Home US Top Universities John Wilson, eminent spiritual historian, ‘extraordinary mentor’ and former dean of the Graduate Faculty, dies at 90

John Wilson, eminent spiritual historian, ‘extraordinary mentor’ and former dean of the Graduate Faculty, dies at 90

John Wilson, eminent spiritual historian, ‘extraordinary mentor’ and former dean of the Graduate Faculty, dies at 90


John Wilson smiling

John Wilson, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Faith, Emeritus, died Oct. 5 of problems from COVID-19 at his residence in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He was 90.

Wilson joined Princeton’s college in 1960 and transferred to emeritus standing in 2013. Throughout his greater than 50 years on the College, he made a major influence on the Division of Faith, the form of undergraduate scholar life, graduate schooling, and the sphere of American spiritual historical past.

He served as assistant dean of the faculty from 1965 to 1972, chair of the faith division from 1973 to 1980, and dean of the Graduate Faculty from 1994 to 2002.

Within the early Eighties, Wilson led the hassle of a committee that paved the best way for the formation of the residential schools that now outline undergraduate life at Princeton. He was appointed as the primary head of Forbes Faculty, serving from 1983 to 1992.

“John Wilson was a historian’s historian, one of the vital revered students of American faith in his technology,” stated Jeffrey Stout, professor of faith, emeritus. “He did greater than anybody else to remodel [the] division right into a well known mannequin for the humanistic research of faith. I can say with out worry of contradiction that the members of my division have by no means had a extra trustworthy protector or a extra respectable pal.”

“His dedication and look after the subsequent technology of researchers and students is clear in his legacy on the Graduate Faculty,” stated present Graduate Faculty dean Rodney Priestley, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Organic Engineering. “As we plan for the a hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the Faculty in 2025, I will likely be fascinated with John Wilson and the heat and pleasure so many fondly bear in mind he introduced as dean to the Faculty’s one centesimal celebration.”

Peter Bogucki, who served because the founding director of research at Forbes Faculty and is now affiliate dean for undergraduate affairs on the Faculty of Engineering and Utilized Science, stated Wilson’s “placid energy” was important to constructing consensus and group throughout the residential schools.   

A transformative voice in his self-discipline

Departments in American universities dedicated to the educational research of faith had simply begun to be established when Wilson arrived at Princeton. Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Faith and division chair, stated he helped to remodel the self-discipline at Princeton and nationally.

Wilson’s publications, together with the 1968 article “Growing the Research of Faith in American Schools and Universities” and the amount “The Research of Faith in American Schools and Universities” (Princeton College Press, 1970), co-edited along with his Princeton colleague Paul Ramsey, “helped rising departments and students of faith develop a standard set of objectives, strategies and approaches to the research of faith throughout the liberal arts,” Weisenfeld stated.

A long time later, he helped Weisenfeld, who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton in 1992, to forge her personal path as a graduate scholar, serving as a reader of her dissertation on the historical past of African American girls’s Christian activism in Harlem’s Younger Girls’s Christian Affiliation. “John was a unprecedented mentor and trainer who, with mild empathy, struck simply the appropriate stability between encouraging college students to pursue their mental passions broadly and making certain that they ultimately targeted their analysis initiatives,” she stated.

His necessary publications that targeted on the historical past of the relation of faith to American public tradition — together with “Public Faith in American Tradition” (Temple College Press, 1979) and a number of other co-edited volumes from the long-term undertaking he directed on the relations of church and state in American historical past — “pursued questions which might be nonetheless important right this moment,” she stated.

Stanley Katz, lecturer with rank of professor within the Princeton Faculty of Public and Worldwide Affairs, who joined Princeton in 1978, collaborated with Wilson on that decade-long undertaking. “John had pioneered scholarship on the position of civil faith in up to date America,” he stated. “Our undertaking produced a number of effective books and cemented our friendship. John exemplified all that’s finest in liberal instructing and studying.”

Martha Himmelfarb, the William H. Danforth Professor of Faith, Emeritus, additionally joined the school in 1978, when Wilson was division chair. She remembers he was welcoming and supportive, traits she particularly appreciated as a brand new feminine college member. “I used to be additionally grateful to John for presiding over a metamorphosis of the division that moved it away from a mannequin derived from the curriculum of Protestant divinity colleges,” she stated. “In that mannequin, my discipline, historic Judaism, served as background to the emergence of Christianity. In [Princeton’s] faith division, historic Judaism was a discipline in its personal proper.”

