“Our Spiritual Industry Will Go on Uninterrupted…”: The Construction Fire at Riverside Church, 1928

In an earlier blog post about Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union alumnus/professor and the founding pastor at The Riverside Church, I described his ministry to American servicemen and women during WWII despite his fierce commitment to pacifism. The Burke’s collection of Fosdick’s papers covers most of his adult life and prolific career as a leader in liberal theology, spanning the first six decades of the 20th century. Given the significance of The Riverside Church in Fosdick’s life and work, there is a substantial amount of material in his papers relating to the church’s history. One of the more fascinating stories (among many) is the enormous construction fire in 1928 that delayed the church’s opening.

Financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s vast fortune, construction on The Riverside Church began in 1926 and by the end of 1928 great progress had been made. A published photo taken on Dec. 18, 1928 in the January 3, 1929 issue of The Church Monthly shows the 300-foot steel framework of the church’s massive tower (that would still rise another 100 feet) ready to be encased in Indiana limestone.

Just three days after this photograph was taken, however, a fire broke out on the night of December 21, 1928 that set the entire wooden scaffolding inside the church ablaze, calling out hundreds of firefighters and thousands of aghast spectators to the scene of the conflagration. The fire was so large and so intense that it could be seen miles away across the Hudson River in New Jersey (the below image is from the same issue of The Church Monthly, Jan. 3, 1929).

The Fosdick papers include a clipping from the UK’s Daily Mail from December 24, 1928 that reports:

“In bitter winter weather more than 100,000 people gathered round the flaming building as hundreds of firemen vainly tried to subdue the blazing cauldron. Fanned by an icy wind, the flames fed on a forest of timber scaffolding and spread to the framework of the 400ft. Tower, which would have carried the world’s finest carillon from a famous English foundry. The woodwork disappeared like matchwood, while a pillar of fire shot hundreds of feet into the air. As streams of water were pumped into the flames it quickly froze into icicles, hampering the firemen in their work.”

According to Fosdick’s 1956 autobiography, The Living of These Days, the cause of the fire was a carelessly strung electrical wire that wrought enough damage to delay construction and the church’s opening by a full year. Luckily, because the fire started at night, no one was injured or killed; had the flames erupted during the day, when hundreds of construction workers were busy inside, the casualties could have been catastrophic. Two other photos from the same issue of The Church Monthly show the smoldering ruins of the church’s interior and the charred skeleton of its once mighty tower.

 

In his Sunday sermon following the fire, Rev. Fosdick addressed his parish from the pulpit of the Park Avenue Baptist Church (Riverside’s predecessor): “You will understand without my going into details that the church is involved in no loss in this matter save loss of convenience and time. This postponement of our entrance into our new building is a source of great disappointment, but it is the part of a Christian congregation, as of a Christian man, to face such exigencies with fortitude and good-will. In the name of the ministers and responsible officers of the church I wish publicly to express the appreciation which we feel for the outpouring of sympathy and good-will from every side.” The Fosdick papers include sympathy notes, cards, and records of donations from well-wishers around the globe including letters from Scotland, Greece, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, and a heartfelt note from Dean Howard Robbins of Riverside’s Morningside Heights neighbor, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Given the fire’s size and proximity to Union Theological Seminary, it is no surprise that UTS sustained some damage.  Rev. Fosdick and then President of UTS, Henry Sloane Coffin, exchanged letters in January 1929, in which Coffin declined Fosdick’s offer to pay for the damages. Fosdick declares himself “not easy in conscience about the Seminary having to carry the reimbursement of individuals at 99 Claremont Avenue who lost possessions during the fire” and urges Coffin to reconsider the church’s offer. There are no records, however, in the Fosdick papers to suggest that UTS ever accepted any financial recompense from The Riverside Church following the fire. One tangible (and lasting result) of Riverside’s fire was a change in New York City building laws requiring that scaffolding be made of metal rather than wood to prevent another disaster of the size and scale of The Riverside Church construction fire of 1928.

If you are interested in Rev. Fosdick, The Riverside Church, or liberal theology in the 20th century, I encourage you to explore the Burke’s collection of Fosdick papers. I certainly plan to dig deeper so stay tuned!

