In 1895, Henry Van Dyke, pastor of the Brick church, New York City, wrote The Story of the Other Wise Man, which is still in print and still a favorite at Christmastime. It is about a Persian, Artaban by name, who follows the Christ star. Because he stops on his pilgrimage to assist the needy, he misses meeting the three Magi in Bethlehem. He continues his quest after the Christ for 33 years, ministering to others with gifts originally meant for the Christ-child. Finally he comes to Golgotha. There he hears Christ’s words: ‘Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40).
In this story, translated into many languages, Van Dyke, another wise man, continues to touch our lives. In addition to being a pastor, Van Dyke was a popular writer, professor and diplomat, who deserves notice on Nov. 10, his 150th birthday.
Van Dyke traced his ancestry to Dutch yeast, settlers and magistrates who migrated to Long Island in 1652. He was born 200 years later in Germantown, Pa., in the manse of First church, where his father, Henry Jackson Van Dyke, was pastor. Henry grew up, however, in a manse in Brooklyn. After preparatory schools, he graduated from Princeton College in 1873 and Princeton Seminary in 1877.
After studying abroad, he married Ellen Reed. The two had nine children. He was ordained to the ministry and was soon called to Brick church, where he served from 1883-1899, and occasionally thereafter. He returned to Princeton University in 1899, built a home — Avalon — and served as English professor to students and the whole nation. He was, it should be noted, an ardent fly fisherman as well as a fisher-of-men all his life.
While a pastor, Van Dyke began to write and published a number of volumes, including The Poetry of Tennyson (1889), an author who shaped his style. He also published The Gospel for an Age of Doubt (1899), his Yale Lyman Beecher Lectures, and The Gospel for an Age of Sin (1899). In these he attempted to address the distressing characteristics of his time. Everything nailed down seemed to be coming loose. He recognized that Christians were challenged by the new scientific method and the expansion of human knowledge in the fields of religion as well as science, philosophy and literature. Such ferment fed misgivings about Christian faith and life.
He took a positive approach. He believed that the age was a ‘hopeful’ one that should not be despised or create a sense of despair. It should be grasped. As a liberal Christian, he found his hope in Jesus Christ as the manifestation, as he put it, of the ‘human life of God,’ not to be found in a traditional Calvinism or the dogmatics of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He found this Jesus in the New Testament where he is made known, sharing with us our human pilgrimage, and all our doubts and sins.
This Jesus offers new life. For his efforts to adapt, Van Dyke was attacked as undermining our Presbyterian doctrinal heritage. Widely read, however, he comforted many an unsettled Christian during these years of challenge.
As a matter of fact, Presbyterians rewarded Van Dyke by electing him moderator of the denomination in 1902, in part for his doctrinal openness while remaining faithful. He made two notable contributions. While he was unable to lead Presbyterians to compose a new statement of belief, he did assist in amending the Westminster Confession. Amendments adopted emphasize the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit which ‘indwells’ all Christians and unites us to one another in the body of Christ. In addition, the church adopted a chapter about the Love of God made known in the ‘mediation and sacrifice of Christ,’ who modeled ‘a way of life.’ This calls all Christians to mission and the extension of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world. He kept such an affirmation from being a mere footnote to the confession.
Van Dyke resisted efforts to reduce Christian doctrine to five ‘fundamentals,’ an effort, as he put it in a sermon, to trade Christ’s ‘living Spirit’ for the ‘dead letter’ of dogma. During these same years Van Dyke helped Presbyterians develop and adopt a Book of Common Worship (1906), recapturing the liturgical heritage of the Reformed tradition. This collection of forms, services and ‘canned prayers,’ as they were called, caused considerable concern among those who thought the book smelled of ‘priestcraft.’ Van Dyke prevailed after the General Assembly voted to print prominently on the title page: ‘For Voluntary Use.’ He worked on a revision of the volume in the 1920s, so useful had it become.
All his professional life, Van Dyke preached and practiced what he called ‘politethics,’ that is, involvement in public affairs. He was drawn into public service as were his Presbyterian friends, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. He became a diplomat. While he supported the Spanish-American War, he was an anti-imperialist and fought the annexation of the Philippines as a danger to America’s democratic ideals. When president, Wilson appointed him minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the beginning of World War I he left this post, volunteered for service and became lieutenant commander of the Chaplain Corps.
He ardently supported Wilson’s plan for a League of Nations to deal with the unresolved problems of the war and the international community. He believed the League would contribute to peace, and was disappointed when the United States failed to support the world body. It was, for Van Dyke, a vision of ‘The World to Be’, as he put it in one of his addresses. After the war he continued to work for demobilization in the interest of all humanity.
Van Dyke returned to Princeton and ‘Avalon’ to resume his teaching and writing. He made some headlines when he observed that Sinclair Lewis did not deserve a Nobel Prize for literature. He believed the Minnesotan’s novels were too cynical and pessimistic and did not ennoble American life. Van Dyke never won a Nobel. He was often honored, however. He served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Sciences, was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, honorary member of the Royal Society of Literature and a corresponding member of the Société Gens des Lettres.
Two of Van Dyke’s poems made it into The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990). In ‘Jesus, Our Divine Companion,’ written in 1909, he celebrates how the carpenter of Nazareth identifies with the workers of the world. The second, ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, God of Glory, Lord of Love’ (1907), is popular with Christians everywhere. Van Dyke reminds us in one verse of Artaban who followed the Christ-star, and of our Christian hope in this world and the next:
Mortals, join the happy chorus
Which the morning stars began;
Love divine is reigning o’er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.
Happy Birthday, Henry Van Dyke!
James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history at Union-PSCE