Presbyterians of the Past

Joseph Ruggles Wilson, 1822-1903

Joseph Ruggles Wilson opened his committee report about beneficiary education with the paragraph that follows. Note that beneficiary is used to describe what would currently be called scholarships or charitable stipends to help “poor and pious youth” obtain a divinity education.

There never has been a time, in the history of the Presbyterian Church, when there was serious difference of opinion touching the necessity of an educated Ministry. From the earliest period of her existence, she has, by every form of official action possible to such a testimony, uttered a distinct and emphatic voice in behalf of the highest standard of mental qualification on the part of those who were chosen to preach the Gospel from her sacred desks. Whilst, indeed, no Church has more strenuously insisted upon the unspeakable importance of healthy and vigorous piety in the pulpit; yet none has been more determined to possess a pulpit characterized by something more and better than the impatient zeal, the unguarded enthusiasm, and the heated impulses, in which mere vehemence of religious emotions is so apt, when left to itself, to waste its fires—a pulpit where saintly ardor of soul shall be tempered and directed by discipline of mind, breadth of knowledge, and accuracy of scholarship.

The paragraph bears the marks of antebellum style, but the message is as clear and applicable today as it was when presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, 1864.

Joseph Ruggles was born the youngest son of James and Anne (Adams) Wilson, on February 28, 1822, in Steubenville, just across the Ohio River from Pennsylvania. His father’s career included the newspaper business, service in the Ohio legislature, and the judicial bench. The Wilsons attended First Presbyterian Church where Joseph made his public profession of faith in Christ when he was eighteen years old. His preparatory education for college was completed in Steubenville at Grove Academy which was operated by Rev. John W. Scott. Joseph travelled about thirty miles southeast into Pennsylvania for further studies in Jefferson College (currently Washington and Jefferson) where he graduated with the highest honors of his class in 1844 and delivered the valedictory speech. One aspect of Wilson’s future ministry for which he was particularly gifted was speaking, whether in a church or another venue. For a short time after completing college he taught school in an academy in Mercer. For theological education, Wilson began with a year in Western Seminary in Allegheny, but then entered the second-year class at Princeton Seminary in 1846. He did not complete the Presbyterian educational plan in Princeton but was nevertheless licensed by the Presbytery of Steubenville, June 23, 1847. Wilson’s truncated ministerial education is indicative of a common problem of the era for the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) Old School in that candidates were granted licenses to preach without having completed the full seminary curriculum as set forth by the General Assembly. It is ironic that the one who wrote the paragraph at the beginning of this biography did not complete his own program.

Not long after Joseph and Janet “Jessie” Woodrow were married, he was ordained and installed pastor by Ohio Presbytery in the Chartiers Church in Pennsylvania, June 20, 1849. In conjunction with his ministerial work, Rev. Wilson taught rhetoric in Jefferson College for a year. By the time his call to Chartiers was dissolved by presbytery, January 15, 1851, the church had experienced a significant increase in membership including twenty-five additions by profession of faith. From 1851 to 1855 he was professor of Chemistry and Natural Sciences in Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia. Ministers often showed interest in the developing fields of science and studied on their own for work and/or pleasure. For example, Thomas Smyth of Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina, collected books about science and biology for edification and enjoyment. While at the college, Wilson supplied the church in Walkers in New Kent County, Virginia. He was then pastor of First Church, Staunton, Virginia, from June 24, 1855, to Oct. 8, 1857. During this call his son, Thomas Woodrow, was born in the manse, December 28, 1856. Tommy, as he was called, would become the twenty-eighth President of the United States.

The household moved for Pastor Wilson’s next call from Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley to First Church in Augusta, Georgia. The August before Wilson was offered the call to Augusta, he was in town to lead the wedding service for his brother in law, Janet’s brother, James Woodrow and Felixina Baker of Milledgeville. James taught science in Oglethorpe University and would go on to become the subject of controversy in Columbia Theological Seminary because of his views regarding science and the Bible. While visiting Augusta for the wedding, Wilson preached in First Church and the congregation was sufficiently impressed with his pulpit abilities to issue a call that December. He accepted the new opportunity, preached his first sermon to the congregation on January 10, 1858, and was installed May 2. At about the same time Oglethorpe University honored Wilson with the Doctor of Divinity. A few years later the family moved from the manse to the brick one in the photograph which is located just across from the church. At the time of the move, Joseph and Janet had three children, Marion, Annie, and Thomas Woodrow. In 1867, a second son was born to the Wilsons, Joseph Ruggles, Jr.

