Minnesota Baptists and Pillsbury Academy

I have already given you a word of introduction to the Owatonna Academy and to the Honorable George A. Pillsbury. Perhaps I ought to add that he was head of a family that was by far the most prominent, influential, and wealthy in Minnesota, or indeed in the Northwest. He was President of the Minnesota Baptist State Convention, a younger brother, the Honorable John S. Pillsbury, was Governor of the state, and Mr. George A. Pillsbury’s eldest son, the Honorable Charles A. Pillsbury, was a leading member of the Legislature and state leader of the Republican party. When, therefore, I saw Mr. Pillsbury at my door, I knew that his errand was serious and important.

He said that he wished to have a little conversation with me which he would be glad if I would regard as confidential. While to outward appearance he was hale and hearty, such, he said, was not the fact. His physicians had warned him of an insidious and incurable disease that must in no long time terminate his life. For that event he was now, while there was opportunity, making preparation. He wished to leave a suitable token of his appreciation of his Baptist friends in Minnesota, with whom he had worked so cordially, and who had so generously honored him. His mind had turned towards education, and in fact he had in his will made a bequest of some Two Hundred Thousand Dollars to the Owatonna Academy. But further reflection had led him to doubt the wisdom of this gift. He saw no evidence of Baptist interest in the Academy. He was not convinced that his gift would be welcomed. He feared that the Academy would be neglected, its funds wasted, and its opportunities not availed of. He was contemplating a change in his will. Were his doubts justified? If so, could I suggest any way of correcting the situation so as to render it more assuring? He had come to me for any counsel that I might give him.

I need not say that I was flattered by this call and by Mr. Pillsbury’s confidences. In my reply I gave full recognition to his generous thought for the state, but his doubt and hesitation I frankly told him I shared. I ended by asking him to give me a little time for reflection on his problem.

In a few days I called on Mr. Pillsbury with my answer. Of course, it would be necessary, I said, that the Baptist denomination of Minnesota be convinced of the value to them and their children and to the Christian cause in the state, of a well-endowed academy under Baptist control. That could be done by a series of popular addresses from influential pulpits. A permanent Baptist watch care could only be assured, however, if the Baptists of the state should now contribute a considerable sum to the Academy. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. To justify the new interest and large gifts it would at the same time be important to put the Academy in a respectable position, by giving it better facilities at once. In order to accomplish all three of these things, I would suggest that he himself should offer conditionally to give, say, Fifty Thousand Dollars to the Academy, provided the Baptists of the state would contribute an equal sum. Of the Hundred Thousand thus provided, one-half should go into a needed new building and the other half into endowment. The raising of the needed guarantees would commit the state to the care of the Academy, and it would give immediate efficiency and respectability to the work of the Academy. Mr. Pillsbury could then safely leave the remaining One Hundred and Fifty Thousand in his will.

Mr. Pillsbury fell in with this program and it was agreed before we parted that the next move would properly be to call together the leading laymen of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the men who would have to set the example in giving, and lead in the movement. We would acquaint them with the plan and invite their leadership. A few days later Mr. Pillsbury invited them all to his house. The meeting was entirely successful, and the program was heartily adopted.

The question immediately arose, Who was the best man to travel over the state, present the cause, and raise the money? There was entire unanimity of opinion that this duty fell on me. I must get a year’s release from my pastoral duties, they said, and undertake the job. Mr. Pillsbury insisted on this with the others. They gave me time for consideration. I reflected on the matter carefully. The call for the service seemed imperative. Every consideration made it so. I saw not only that it was my duty, but that so soon as the matter became public my church, as well as my friends, would perceive it to be my duty. I believed that the money could be raised. I saw, too, that here was the coveted opportunity for the coveted change of pastorate. Not an element was wanting. Everybody must recognize the imperativeness of this call of duty. But I must seize the opportunity to insist on my church’s releasing me entirely and calling another pastor. I therefore presented my resignation, instead of asking for temporary release. The church declined to accept the resignation and gave me instead release for six months. This I declined in turn, and renewed my resignation, making it imperative as was consistent with the language of affection and courtesy, and so in March 1888, my pastorate terminated. My plan was to perform the service undertaken, giving if necessary a year to it, and then to accept any suitable pastorate that might be offered me. I had no thought at all of leaving the ministry.

My new work began immediately. I prepared and wrote out the strongest plea I could for Baptist preparatory education. The need of the Baptists of Minnesota in particular for an excellent Academy I tried to illustrate and enforce. I insisted also that the Academy must be well endowed and equipped, and a much better school than the ordinary high school, that it should be modeled on such great Eastern schools as the Philips Exeter Academy, with its hundreds of thousands of endowment, and that now in Mr. Pillsbury’s offer a rare opportunity had come to us to do this thing. This opportunity would not return. We must not decline Mr. Pillsbury’s gift, but meet its conditions gratefully and promptly.