Mending Martin

In preparation for the Burke Library’s upcoming exhibition on Martin Luther, I am examining and treating some of the Library’s many Luther pamphlets. The Library holds thousands of pamphlets, and more than two dozen relating to the Reformation will be featured in the exhibit.

The sewing in this 1520 Luther pamphlet had broken and several leaves were detached (left). The spine folds were mended with thin Japanese tissue and the pamphlet was resewn through its original sewing holes (right). The few remaining fragments of the original sewing thread were left in place.

The Conservation Department works with the curator, Matthew Baker, to ensure that any items in unstable condition are conserved: tears are mended, loose leaves are reattached, and the parts are made whole again.

The first leaf of another pamphlet was tearing at the spine (left). The leaf attachment is stabilized with thin Japanese tissue hinge (right). This small mend minimizes the risk of greater damage occurring in the future.

Extensive notes were made throughout this pamphlet.

The remains of a small brown leather tab on the fore-edge indicate a former leaf tab marker, added when this pamphlet was bound in a collection.

At nearly 500 years old, these pamphlets bear witness to their past use. Extensive notes in the margins, underlining, manicules, and comments are the legacy of past readers. These annotations form an added dimension of interest for scholars today.

While these items were originally issued as individual pamphlets, many were later bound together in collections. Some have been disbound and rebound numerous times as they passed from library to library. There is much to be learned about this history of ownership from the physical evidence: sewing thread in the gutter, layers of paper adhered to the spine, colorful decoration on the edges, exact page dimensions, and leather page markers all carry information about past bindings and collections. Any conservation treatment of the pamphlets must consider all of these forms of information–the printed text, annotations, and the physical evidence–to ensure that they are preserved for future scholars.

I hope you will visit the exhibition this fall in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Chang Octagon Room and enjoy these remarkable windows into the past!

Behind the Stacks: Acts of the Saints

A piece of waste paper stuck to the verso of the title page in a volume of the Acta Sanctorum

In the course of preparing more of Burke’s rare books for preservation boxes, I came across a set of the Acta Sanctorum (published from 1643 to 1794) with each volume holding a small piece of waste paper behind the title page. It’s not unusual to find random scraps of paper stuck in the pages of our rare books, but this was curiously consistent in this 53 volume set. Looking closer, I realized these had been used to blot the ink from a library ownership stamp.

Underneath the waste paper is a stamp

Close-up of stamp that reads “Duplum bibliothecae Univers. Friburg. Brisg.”

The blotter has done its job

Reverse of the paper piece shown above, with signature marking “G7”

Another piece of waste paper used to blot the stamp ink

Reverse of the paper piece shown above, with signature marking “G6”

Another view of waste paper used to blot the stamp ink

Another view of waste paper used to blot the stamp ink

From the stamps, it appears these books were formerly duplicates in the library at the University of Freiburg. I can’t help but picture someone, years ago in Germany, going through these books, stamping and conscientiously placing a piece of paper to blot the ink in each of the 53 volumes. Now, at the Burke Library in New York, we’ve carefully measured and fitted these books into sturdy clamshell boxes that will help preserve them for today’s and future generations of scholars. The pieces of waste/blotting paper are still there for now.

We welcome and invite you to view this or other rare books held by the Burke Library; to learn more about visiting our library or to make an appointment please visit our website.

A Word on Edward Robinson

Though perhaps less well-known today than some of Union Seminary’s recent faculty, Edward Robinson (1794-1863), whose papers have recently been processed by Rebecca Nieto, played several important roles in the early life of Union and in the broader world of biblical scholarship.

Edward Robinson — Source: Wikimedia Commons

A founding member of the faculty, Robinson was Union’s first Professor of Biblical Literature and served as librarian during the seminary’s uncertain first decade. Near Eastern archaeologist J.B. Pritchard — whose Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) will be familiar to contemporary seminarians — lauded his contributions to “Palestinology” in his landmark works, Biblical Researches in Palestine, and Adjacent Regions and Physical Geography of the Holy Land.

