William Rainey Harper

National Cyclopedia of American Biography

Harper, William Rainey, Hebraist and first president of the University of Chicago (1891), was born at New Concord, Muskingum co, O., July 26, 1856, son of Samuel and Ellen Elizabeth (Rainey) Harper and great-great-grandson of Robert Harper, a native of Ireland, who came to this country in 1795. When he was eight years of age he entered the preparatory department of Muskingum College,

( 66) New Concord, and continuing his studies through the regular department was graduated in 1870, with the degree of A.B. As the college was primarily for young men who intended to enter the ministry of the United Presbyterian Church, the study of the Bible in the Hebrew language was an important feature of the curriculum, and young Harper's graduating oration was by choice delivered in the same ancient language. After studying privately for three years, in the fall of 1873 he entered the graduate department of Yale University, to take courses in philology and in the Indo-Iranian and Semitic languages under Whitney, Packard, Lounsbury and others. The degree of Ph. D. was conferred upon him in 1875 was no perfunctory honor. A few months later, being then only nineteen, he became president of Masonic College in Macon, Tenn., but at the close of the academic year was appointed to a tutorship in the preparatory department of Denison University, Granville, O. The president of the latter institution was Dr. E. Benjamin Andrews, subsequently president of Brown University, and still later, superintendent of public schools of Chicago, and in association with him Dr. Andrews worked most harmoniously. An enthusiastic instructor, a remarkable disciplinarian, he more that satisfied the expectations of the trustees, and in 1879 the preparatory department was erected into Granville Academy, and he became its principal. In 1880 Dr. Harper was called to the chair of Hebrew and Old Testament exegesis in the Baptist Union Theological Seminary at Morgan Park Ill., and in the following year opened there a summer school for the study of Hebrew, which was attended by twenty-two persons. He began to teach Hebrew by correspondence in 1881, the outcome of which was the American Institute of Hebrew, a society composed of the leading Hebrew scholars of the United States. In 1885 he became principle of the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts, and retained this position for six years; meantime, having resigned his professorship in the Theological Seminary (1886), he accepted the professorship of Semitic languages in the sophical faculty of Yale University. Three years later he was also appointed Woolsey professor of Biblical literature in the academic faculty at Yale, and instructor in the Semitic languages in the Divinity School, and the duties of these three offices were carried on simultaneously until the close of the academic year 1890-91. Dr. Harper's next position was that of principal of the Chautauqua system, and in this he remained until the summer of 1891, when he went to Europe to spend a year in travel and study, having previously accepted the presidency of the University of Chicago, with whose rise and progress he has been closely identified. Upon the organization of the American Baptist Education Society by the Baptist denomination in Washington in 1888, the question of establishing a university in Chicago on a broad and firm basis was discussed. In the following year, John D. Rockefeller made a contribution of $600,000 as an endowment fund, provided $400,000 more was pledged within ninety days. This sum was raised, and a site of twenty-five acres, valued at $400,000, was purchased. In June, 1891, Dr Harper assumed the duties of his office, having as his aims the creation of the most comprehensive and liberal university the world has ever seen and the reformation of the present system of collegiate education. The boldness of his schemes, not the least of which was the securing of an endowment fund of several million dollars, gave those to whom he appealed confidence in him. Mr. Rockefeller added $1,000,000 to his original contribution, of which $800,000 was designated as an endowment for non-professional graduate instruction. A few months later $500,000 was received from the executors of the Ogden estate, for a scientific school in connection with the University, and before July 10 1891, and additional fund of $1,000,000 was raised, a part of this being used for the erection of buildings, including the Kent Chemical Laboratory; the Ryerson Physical Laboratory, and the Walker Museum. The work of practical instruction was begun in October 1892, and by December there were 589 registered students in all departments, nearly one-half of them being graduates of other institutions of learning. He is head of the department of Semitic languages. Originality is said to be Dr. Harper's chief characteristic, and this is manifest in his plans of work, his policies of government and his methods of teaching. As head of the university he makes his influence felt in every department. One familiar with his work in its various branches has written of him: "In nothing is Dr. Harper greater than as a teacher. In certain lines he is probably the greatest pedagogue of his generation. His skill in leading the thought of a class inductively is consummate. He never presented his own view upon a disputed point in a dogmatic way. His method is to present the facts impartially, and let one think out his own conclusion. Sometimes he will present an opponent's case so strongly the majority of the class will be won over to that position rather than to his own. Another striking element in his teaching is his power of getting work out of his students. He is a relentless worker himself. His assignments are sufficient to occupy almost all of a student's time if he did nothing else, and he inspires his pupils with an enthusiasm that impels them to strive to get through all the work laid out." Dr. Harper is constantly engaged in literary work. He was one of the committee of five to select and arrange for editing Appletons' series of "The World's Great Books"; he was associated with Prof. T. C. Burgess, C. F. Castle, F.J. Miller and R. F. Weidner in the publication of as series of Greek and Latin test-books based on inductive principles; he published "Elements of Hebrew" (1881), now used in nearly all the theological seminaries and colleges in the United States; "Hebrew method and Manual"; "Elements of Hebrew Syntax by an Inductive Method" (1888). and he prepared the Hebrew text of the book of Zachariah which was published as one of "The Sacred Books of the Old Testament," in the series known as the Polychome Bible. A series of papers from his pen appeared in "Hebraica" on "The Pentateuchal Question," and in the "Biblical World" on "Constructive Studies in the Priestly Element in the Old Testament." He found and still edits the "Biblical World," formerly the "Old and New Testament Student," a journal which has

( 67) been the chief agent in popularizing Bible study in America and England, and "The American Journal of Semitics," formerly "Hebraica," the only scientific journal devoted to the interests of Semitic studies. He is also general editor of several series of translations and transliterations of ancient records published by the university, beginning with "Ancient Records of Babylonia and Assyria" (1901). The degree of D.D. was conferred upon him by Colby University in 1891, and that of LL.D by the University of Nebraska in 1893, and Tulane and Yale universities in 1901. Dr. Harper is a member of the Union League; the Chicago, the University and the Quadrangle Club; the Art Institute; the National Education Association; the Society for Biblical Research; the Oriental Society; the Chicago Society for Egyptian Research, and the University Club of New York city, and for several years he was a member of the Chicago board of education. He was married at New Concord, O., in 1875, to Ellen daughter of Dr. David Paul then president of Muskingum College. They have three sons and a daughter.


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