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Walker, James (1794-1874)

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A founder of the American Unitarian Association, James Walker (1794-1874) was President of Harvard University from February 10, 1853, to January 26, 1860. Walker was also a Unitarian minister and religious philosopher.

James Walker
James Walker

Early Years

James Walker was born to John Walker and Lucy (Johnson) Walker on August 16, 1794, in what was then Woburn, Massachusetts (later to become part of Burlington). Walker attended the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts (1801-1810) and graduated from Harvard University in 1814. After graduation, Walker taught for one year at the Phillips Exeter Academy and then returned to Harvard University to study at the Divinity School (1817).

American Unitarian Association, Boston. Next to Massachusetts State House.
American Unitarian Association, Boston. Next to Massachusetts State House.

Walker spent the next twenty years as a Unitarian minister for the Harvard Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts. A well-respected preacher, Walker became a leader in the Unitarian movement. He helped organize the American Unitarian Association (1825), contributed to American Unitarian Tracts, and edited the Unitarian movement’s journal, the Christian Examiner, from 1831 to 1839. In his writings, Walker discussed various philosophical questions involving ethical theory, natural religion, and phrenology. His most important work was The Philosophy of Man’s Spiritual Nature in Regard to the Foundation of Faith (1834), a combination of several philosophical arguments supporting the existence of God.

In 1829 Walker married Catherine Bartlett (1798-1868). They had no children.

Harvard University

Walker was a Fellow of Harvard University (1834-1853) and a member of the Board of Overseers (1825-1836, 1864-1874). He was appointed the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity in 1838, serving until 1853. He also acted as the college preacher, speaking in the college chapel.

Harvard Church in Charlestown; named for John Harvard, who had lived there.
Harvard Church in Charlestown; named for John Harvard, who had lived there.

In 1853, Walker was elected President of Harvard University. His administration of the school was uneventful, and no great reforms were instituted by him. The only new subject added to the course curriculum was music. Evening prayers were discontinued in 1855, the Appleton Chapel was completed in 1858, and Boylston Hall was built in 1857. Suffering from various infirmities, Walker resigned in 1860.

Life after Harvard

After retiring from Harvard University, Walker spent his time writing, lecturing, and preaching. He devoted his studies to philosophy and literature. When the American Civil War started, Walker gave speeches in support of the Union cause.

Walker died on December 23, 1874. At his death, he left his books and the bulk of his estate, $15,000, to the Harvard College Library and a personal reputation of modesty and good humor.

—From The Papers of James Walker, Harvard University. The Papers of James Walker touch upon his activities as a Unitarian minister and as President of Harvard University.These papers include letters, sermons, lecture materials, catalogues, and a poem.

James Walker was born in 1794, at Woburn, in a precinct of that town which, largely through his father’s influence, was incorporated as a separate municipality under the name of Burlington, in 1799. He belonged to a family which has produced many men who have held high places in professional and public life.

Harvard University 1855
Harvard University (1855)

The father of James was John Walker, who in 1798 received from the elder President Adams a commission as Major-General, with a view to active service in the then apprehended war with France. His mother was a descendant of Edward Johnson, the author of the “Wonder-Working Providence.”

It was war-time in the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. Many of the old churches had undergone or were undergoing disruption. The orthodoxy of those who professed adherence to the old faith, though really progressive, was regarded as retrogressive; for the then prevailing Hopkinsianism seemed an exaggeration of the Calvinism which it was in fact undermining and disintegrating. Unitarianism, though incapable of hurling anathemas, supplied the lack of them to its utmost ability; and if there was no love lost in the conflict, it was because there was none to be lost. The new Charlestown minister entered earnestly into the fight. His sermon at the dedication of his church was a vigorous defense of Unitarians against the aspersions of their opponents.

Appleton Chapel, 1856
Appleton Chapel (1856)

For eight years of this time, Dr. Walker added to his other labors the editorship of the Christian Examiner, for most of the time with the cooperation of Rev. Dr. Greenwood. In his editorship he made a broad departure from established custom. Dr. Walker set the example of publishing articles adverse to his own opinions.

