Project Canterbury

Turning Points in My Life.

By William Porcher Du Bose, M.A., S.T.D.

New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912.


DURING the first week of August, 1911, there was held at Sewanee, Tennessee, a reunion of those who had been my students during the thirty-six years of my active connection with the University of the South. This event had been for some time contemplated, and came at a most propitious moment. Conditions could not well have conspired to make it more thoroughly successful and enjoyable.

The exercises consisted of papers read by me in the morning; services, with brief addresses by others, in the afternoon; and public general conferences in the evenings--with private and social functions between.

And now I am requested, in publishing the several papers which were my contribution to the reunion, to accompany it with some explanatory account of the occasion itself--with three objects in view. In the first place, the volume is desired as an interpretation and a memorial of the reunion for the use of those who took part in it, and who wish to preserve and perpetuate the memory and the benefits of it. In the second place, it is wanted as a record and report of the week for the many more, equally interested and concerned in it, who were prevented by many and various reasons from being with us at Sewanee. And in the third place, there are friends, of my own, known and unknown, of Sewanee, of the Church, of the ideals and verities for which we all stand, who are of neither of the above classes, and who may take an interest in the more familiar and informal treatment of the matters with which our conferences were concerned. For these several purposes I am desired to preserve the personal, autobiographical and historical, features of the report and to retain as much of a concrete coloring as possible. I am willing to do this chiefly because in the reunion there has been so much of a onesided expression of obligation to myself, that it is necessary to avail myself of the opportunity to say something of my own obligations in return. Let me speak then, first, a little of the reunionists, both in will and deed, of my past relations with them, and of what I owe to them. Passing at the age of sixteen from school to college (the Military College of South Carolina), at twenty to university (of Virginia), at twenty-three into seminary life for only a year and a half, and out of this into active service in war, after which came a half dozen years of reconstruction life and ministry--I came finally to Sewanee with very little of either technical or practical training and preparation for my duties as: (1) Chaplain, (2) Professor of Ethics, and (3) Developer, as opportunity and material might be furnished, of a projected Theological Department. For several years I discharged, as I could, all these functions, as much making and shaping myself, or being shaped and made, through them, as performing these tasks upon others. Many of those under me were older young men whose education had been delayed by the disorganized conditions of the war and after. Moreover, the times had bred among them a spirit of individualism and independence, with more or less of fearlessness and lawlessness. Finally, the institution was new, the material unshaped, the whole principle and system of the place undeveloped. Through my several offices I had much to do, in a personal way, with the discipline and life of those days; I was, chiefly entrusted with the evolution of an order of Gownsmen, through whom the desired spirit and tone and character were to be impressed by degrees upon the whole body of students. Much of this work was done along with and through my classes, which thus became my main medium of influence in the University. Over us all we were fortunate at the beginning in having the clear head, the wise spirit and temper, and the strong hand of our then Vice Chancellor, General Gorgas, who had been considered the best organizing member of the Confederate Department of War.

I mention these details, chiefly to account for the peculiarly close and personal relations which from the beginning grew up between myself and my immediate students, those of my own classes. I was in fact more one of them than one merely over them. I was finding and making myself in and with and through and by, as well as upon, them. I claimed nothing, exacted nothing, imposed nothing of or for myself, and they both took more from me and gave me more than I ever asked or deserved. In addition to all this, the isolated location of Sewanee, the high quality of its limited community, the social unity, warmth, and charm of the place and the life, conduced in a singular way to the cultivation of personal relations and ties, as well between students and professors as among all others. So from those early days I became in many instances the intimate personal friend of many of my students, their confidant in love, their counsellor in difficulty or trouble, their companion, so far as presence and sympathy could go, in amusement or play. Of course, with age and with engrossing care and occupations, the outward exercise and expression of all these ties grew less, but I am grateful to feel that to the last I am trusted and treated as one whose heart is the same.

It was some years before my ethical teaching began to take a shape and develop a system of its own. My method of study and of teaching has been so peculiar that I hesitate to confess it. I can never use a former note or an old manuscript. In fact I have never accumulated or possessed any of these; I have always begun every day and every year anew, without any help from the past through any records of my own. I remember of any book only what has passed into and become part of myself. I have made great use of a very few books, and what of these I retain I can use or teach only as my own and myself. I began quite early, for example, to read with an advanced class Aristotle's Ethics--for both the Greek and the philosophy. Unconsciously Aristotle became the basis and starting point of all my thinking. I seemed to find in him the true root and starting point of all thought or knowledge of myself: Socrates' "Know thyself" found in him, in the third generation, its scientific response, or at least the beginning of it. I began to apply his principles and follow his lines, and found that instruction built up on that foundation was not only more satisfactory to myself, but more intelligible and self-evident to the classes than upon any other system. But while I never myself ceased to live in my source, my teaching only started from that beginning and more and more became my own.

