This is my third convocation at Maryville College and three times I’ve quoted from or otherwise used this passage from Isaiah 40. In fact, the current strategic plan, in its final stages of development, is called “Renewing Our Strength: Maryville College’s Bicentennial and Beyond” so you haven’t heard the last of this scripture.
Beyond personal preference, though, the prophet’s words seem appropriate to Maryville College today, as we continue to emerge from the shadow of the world financial crisis of 2008. As we speak, plans are being finalized for renovating Anderson Hall. This will be the first comprehensive renovation since the building opened in 1870, so naturally my thoughts have turned to the time period of its construction. Because I’m an academic, I started doing some reading and research and as a result have a new hero, Thomas Jefferson Lamar. Because we’re a liberal arts institution, I’m going to tell you Lamar’s story linking him to characters from the Bible and other texts, and I believe that even if you don’t wind up with him as a hero, you’ll see how his story resonates for us today.
Thomas Jefferson Lamar was born in Jefferson County in 1826. He studied with Isaac Anderson at Maryville College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1848. He returned to his alma mater in 1857 as Professor of Sacred Literature. That year also saw the death of Isaac Anderson. It is a difficult time for a college when its founder passes on. This challenge, though, is not unprecedented, and in fact there was an example in Biblical times. The books of 1st and 2nd Kings tell, among other things, the story of Elijah. To put it too simply – enroll in Biblical Studies for a more comprehensive discussion – Elijah was a miracle working prophet who stood up against the injustice of Ahab and Jezebel, and famously was taken up by a chariot of fire. Elisha, his student, faithfully followed him and Elijah charged him to continue his work although it seemed unimaginable that anyone could fill Elijah’s shoes.
Isaac Anderson was an inspirational figure who created a college in the wilderness. He was prominent in the movement not only to abolish slavery but to treat all people, regardless of race, as deserving of dignity. This put him in conflict with the Ahabs and Jezebels of his time. He was not taken up by a chariot of fire, and at his death it was not clear whether he would have a true successor and whether Maryville College would survive. However, Professor Lamar proved to be the Elisha to President Anderson’s Elijah, matching and perhaps even surpassing the feats of his predecessor.
During his thirty years of service to Maryville College, Professor Lamar performed heroic service at least three times. For this reason, he is generally known as the “second founder” of Maryville College.
The first service he provided was reopening the College after the Civil War. President Robinson closed Maryville College in 1861, and the vicissitudes of war had destroyed the campus. Afterwards, there was much doubt about whether the institution would continue. The original campus property at the corner of College and Main (Broadway) had been sold for debt during the war. Despite the difficulties, an announcement was circulated on July 4, 1866 that the College would reopen, and on September 5, 1866, it did so. There was one professor (Lamar) and thirteen students, a similar ratio to today, although at a much different scale. One of the students later described the scene. “Everything was so horrible and disgusting that some of the students almost determined to leave in spite the professor’s entreaties. But after attachments were formed, and the number of students had increased, the school went on finely.”
The second service he provided is less known but perhaps even more fundamental. Maryville College was originally founded by the Synod of Tennessee of the Presbyterian Church. When a new synod, the United Synod formed, the control of the College was transferred to it, with a clause that said if the synod should cease to exist, then control would revert to the Synod of Tennessee. After the Civil War, this set of circumstances prevailed, and the Synod of Tennessee appointed a new Board of Directors chaired by Thomas Jefferson Lamar. Under Lamar’s leadership, the College continued to pursue the policy of racially integrated education and instituted coeducational instruction as well. This prompted a lawsuit by the second president of the College, J. J. Robinson, and several of the pre-war Directors over whether the new Board had the authority to operate Maryville College. Fortunately, despite the confusion and turmoil of the war, Professor Lamar had retained the minutes of the Synod meetings where the reversion in control was approved. However, there was litigation from 1872 to 1880 before the matter was settled. In the immortal words of the Ginsu commercial, “But wait! There’s more!” In 1873, Professor Lamar signed the mortgage acquiring the 187 acres that is now the College Woods. When the lawsuit ended in 1880, he transferred the property to Maryville College for one dollar, saying that the funds to purchase the land had come from the Directors. His fortitude and courage had maintained the College as a bastion for educating all people as well as making possible the largest ever expansion of the campus.
