Namesake of Warren Wilson College

Warren Hugh Wilson was born on May 1, 1867, on a farm near Tidioute in western Pennsylvania. He was the fifth in a family of ten children. His mother, Elizabeth Hamilton, was a native of County Derry, Ireland, who had come to America at age 11. His father, John Sloan Wilson, was perhaps born in Baltimore, Maryland, but was living in Philadelphia at the time he and Elizabeth met and married. The family moved to a nearby county where John Wilson engaged in farming, and later (in 1879) to nearby Bradford County, which had become the center of the oil industry in the state. Warren Wilson's education took place in the public schools of Bradford. Following high school, he entered Oberlin College in Ohio.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1890 Warren Wilson moved to New York City where he held two positions with the YMCA, Secretary of the Student Department (1890-91) and editor of the YMCA magazine, The Intercollegian (1891-93). While at the YMCA Wilson became acquainted with James S. Reynolds, the social reformer, and with Jacob Riis, a progressive young reporter for The New York Sun who would later become well known for his improvement of slums in New York City and for his writing.

A decision to enter the ministry came in 1891 and, that same year, Warren Wilson entered Union Theological Seminary in New York. While at the seminary, he also took courses such as geology and criminology at Columbia University. The course was taught by Franklin H. Giddings, a descendent of congregational abolitionist leaders, who held the first chair of sociology in any university in the world. In Wilson's last year at seminary he began working in a Sunday school at Quaker Hill, a farming community near Pawling, New York, that had been settled by Quakers around 1730.

Following his graduation from Union Seminary in 1894, Wilson was invited to work full time at Quaker Hill. While there he and Pauline Lane of Oak Park, Illinois, were married on June 20, 1895. They had met while they were students at Oberlin College. As a result of Wilson's labors, a church was organized at Quaker Hill in 1895 and given the name of Christ Church. Wilson's experience in working in this predominantly Quaker farming community was to be a formative influence in his life.

Warren Wilson remained at Quaker Hill until 1899 when he was called to be pastor of the Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. While in Brooklyn he entered Columbia University to study for the Ph.D. degree under Franklin H. Giddings. His doctoral thesis was a sociological study of the Quaker Hill community from 1730 to 1905. The thesis was published by Wilson in 1907 under the title, Quaker Hill: A Sociological Study. This thesis, which Wilson had submitted along with that of another student, has been described as constituting "the first studies in the sociology of rural life in America."(1)

Warren Wilson was awarded the Ph.D. degree by Columbia University in 1908, and in that same year he joined the staff of the Board of Home Missions (later to be called the Board of National Missions) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as one of two superintendents in the Department of Church & Labor. In 1901 he became superintendent of the Department of Church & Country Life. This was the only department of its kind maintained by any religious body. Wilson helped other religious groups organize departments similar to his and, through his leadership and writings, influenced the development of rural church policy. He insisted that "the church was a social as well as a divine institution" and suggested "innovations and additions" to the programs of rural churches, such as soil conservation and recreational activities.(2) His ideas met resistance in some quarters of the religious community.

Warren Wilson's tenure at the Department of Church & Country Life came at a time when there was a rising interest in, and concern for, rural life. He became recognized as an authority on issues and problems relating to rural life. A rural church movement complemented this rising national interest in rural life. According to Professor Dwight Sanderson of Cornell University, this rural church movement owed its origin to the work of Warren H. Wilson. (3)

Dr. Wilson's years at the Department of Church and Country Life were full. He conducted surveys and did research on rural churches; held rural life conferences; and began summer schools for rural pastors which, at the time of his death, extended throughout the United States. Other agencies called on him for his expertise. Teachers College at Columbia University invited him to introduce a course in rural sociology, which he taught from 1914 to 1923. In addition, Union Theological Seminary asked him to serve as a lecturer on the rural church, and he taught there during the last decade of his life. From January to June of 1919 he served with [Educational[ Corps and with the YMCA in France. In the same year he was elected President of the International Association of Agricultural Missions and served in this position for ten years. In 1930 he went to India to conduct a survey of rural life in that country for the National Christian Council of India.

Warren Wilson held membership in several professional organizations: the [American[ Geographical Society, the American Sociological Society, and the Academy of Political Science of the City of New York. He was honored by receiving the Doctor of Divinity degree from three colleges (Washington, Tusculum, Oberlin) and the LL.D. degree from Berea College in 1920.

