Summer/Fall 2002
Volume 7 Number 1







by Kent Annan

In June, Princeton’s campus lost to retirement an eloquent teller of its tales. William Harris has for the past 14 years been Princeton’s archivist and librarian for special collections. He seems to know all there is to know about Princeton Seminary—the whos, whats, wheres, and whens since the founding plan of PTS was drawn up in 1811. Harris counts himself privileged to have had such an intimate relationship with this institution that, he says, for its whole history has had “sound learning and vital piety” at its heart.

His own work at Princeton has had the same heart, which comes across as this gentle Indiana gentleman excitedly considers how the Pentateuch relates to his vocation.

The Spirit of Princeton

by William O. Harris

As retirement looms I have been affectionately recalling my 52-year connection with Princeton Seminary. I entered here as a student in the fall of 1951 and feel a profound debt of gratitude for the friends, professors, and opportunities this place has given me through the succeeding years as a student, an alumnus, and, for the past 14 years, as librarian for archives and special collections. Looking back over those years with the charge to write about the peak experiences, three stand out as characteristic of the spirit of Princeton Seminary.


“I think a large part of what I do is an extension of the fifth commandment—to honor our fathers and mothers in the faith,” he says. “There’s certainly a lot to honor in the Princeton tradition. And I’ve tried to make it a little easier to honor our fathers and mothers here. Also, I feel guilty when we tell bad stories about good people. That’s hateful gossip. And that’s bearing false witness, to again use a commandment. So I’ve tried to dig out a lot of the good that has gone on here at the Seminary.”

Some of that digging has been literal.

He found the decaying remnants of the Seminary students’ 19th-century missionary museum buried in the mud in the Carriage House’s cellar. The valuable items he found—from Buddha statues to Chinese vases to an African witchdoctor’s mask—have been restored, and PTS professor of the history of religions Richard Young has since been doing some research on the items and on the history of the Seminary’s early missions involvement. (Harris points out that Princeton sent its first missionary, Henry Woodward, Class of 1818, to Sri Lanka in 1820 and went on to send more missionaries during that time than any other seminary in the country.)

William O. Harris Photo: Erin DuniganAnother proud achievement was finding and then restoring some 90 portraits of PTS-associated people that had been “piled in the basement of the library like cordwood. Many were ripped and torn by frames jamming into each other, and the frames themselves were in awful shape.” They now hang around the Seminary, most prominently in Mackay’s Main Lounge and the classrooms of Stuart Hall, each with a small corresponding card that tells the story of the subject.

“I love that text in Hebrews 11—that we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” he says fondly (a man who speaks as though the mid-nineteenth century were bumping right up next to today). “I think we ought to honor that history we have at the Seminary, rather than to neglect or condemn it.”

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Harris arrived at Princeton Seminary as a student in 1951 from his home in southern Indiana. (In June Harris returned to Indiana and moved into a retirement home—but not to worry, he had already contacted the University of Southern Indiana library, and they have since gained an adept volunteer.) He was Presbyterian and wanted to be a minister. He studied hard and also had fun.

Some of the fun, he says, came as part of dealing with what he calls a constant and unhappy part of the Seminary’s past hundred years. “There’s been a tension between those who are aggressively adjusting to the culture and those who are clinging defensively to the past,” he says sadly. It’s still here today. On a solemn note, it led to a split of the Seminary in 1929. On a lighter note, during Harris’s time some people (“well,” he sighs with a smile, “me included”) would torment the conservatives by drinking a little too much and then rolling a cannonball down the stairs of Alexander Hall. The directory was also dubbed “the fundy finder” when he was a student.

After graduation, Harris served as a U.S. Navy chaplain and at several churches before landing as associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He enjoyed the ministry, especially with youth and those who were living on the street. But the demands became too much, and the support for his downtown ministry was too little. High blood pressure and a doctor’s subsequent order meant change was necessary. So Harris started down a different path and enrolled in a one-year library science master’s degree at Indiana University.

The reminiscence turns sad and he says, “I’ve never been able quite to reconcile…well, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about leaving pastoral ministry. I’ve always thought it was a kind of failure on my part. But I’m not sure what else I could do.”

Well, what he did was turn his 25-year career in libraries into a ministry. He has ministered by helping people in their research, which, he says, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.” At Princeton, he’s aided research on Puritanism and Presbyterianism—as well as about Archibald Alexander (1772–1851, “the seminary’s first professor, who still has many books in print”); Theodore Wright (1797–1847, “the third African American to study at an American institution of higher learning, and the first to attend an American seminary”); Charles Hodge (1797–1878, “America’s greatest scholar of Augustine in the 19th century”); Emily Dickinson (1830–1886, “who had a great soul friendship—well, some say affair—with a married alum who ministered in Philadelphia but brought her often to Princeton, and mentions the town and Seminary in some of her poetry”); B.B. Warfield (1851–1921, “a great forgotten defender of Darwin”); and Henry James Sr. (1811–1882, “who attended PTS for two years, and was the father of William and Henry James, the psychologist and novelist, respectively”), to name a few.

He has also ministered by staying involved and preaching in local churches, by taking hundreds of students and visitors on walking tours of the Princeton campus, by bringing history’s truth to light, by being a steward of the Seminary’s artifacts, and by encouraging those who have worked for him.

He ministered by making the Princeton community more aware of the cloud of witnesses by digging up their stories and then conveying them with colorful, gentlemanly flare. Harris helped to keep alive the witness of many great (flawed though they were) men and women—witnesses most importantly to the gospel, but also to the Seminary’s ministry. Princeton Seminary is grateful that this historian/minister kept his head in the clouds.

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