Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you call--even a small amount here: Donate
George Rapall Noyes, scholar, pastor, teacher, author, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, March 6, 1788, the son of Nathaniel and Mary (Rapall) Noyes. He came from a good Puritan and New England stock, which had minister in its blood, his first ancestor in this country being Nicholas Noyes, who landed on its shores in 1634 and whose father and brother were both clergymen. His parents were members of the old Whitefield church in Newburyport, and, following the family tradition, they intended him also for the ministry; but their means were limited, and, like many New England boys, he had to work his own way to an education. His preparation for college was made in the Newburyport schools under the inspiration and with the financial help of his minister, Rev. Mr. Dana, who seems to have seen in him from the start a lad of promise. He entered Harvard at the age of sixteen, and along with his studies there, to eke out his support, he taught a district school three successive winters in Boxford, Bolton, and Lexington, in the latter place having Theodore Parker as one of his pupils. He graduated in the class of 1818, and for the following year took charge of the academy in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he earned money enough, his first use of it, to pay off squarely all his college debts.
While at Cambridge, coming under the influence of Rev. Henry Ware, he outgrew the theology in which he had been brought up, and in 1819 entered the Divinity School, then recently organized as a part of the university. On completing its three years’ course, wishing to pursue yet further his Biblical and theological studies, he remained in Cambridge five years more, acting at the same time first as private teacher and then as college tutor.
In October, 1827, he was ordained, and settled as minister over the little Congregational society at Brookfield, Massachusetts, and in October, 1834, over the larger one in Petersham. In both he proved himself a faithful and successful pastor, and was much beloved by his people. But without neglecting his immediate duties he kept on with the studies that were his first love. Occasional learned articles from his pen appeared in the Christian Examiner; and it was while he was a country minister that his translations of Job, the Psalms, and the Prophets were published. Their scholarship and literary excellence opened for him a larger sphere in which to shine. Added to his A.B. at Harvard in 1818, and its A.M. in 1821, he was given its D.D. in 1839, and in 1840 was invited back to the Divinity School to be Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages and Dexter Lecturer on Biblical Literature and Theology—positions in which, till his death, June 30, 1868, he did his main life-work.
The faculty of the school during much of this time was quite limited in numbers, and the school itself, though nominally a part of the university, was a somewhat loosely attached part, so that not only his strictly professional duties, but a large measure also of its administrative labors, fell on him. In the ferment of new thought then going on and the wide and liberal opening offered to all inquiring minds, irrespective of denomination, there was danger of intellectual vagaries and exegetical eccentricities, making his position in this respect no sinecure. Most admirably were its duties performed. He never set himself up as a pope, never exercised over his pupils any arbitrary authority, never acted as a spy on how their time was spent. Yet with the utmost liberty there was no looseness in his government, either of person or of mind. He knew each member of his classes individually, was known by each as a father and friend. If any one was remiss in his work or careless of the proprieties, a quiet word with just a dash of the moral law as its tone was enough to set him right. And the only force used to keep even the most cometary minds from wandering off into too eccentric orbits was the attractiveness of the great central truths that he set forth.
The method of instruction pursued, both by him and by his co-laborer, Dr. Francis, to whom also much respect is due, had in it a combination of excellences which made it in the highest degree effective. To formal lecturing, that delusion of many would-be teachers, there was given only a subordinate place. In Hebrew regular lessons were assigned, and the work done was tested in the recitation-room with question and answer. In the exegesis of the New Testament, while he led the way, it was step by step, with an opportunity not only to make notes, but at each step to make inquiries. Now and then, especially in the Epistles, he would come to difficulties that he felt it no derogation to his position freely to acknowledge. At one such place I remember his saying:
I don’t really know what the meaning here is, and, if ever I should have the good fortune to meet with Paul in the future life, I think that one of the first questions I shall ask him will be what he intended to express by these words.
Ordinarily, however, everything was made as clear as the sunlight, sometimes too clear, for, if he failed in anything, it was to give the atmosphere, the mist, and the cloud effects of the old writings, so that he was more successful with Paul and the Synoptics than with John and the Apocalypse.
In all departments of study where it was possible original investigation was insisted upon, a special topic with the lists of books bearing upon it pro and con being given to each student, who prepared an essay upon it, which was read before the class and discussed by them, followed by the professor’s views, which were also open for discussion. Independence of thought was encouraged. If a stupid question was asked or an honestly cranky one, there was no sarcasm in its answer, nothing but a patient helping of the questioner to see the truth for himself. The orthodox men in the classes never had their feelings hurt by any disrespect to what they held dear. He had a quiet vein of humor that would sometimes flow out in a pleasant smile and ripple along in his speech, and he recognized and enjoyed anything of the kind in his pupils as much as in himself. On one occasion when a man was late, his rebuke was, “I am sorry, Mr. Blank, you did not get in sooner, for you have missed not only what I said, but a very good witticism made by Mr. So-and-so.” The classes did not get in him the inspiration of a brilliant lecturer, like Professor Park, his contemporary at Andover, imposing upon them his one special set of views, but they got in its place a wide acquaintance with the views taken by all leading minds, and, best of all, a capacity for taking their own views.
His published writings, not voluminous, but continued up to his last days, show the same characteristics as his work in the school. His translations of the sacred books, made by himself alone, will compare favorably alike in their accuracy and elegance with any since made, even by companies of scholars; and many of his articles in the Christian Examiner—such, especially, as those on “The Scriptural Doctrine of Sacrifice,” “The Messianic Prophecies,” and “The History of the Doctrine of the Atonement”—are models of fairness. He was a pioneer in a realm of Biblical criticism which has since become a settled country, proclaimed doctrines, denounced then as infidel, which all students now accept. Familiar with German thought, he appropriated the grain of its scholarship without allowing himself to be buried in its chaff. Fond of the classics, and as capable of teaching Latin and Greek as of teaching Hebrew, he brought their culture to bear on his own chosen field of labor. And, while too accurate and rational to be a poet or to sympathize much with the mystical, visionary, revivalistic side of religion, he nevertheless often reached heights of truth on his plodding feet equal to any that others rose to on soaring wings.
Personally he had none of the eccentricities which sometimes accompany his kind of scholarship. His learning was well matched by his common sense. He was genial, accurate, and careful in all business affairs, a good citizen, and a man who everywhere exemplified the Christian life and won respect. At the age of thirty he married Eliza Wheeler Buttrick, of Framingham. His home life was happy; and of his seven children he had the satisfaction of seeing five live and grow up into worthy characters and useful lives, the four sons as graduates of his own Alma Mater.
While physical weakness came to him in his later years, his mental vigor remained to the last. Only a few weeks before he died he made, at the alumni meeting, a most effective off-hand speech in behalf of his beloved school, pleading for a continuance of its unshackled freedom—a most fitting word to crown what under him it had always had. And, when the end came, it was met with the serene confidence of its opening for him another volume of those truths whose records in the first one he had so long and faithfully taught.