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date: 12 July 2020

van Dyke, Henryfree

(10 November 1852–10 April 1933)
  • John D. Buggeln

van Dyke, Henry (10 November 1852–10 April 1933), Presbyterian minister, poet, and diplomat, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the son of Henry Jackson van Dyke, a prominent Presbyterian minister, and Henrietta Ashmead, the daughter of a notable Philadelphia attorney. Van Dyke studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and attended Princeton College, where he wrote Princeton’s “Triangle Song,” received a B.A. in 1873, and earned an M.A. in 1876. The following year he graduated from Princeton Seminary and then studied at the University of Berlin for two years before being ordained a Presbyterian minister.

In 1878 van Dyke accepted a call to the United Congregational Church of Newport, Rhode Island. In December 1881 he married Ellen Reid of Baltimore; they had nine children. In 1882 the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City called van Dyke. In his eighteen years there, he distinguished himself as a straightforward preacher as well as a skillful poet and writer. His sermon, “The Reality of Religion” (1884), with its message of religious certainty, made a strong impression on religious circles, and his book The Poetry of Tennyson (1889) was considered the best appreciation of his poetry by Tennyson himself. Van Dyke also published The Story of the Other Wise Man (1896), a Christmas short story that traced the path of a man who set out to follow the three wise men and find the newborn Jesus, only to find him in death, after thirty-three years of searching and personal sacrifice for others. Publishers sold hundreds of thousands of copies and translated the work into several European and Asian languages.

The same year, van Dyke delivered one of his most important odes, “The Builders,” for the 150th anniversary of Princeton. In 1898 he became a trustee of the university, and a year later Princeton persuaded him to leave his pastorate to become Murray Professor of English Literature. In 1902 the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church elected van Dyke moderator. He chaired the committee that assembled The Book of Common Worship for the Presbyterian Board in 1906, and updated the book in 1932. In church affairs, van Dyke defended orthodox Christianity but also advocated religious tolerance and sought Christian unity. As a liberal Christian, he took the side of the modernists in their celebrated controversy with fundamentalists over how Christianity should respond to modernity.

A 1906 article in the Illustrated Outdoor News listed van Dyke among the top ten greatest living American sportsmen. In America and England he became a well-known expert on fly fishing. The outdoors were not merely a diversion but provided an important inspiration for him. Little Rivers (1895), Fisherman’s Luck (1899), Outdoors in the Holy Land (1908), and The Grand Canyon and other Poems (1914) are but a few examples of how nature influenced his most well-known essays and poetry. Like many sportsmen of his time, he was an early conservationist. He chaired the first convention of the American Association of Honest Anglers (1907), who promoted “fair play” in fishing, and became a member of an advisory board to the National Park Service (1927).

When his friend, fellow progressive and former president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson became president of the United States, he asked van Dyke to leave teaching to serve as minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg in the Hague. With the coming of World War I in 1914, van Dyke publicly supported American neutrality, but privately he wrote Wilson about the atrocities of the war, worried about the exodus of Belgians into the Netherlands, blamed the militarism of the Austrians and Germans, and pleaded with Wilson to join the war on the side of the Allies.

As a diplomat van Dyke negotiated for peace and organized war relief efforts but eventually tired of neutrality. In early 1917 he resigned his post so that he could freely argue for U.S. entry into the war and wrote Fighting for Peace (1917). He joined the chaplain’s corps of the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving as a lieutenant commander during the war and writing the introduction to the Navy Chaplain’s Manual (1918). He was made a commander of the Legion of Honor by the French government in 1919 and strongly supported the League of Nations.

Van Dyke returned to Princeton in 1919. After he retired in 1923, he remained active in public life. In a 1926 oration, he sang the praises of the “Unknown Teacher.” His words thereafter hung on walls of many schools. Quotations of his writing and poetry also appeared on many calendars and illustrated cards. In 1928, when Alfred E. Smith ran as the Democratic candidate for president, van Dyke denounced in print and on the radio what he called an anti-Catholic campaign against Smith. In 1930 he found himself in the middle of another controversy when he called the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Sinclair Lewis a backhanded compliment to America.

Van Dyke’s personal papers are filled with correspondence with literary, religious, and political leaders of his day. He published over seventy books and edited or introduced many other volumes. He lectured at universities throughout the world, served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was a corresponding member of the Sociétié Gens de Lettres. His last published poem, in honor of the newly inaugurated president Franklin D. Roosevelt, appeared in the New York Times a month before van Dyke’s death at his home, “Avalon,” in Princeton. In an age of specialization and incredulity, van Dyke possessed an astonishing level of versatility and personal conviction, rising to eminence as a writer and leader in the fields of religion, literature, education, diplomacy, public service, and fly fishing.


The van Dyke Family Papers are in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University. Biographical information dealing with van Dyke is in “Henry van Dyke,” Book News 24 (May 1906): 605–14; Tertius van Dyke, Henry van Dyke, A Biography (1935), by his son; Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (1965); and John F. Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 Apr. 1933.