Robinson was also responsible for coordinating the acquisition of the approximately 14,000 works that comprised the original Union library. In 1838, while on a major trip to the Holy Land, he arranged for the seminary to purchase a large collection of books from biblical scholar and erstwhile Benedictine monk Leander van Ess. Today, that Burke Library collection remains a unique and important resource for scholars of fifteenth and sixteenth continental Europe, and contains many beautiful medieval manuscripts.

One of the most ancient sections of the present Temple Mount in Jerusalem is named for his work there. “Robinson’s Arch” is the remnant of a first-century structure located at the southwestern corner of that historic edifice and would have been a major point of entry to the upper temple complex. Over the past decade it has sometimes been used as a controversial alternative site of worship to the traditional Western Wall.

Robinson’s Arch from the west — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Left of the Middle – the Donald Laverne Benedict Papers

Don Benedict was many things — a Union alumnus, a founder of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, a WWII conscientious objector-cum-Air Force sergeant (retroactively pardoned by Truman in 1947), a staunch criminal justice reform advocate/prison abolition activist, a minister in the United Church of Christ, an ally and advocate to people of color targeted by the police from New York to Chicago, a devout Midwesterner, and husband to Ann, a fellow activist and EHPP founder whose own tireless work could span volumes.

Just some light reading… an annotated first edition of DLB’s autobiography alongside a typescript of his 1994 essay, “Will America Self-Destruct?” Series 3, box 2, folders 1 and 24.

This particular reverend was also what I like to call a “keeper”. Like many writers, he tirelessly drafted, annotated, and held onto versions his writing as if they were precious food in wartime. When I first passed over the fifteen-plus record boxes that have been waiting in the Burke’s basement since we first received Don Benedict’s papers in 2010, I steeled myself for extensive weeding to uncover the thread of a cohesive life story.

DLB circa 1960s. Series 4, box 1, folder 2.

Don Benedict’s life doesn’t seem like it was one that took kindly to order and intuition, though. A white middle-class boy raised in Michigan, Benedict could easily have taken a more or less intuitive road in life – gone to seminary, served in the war when he was asked to, married when he supposed he should, settled down with a single parish and perhaps one day gather up his sermons and correspondences to donate to the appropriate historical society or library. Instead, Reverend Benedict seemed pulled (from a remarkably early age) to something greater, messier and far more transformative for himself and for people and communities walking the same streets as him, but whose life experiences were riven by systemic oppression because of racism and poverty.

The numerous drafts and excerpts of memoirs that I organized in Reverend Benedict’s papers do justice to winter sleigh rides with his father in Canton and Don’s diffidence in school, but also to his early observations of social injustice that undergirded urban American life. I was happy to find so little to weed in Reverend Benedict’s writings — he was a keeper, but an exceptionally wry, generous and illustrative memoirist. It was as if his autobiographical impulse stemmed not so much from the need to be remembered himself, but from an understanding that his work and life was bearing witness to a dream for change that was much bigger than one person. As such, it didn’t seem possible or ethical or do away with the traces and passages Benedict wrote, since so much of it tells a personal history, a history of Union, and a cultural history of activism in 1940s America at the same time. In one passage recounting his Union admission interview with Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, Benedict writes:

With my B- college grade average I hesitakenly [sic] walked into his office. I talked a bit about my background and admitted that I had not spent much time on my college studies. I talked about my interest in relating the church to questions of race and poverty. At this point he warmed up a bit and said that they might find some small tuition help if I decided to come to Union. The warmth and understanding of this man really impressed me […] about two weeks later I received a letter from him saying that I was admitted to Union Seminary. Little did he know that within two years he would be visiting me along with others in the federal jail at West street in New York City but that comes later in the story. [“Early Years”, Series 3, Box 1, f 7]

Don Benedict (second from the front on the right) and his Union classmates after their arrest for resisting the draft in 1940. Series 4, box 1, folder 8.

