Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Born in Germantown, Presbyterian clergyman Henry Van Dyke wrote books of religious scholarship and the popular ?The Story of the Other Wise Man.?
Henry van Dyke, a writer, minister, and outdoorsman, was popular in the early decades of the 20th century. He was a man of numerous talents and enormous energy whose works included short stories, poems, and essays. His literary work blends with the recurring theme of religion and nature. His philosophy of art is best reflected in his statement: “The highest element in the best art is always moral, and fitted to make men and women better as well as happier.” Henry van Dyke’s works involved elevating sympathy for man, fostering companionship with nature, and promoting a reverent view of life.
Henry van Dyke , a Presbyterian clergyman, author, and poet, was born on November 10, 1852, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His father was Henry Jackson, a prominent Presbyterian minister, and his mother was Henrietta Ashmead van Dyke. Henry van Dyke’s father loved nature and fishing. He instilled in his son a love of the outdoor world and the pleasure of finding peace along the streams and under the trees. The elder van Dyke taught his son the art of living in the open with the beauty and wonders of nature. However, Henry van Dyke did not simply absorb the peacefulness of nature. Instead, he energetically trampled through forest trails, fished at trout brooks, scrambled wooded mountains, and took virtual ownership of nature. In one of his essays, he posed the question “Who owns the mountains?” He answered his own inquiry by saying that those who take pleasure in the splendid nature of mountains are truly its possessors. With enthusiasm, Henry van Dyke recorded his love for nature in one of his poems: “To thee I turn, to Thee I make my prayer, God of the open air.” By vocation Henry van Dyke was a preacher, a teacher, and a writer. He graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute at age sixteen. Afterwards, he continued his studies at Princeton University, where he received a B.A. in 1873 and earned an M.A in 1876. A year later, he went to Germany where he studied for two years at the University of Berlin. In 1879, he returned to America and became ordained as a Presbyterian minister. During the first four years of his ministry, Henry van Dyke served as a country-loving pastor at the United Congregational Church of Newport, Rhode Island. He married Ellen Reid of Baltimore in December 1881, and they had nine children. Henry van Dyke was a skillful and straightforward preacher with an attractive personality. In 1883, he served as the pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church of New York City, and he worked as pastor there for eighteen years. He gained a national reputation as one of the greatest preachers in New York City. His style of preaching encompassed interest coupled with tolerance and zeal. In 1884, at the age of thirty-two, van Dyke published his first book, The Reality of Religion. The foundation of this book was established on his studies in the seminary and his vocation in the ministry. Three years later, he published his second book, The Story of the Psalms. Like The Reality of Religion, the basis of his second book grew out of his role as a pastor, and it served to bring together his love of religion and literature. After these two books, most of van Dyke’s works incorporated religious matters because it allowed him to foster his sympathy with men, address companionship with nature, and promote a reverent scrutiny of life. Some of his religious books include: The True Presbyterian Doctrine of the Church, 1893; The Bible As It Is, 1893; The Christ Child in Art, 1894; The Gospel of an Age of Doubt, 1896; The Gospel of a World of Sin, 1899; and Childhood of Christ Jesus, 1905. One of van Dyke’s most popular stories, The Story of the Other Wise Man (1896), is a parable about altruism. With bold originality, van Dyke adds a fourth Magus, Artaban, to the story of the three Wise Men in the Bible. Artaban sells all he owns to bring three precious jewels to the newly born Christ child. On his way to meet the baby Jesus, however, he is delayed by people who need his aid, and as a result he finally uses up all his precious jewels without ever seeing baby Jesus. In the end, Arbatan has a vision of Jesus Christ telling him that in helping others, he has seen and helped Christ himself. The Story of the Other Wise Man has been published in eighteen editions in the United States and England and translated into many languages. Although religious matters were recurring themes in most of van Dyke’s books, he also wrote a book entitled The Poetry of Tennyson (1889). This principal volume of literary criticism is van Dyke’s greatest