She stated Wilson was additionally a person of many skills. “[When] my husband and I purchased a home, I requested John Gager, my colleague in early Christianity, if he knew a very good plumber. ‘Sure,’ he stated, ‘John Wilson.’ Over time we borrowed instruments from John’s intensive assortment and took benefit of his experience not solely in plumbing however in electrical work as nicely.”

A legacy of development on the Graduate Faculty

As dean of the Graduate Faculty, Wilson pioneered an expanded fellowship program that supplied all first-year doctoral college students within the sciences and engineering with full tuition and a stipend to help with dwelling bills. As well as, all doctoral college students within the humanities and social sciences — who already have been assured a first-year fellowship — additionally grew to become eligible to obtain summer season stipends.

When Wilson stepped down from the deanship, he indicated that this elevated help for doctoral college students was the achievement of which he was most proud.

Lisa Schreyer, deputy dean of the Graduate Faculty, famous that Wilson’s type with everybody — from college to workers to the graduate college students — was “heat, welcoming and with an amazing humorousness.” Whereas Wilson and his spouse Ruth didn’t reside at Wyman Home, the formal residence of the dean, they usually got here to Procter Corridor to have meals with college students. “They needed to be a heat presence for college students,” she stated.

Wilson additionally launched on-line utility kinds because the Graduate Faculty more and more attracted worldwide college students and was a key determine in planning the Graduate Faculty’s yearlong centennial celebration in 2000-01. Throughout his administration, the College additionally introduced plans to construct extra graduate scholar housing.

‘In for the lengthy haul’ with college students

Calling Wilson “a peerless pal,” John Fleming, the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1963 and joined the school in 1965, stated Wilson’s influence within the classroom didn’t cease when he took up the deanship.

One instance was the necessary position he performed within the improvement of “Introduction to Western Tradition: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment,” a course Fleming created with colleagues Theodore Rabb and Robert Hollander as a modest one-semester class for first-year college students. The seminar has since expanded into “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Tradition,” a sturdy year-long, team-taught Humanities Sequence course that is still very talked-about.

Leigh Schmidt, the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished College Professor at Washington College of St. Louis, who earned his Ph.D. in 1987, first met Wilson as a graduate scholar and stayed in contact via 40 years of friendship.

Schmidt visited Wilson at his residence in New Hampshire this previous summer season, and noticed he had winnowed his library down significantly from the double-stacked cabinets in his workplace in 1879 Corridor. “Among the many books he had not parted with have been these his college students had written through the years — a reminder that epitomized his lengthy dedication to nurturing and sustaining these relationships,” Schmidt stated. “John was an extremely devoted mentor. He was within the relationship for the lengthy haul.” 

“What I recognize most about John as a mentor and dissertation adviser was his mild steering — all the time a lightweight contact and by no means a heavy hand,” stated Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Faith at Dartmouth Faculty, who earned his Ph.D. in 1985. “I shall all the time be glad about his knowledge and his unflagging help.”

“John contaminated me with the colonial historical past bug, however he additionally urged me to vary broadly, and my dissertation centered on the twentieth century,” stated Peter Thuesen, who obtained his Princeton Ph.D. in 1988 and is now a professor of non secular research at Indiana College Indianapolis. “Faith is a specialty that requires pondering throughout time durations, and John gave me the arrogance to try this.”

In Wilson’s honor, his former college students established the John F. Wilson Analysis Fellowship, awarded yearly by the American Society of Church Historical past, of which Wilson served as president in 1976.

Wilson was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1933 to Esther Gregory and Frederick Colburn Wilson, a minister. He obtained his bachelor’s at Harvard College in 1954, and his grasp of divinity and Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary in 1957 and 1962, respectively. He was a postgraduate on the Institute for Historical past Analysis in London in 1958-1959, and taught within the faith division at Barnard Faculty from 1956 to 1958 previous to his five-decade tenure at Princeton.

Wilson served as a member of the board of trustees at Union Theological Seminary, Academic Testing Service and Northfield Mount Hermon Faculties. He was a member of the American Historic Affiliation and the American Academy of Faith.

In retirement, he served on the boards of the Apple Hill Heart for Chamber Music and the Peterborough Gamers.

Wilson is survived by his spouse, Ruth Alden Cooke Wilson, whom he married in 1954; 4 kids, Abigail, Nathaniel, Johanna and Jeremy; 12 grandchildren; and two nice grandchildren.

Donations in Wilson’s honor could also be made to the Apple Hill Heart for Chamber Music, 410 Apple Hill Street, Nelson, N.H. 03457, and Peterborough Gamers, PO Field 118 (55 Hadley Street), Peterborough, N.H. 03458. 

The household is planning a celebration of his life in spring or summer season 2024.

View or share feedback on a memorial web page supposed to honor Wilson’s life and legacy.



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