness of outlook and variety of interest which he retained to the last, and which his conscientiousness kept from superficiality. In classical philology and epigraphy this pupil of Hermann and Boeckh and Bopp did for American students the work of a pioneer; while in practical ethics and political science, the thoroughness, good sense, and, above all, the noble tone of his discussions have given them a salutary power over young men unequaled, unless perhaps by those of his friend Professor Lieber, whose fertilizing works Dr. Woolsey’s editorial labors have recently helped to perpetuate. The revival of learning and comparative religion were among the special topics which he handled with evident mastery ; while poetry and botany, as avocations, were subjects in which be took delight. He owned the best books, and he knew how to use them. Patient research, caution, sobriety of judgment, characterized all his work. Nâθϵ και μϵμυασ' απιστϵιυh was a maxim he bore steadily in mind. Hence — to adapt the remark of Baxter respecting Sir Matthew Hale — one of his queries was often worth as much as an ordinary scholar’s opinion.

We hear occasionally, especially from across the water, sickly lamentations over the crudities of American life, and the limited scope it affords for the noblest scholarly gifts and attainments. But academic Europe may be challenged to point to any single scholar of the present generation who has rendered more manifold and worthy service alike to the erudite and the layman, both in the realm of knowledge and of affairs. The university, the church, the state, society at large, have all received from him tangible and imperishable benefactions. One of the brightest of Yale’s many crowns, his memory is a national possession and an abiding inspiration. Once and again was his advice sought by the authorities at Washington; and that he did not serve his country at the court of St. James was due to the judgment ho passed on himself, not to that which President Hayes passed on him.

All his life long he was an earnest student of the Scriptures, and his opinions respecting their teaching on matters which from time to time stirred the special interest of the Christian public — slavery, temperance, divorce, socialism, retribution — were those of an expert. He at one time meditated a commentary on the Book of Acts ; a task which, by reason of the extraordinary range of delicate questions it involves, — archæological, historical, topographical, political, apologetic, — he was exceptionally qualified to perform. But he magnanimously abandoned his undertaking on the appearance of the excellent work by the late Professor Hackett,— a book which, as he said, deserved to succeed. For several years he prepared the Critical Notes, published weekly by the Sunday-School Times, on the New Testament portion of the International Lessons, and was chairman of the Committee on Versions of the American Bible Society. But the study of the Scriptures which he himself declared to be the most delightful of his life was that which he undertook while participating in the preparation of the Revised New Testament of 1881. Of the American New Testament Revision Company he was the chairman. Few members of it equaled him in regularity of attendance and thoroughness of preparation. Throughout the eight years and more during which it met monthly, Dr. Woolsey was absent but four times. Its sessions lasted often from nine in the morning till ten at night, the necessary intervals for meals only excepted ; and from first to last this adamantine septuagenarian was in the chair, his fairness and patience and tact and learning ill constant requisition, and never found wanting. In at least two conspicuous instances it was his scholarship which in the main determined the final decision of the revisers on both sides of the Atlantic; namely, in the preference of Quirinius over Quirinus as the name the governor of Syria (a point alluded to above; see Bibliotheca Sacra for 1878, page 409 ff.), and in the adoption, in Matthew xxvi. 50, of a translation which disposes finally of the fallacy that a Greek relative pronoun is used in the New Testament for a direct interrogative (see ibid., 1874, page 314 ff.).

How far it may be seemly to disclose the privacies of those thoroughly familiar conferences may perhaps admit of question; but probably there is not a member of the company living who has not a stock of characteristic reminiscences of its chairman. At one of the very first meetings an extended discussion arose over an English word which, in the progress of centuries, has come to be much more specific in sense than it was when it first found a place in our Bible. Dr. Woolsey argued against a change, but finally confessed frankly, “ I don’t think I have any other real reason for wishing to retain the word than — timidity.” A certain member, in opposing the established phrase “God forbid! ” laid great stress on the thought less assertion that it is irreverent; whereupon the president broke out, “I don’t know that I ever used the expression, in ordinary speech, in my life, but if anybody tells me it’s profane I ’ll use it at once.” A far-fetched interpretation once elicited from him the quiet comment, “ I can hardly believe that thought ever entered any other mind this side the moon.” A certain female temperance society, which had previously memorialized the revisers to “make the people’s Bible a temperance book, sent a deputation to confer with the Revision Committee ; and a prominent reviser, straining a point of politeness, interrupted the proceedings with the announcement that the delegates were in waiting at an apothecary’s shop below. “ Tell them,” was the prompt reply of the chairman, “ that we are busy revising the New Testament, and ‘cannot come down.’ ”