 

Paragraphs like this one – irregularly paginated and stuffed among mottled clippings – made me feel like I was listening to Don while taking a walk near his family home in Chittenden, Vermont. Most of us have had experiences like this, when someone’s freeform thoughts are written in such a way that the words almost seem to pop. Reverend Benedict’s memoirs have this quality, and create a compelling real-life bildungsroman of a middle-class Midwesterner whose calling was anything but middle-of-the-road. Indeed, Benedict’s autobiographical impulses eventually did take a relatively concise form in his 1982 memoir, Born Again Radical, which recounts Benedict’s upbringing in Detroit (including witnessing the race riots there), to Union, to his brief time incarcerated at Danbury, to Iwo Jima in 1945, back to Union, to the storefront churches of East Harlem, to some of the numerous (truly, so many) community organizations founded or in some way led by Don and Ann, to the intimate relationships Don maintained with members of the many communities he moved in.

Some of the most glimmering materials I had the privilege of organizing came from Don’s longstanding correspondence with people whose lives were/are affected by the criminal justice system. When he couldn’t fight alongside someone, Benedict fought for them, and this realization lent particular credence to the work of handling his papers. As I was researching this collection/googling, I came across an expired IndieGoGo fundraiser organized by one of Don and Ann’s grandchildren, Agnotti Cowie, who was creating a documentary about Ann and Don called “A Dangerous Pair”. In the project trailer, one of Don’s friends attempts to summarize Don and Ann’s life’s work: “[He] would go into a neighborhood, talk to the people, find out what’s troubling them, convince them that those troubles are a consequence of powers greater than they are, then organize people to exercise their organized power against the powers that were oppressing them.”

I’d been excited to dig into Reverend Benedict’s papers since I began working as an archivist at the Burke. This collection adds to our still-deepening collection of archival material from the postwar years, situated somewhere between the East Harlem Protestant Parish papers processed before my arrival, and the Norm & Peg Eddy papers being processed by a current Union student this semester. In Don Benedict’s papers, I was delighted to take a proverbial walk with a humble, driven, devoted person who embodied the spirit of allyship in urban ministry and in community building.

Appropriately, the linear extent of this newly-processed collection is about equivalent to the height of an exceptionally tall person.

The U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Riverside Church in WWII

Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union Theological Seminary graduate and professor as well as the founding pastor of Riverside Church, was a pioneer of liberal theology, an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice, and a fierce pacifist. The Burke Library is very fortunate to have been the archival recipient of Rev. Fosdick’s personal papers, some 67 boxes containing sermons, lectures, correspondence, drafts, reviews, and bibliographic material spanning his life and career. (For more information on the Fosdick collection at the Burke and a link to its finding aid, see here.) Given Rev. Fosdick’s importance as an American theological leader for more than half a century, the papers in his archive are all fascinating and worthy of examination but for the purposes of this post I chose to focus on his support of American servicemen and women during WWII in spite of his pacifist objections to war.

Having witnessed the horrors of WWI firsthand on a visit to the European trenches under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A., Fosdick returned to the United States with an altered view of his theology and an impassioned commitment to a lasting peace. In a 1921 sermon, “Shall We End War?”, Fosdick preached that “we cannot reconcile Christianity with war anymore,” as war continued to divide rather than unite the world. Fosdick continued to rail against war from the pulpit, refining his pacifist stance and leading the swelling Protestant anti-war movement in the 1920s and 1930s. His pacifism reached its apotheosis on November 12, 1933, when he delivered an impassioned sermon from the Riverside Church pulpit, “Unknown Soldier,” concluding dramatically by declaring, “I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another!”

Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection. The New York Public Library.

When WWII erupted in 1939, Fosdick remained a steadfast pacifist, and even after the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when anti-war sentiment plummeted in the face of patriotic support for American involvement in the war, Fosdick never abandoned his pacifism. In spite of his moral opposition to the war, however, Fosdick and the entire congregation of Riverside Church opened their doors to the U.S. Naval Reserve’s Midshipmen’s School, based at Columbia University, from 1942-1945. In the Fosdick papers, one sees an incredibly warm, respectful correspondence between Rev. Fosdick and Captain (later Commodore) J.K. Richards, the Commanding Officer of the Midshipmen’s School, as the two men discuss how best to support the midshipmen and even what it means to be in the military but not to idealize war.  In one of his earlier letters to Rev. Fosdick, dated March 15, 1943, Captain Richards describes his thoughts on soldiers’ views of war:

“We, of the military, have never idealized or glorified war. Having been trained in war, it is to us a grim, harrowing tragedy; but to safeguard the doctrines of Democracy and our way of life is a sacred trust. Called by our Country to its defense, it becomes a “Sacred Cause.” And we further believe that those of our citizens, who sacrifice themselves for those principles we hold to be self-evident, should be idealized.”

