Van Dusen, Henry Pitney

Van Dusen, Henry Pitney '19 (1897-1975), world churchman, Christian statesman, and a long-time University trustee, came from a family with strong Princeton associations. His father, George R. Van Dusen 1877, was a lawyer, as were his maternal grandfather, New Jersey Vice-Chancellor Henry C. Pitney 1848, and three uncles, Henry C. Pitney, Jr. 1877, Supreme Court Justice Mahlon Pitney 1879, and Princeton trustee John O. H. Pitney 1881.

Pit Van Dusen was one of the leaders of his college generation, serving as chairman of the Undergraduate Council, president of the Philadelphian Society (the student Christian association), and captain of the University debating team. As a sophomore, he took part in the revolt against the eating clubs led by his classmate, Richard F. Cleveland. The winner of Phi Beta Kappa honors, he gave the Ivy oration on Class Day and the Valedictory at Commencement, and was voted by his class ``the best all-round man outside athletics'' and the ``most likely to succeed.''

After college, Van Dusen served as graduate secretary of the Philadelphian Society for two years and then took up theological study, the first year at New College, Edinburgh, the next two at Union Theological Seminary in New York, obtaining his bachelor of divinity degree there, summa cum laude, in 1924. Later, in the early 1930s, he returned to Scotland, where he completed graduate work for his Ph.D. at Edinburgh and was married in Inverness to Elizabeth Coghill Bartholomew, daughter of the late cartographer to the king.

The year he graduated from Union, his ordination was challenged by a conservative-minded judicial commission of the Presbyterian General Assembly because he declined to affirm the literal Biblical account of the virgin birth. He overcame the challenge with the help of a notable brief in his support by John Foster Dulles '08.

Following his ordination, Van Dusen spent two years visiting American colleges from coast to coast seeking to interpret religion to undergraduates, and then began his long career at Union Theological Seminary as an instructor in 1926. EIe became dean of students in 1932, Roosevelt professor of systematic theology in 1936, and tenth president in 1945, occupying that office for eighteen years. Under his vigorous leadership, the seminary attained worldwide significance as a center for theological study.

Van Dusen left his mark on world Christianity as a leader in the ecumenical movement, playing a prominent part in the founding of the World Council of Churches and paving the way for its union with the International Missionary Council as chairman of the joint commission representing both bodies. He traveled around the world twice, touching down at some sixty countries on six continents.

A tireless worker, he was a trustee of a dozen institutions, among them the Rockefeller Foundation, Vassar, and Smith -- as well as Princeton, where he held one of the University's longest trustee tenures: thirty-four years, twenty-one of them as chairman of the curriculum committee. Also included among some fifty extracurricular responsibilities were his services as chairman of numerous committees of various religious organizations, and as president or board chairman of the Association of American Theological Schools, the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, and the Union Settlement Association.

Van Dusen was the author or editor of some twenty-five books, among them For the Healing of the Nations: Impressions of Christianity Around the World (1940), The Vindication of Liberal Theology (1963), and Dag Hammarskj”ld: The Statesman and His Faith (1967), written in tribute to the United Nations' second Secretary-General, who, in Van Dusen's words, ``affirmed `The Communion of Saints' and -- within it -- an eternal life.''

Van Dusen's achievements were acclaimed by the Union Faculty and Board of Directors in their final tributes. ``In the long history of the Seminary,'' the Faculty declared, ``Van Dusen's presidency stands out as the high-water mark of its achievement. He . . . enlarged not only the personal and physical resources of the Seminary, but above all, its spirit and its outreach.'' The Board of Directors saluted him as ``one of the first World Churchmen of our era, a scholar, a statesman, a leader, and -- not least -- a friend.''

After his retirement as president of Union Seminary in 1963, Van Dusen and his wife made their home in Princeton. Besides continuing to write, he served on various boards, and visited churches around the world to keep in touch with seminary alumni and to promote world Christianity -- until 1970, when he suffered a severe stroke that limited his physical activity and made normal speech impossible. At the same time, Mrs. Van Dusen was the victim of a steadily worsening and increasingly painful arthritic condition. In January 1975, the Van Dusens -- both members of the Euthanasia Society -- took overdoses of sleeping pills to end their lives. Mrs. Van Dusen died immediately, Van Dusen fifteen days later. A letter they left for their three sons and other relatives and friends said that they had led happy lives, but that increasingly poor health no longer permitted them to do what they wanted to do, and that they were not afraid to die. They acknowledged that some would be disappointed, and asked for their understanding.

One of Van Dusen's successors as president of Union Theological Seminary, Roger L. Shinn, said he had never seen anybody physically or mentally less cut out to be an invalid: ``He had a very strong belief in immortality. His attitude was that, when your time is up, when you have lived out the possibilities, it is all right to stop, and to go on to the next life.''

Van Dusen's letter concluded with this prayer: ``O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace.''


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

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