The third service cemented his legacy. First, he led the restarting of the school. Second, he made sure that the mission and campus property were secure. What was left? A strong financial foundation. During his entire career as a professor, the College had not paid his salary on time. Nevertheless, he embarked in 1880 on a fundraising trip to provide an endowment of $100,000. Adjusting for inflation, that’s at least $2.2 million in today’s dollars. To put that figure in perspective, the current endowment is about $60 million, and that’s after working on building it for over 100 years. The Directors described the financial situation as “The College hung in dreadful suspense between life and death.” In a story that sounds more like fiction, Professor Lamar found himself on December 31, 1883 – the expiration date of pledges payable only if he had raised the full $100,000 – with only $90,000 raised. Literally at the last minute, additional pledges of $5,000 each came from William Thaw (yes, as in Hall) and Sylvester Willard (yes, as in House).
Isaac Anderson founded Maryville College and is rightly celebrated as an educator and leader. Like Elijah, he was a charismatic leader who blazed a spectacular trail. Thomas Jefferson Lamar was a student of Anderson’s who was reticent and did not enjoy public roles, declining to serve as president and even turning down the offer of an honorary degree from another college. Nevertheless, he seems to have lived the prayer of Elisha to “let a double portion of your (Elijah’s) spirit be upon me.” On the passing of Anderson, and indeed the passing of Maryville College during the war, he took up Elijah’s mantle and carried on his mighty work.
The brief catalog of highlights from Professor Lamar’s career is only one dimension of his story. There is an unfortunate tragic recounting of his time as well, in which an appropriate Biblical precedent is found in the person of Job.
Like Job, Professor Lamar was married with children. And like Job, his family was taken away from him suddenly. In 1860, his wife and infant daughter died, leaving him to care for his 3 year old daughter Katie, who was an invalid. While there is not a record of his words on that occasion, his actions in the following decade echo the words of Job (1:21), “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” During the Civil War, Lamar pastored 3 churches in Blount County and 4 in Jefferson County; a positive reaction to a troubling time in Maryville. Katie died around the time that Anderson Hall opened.
After the war ended in 1865, Professor Lamar was charged to make a fundraising trip to the North. The hope was to obtain sufficient financial support to make reopening Maryville College possible. The good news is that he raised $125 during the trip. The bad news is that his expenses were $198, so the net impact was that the College had less money available afterwards. As we have already seen, he reopened the College anyways.
The book of Job is essentially one long argument among several wise individuals. Professor Lamar was also fated to live in times of discord. We already saw how his former professorial colleague and second president of the College, J. J. Robinson, contended with him in litigation. But that was not the end of internal strife.
Throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, there were a series of strong disagreements largely related to racial integration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, membership in a student society proved to be the catalyst for debate. The efforts by a student society to remain all-white divided the faculty and led to community controversy as well. (As an aside, I will say that one reason I am so adamantly opposed to secret societies is there is no transparency or accountability regarding the way that members are recruited for membership or excluded from membership.) Ultimately, the conflict led to an irreparable divide between President Bartlett and the faculty. In 1886, under pressure, President Bartlett resigned effective May 1887. Where was Lamar during this time? Caught in the middle. He was a faculty member who had helped recruit both President Bartlett (who began his service in 1869) and his younger brother Alexander Bartlett to the faculty of Maryville College, and he remained close both to the Bartletts and to the rest of the faculty. The younger Bartlett, a dear friend, died unexpectedly in 1883, during Professor Lamar’s final successful fundraising trip to New York. Even President Bartlett’s resignation was the result of a Lamar-brokered compromise because of his respect for all the parties involved and the high esteem that they all had for him. Lamar died two months prior to Bartlett’s departure.