When the states seceded from the Union and the Civil War began, the Old School Presbyterians living in the Confederacy left the Old School PCUSA to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA). The ecclesiastical secession was a response to the Old School having adopted the Gardiner Spring Resolutions during its 1861 General Assembly. The Resolutions, among other things, required an affirmation of allegiance to the Union which was obviously an oath the churches of the Confederacy would not do. On December 4, the first meeting of the General Assembly of the PCCSA convened in First Church, Augusta, with Joseph R. Wilson elected the permanent clerk, a position he would hold until the end of the war. With the end of the war, the PCCSA was renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United  States (PCUS) with Wilson serving as stated clerk until 1898. The thirty-seven years from 1861-1898 may constitute the longest period anyone has served at the clerk’s desk for an assembly. In 1870 after a fruitful ministry despite the great difficulties of the war and post-war years in Augusta, Rev. Wilson’s call ended when he resigned to teach in the seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He had been on the seminary board since 1863. While in Columbia, he earned additional income as interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church. The Wilson family’s home was conveniently located between the seminary and church about a half mile from each. The desire for a full-time minister at First Church combined with conflict at the seminary regarding Sabbath chapel services contributed to Wilson’s decision to seek a new call.

In 1874, he left South Carolina to become pastor of First Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, beginning the first day of November. During the Wilmington years he edited for a short time the North Carolina Presbyterian, but he he was not suited to editing a newspaper and was greatly relieved when he removed his visor. In 1879 he was moderator of the PCUS General Assembly meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, and for his retiring moderator’s sermon the following year his Bible text was Psalm 118:25. His years in Wilmington were not his best, so when an opportunity to return to education came his way he accepted. The Wilsons moved west in 1885 across two states so he could teach in the short-lived Divinity School of Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee. When he resigned in 1893, he also retired from active ministry.

After a time residing in Columbia, he spent his final years in Princeton, New Jersey, where his son Woodrow’s family lived. Pastor Wilson’s health had been declining and at the time of his death he was suffering greatly. The Ohio born minister died in Woodrow’s Garden State home on January 21, 1903. The next day several hundred undergraduates of Princeton University gathered at the railroad station in respect as they saw the train leave with the remains of Joseph Ruggles Wilson headed to South Carolina. He was buried in the churchyard of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia next to Jessie who passed away April 15, 1888.

A selection of J. R. Wilson’s publications includes: The True Idea of Success in Life. An Address Delivered before the Union and Philanthropic Societies of Hampden Sidney College, June 10, 1857Female Training: A Sermon delivered in the Union Church at Greensboro, Ga.: before the Friends of the Greensboro Female College, May 23, 1858; the committee report quoted at the beginning of this biography was published as, Beneficiary Ministerial Education; The Substance of a Report Adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in the Confederate States of America, at its Sessions in Charlotte, N.C., in May 1864; and a discourse published in, Memorial Addresses Delivered before the General Assembly of 1886 on the Occasion of the Quarter Centennial of the Organization of the Southern Assembly of 1861.


The CDV photograph of Wilson is provided courtesy of Wayne Sparkman, director of the PCA Historical Center, and the drawn portrait is from Nevin’s Presbyterian Encyclopedia. The pictures of the manse in Augusta and the Wilsons’ graves in Columbia are the authors. Readers confused by the Presbyterian denominational names and abbreviations should see the notes at the end of the article on this site about John Leyburn, 1814-1893. Information on the Augusta manse and the Wilson children was found on the website for The Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson; Rev. Wilson’s study is included among the rooms. Several bits of information regarding Wilson’s years at First Church, Augusta, were located in David B. Calhoun’s, Cloud of Witnesses: The Story of First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, 1804-2004, pages 55-84 recount the Wilson ministry in Augusta; also, Dr. Calhoun’s Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary, 1828-1927, provided information regarding Wilson’s years in the South Carolina capital. The brief book, Chartiers Church and its Ministers. An Historical Address; by Rev. Francis J. Collier, delivered at the M’Millan Centennial Celebration Held at Chartiers Presbyterian Church, Near Canonsburg, Washington County, Pa., Philadelphia, 1875 was helpful. Regarding Woodrow Wilson, John M. Mulder, Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation. Wilson Supplemental Volumes, Princeton: University Press, 1978. The 1971 Ph. D. dissertation by Luke Joel Swabb, Jr., “The Rhetorical Theory of Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, D.D,” for The Ohio State University, 308 pages, is available in PDF on the university site. The burial information is from The New York Times, January 22, 1903. One of Wilson’s seminary students at Southwestern whose biography has been posted on Presbyterians of the Past, Joshua Bohannon, was a member of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

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