While thus busy in his parish and in literary work, Dr. Walker was renewing, step by step, his relations with the College. In 1825 he was chosen one of the Overseers. In 1834 he became a member of the Corporation, and so continued till his retirement from office in 1860. In 1838 he accepted the Alford Professorship of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, from which, in 1853, he passed to the presidency.

In the presidential office, Dr. Walker’s mere presence was a power, alike on public occasions and meetings of the Faculty. On all matters appertaining to the courses of study, the choice of instructors, and the management of affairs, whether strictly academic or secular, his advice, while in form mere counsel, had in its self-evidencing wisdom the authority of the imperative command. His influence on the students, collectively and individually was intensely stimulating to industry, ambition, high moral resolve, and religious purpose, and there were and still are many who regard their having been in college under his presidency as a ground for lifelong gratitude.

Boylston Hall (as remodeled in 1959)
Boylston Hall (as remodeled in 1959)

Dr. Walker’s great work in college, both as Professor and as President, was his preaching. His sermons were unsurpassed in directness and impressiveness. They were, for the most part, on those great truths and laws of religion, Christianity and moral right, which are generally admitted to be undeniable, and therefore as generally ignored. He had the rare faculty of making his hearers feel as if these eternal verities were a fresh revelation. It was his wont, not infrequently to select for his subject some principle so obvious as to be doubted by none, yet so familiar as to have lost its place in men’s serious regard; to state it in a paradoxical form, so as to draw attention to it as to what had never been heard before; to vitalize it with all the energy of his profound thought and earnest feeling; and thus to deposit it as a moral force thenceforth constant and efficient in the hearts and lives of his receptive hearers. Ethical preaching like his was heard from no one else in his generation.

University Museum, first section (1859)
University Museum, first section (1859)

Dr. Walker resigned the presidency in the meridian of his mental power, and with no physical infirmity except a chronic lameness that had long rendered locomotion difficult and painful. In 1864 he returned to the service of the College as a member of the Board of Overseers, and gave to it six years of wise counsel, holding a place as chairman or member of important committees. His last years were passed serenely and happily, in the enjoyment of books and friends, with a calm outlook into the unexplored future, and with the firm religious faith and trust that had inspired and framed his life-work. He died in 1874.

—Abridged from Harvard Graduates I Have Known, by Andrew Preston Peabody.

Who Was James Walker?

James Walker
James Walker

James Walker built up a strong parish from slender beginnings. His church in Charlestown stood like a light-house to warn the young, from far and near, of their perils. Wherever he preached, he was listened to as if men saw in his every look and word the unmistakable credentials of a “great ambassador.” In the house of the people he was simple as a child, yet profound as a philosopher; at one moment overflowing with pungent humor, his countenance the next moment eloquent with pathetic seriousness.

He was a man unrivalled in sententious conversation, one who in later life drew toward him the mingled homage and respect of the learned men around him in other chairs of the college which he honored successively as professor and president; the man on whose counsel the student pre-eminently relied when his mind was vexed with those problems which concern themselves with the conduct of life or the choice of a profession. And he lived to grow old. He went gently to his rest with the benedictions of pupils following him from their widely scattered homes, with the gratitude of the broken households who yet survived to revere the pastor who had served them more than thirty years before.

Never devoid of catholicity of spirit, the vehemence of the youthful theologian became more and more mellowed by a wide course of reading and through the experience of life, until at last we saw in him an impersonation of the apostolic “meekness of wisdom,” the like of which, in this world, we can scarce believe that our eyes shall rest upon again.

James Walker was born in Burlington, Massachusetts, August 16, 1794. He was fitted for Harvard College (which he entered in 1810) under Mr. Caleb Butler, preceptor of the Groton Academy. He delivered the second English oration at his graduation in 1814. Among the classmates gathered before him, when he appeared as their class orator that year, were the late Rev. Dr. Greenwood and the historian Prescott. Upon leaving college, he spent a year at Exeter as an assistant teacher in connection with the memorable Dr. Benjamin Abbot, principal of Phillips Exeter Academy. The two subsequent years he passed in the pursuit of his theological studies at Cambridge, graduating in the class which first left the Divinity School, in 1817.

