Harbison, Elmore Harris

Harbison, Elmore Harris (1907-1964) Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, was valedictorian and an outstanding member of the class of 1928. He not only won highest honors in history, but also was Triangle Club president, Phi Beta Kappa secretary, and a Philadelphian Society cabinet member. He did his graduate work at Harvard, where he took his Ph.D. in 1938 with a dissertation which, as Rival Ambassadors in the Court of Queen Mary, later received the American Historical Association's Adams Prize. ``Jinks,'' as he was affectionately known, returned to Princeton as instructor in 1933, and continued to serve the University until his death thirty-one years later.

He was, in the words of his friend and colleague, Professor Joseph R. Strayer, ``a profoundly religious man, a learned and honest scholar'' who ``wrestled all his life with the problem of reconciling the apparent meaninglessness of history with the Providence of God.'' His struggle with this seeming paradox is clearly seen in his two most influential works, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation and a collection of his essays, Christianity and History. These books reveal his lucid expression, his subtle humor, his rejection of both dogmatism and skepticism, and, above all, ``his profound conviction that, in spite of all appearances, there is no contradiction between Christian faith and historical reason.''

In the introduction to a collection of essays published as a memorial to Harbison, he was described by two of his former students, Professors Theodore K. Rabb and Jerrold E. Seigel, as a rare example of the teacher ``able to combine teaching, scholarship, and personal conviction so that each grows out of the other.'' His faith, and ``the humanity of his attitude'' toward that faith, they say, ``ensured that his influence extended to colleagues and students who had spiritual commitments different from his own.''

Harbison's convictions and his reasoned way of expressing them made him an effective committee member and trustee. Besides service on faculty committees, for which he was in frequent demand, he was chairman of the ~~President's Committee on Student-Faculty Relations and for twelve years chairman of the Graduate Board of Trustees of the Student Christian Association. In addition, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Council on Religion in Higher Education, a trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary and of Lawrenceville School, and an elder of the Second Presbyterian Church of Princeton. He was also a trustee of the Danforth Foundation and helped establish its annual award for gifted college teaching in 1962. After his death the foundation named this award in his honor.

At their meeting following his death, the faculty paid him this tribute:

``Jinks raised important questions in his writing; his great gift as a teacher was to make his students raise important questions in their turn. He was a master of the Socratic method, and he could make it effective at all levels, from a freshman class to a graduate seminar. Like Socrates, he made his points with wit as well as with logic. His lectures were a joy to hear, and his dryly humorous criticisms were memorable. His precepts reached the level of dialogue of which Woodrow Wilson dreamed. As for graduate students, in case after case men who came to Princeton to specialize in other fields found themselves writing theses in Renaissance or Reformation history under Jinks. Knowing that they were to be teachers themselves, they were irresistibly attracted to a master of the art.

``In the long run, this will be Jinks's most important legacy. The next generation will revise his ideas about university organization, and rewrite his essays on Christianity and history -- for this is the nature of academic life. But the men of the next generation who do this will be, in great part, men who studied under Jinks. Through his students and his students' students, his ideas will live and his influence endure far beyond the end of our days.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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