Captain Richards goes on to implore Rev. Fosdick “to help guide and fortify our young fighters; so that when this war is over the peace won will be a proper peace.” In 1944, after receiving a check for $2,000 from Captain Richards to support the church’s community efforts, many of which were aimed at the midshipmen, Rev. Fosdick wrote gratefully:

“We are so happy here to be of use to you, and would so gladly do it from our own funds that we all of us feel as if you ought not to contribute to our budget. Nevertheless, of course, a check of this kind is very convenient in these days when we are trying to carry on a piece of work that sometimes strains our resources, so that I suspect our gratitude will, as last year, overcome our embarrassment. I do want you to know, however, that the privilege of serving the Midshipmen’s School is a very dear treasure to all of us here at Riverside Church. A finer group of men never were gathered together, and anything that we can do for you we do with all our hearts.”

The folder with materials on the Midshipmen’s School in the Fosdick collection also includes letters to and from members of the public who are interested in Riverside’s services for the midshipmen (particularly the Saturday night dances held in the church’s gymnasium) and even clergymen who question how Fosdick, as a staunch and vocal pacifist, could permit the military to use the church, particularly for their graduation exercises. In a letter to Rev. Donald R. Lemkau of Little York, Illinois, dated Dec. 7, 1942, Fosdick defends Riverside’s hospitality to the midshipmen, whom he describes as “grand fellows, the pick of our homes, schools and churches,” and a “magnificent body of American young men; many of whom of course have been fighting and are still fighting a difficult battle in their own consciences with reference to participation in the conflict.” He also refers to a statement published by fellow theologian Dr. Lathrop in a recent issue of Fellowship, “where a pacifist minister must say not, This is my church, but, This is our church, and must recognize the right of his non-pacifist brethren to their judgment.”

At the conclusion of the war, the Midshipmen were so grateful to Riverside for being their home away from home throughout the war that they inscribed a message of thanks at the back of the nave to commemorate the kindness and hospitality shown to them during such a difficult period. Rev. Fosdick, in spite of his unwillingness to support the war itself, was a compassionate and devoted servant to those who served in the war, ensuring that Riverside Church, founded on ecumenical principles, was a sanctuary to all during the trying years of the 1940s.

I encourage anyone with an interest in liberal theology, Riverside Church, or Rev. Fosdick himself, to spend some time with this archival collection. I certainly plan to dig in deeper in the near future so stay tuned for more blog posts on one of Union’s most illustrious alumni!

 

Four Collections Later: LIS Student Paul Paulson’s Semester in the Burke Archives

The following blog post was written by Paul Paulson, the Burke’s most recent archival student intern. Paul is completing his coursework in the LIS program at Rutgers University, and saw several projects through the archival life cycle during his semester with the Burke. Here are some of Paul’s thoughts on the other side of his internship experience:

This fall I have had the good fortune of working in the archives of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary an apply, in a real world environment, what hitherto had only been theoretical. I had the benefit of taking an archiving class concurrent to my work here, which informed much of this experience. Conversely, my time at the Burke gave salience to issues and concerns we investigated in a classroom environment.

I processed a total of four collections which were all rather heterogeneous. The first were the papers of Dr. Christopher Morse, a professor who spent the bulk of his career at Union and who is credited with creating the Bonhoeffer Chair in Theology and Ethics. His papers represent a rather contemporary collection. Along with printed articles and the like were computer diskettes of varying antiquity. Professor Morse’s papers comprised about 12 1/2 boxes of material which were primarily scholarly in nature.

Archival boxes holding the Morse Papers just after processing.

A smaller but no less fascinating collection were the papers of Titus and Fidelia Coan, 18th century missionaries who settled in Hawaii. Titus Coan was very peripatetic, traveling to Patagonia and the Marquesas islands as part of his missionary calling. The papers donated were letters that Titus and Fidelia exchanged between one another. The beauty of the language and the sheer volume of letters the Coans exchanged were quite inspired.

