BLTC Press Titles

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Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, James Legge (trans.)

Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment

Rudolf Steiner

Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin D.D., LL.D.

by Theodore Appel, D.D.


AFTER Williamson Nevin had fairly mastered the rudiments -^*- of the ancient languages with corresponding English branches, it was supposed that, young as he was, the time had arrived for him to go to college. His uncle. Captain John Williamson, after whom he was named, assumed the charge of his education, and by the advice of his brother, who was still living at New York, in the fall of the year 181t he was sent to Union College, Schenectady, N. Y., which was then at the zenith of its prosperity under the presidency of the celebrated Dr. Eliphalet Nott. The place seemed to be far away at that time; and although the first steamboats were running on the North River, it took in fact as much time to reach it as it now requires for an overland trip to California. On his way he met for the last time his patriarchal kinsman, Dr. Hugh Williamson, of revolutionary fame, and was sufficiently overpowered by his venerable and commanding presence. His only word of counsel to him was: "Take care, my boy, that you do not learn to smoke; for smoking will lead you to drinking, and that is the end of all that is good." It is scarcely necessary to say that his namesake remembered his advice, and kept himself aloof from smoking, and all use of tobacco or liquor. But this required no special effort on his part, as he no doubt believed with King James in his famous " Counterblast " to tobacco, that there was no use "in men-s making chimneys of their mouths."

Union College had at this time a better reputation than it deserved. Dr. Xott himself took only a small part in its actual work of instruction, and this never amounted to much more than an empty form. The institution lived largely on the outside credit of his name. It was a mistake that young Nevin was sent to college at such an early age. He was the youngest and the smallest student in his class, and a mere unfledged boy, it might be said, to the end of his college course. With the natural timidity, inherited from his father, he could hardly connect two thoughts together when he arose to speak in the Literary Society, and was surprised at the flow of words and ideas that came from William Henry Seward, several classes in advance of him, who did not seem to know when it was time for him to take his seat. Little did Williamson imagine at this time that probably as many winged words should go forth from his tongue and pen to the world as from the embryo statesman of Utica, N. Y. Although a retiring, diffident youth, he formed some valuable friendships with fellow-students which continued during his life time. Among others he met with Taylor Lewis, who in his day came to occupy a deservedly high position in the walks of American literature. They were differently constituted, but both possessed a deep reverence for what was profound and spiritual, and became congenial friends, whom no difference of opinion could separate as the years rolled around.

The young student from Pennsylvania entered the Freshman Class, studied hard, maintained a respectable standing, and although his studies were at times interrupted by ill health, he graduated with honor in the year 1821. But his health broke down, and when he returned to his home he became a burden to himself and to all around, as he says, through a long course of dyspeptic suffering,on which he afterwards was accustomed to look back "as a sort of horrible nightmare, covering with gloom the best season of his youth."

His life at college was not uneventful. The religious experience through which he then passed was to him instructive, and indirectly, at least, exerted a salutary influence on his entire subsequent career. But favorable, as it may have been in some respects, yet in others, as he affirmed when his judgment was matured, it was decidedly unfavorable. Union College was organized on the principle of representing the collective Christianity of the so-called evangelical denominations, and as a consequence, it proceeded, throughout, practically, on the idea that the relation of religious to secular education is something abstract and outward only—the two spheres having nothing to do with each other in fact, except as mutual complemental sides, in the end, of what should be considered a right kind of general human culture. This is a common delusion, by which it is imagined so widely, that the school should be divorced from the Church, and that faith is of no account for learning and science. There was religion in the college so far as morning and evening prayers went, and the students were required to attend the different churches in town on Sunday. But there was no real church life, as such, in the institution. It seemed to be only for the purpose of apprenticing its pupils in the different departments of a common academical knowledge, and not at all in any comprehensive sense for bringing them forward in the discipline of a true Christian life. This was something that was left to outside appliances altogether, more or less sporadic and irregular, and was in no way brought into the educational economy of the college itself, as its all pervading spirit and soul.

All this involved serious consequences, as a matter of course, although not clearly understood at the time by an ingenuous youth, trained in the old Reformed faith under its Presbyterian form, into which he had been baptized at Middle Spring. It was his first contact with the genius of New England Puritanism as a new phasis of religion. This was something very plausible, and with his limited experience he was not in a condition to withstand the shock. For him it amounted to a serious disturbance of his whole previous life, if not a complete breaking up of its order. He had come to college as a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, pious without exactly knowing it, never doubting that he was in some way a Christian, although, unfortunately, as he says, he had not as yet made a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on him by this unchurchly system was that all this must pass for nothing, and that he must learn to look upon himself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God—in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity—before he could get into either in the right way.

Such, he says, especially, was the instruction he received from others around him, when a "revival of religion," as it was called, broke out among the students, and brought the instruction which he had received to a practical application. It took place in close connection with an extended system of religious excitement, which the celebrated Mr. Nettleton was then carrying on in that region of country. To the minds of many, and to that of the student from Pennsylvania, he was the impersonation of the Apostle Paul. The system appeared under its best character, it will be freely admitted, under his direction, and was altogether different from what it afterwards became in the hands of such men as Finney and Gallagher, when Mr. Nettleton himself withdrew from it his countenance. The awakening in the college was no part of its proper order. Dr. Nott had nothing to do with it; it formed in fact a sort of temporary outside episode, conducted by the Professor of Mathematics, an adroit manager, and certain "pious students" previously Christianized by the working of the machine, who now,

after such drilling and manipulation, were supposed to be competent to assist him in bringing souls to their new birth.

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