After declining an invitation to settle in Lexington, Mass., he was ordained as the pastor of the Harvard Church in Charlestown, Mass., February 11, 1818. During the twenty-one years of his ministry (which was a ministry to the social and educational interests of the town as well as to his own parish) he was challenged again and again to come forth as a leader upon conspicuous occasions. He was one of the founders of the American Unitarian Association and served for many years on its Executive Committee. In 1832 he was chosen to address the citizens of Charlestown upon the one hundredth anniversary of Washington’s birthday. His ringing voice, bidding men be of good cheer, carried courage to many a faint-hearted church and its youthful minister upon the day of ordination. The pages of the Christian Examiner bear witness to his zeal in every good word and work. Besides many contributions at other periods to its pages, he was its sole editor between the years 1831 and 1839.

He retired from his auspicious ministry in Charlestown, July 14, 1839, that he might become Alford Professor of Natural Theology, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity in Harvard College. The public foresaw his illustrious career at Cambridge (for his name had been suggested in some quarters as a candidate for president as early as the date of the lamented President Kirkland’s resignation in 1828). But we cannot wonder that his devoted parish clung to him to the very last, and interposed every possible solicitation to compel him to decline this invitation to the Alford Professorship. Nor were they wholly alone in their regrets. In the many homes in which Dr. Walker was enthusiastically welcomed, when he made an exchange of pulpits, there must have been those among old and young whose hearts sadly testified that this summons, “Friend, go up higher,” betokened their being left, far more than before, beyond the range of his voice or the clasp of his hand.

James Walker
James Walker

After leaving the impress of his character upon many successive classes who were brought into more familiar relations with him than often happens at college, at the expiration of fourteen years (in 1853) he was transferred from the professor’s chair to the office of president, which latter post he filled with signal ability during the ensuing seven years, until in 1860 his impaired health counseled his resignation. But this event did not remove him from all concern in the interests of the college which he had loved so intensely all his life,—the college toward which he had long since taught the eyes of Charlestown boys to look wistfully. To its councils he had been called thirty-five years previous as overseer; of its corporation he had been a member for nineteen years, before he became its president. And now, after a brief respite, we find him once more, for ten years, a member of the board of overseers.

He survived his retirement from the presidency more than fourteen years. He had so meekly borne the honors with which men had crowned him that these later years of comparative retirement were not rendered insipid from lack of excitement, but were, as he alleged, among his happiest, save only that a portion of them were overshadowed by the death of the wife who for nearly forty years had been the companion of his studies and the eager dispenser of his hospitality. Mrs. Caroline Walker (daughter of Dr. George Bartlett, of Charlestown, Mass.) died June 13, 1868, aged seventy.

On his eightieth birthday, August i6, 1874, through the happy instigation of his lifelong friend, Rev. Dr. Samuel Osgood, of New York, a beautiful cup and salver were presented to him by friends who had known and loved him in Charlestown, Cambridge, and elsewhere. A few weeks previous he had the rare felicity of welcoming at his dinner table, upon Commencement Day, seven of his surviving classmates.

Dr. Walker edited “Reid’s Essay on the Intellectual Powers, abridged, with notes from Sir William Hamilton,” and Dugald Stewart’s “Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man.” In 1840 and for three consecutive years he delivered courses of lectures before the Lowell Institute upon Natural Religion, which excited a very deep and widespread interest.

In 1863 a memoir of Hon. Daniel Appleton White, of Salem, Mass., was printed, which Dr. Walker had prepared at the request of the Massachusetts Historical Society; and in 1867 he prepared a memoir, for the same society, of President Quincy.

The fervor of his patriotism was attested alike at the beginning and at the close of our gigantic Civil War. In 1861 he published a kindling discourse, delivered in King’s Chapel, Boston, upon “The Spirit Proper to the Times.” The oration which he delivered in 1863, before the alumni of Harvard College, remains in its massive simplicity an inspiring memorial of his patriotic counsels.

He published a series of his sermons immediately after his retirement from the presidency of the college, and another series was published shortly after his death under the title “Reason, Faith, and Duty.”

— By William Orne White. Abridged from Heralds of a Liberal Faith, edited by Samuel A. Eliot (Volume 2, Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910).