Another small collection that I process belonged to Eitel Proelss, a German born theologian who, like his contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, belonged to the Confessing Church and resisted Nazi influence during WWII. Proelss was sentenced to hard labor but survived the war. Proelss eventually became interested in criminality and began a program at UTS that merged pastoral care with psychology. He also served as the Chaplain of Rikers island for 10 years . His papers offer a glimpse at the thoughts of an individual concerned for well-being of the incarcerated and assured of the redemptive possibilities for criminalized people.

My last collection was that of an individual named Arthur Mason Brown , whose grandfather, Francis Brown, was the seventh president of Union Theological Seminary. Arthur Mason Brown was born and grew up in present day Syria and served in the Navy during World War II. He eventually moved Egypt where he taught at the The American University of Cairo, also preaching at the Maadi Church in Maadi, Egypt. Though he eventually settled in the States, Brown returned to the Middle East for a year in 1971 to teach at the American University in Beirut.  In his teaching years he found himself at a number of different institutions in the States, but spent the bulk of his career at Bates College in Maine. It was there that he suffered a devastating stroke which is said to had triggered a crisis of faith in him. After he stopped teaching and preaching, he devoted his energy to Haiku poems, two books of which are included in the collection. Most of Brown’s archival papers are sermons. These are abundant and a number of them exist in several different versions. It was challenging to fix an accurate chronology for them all and hopefully I have done an adequate job of it. There are also photos and the Haikus which provide a welcome contrast to the preponderance of sermons.

All in all, it has been a blessing to have had the opportunity to work here alongside – and with the guidance-  of the knowledgeable and generous staff at the Burke. This has whetted my appetite to pursue more opportunities in this field, and I am grateful for having been given the chance to work here.

All Roads Lead Back to Brooklyn

Matthew and I had the pleasure this summer to work with Dr. Henry Goldschmidt in having a library and archives session with the Religious Worlds of New York Summer Institute 2016 fellows.  In addition to giving an overview of the resources at the Burke Library and elsewhere, we also had them look through the Department of Church Planning and Research records, 1855-1985.

This was a great collection for them to look at since it contains a ton of reports largely compiled between 1930 and 1980 on practiced religions in New York City.  Needless to say the uses of this collection are infinite in possibility!  This collection is such a rich resource on the history of NYC’s demographics.  One fun fact: the surveying tactics that the organization used were adopted by the U.S. Federal Census!

There are many reasons why I love working with students who are doing archival research, but one reason in particular are the discoveries they make — which if it were me going through the boxes, might have been details I would have overlooked.

cccny-blog-post-image-3
One such discovery (well there were several during this class session, but the one that stands out in my memory) was within this 1946 publication titled Brooklyn U.S.A. by John Richmond and Abril Lamarque, which I am pretty sure I came during my tenure at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library and archives.

 

cccny-blog-post-image-2

Inside this unassuming but eye-catching publication we are introduced to Sidney Ascher, the president and founder of the “nondues-paying” Society for the Prevention of Disparaging Remarks Against Brooklyn.

cccny-blog-post-image-1

 

 

 

Looking some online I found this awesome interview with Sidney about his club from the WNYC Archives from August 4, 1948.  In this interview he proclaims that there were half a million card carrying members and when asked what one had to do to become a member, Sidney states “Just love Brooklyn.”

cccny-blog-post-image-4

Image from http://onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.com/2012/09/05/the-society-for-the-prevention-of-disparaging-remarks-about-brooklyn/

 

First Steps Processing the Henry Pitney Van Dusen Papers: An Odd Sort of Activist

Rebecca Lossin was a summer intern who began processing the Van Dusen Papers in the Burke’s archives. Below are some of her thoughts processing the first several series in the voluminous Van Dusen Collection. The project will be completed in the 2016-2017 academic year with the support of the Columbia University Libraries Primary Source Internship. Read on and stay tuned for more on Pit’s life and legacy in the coming months!

The late 1960s found Henry Pitney Van Dusen in a flurry of letter writing activity. At this time the Vietnam War was at its height; the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 sent ripples through otherwise placid religious communities at home and abroad; students across the United States were making demands of their governments and universities; and women sought equal places in institutions of higher education. The modernization theory that sat so comfortably with a traditional missionary mandate throughout the 1950s and early 1960s was on its way out and new set of political relationships and expectations were on the horizon.

