William Rainey Harper

The American educator and biblical scholar William Rainey Harper (1856-1906) was the first president of the University of Chicago.

Born in New Concord, Ohio, on July 24, 1856, William Rainey Harper attended Muskingum College in New Concord, where his interest in Hebraic studies began. He graduated in 1870 and went on to receive a doctorate from Yale in 1874 for studies in the Indo-Iranian and Semitic languages. After teaching at Masonic College in Macon, Tenn., and then at Denison University, he moved on to a professorship in Hebrew at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary in Chicago. He held the chair of Semitic languages at Yale from 1886 to 1891, earning a national reputation as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. In 1889 he was also appointed Woolsey professor of biblical literature at Yale. He was active in the Chautauqua movement, serving as principal of the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts from 1885 to 1891 and lecturing on biblical topics there and at William Dwight Moody's summer conferences at Northfield, Mass.

Harper's reputation was that of a sound, though not especially creative, scholar and an outstanding teacher whose lectures and books helped to spread the more scholarly criticism of the Bible in America. He was always a devout Christian, and his obvious piety and mild-tempered approach to controversy made him widely welcome among American religious groups. The best received of his books on the Bible were The Priestly Element in the Old Testament (1902), The Prophetic Element in the Old Testament (1905), and Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (1905).

In 1892 Harper became the first president of the University of Chicago, founded by John D. Rockefeller. From the start Harper insisted that academic excellence and academic freedom should characterize the school. He used the generous financial support of Rockefeller and others to offer substantial salaries to outstanding scholars, winning the enmity of other college presidents who resented his raiding, but rapidly assembling an outstanding faculty that soon made Chicago a leading center of research and graduate study. Harper built up the library, started a university press, and vigorously defended his faculty against sectarian attacks. Other characteristics of his institution included university extension, division of the year into quarters, separation of the two upper years of the college into a senior college, and faculty control of athletics.

Although busy with administrative problems raised by the rapid growth of the university, and continually striving to increase his endowment, Harper insisted on teaching full time and serving as chairman of his department. Even with his strong constitution, the heavy work schedule proved a drain on his vitality. He died in Chicago on Jan. 10, 1906.

Further Reading on William Rainey Harper

The only full biography of Harper is Thomas Wakefield Good-speed, William Rainey Harper (1928), written at the request of Harper's family. An excellent account of his work at Chicago is in Richard J. Storr, Harper's University, the Beginnings: A History of the University of Chicago (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Wind, James P., The Bible and the university: the messianic vision of William Rainey Harper, Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1987.