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Warren, William Fairfieldlocked

(13 March 1833–06 December 1929)
  • Brendan A. Rapple

Warren, William Fairfield (13 March 1833–06 December 1929), Methodist Episcopal minister and college president, was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, son of Mather Warren and Anne Miller Fairfield, farmers. An 1853 graduate of Wesleyan University, he began his lengthy educational career by opening a private classical school in Mobile, Alabama. Ordained a Methodist minister in the New England Conference in 1855, he worked for a year as pastor in Ballardvale, Massachusetts, while attending Andover Theological Seminary. From 1856 to 1858 he studied at the Universities of Berlin and Halle, receiving a D.D. from the latter institution. During this period Warren traveled widely in Europe and the Near East, developing his distinctive global perspective in educational matters. On his return to Massachusetts in 1858 he worked as a pastor, first in Wilbraham and then at the Bromfield Street Church in Boston.

In 1861 Warren married Harriet Cornelia Merrick; they had four children. That same year he accepted a professorship of systematic theology at the Missionsanstalt, Bremen, Germany. Over the next five years, in a land famous for its religious scholars, Warren attained fame as a theologian. In particular, he was an advocate of the comparative study of religion, an interpreter of German theology, and, influenced by modern “higher criticism” of the Bible, favored a more scientific approach to gaining a true understanding of the Old Testament. His most notable work of this period is Systematische Theologie Einheitlich Behandelt (1865). Returning to Boston in 1866, he was appointed the first president of Boston Theological Seminary, which became the first department of Boston University, which was chartered in 1869. Instrumental in its founding, he was invited to become the university’s first president in 1873, a post he held until 1903. Warren was also dean of Boston University’s School of Theology for the years 1871–1873, 1885–1889, and 1903–1911. From 1873 until 1908 he held professorships in comparative history of religion, comparative theology, and philosophy of religion. An excellent teacher as well as administrator, Warren for decades taught an extremely popular course on comparative religions, a subject on which he was an international authority. His repute as a wide-ranging scholar was also deserved, his publications extending beyond the realms of religion to include works on cosmology, archaeology, and education.

The rapid development of Boston University during its early decades owed much to Warren. As early as 1874 a graduate school called the Graduate School of All Sciences, which offered the degrees of A.M., Ph.D., and S.T.D., was established. This together with the College of Liberal Arts and professional schools ensured that the new institution would be a full university. Under Warren’s direction, Boston was the first American university to institute comprehensive, three-year, graded programs in theology, law, and medicine, with a fourth year added for medicine in 1878. In accordance with Warren’s strong support of sexual equality in education, Boston was coeducational from its founding. It was the first American university to open all its professional schools to women and in 1878 to award a Ph.D. to a woman. An advocate and exemplar of international scholarly cooperation, Warren organized many student and professorial exchanges among Boston and foreign educational institutions.

Warren’s administrative work extended beyond Boston University. Very closely connected to the Methodist Episcopal church throughout his life, he was its official representative in various capacities and on numerous occasions both at home and abroad. Though his principal contribution to Methodism lay in the educational sphere, he occasionally suggested reforms to church government. For example, it was because of his intervention that bishops were relieved of their responsibility of acting as a board investigating charges of heresy against professors in theological schools. He was a charter member of the New England Conservatory of Music. He was also a trustee of Wellesley College from its founding, and in 1876 he was appointed the first president of the Massachusetts Society for the University Education of Women. A gifted individual who excelled as scholar, religious thinker, educator, administrator, and man of affairs, Warren consistently displayed an outlook that was characterized by noble ideals, high standards, a breadth of vision, tolerance for diverse opinions and beliefs, and a devotion to Christianity. In an appreciation published in 1930, Francis J. McConnell, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church, aptly summed up Warren’s approach to life: “For him men at their highest and best were always the ends-in-themselves and Churches with their creeds and rituals and ceremonies were instruments to serve those ends. For the sake of the ends he sought always to make the instruments better.” Warren died in Brookline, Massachusetts.


Five boxes of Warren’s papers, as well as a collection of letters to Warren, are in the library of Boston University. He published numerous articles, essays, addresses, and translations in periodical and pamphlet form. He also wrote essays on diverse subjects for the Boston University Yearbooks and the annual report during his presidential years. Other noteworthy works include The True Key to Ancient Cosmology and Mythical Geography (1882); Paradise Found: the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole; A Study of the Prehistoric World (1885); The Quest of the Perfect Religion (1886); In the Footsteps of Arminius: A Delightsome Pilgrimage (1888); The Story of Gottlieb (1892); Constitutional Law Questions Now Pending in the Methodist Episcopal Church with a Suggestion on the Future of the Episcopacy (1894); The Religions of the World and the World-Religion: An Introduction to Their Scientific Study (1895); The Earliest Cosmologies; The Universe as Pictured in Thought by the Ancient Hebrews, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Iranians, and Indo-Aryans: A Guidebook for Beginners in the Study of Ancient Literatures and Religions (1909). No major biography of Warren exists. Useful treatments are found in Daniel L. Marsh, ed., William Fairfield Warren (1930). Other accounts include Everett O. Fisk, “William Fairfield Warren at Ninety-One,” Methodist Review 107 (Mar. 1924): 175–84; Fisk, “Some Appreciations of Doctor Warren,” Methodist Review 107 (Mar. 1924): 191–206; Daniel L. Marsh, “Eliot and Warren,” Bostonia: The Boston University Alumni Magazine 4, no. 11 (Apr. 1931): 3–11; Donald H. Bishop, “William Fairfield Warren (1833–1929), Mentor of World Religions,” Methodist History 6, no. 4 (July 1968): 36–43; and Howard Eugene Hunter, “William Fairfield Warren, Methodist Theologian” (Ph.D. diss., Boston Univ., 1957). Obituaries of Warren appear in the Boston Globe, 7 Dec. 1929; and the Boston Herald, 7 Dec. 1929.