contribution to scholarship because it allowed many people to form closer acquaintances with the spirit of Lord Tennyson. The Poetry of Tennyson is considered to be the best appreciation of poetry by Tennyson himself, and it enabled van Dyke to become an outstanding figure in the literary world. Van Dyke is also known as one of best American short story writers. Some of the short stories he published include: The Ruling Passion, 1901; The Blue Flower, 1902; and The Unknown Quantity, 1912. Outdoors narratives were also important themes for his stories. Little Rivers, 1895; Fisherman’s Luck, 1899; and Outdoors in the Holy Land, 1908, are some examples that show how nature influenced his writing ability. Despite his preoccupation with theological studies, church, and literary work, Henry van Dyke enjoyed reading books written by masters of literature. He ardently read books, not simply for the love of learning, but for the love of human companionship. In college, van Dyke read Tennyson’s poetry with keen understanding, finding in the poems an awe in everyday words and expressions because they involved a love of the ideal and a certainty in the dominant influence of uprightness. As a result, words in the books and the poems van Dyke read embodied living personalities instead of mere words of dead men. This allowed him to read books with empathy, understanding, and a sense of camaraderie. Even though he devoted most of his life to the ministry, Henry van Dyke never ceased to be a teacher. In 1900, he became the Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University. He earnestly believed in study and scholarship. Just as he included literature into his preaching, van Dyke incorporated preaching into his literature. Another book of literary criticisms entitled The Poetry of Psalms (1900) discussed the Bible as “a noble and impassioned interpretation of nature and life, uttered in language of beauty and sublimity, touched with the vivid colors of human personality, and embodied in forms of enduring literary art.” Henry van Dyke remained a professor of English literature at Princeton for many years. In 1908, van Dyke became a visiting lecturer at the University of Paris. He combined his skills as a scholar and educator to become a fitting ambassador from America. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, a friend and former classmate of van Dyke, appointed him as the ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Shortly after his appointment, World War I threw Europe into dismay. American tourists all around Europe rushed to Holland as a place of refuge. As a minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, van Dyke sought to comfort panic-stricken American refugees. Although he was inexperienced as an ambassador, van Dyke conducted himself with the skill of a trained diplomat, maintaining the rights of all American refugees in Europe and organizing work for their relief. Upon his resignation as an ambassador, van Dyke returned to the United States. He joined the chaplain’s corps of the U.S Naval Reserve, served as a lieutenant commander, and wrote an introduction to the Navy Chaplain’s Manual (1918). Van Dyke returned to Princeton in 1919 to continue his vocation as a teacher. Although he retired in 1923, he remained active in the public life by attacking new literary movements and opposing “art for art’s sake.” Van Dyke believed that art should serve man and make him a better, happier person. On April 10, 1933, Henry Van Dyke died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, daughter, and son at his bedside. He was a minister of God, a minister of his country, which and a minister of humanity. Henry van Dyke is the epitome of an eminent writer and leader in the fields of religion, literature, education, diplomacy, public service, and nature.
The Reality of Religion. New York: Scribners, 1884.
The Story of the Psalms. New York: Scribners, 1887.
The Gospel of an Age of Doubt. New York: Macmillan, 1896.
The First Christmas Tree. New York: Scribners, 1897.
The Friendly Year. New York: Scribners, 1900.
The Ruling Passion. New York: Scribners, 1901.
The Blue Flower. New York: Scribners, 1902.
Days Off, and Other Digressions. New York: Scribners, 1907.
Fighting for Peace. New York: Scribners, 1917.
Half Told Tales. New York: Scribners, 1925.
The Man Behind the Book: Essays in Understanding. New York: Scribners, 1929.
Edens, Janice. “Henry Van Dyke.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 71 (1988) 275-282. Gale Group Databases. Pennsylvania State University Libraries, University Park, Pa. 29 Jan. 2006.
Law, Fredrick Houck. Modern Great Americans: Short Biographies of Twenty Great Americans of Modern times Who Won Wide Recognition for Achievements in Various Types of Activities. New York: Book for Libraries Press, 1969.