What some people forget about the book of Job is that it has a happy ending, “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (42:10) Lamar too, had the opportunity to start a new family. He remarried in the 1870s and his son, Ralph Max, was born in 1878. Unlike Job, though, the story did not end there. Professor Lamar traveled to New York in November 1880 to begin work on the $100,000 endowment. His son died in December 1880. After returning home to bury his son, he returned to New York, with successful results. But his exertions had taken a great toll on his health, and he stopped teaching in 1886 and died in 1887.
When I told this story to someone, their reaction was, “you can’t stop there, that’s depressing.” And I don’t intend to, but will now approach Professor Lamar’s story from another direction, reaching backward to Greek mythology and forward to a twentieth-century French existentialist.
Sisyphus is condemned to spend eternity pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. While it is not clear what Sisyphus did to earn this punishment, the idea of difficult labor proving futile is one that can scare anyone. Albert Camus, though, reinterprets the myth. Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In The Chosen, Chaim Potok also addresses this theme. “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. … A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest.” (p. 217)
Thomas Jefferson Lamar filled his life with meaning, and we must imagine him happy both during his labors and now that he is at rest. Maryville College has not neglected to honor his memory, although people sometimes pass by his monuments unknowingly. There are two buildings on campus in his honor. The first is the Lamar Memorial Library, which most of you know better as the Center for Campus Ministry (CCM). The second is the Ralph Max Lamar Memorial Hospital, named for his son, which today is International House (I-House). While neither building retains its original use, they are both vital centers of activity with uses that Professor Lamar would find both familiar and positive. The CCM is a center of faith in action, housing not only campus ministry but serving as headquarters for the broader engagement of Maryville College students, faculty, and staff in improving the community. And I-House brings together students from across the world to learn from each other, building not only academic ability but broader personal relations and cultural awareness. Fitting monuments indeed.
But not, however, his main monument. I like to visit cemeteries when I travel. It’s not out of a desire to find vampires or any morbid Gothic fascination, but because it is a way to connect with people from many times and places. Every epitaph or even a simple marker represents a life, long or short, filled with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Maryville College has a cemetery, and in fact my tour of campus when I first arrived as a candidate started there. If you go there, you will find Thomas Jefferson Lamar’s grave. The inscription on the marker includes the phrase, “for thirty years a professor in Maryville College, his most enduring monument.” Yes, we today, all of us, are part of Professor Lamar’s monument.
In the College cemetery you will find Isaac Anderson buried. He taught Lamar, who in turn taught Samuel T. Wilson. President Wilson was in office when Ralph Waldo Lloyd first came to Maryville as a student, and Dr. Lloyd succeeded Dr. Wilson as president. Their graves are near each other now. Dr. Lloyd’s grandson is now chair of the Board of Directors. Thomas Jefferson Lamar is not some remote or mythical figure; he is a real person not that far removed from us today.
Maryville College faces difficult challenges today. These are not always the same challenges that Lamar faced, although some of them – financial concerns, the need to improve or construct buildings, disagreements between professors and students, and even disagreements between professors and the president – would seem very familiar to him. And what would also be familiar is the spirit with which those challenges are met, and the concern and respect for individuals in everything we do. In my previous words about the College cemetery, I neglected to mention one other person buried there. President J. J. Robinson, who was on the opposite side of Lamar in the postwar litigation over control of Maryville College, is now buried next to him.
Again in the words of Isaiah (40:28-31):
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Let us make this our watchword so that we may labor as happily as Sisyphus, as faithfully as Job, and as successfully as Elisha. Nothing less would be an appropriate monument to Thomas Jefferson Lamar.
May God bless us all throughout this academic year.
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2012 semester was 1,093.