Charles Augustus Briggs

Charles Augustus Briggs was born on January 15, 1841 in New York City. His parents were Alanson Tuthill Briggs, a cooper and successful barrel dealer, and Sarah Mead Briggs (née Berrian). He was encouraged to attend the University of Virginia instead of a northern institution by his uncle, Marvin Briggs, who had gone south for his health. Charles Briggs attended UVA from 1857 to 1860, studying ancient and modern languages, philosophy, and mathematics. On November 30, 1858, during his second year as a student, he had a religious conversion and joined the Presbyterian Church. As his daughter later explained, Briggs "gave himself to the Christian ministry." While he was an active member in the Washington Society, a prestigious UVA debating society, he was even more involved in religious activities on grounds. He was a regular participant at prayer meeting groups and the "Ragged Mountain" School, and helped to co-found the YMCA at UVA. In Briggs' class album, many of his fellow students fondly reflected on their "association with him in these forms of Christian activity."

The secession crisis prevented Briggs from returning to to UVA after 1860 and separated him from many of his southern friends. As his daughter later recalled, however, Briggs was "too loyal to his country to hesitate," and in April 1861, he enlisted as a thirty-day volunteer in Company A of the 7th New York Militia. On President Abraham Lincoln's special orders, the regiment traveled to Washington to help secure the nation's capital from Confederate attack. The men were mustered out on June 3, 1861, and Briggs entered Union Theological Seminary that October. In 1863, he left the seminary to manage the family business, one of the largest barrel-making companies in the country, after his father fell ill. On October 19, 1865, he married Julia Valentine Dobbs, an accomplished musician and the daughter of a Westchester merchant. Together they had seven children, five of which survived beyond infancy: Emilie Grace, born on May 8, 1867, in Berlin in the Kingdom of Prussia; Sara Agnes, born on May 9, 1868, in Berlin; Alanson Tuthill, born on November 4, 1870, in New Jersey; Olive Mary, born on August 9, 1873, in New Jersey; and Herbert Wilfrid, born on July 23, 1881, in New Jersey.

Briggs earned a license to preach from the First Presbytery of New York in 1866. He traveled to Germany soon after, studying theology at the University of Berlin from 1866 to 1869. After returning to America, he served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Roselle, New Jersey, from 1870 until 1874, when he became a professor of Hebrew and Biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary. Contemporaries praised the "excellency of his method," observing that he "impart[ed] some of his own zeal to a large number of students." 

He ran afoul of the Presbyterian Church in 1891, however, after a controversial speech arguing that reason and religion were each fountains of divine authority. He contended that errors may have existed in the original text of scripture, that many Old Testament predictions had not and could not come true, and that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch. Briggs' historical critiques of the Bible infuriated the more conservative members of his church. They believed his convictions violated the Westminster Confession, the "classical doctrinal statement of English-speaking Presbyterians." The following year, the Presbytery of New York tried Briggs for heresy. Although he was acquitted, the case was appealed to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which defrocked and excommunicated him in 1893. 

Nonetheless, Briggs remained an active member of the religious and scholarly community. He became an Episcopalian priest in 1899 and continued to teach at Union Theological Seminary until 1904. He served as a member of the League of Catholic Unity, the Society of Historical Theology, and the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. He published several scholarly works and received honorary doctorates from  the University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, and the University of Oxford. Briggs died of pleuro-pneumonia in New York City on June 8, 1913. Unlike most of his fellow Unionist alumni, the university's Alumni Bulletin published a lengthy obituary of Briggs, recalling his last trip to UVA in 1906 and how "he ever cherished the memory of his student days here."

Image: Charles A. Briggs (courtesy Union Theological Seminary).


Charles A. Briggs Studies Theology in Berlin

Obituary for Charles A. Briggs in UVA Alumni Bulletin

Name:Briggs, Charles Augustus
Alternative names:
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
7th Regiment New York Volunteer InfantryA
Branch of service:Army
Enlistment1861-04-17New York, NYaccepted20
Muster In1861-04-26Washington, DC
Muster Out1861-06-03New York, NYMustered Out
Residence at UVA:New York, NY
UVA Begin Year:1857
UVA End Year:1860
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:Private
Rank Out:Private
Highest rank achieved:Private
Person 1Person 2NumberRelation Type
Briggs, Charles Augustusnoneapplication-invalid
Briggs, Charles Augustusnoneapplication-minor
Briggs, Charles Augustusnoneapplication-parent
Briggs, Charles Augustusnoneapplication-widow
Birth date:1841-01-15
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:New York, NY
Death date:1913-06-08
Death place:New York, NY
Causes of death:disease: pneumonia
Occupations:Editor, Theologian, Pastor
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Briggs, Julia Valentinewife ofBriggs, Charles Augustus
Briggs, Charles Augustusparent ofBriggs, Emilie Grace
Briggs, Charles Augustusparent ofBriggs, Sara Agnes
Briggs, Charles Augustusparent ofBriggs, Alanson Tuthill
Briggs, Charles Augustusparent ofBriggs, Olive Mary
Briggs, Charles Augustusparent ofBriggs, Herbert Wilfrid

Compiled Service Records for Charles A. Briggs, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Charles Augustus Briggs Papers, 1841-1913, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY; United States Census, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900, accessed through; The Standard Union (Brooklyn, NY), June 9, 1913; The Daily Record (Long Branch, NJ), June 9, 1913; James M. Ludlow, "American Old Testament Scholars: Charles Augustus Briggs," The Old and New Testament Student, Vol. 12, No. 1 (January 1891): 7-12; Emile Grace Briggs, "A Sketch of Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs," Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1899): 91-101; W. M. Forrest, "Charles Augustus Briggs," Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1913): 640-44; Gene M. Tucker, "Charles Augustus Briggs," American National Biography Online,; Ruth Tonkiss Cameron, "Charles Augustus Briggs (2015),"