Van Dusen served as the President of Union Theological Seminary from 1945 to 1963 after which he continued to be active in the academic world, weighing in on issues at UTS, organizing semi-annual symposia on theological themes and serving on the Board of Trustees of Princeton University. “Pit,” as he was affectionately called by friends and colleagues, was always active in several organizations at once. He was a prolific and respected theologian and, if his notes from the time he spent teaching Systematic Theology are any indication, extremely well-versed in subjects as various as Augustine of Hippo and William James.

The papers of Henry Pitney Van Dusen are a rich and informative collection that should appeal to scholars of many stripes and the information contained in these surprisingly well-organized record boxes could paint numerous and varied pictures of this active and well-documented man. It seems to me, however, that “Pit” was at his most active and most interesting when theological questions intersected with political events.  While he was clearly capable of giving learned lectures on “Homiletics and the Pauline Letters” or  “The Evangelical Revival” the volume of correspondence and other writing that Van Dusen produced in relation to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Vietnam, and the institution of apartheid in South Africa, indicates a particular passion for political events.

Van Dusen does not settle easily into current popular categories of Left and Right. His political positions would seem utterly contradictory within the context of today’s party platforms (indeed, we see something similar in the current Pope). He was, for example, deeply suspicious of coeducation, preferring that Princeton take its cues from the Harvard-Radcliffe model, where, according to his letters, a Mrs. Bunting did a fine job of reminding young ladies of their future roles as wives and mothers.

He supported the war in Vietnam and was mortified by the publicity that a few of his fellow trustees obtained by publicly declaring their anti-war positions. While, in the end, The Princeton Board of Trustees chose not to address this issue in any official capacity, Van Dusen took it upon himself to distribute surveys in order to discern what a majority of the members’ positions actually were. His correspondence indicates that he wanted to correct the record publicly so that it was not assumed that Princeton was anti-war,  but was discouraged from doing so by other trustees.

Politically nuanced, Van Dusen was horrified by the institution of apartheid and devoted his inexhaustible energy to encouraging Princeton’s board to take an official position against the practice of apartheid and to divest from companies that directly or indirectly supported the government of South Africa or benefited from their practices.

He took what seems, from his records at least, to be an unpopular and arguably pro-Arab position during and following the Six Day War or the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Files dated as early as 1940 indicate that he is not a supporter of political Zionism, but the voluminous correspondence that resulted from the 1967 war shows a man who took a principled stance that was at odds with a majority of his colleagues. He received letters that ranged from reasoned and even-handed disagreement to pure vitriol. One correspondent claimed that “the pathological unconscious of Christendom has at last come to the surface in this man.” There are indications in later letters that he suffered along with his family from his very public opinions regarding this matter and became more cautious about sharing his views later in that year.

And there is, of course, his principled stance on euthanasia, which he and his wife put into practice late in their life by committing suicide together.

What I find most compelling about Henry Pitney “Pit” Van Dusen is not any of his political positions alone or in combination, but the overwhelming evidence of a man whose faith and religious beliefs oriented him solidly and unapologetically in the face of widespread and sometimes vitriolic opposition.  The only thing lacking in these papers is any indication that Van Dusen could be swayed by popular opinions or a group consensus. Even, it turns out, when this consensus was doctrinal–he was very nearly denied ordination because he did not believe in the Virgin Birth.

 

#LoveInAction: Voices in Social Justice

 

Print

The Burke Library is excited about the start of it’s newest outreach project, #LoveInAction: Voices in Social Justice.  This project will train two Union Theological Seminary students in the theory and practice of oral history and archival research.  The students will be doing extensive research in the Union archives in order to prepare and conduct oral history interviews of alums during the Student Interracial Ministry reunion, a program that will happen in May 2017 (details TBD).  The participating students were selected through a competitive application process and we are thrilled to announce them here:

Kristine Chong
Tabatha Holley

We are so excited to have Kristine and Tabatha working with us on this amazing project for the next academic year!  We will be sure to post updates along the way.