I delivered this address in the principal pulpits of the state, visited all the families of means, and used the newspapers, particularly the editorial department of the Standard of Chicago which was placed at my disposal. Within six weeks, to my surprise and delight, the generous Baptists of Minnesota handed me in acceptable pledges nearly Ten Thousand Dollars more than the Fifty Thousand required by Mr. Pillsbury’s conditions. And then came another surprise; I was elected Principal of the Academy with its name now changed to Pillsbury Academy, my duties not to begin for sixteen months, and no immediate acceptance to be asked.

My canvass closed just before the date of the annual national gathering which Baptists call their May Anniversaries. These were this year to be held in Washington, D.C. My old Rochester friend, Dr. Morehouse, then Executive Secretary of the Home Mission Society, wrote me a personal letter urging me to attend these meetings. This letter, as I soon learned, was not without a hidden motive. Already over the horizon and out of any sight of mine, the forces were converging which were to give a new and permanent direction to my life. Having nothing else in hand, I attended the Anniversaries at Washington, as requested by Dr. Morehouse.

I was surprised and delighted to meet there Dr. Anderson. He had now become aged and infirm. Dr. Edward Bright, editor of the Examiner, and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester, was with him. The two sought me out for a little conference. Dr. Anderson had resigned from the presidency of the University on account of ill health and growing infirmities. They were on the lookout for a successor to him in the presidency and had come to ask if I would consider the position. They were of course entirely serious in their suggestion, however mistaken in their choice. Subsequently, Dr. Strong, to whom apparently they had confided their proffer, visited me at the Riggs House where I was stopping, and spent the whole evening, until late in the night, endeavoring to induce me to accept the presidency of the University of Rochester. I tried to treat these sincere and kindly overtures, extremely flattering as they were, with the consideration and respect their sources deserved, without having at any time for one moment the slightest notion of yielding to them. I discouraged these proposals but did not curtly dismiss them. It was out of courtesy only that I postponed my negative answer, by asking time for reflection.

I have already given the reasons which elevens years before had decided me against the teaching profession. I had two or three times since had occasion to review and to reaffirm the earlier decision. I would have greater liberty in a presidency, it is true, and a wider scope than in a teacher’s chair. But, on the other hand, a presidency and particularly the presidency of the University of Rochester, as successor to Dr. Anderson, was open to insuperable objections. I felt myself entirely unequal to the position; I was lacking in breadth, accuracy, and finish of scholarship; the range of my reading had been limited; I had no wide acquaintance with men of ability, and little experience of the world, and I had never mingled in exacting society or in familiar intercourse with men of culture and distinction. I was young, a full generation younger than the distinguished professors in Rochester who had been my teachers and would now serve under me. I knew of course that no man becomes fitted for a new position of importance and responsibility, except by months or years of experience in the position itself, and that in the process of becoming fitted there must be errors, embarrassments, and chagrins.

Since that day I have had wide acquaintance with college presidents. I now know that I then overestimated the requirements of the position and multiplied its difficulties. Dr. Anderson himself, with all his power and success, had no great breadth of culture or exactness of scholarship. In the niceties of culture in most of its forms several of his professors surpassed him, as all of them would immeasurably surpass me, and though I might reasonably hope to grow and to broaden, my obvious deficiencies were appalling and fatal.

There was another and still more weighty series of considerations adverse to my acceptance. Dr. Anderson was a man whose marvelous personality attracted all men and especially all students. As a college President he had just that commingling of freedom of manner, ease of approach, with personal dignity and overwhelming power, that made him the beau ideal of students and alumni. They loved him, they reverenced him, they adored him. Anyone with half an eye could see that the man who should next succeed Dr. Anderson as President of Rochester, even though he were well qualified, would be almost certain to fail. With students, alumni, faculty, trustees, the public, the contrast between the successor and the retiring President could not fail to render the successor’s presidency weak, insignificant, and nugatory. Certainly, would all that follow if the unworthy successor were myself. Taking only the time for consideration which decency required, therefore, I visited Dr. Bright in New York and requested him to carry the matter no further.

A far more suitable man than myself was chosen in Dr. David Jayne Hill, a highly cultivated man of great ability. But it proved to be as I had predicted. His presidency was disappointing to himself, and perhaps to all, and it was not of long duration. His mind turned to national affairs, he became Assistant Secretary of State, and later Ambassador to Germany. Many years later he visited me once or twice in my office in New York. I have always admired him. His books are extremely thoughtful and well written.

In the death of Dr. Anderson, a year or two later, following by only a few days the death of his beloved wife, and doubtless hastened by that blow, I lost the ablest teacher, the wisest counselor, the most disinterested friend I have ever known.


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