Dr. and Mrs. Wilson owned a home in Sherman, Connecticut, just a few miles east of Quaker Hill, New York, where he had begun his ministry. He and Mrs. Wilson planned to live in this home in their retirement years. However, Warren Wilson died while still in service with the Department of Church and Country Life on March 1, 1937, just short of his 70th birthday. His funeral service was held on March 4th at the church in Sherman, Connecticut, with burial at nearby Waterside Cemetery. Among those who spoke at the funeral was the Reverend Woodward E. Finley, who told of Dr. Wilson's work in Western North Carolina:

"When the Board of National Missions first established the Department of the Country Church and placed Dr. Wilson in charge, it gave him as his proving ground the Presbytery of French Broad in Western North Carolina. The work in the mountains had been done along sentimental lines. I had joined the Presbytery a few years before and it was my privilege to work with Dr. Wilson these twenty-seven or eight years. It was indeed a proving ground, virgin territory for his ideas and all of it pioneer work. There was one phrase which Dr. Wilson used frequently in those first years, but which he rarely mentioned in later years and that was: --'This is a great adventure.' -- He was trying out his ideas and no explorer in unknown regions and no pioneer met the conditions better than he did."(4)

The minutes of the Presbytery of French Broad recorded this heartfelt resolution on 1 April 1937:

"The Presbytery of French Broad feels intensely the death of Dr. Warren H. Wilson, who for 28 years was the director of its work. All we are we owe to him--under God. His wise counsels, his brilliant leadership, were lavished upon us, and our strength is due to the training and direction we received from him. He had become so integrated with the Presbytery that we seemed as one, and his love and loyalty we valued beyond the price of jewels. We admired the brilliance of his intellect, and we assumed as our own his triumphs. To evaluate the greatness of his work would be impossible, but we know that from a simple adventure in rural church work, he has given to the world a proof of its importance and had placed it as a leading and vital part of the work of Jesus Christ in the whole world." (5)

Warren Wilson's published works included twelve books and pamphlets, thirteen periodical articles, seven parts of series, six addresses, and seventeen surveys. In these published works and in his life work he was an advocate for the rural church and rural communities. He believed that farming should be retained as a family endeavor rather than as big business; and that rural churches should minister to their communities in terms of health, agriculture, recreation, and education, as well as in preaching and worship.

In 1942 the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) closed its Dorland-Bell School for Girls in Hot Springs, North Carolina, and merged the school with the Board's Asheville Farm School for Boys at the latter's location in the Swannanoa Valley near Asheville. In the same year the Board created a junior college at the merged school and decided to honor the life and work of Dr. Warren Wilson by naming the new school The Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College. This junior college is, of course, the predecessor of the present-day Warren Wilson College.

The Board of National Missions presented Warren Wilson College with a portrait of Dr. Warren H. Wilson in a program held at the college on the evening of 15 January 1952. Dr. Herman N. Morse, General Secretary of the Board, paid tribute to Dr. Warren Wilson with these words:

"He was a-pioneer in social research applied to the church. He originated 'in-service workers,' especially (for) ministers. (He) began the Country Life Schools for ministers ... he was considered the dean of rural church leaders. His philosophy combined the scientist and the mystic. He believed that the earth is holy ... Dr. Wilson believed we are nearest to God when we are nearest to the earth, if you touch it, look up and give thanks."(6)

This portrait of Dr. Wilson now hangs in the Admission Office on the Warren Wilson College campus.


  1. Sanderson, Dwight. Rural Sociology and Rural Social Organization (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1942), p. 717. Quoted in Seth W. Hester, The Life and Work of Warren H. Wilson and Their Significance in the Beginnings of the Rural Church Movement in America (an unpublished thesis submitted in the Department of Rural Sociology at Drew Theological Seminary of Drew University in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Madison, N. J., 1946)
  2. "Warren Hugh Wilson," article in The Dictionary of American Biography, -Supplement Two, p. 726f.
  3. Sanderson, op.cit., p. 716. Quoted in Hester, op.cit., p. 45.
  4. from unpublished remarks made at the funeral of Dr. Warren H. Wilson, at the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Used by permission.
  5. Minutes of Presbytery of French Broad, 1 April 1937, p. 4.
  6. from unpublished notes on Dr. Warren Wilson by Dr. Herman N. Morse, in the Archives of Warren Wilson College. Used by permission.

This biographical sketch was written by The Rev. Fitz Legerton, Director of Church Relations, Warren Wilson College, on the occasion of the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church's 75th anniversary celebration.

Warren Hugh Wilson:
A Life Appreciated
Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church & College Chapel

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