Of his private worth this is hardly the place, even were space left, to speak. His scrupulousness was so punctilious that he has been known to decline to use, in completing a personal payment, a small portion of a sum of money in his possession belonging to others, although able to replace the unauthorized loan within five minutes. On one occasion, a foreign laborer, through ignorance of our language and traveling usages, found himself carried by the train beyond his point of transfer, and compelled to find quarters over Sunday, a stranger in a strange city. The man’s evident distress moved the compassion of his fellow-travelers seated near him ; but Dr. Woolsey, on alighting trom the train, was observed to track him through the crowd, and give him the means of meeting his extra outlay. Over a temper naturally vehement President Woolsey had acquired a degree of mastery which to his intimates was often a marvel; and he exhibited sometimes a heroic silence which was more than “ golden,” — was saintly. His unselfishness was ideal. No man, it may be asserted fearlessly, was ever taken to task by him for slighting, either in reality or in appearance, his claims or merits.

In religion, as in everything else, he abhorred pretense and insincerity of every sort. To him Christianity was consummate rationality. Loyalty of heart was in unison with liberty of intellect. Though by constitution and training the whole set of his mind was towards conservatism, his truth-loving study of the Bible brought him to such views of its nature and of its relations to faith that he was bold where many Christians are timid, and discreetly reserved where the average dogmatist is downright. He held, for example, many of the numbers given in the Old Testament to be untrustworthy, the Book of Jonah to be an apologue, etc., years before the Biblical scholarship of his communion could look on such opinions with any allowance. Though a thorough Puritan, he took little interest in ecclesiastical peculiarities or denominational proselytism. On being presented once before a mixed assembly as the representative of Congregationalism, he opened his remarks with a qualified disclaimer. But he had an intense love of all goodness, a keen and subtle sympathy with consecrated souls of all the ages. The thorough naturalness and simplicity of his piety made it especially effective with the more thoughtful young men. One who wandered far and long in skepticism, after regaining his spiritual equipoise, confessed that “ there was one thing which, all through, he could never quite get away from, and that was President Woolsey’s prayers.” His lowly estimate of himself, combined with his lofty conception of Christian possibility and obligation, resulted at times in a self-depreciation which struck the easy-going Christian as almost morbid. On one of the annual days of prayer, his class was taken by surprise when he arose and, instead of uttering words of exhortation, simply asked their intercessions on his own behalf. During his closing days, when, amid its wanderings, his spirit gravitated to its devotional mood, his language became at once sequacious and edifying. Amid the rupture of earthly bonds his eternal converse with his Infinite Friend held unbroken. Nay, his very flesh cried out, as it were, for the living God. Once and again during those days of clouded reason did he insist on betaking himself to the familiar place of worship, wondering that it was not thronged. As the thoughts of affection follow his entrance into the upper sanctuary, they discover that he has unconsciously portrayed his own reception in his beautiful sonnet describing the experience of the Grecian sage : —

“ I stood, methonght, fast by heaven’s outer gate,
When Plato, blindfold, humbly to the door
Came with weak steps, if he might venture o’er
The threshold doubting, or without, must wait.
When he who in the Master’s bosom lay. And saw the mysteries nearest to the throne,
Drew nigh, and led the mild enthusiast on
Up to th’ Eternal Word, heaven’s fount of day.
‘ There,’ said th’ Apostle to the kindred mind,
' Dwells truth, whose shadows thou wast fain to trace;
There beauty, which thy dreams wandered to find ;
There love, which swells beyond the soul’s embrace.’
Then loosed the bandage, and the sage—no more
A sage, but saint. — beheld and knelt to adore.”1

Joseph Henry Thayer.

  1. This sonnet was first used by Dr. Woolsey, more than a generation ago, in concluding a lecture delivered in Brooklyn, N. Y. A kindred mind in the audience suspected its authorship, and thus it, found a limited but anonymous currency in the newspapers. It is given on page 70 of a little volume entitled Eros and Other Poems, privately printed by Dr. Woolsey for a few friends at New Haven in 1880.