My effort to develop a theological department proved premature, although my association with those first classes, then and since, has been one of the happiest experiences of my life, and a representation from those years was an indispensable feature of the reunion. In 1876 a threat of failing health caused a temporary break in my courses, and theological instruction ceased until about 1880, when, with the completion of St. Luke's Hall and the organizing ot a theological faculty, it was resumed upon something of an adequate scale and basis. From that time began my constructive interpretation and teaching of the New Testament. All the members of my theological class had taken, or were required to take, my ethical course in the University, and the unity and continuity of the Ethics and the Exegesis was thoroughly recognized and accepted. From Aristotle to Christ was a well-travelled course; the survey and record of that course I propose to make my next contribution to the science of thought and life.

As my system and method of Exegesis grew and took shape in the thought and life of the class, questions naturally arose, and the newness of the presentation was often an irritant as well as a stimulant. I held that my place and part was in the mine, not in the mint, of the truth of Christianity, that free enquiry and investigation, not dogma (which would have its proper place after), was in order with us. Everything was to be tested and verified, according to our Lord's prescription, in the light and in the terms of human nature, human life, and human destiny. All that was true for us ought to be true to us, and would be if we were in a state and attitude of correspondence with the truth. To establish this correspondence was our task. Questions that arose within the class began to spread without the class, and the time came when it became necessary to make known my teaching to a larger audience. I had no call or inclination to speak to the Church or the world save through my pupils, and it was they, not I, who in loving compulsion forced the publication of my first book, and have been behind as well as in all the rest.

This will explain in part my relation to and the relation to me of those who, in the flesh, or only in the spirit, have made and taken part in our reunion. It accounts for the fact that the gathering is made up, not of those of one way, but of those of all the ways of thinking and believing in the Church. No one thinks of asking which way is most or least in evidence among us, because, with whatever of differences, we have learned here to think and live together without sense or recognition of parties or partisanship. All honest and reasonable difficulties or convictions have been met and treated with equal interest, sympathy, and mutual respect and understanding. There are men now at home and happy in the Church who could not have entered or remained in it outside of such a welcoming atmosphere of large-minded-ness and large-heartedness.

Of the causes and the conditions which rendered possible such an absolutely united, harmonious, and enthusiastic reunion and conference as that at Sewanee, I can speak thus freely and impersonally, because while I was not unnaturally honored with having it called by my name--seeing that my life and service covered the whole period and the whole field included in the commemoration--I see in myself only one element and one factor in that sum total and result. The life and glory of Sewanee are in its fruits. Its Alumni are in equal measure its products and its real causes. When I looked into the face of that body of men, representing all of the forty years of my service, I felt all that I could only imperfectly say: that if they felt that in their four years with me I had been something to them, I felt that in my forty years with them they had been everything to me: if, so far as human agency can go, I had in a little measure been the making of them, they had in far fuller measure been the making of me. And this acknowledgment I wish now and thus to make to Sewanee and to all my long connections, relations, and associations with it.

It was not only the reunionists proper who entered into and constituted that reunion, but they were, of course, the main agents and actors in it. Their part and contributions, in the form of sermons, addresses, and, not least, informal and spontaneous impressions and testimonies, were very essential features and values of the occasion which it is not given to me to record, except in my heart. There are acknowledgments that can never be expressed; they must be felt and understood. The greater part of what is here published was addressed only to my old students and a very few others on equivalent terms of intimacy. What was said to these was aptly denominated, not by myself, "Intimate Talks." Being of this char-aracter, and spoken in confidence to those who neither could nor would misconstrue or misunderstand, there are doubtless things said which are not only more private and personal, but may be more careless and unguarded, than would otherwise be the case.

There were others than the reunionists who contributed to the unique occasion, and first among these I must mention the community of Sewanee. One of the first necessities of a university located as ours was, was the creation for itself and around itself of a university town. Projected with large endowments, and the certain prospect of much larger, it was expected that the University of the South would grow as Oxford had grown--town and gown pari passu and together. Destruction and poverty has been its actual lot, and the University has lived chiefly upon its reason to be, its undying vitality, and its determination to live through deserving to live. Its growth has necessarily been slow, and the university town proper is still a small community. But there has been compensation: only the fittest have survived--and the fitness has been mainly, faith, hope, love, and devotion; the survival has been in service and sacrifice. The lovers of Sewanee have had to show their faith by their works, and they are naturally those who are in thorough, intelligent, and assured sympathy with the spirit, the ideals, and the aims of the University. The community has been thus compacted together and unified into one great family, the spirit and interest of which entered fully into all the proceedings. What response or acknowledgment can be made, not to such demonstrations, but to all that lies behind them!

Not least is the acknowledgment I have reserved for the last: the letters from the many who would have been natural participants, but who could be so only in spirit, not in person; still more the numerous communications from this country and from others, of interest and sympathy on the part of those whose approval and friendship would in itself be an exceeding great comfort and reward for much suffered and much done.

This volume is made up of the following material: First, the pikers read by me on the successive days. These have been somewhat added to by including matter which there was not time to deliver, and by enlarging upon war experiences by special request. Second, an address upon The Theology of the Child, read the day after the reunion by request of a Sunday School Conference which succeeded it. Third, the sermon preached on the Sunday of the reunion, which happened to be the Feast of the Transfiguration. Finally there is reprinted a paper, Liberty and Authority in Christian Truth, by request, as being in the general line of thought of the volume.

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