Obituary for Charles A. Briggs in UVA Alumni Bulletin
October, 1913

William Forest contributed this obituary for UVA Unionist and famous theologian Charles A. Briggs to the UVA Alumni Bulletin.






            The death of the Rev. Professor C. A. Briggs, D. D., D. Litt., occurred at his home in New York City on June 8, 1913, as the result of pleuro-pneumonia. Thus the University of Virginia lost one of its most distinguished and devoted alumni, and biblical scholarship lost one of its most celebrated and gifted exponents.

            Born in New York on January 15, 1841, practically all his seventy-two years of life were spent in the metropolis. For forty years he was a professor in the Union Theological Seminary of that city. There he married Miss Julia Valentine Dobbs in 1865; there he made his home till the end.

            Evidences of the high scholarship of Professor Briggs are abundant and varied. He studied at the University of Virginia from 1857-1860; at Union Theological Seminary from 1861-63; and at the University of Berlin from 1866-69. In the latter part of the Civil War he served as chaplain in the Seventh New York Regiment. In 1870 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and entered upon his first and only pastorate at Roselle, N. J. That relation was severed in 1874 by his acceptance of the professorship of Hebrew and Cognate Languages in Union Seminary. In 1891 he was transferred to the chair of Biblical Theology, and in 1904, to the chair of Theological Encyclopedia and Symbolics, which he held till his death.

            His chief service as a scholar was rendered in the class rooms where he taught young men for nearly half a century. But Dr. Briggs was a ceaseless and voluminous writer. Leaving out of consideration his many contributions to periodic literature and his labors as editor of books and reviews, the list of his writings extends from 1883, when his “Biblical Study” was published, down to the appearance of his “Fundamental Christian Faith,” the first-finished copy of which was placed in his hands the day before the end came. Between that first and last book came “American Presbyterianism,” 1885; “Messianic Prophecy,” 1886; “Whither,” 1890; “Authority of Holy Scripture,” 1891; “Higher Criticism of the Hexateuch,” 1892; “Bible, Church, and Reason,” 1892; “Messiah of the Gospels,” 1894; “Messiah of the Apostles,” 1895; “General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture,” 1899; “Incarnation of the Lord,” 1902; “New Light on the Life of Jesus,” 1904; “Critical Commentary on the Psalms,” 2 vols. 1906, 1907; “Church Unity,” 1909. When death halted the busy worker he had several other important volumes far on the way to publication. Weighed and counted, the books are a noble monument to a tireless scholar.

            In recognition of his scholarship, Professor Briggs was chosen American editor of two great sets of books in process of making by the most celebrated theologians of the English speaking world—the “International Critical Commentary” and the “International Theological Library.” He was a member of the American Oriental Society, the German Oriental Society, the Oxford Historical Society and the Society for Biblical Literature and Exegesis. The honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by Princeton in 1875; by Edinburgh, in 1884; by Williams, in 1894, and by Glasgow, in 1901. Oxford made him Doctor of Letters in 1901. Thus was the seal of some of the most celebrated institutions of learning on both sides of the Atlantic set upon the scholarship of this son of the University of Virginia.

            The passing of this distinguished divine has temporarily revived interest in his trial for heresy a score of years ago. Largely upon the strength of his “Authority of Holy Scripture,” but also for statements to the effect that James Martineau, the Unitarian, and Cardinal Newman, the Catholic, were as great in the kingdom of heaven as Charles Spurgeon, the evangelical Baptist; and, moreover, because he was an early exponent of the conclusions of the Higher Critics, charges were preferred against him. Although the case was dismissed by the New York Presbytery, and he was acquitted when arraigned before the General Assembly, his prosecutors got the case before the next General Assembly at Washington in 1893, and he was condemned and suspended from the ministry. Not to be debarred from the privilege of preaching, which he loved, Dr. Briggs was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1900. The whole matter was unfortunate then, and any review of it would be useless now. Nothing was settled by his condemnation, for only time, and not the fires of early days or the ballots of later days, can test and prove doctrines. The Assembly at Portland, which acquitted, was quite as likely to be right as the Assembly at Washington, which condemned, and in the final vote the hundred who voted for were no more likely to be in error than the four hundred who voted against that devout Christian scholar. Such folly has been too common to all churches to make it a peculiar reproach to the denomination involved, and it is too ingrained in human nature to be accounted a purely religious evil. Says Professor Gwatkin, of Cambridge University: “The odium theologicum is no special disease of theology, but the common pest of all studies. Quarrelsome dogs can always get up a fight; and bone for bone of contention, bimetallism is as good as transubstantiation. I hear say that artists can disagree; and I have seen a very pretty quarrel over the Gulf Stream. The only difference is that ecclesiastical language has a few peculiarities” (“The Teaching of History,” p.10). Right or wrong, in his radicalism or in his conservatism, C. A. Briggs was sure to think for himself with a true scholar’s independence. To his own Master he standeth or falleth. It is pleasing to note in the daily press that the New York Presbytery appointed a committee to draw up resolutions of sympathy in its name and in the name of the whole Presbyterian Church, to be sent to the family of the deceased preacher. It is easier to see matters in true perspective at a distance of twenty years than at the time.

            As a northern student who had been attracted to the queen of Southern colleges, the career of Briggs at the University of Virginia was cut short by the outbreak of the war in 1861. But he ever cherished the memory of his student days here. Upon his last visit to the University in 1906 as minister in charge of the Sunday chapel service, he told his host, Prof. C. W. Kent, that it was in his little room on East Lawn that he made his decision to enter the ministry, having had no such intention when he entered the University. After his Sunday night discourse, he told his audience, in a few well chosen words charged with emotion, of his feelings upon his return here after years of separation, of his deep sense of gratitude to the University. Upon his return to New York, he sent to the library in Madison Hall a set of all his most important publications. Several years before that the late Professor Noah K. Davis, after a summer spent in lecturing at the University of Chicago, brought back an impressive evidence of Dr. Briggs’ deep rooted love for his alma mater. The celebrated Scotch biblical scholar, the Rev. Prof. Geo. Adam Smith, also lectured at Chicago that year and expressed to Professor Davis the keenest desire to visit the University of Virginia. Upon enquiry it was found that the desire was due solely to the love of C. A. Briggs for the University. Some time earlier Professor Smith was present in New York at a banquet of scholars and public men, where many were called upon to speak of their universities. After the praises of Yale and Princeton and Harvard and others had been sung, Dr. Briggs was called upon. He spoke of his alma mater in simple but fervid words; of her stately, classic beauty; of the blue hills round about; of her quiet, devoted scholars; of her loyalty to truth and her passion for honor, only with the last breath of his eulogy mentioning the name of the object of his devotion—the University of Virginia. Impressed as he had been by the words of the sons of no other universities, the noted Glasgow professor longed to see the University himself.

            So Charles Augustus Briggs carried with him to the end of his life the consecration to the ministry, the devotion to scholarship and the love of alma mater first implanted in his heart and mind half a century ago at the University of Virginia.


University of Virginia, The Alumni Bulletin: Charles Augustus Briggs, W. M. Forrest. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, October 1913. p. 640-644.