Distinguished Alumnus Address (Samuel C. Pearson)

Samuel C. Pearson July 2001 Introduction by Thomas V. Stockdale

The Distinguished Alumnus Award cites Samuel C. Pearson “for your lifelong service to the church, academy, and society as a scholar, teacher, administrator, and colleague of uncommon insight, effectiveness, and humanity; for your exemplary engagement of intellectual life with a life of faith; for your contagious delight in American religious history, whether studied close at hand or from afar; for your impatience with the trivial and patience with the seemingly small, in history and in life; for commitment to mutual inquiry and dialogue across chasms that have divided the people of God; and for exceptional service to the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago.”

For the first time, the Distinguished Alumnus Award is being presented to a House Scholar whose entire career has been in the service of colleges and universities. I am very pleased to have the privilege of introducing Dr. Samuel Campbell Pearson.

Decades before Sam arrived at Chicago, Divinity School professor and dean Shailer Mathews had said, “I commit myself to a Christian religion that asks no odds and is honest in inquiry.” It is precisely that kind of Christianity that the House recognizes today in the accomplishment of one who has so consistently and deeply displayed the remarkable congruence of a committed Christian and a scholar of “honest inquiry asking no odds.” To borrow a phrase from Franklin Gamwell, we honor “a Christian scholar without the shadow of evasion from humanistic standards.”

“We do not call an assent to the Gospel, faith,” John Donne preached, “but faith is the application of the Gospel to our selves”—and may we not add, to our work, to our teaching?

Sam said that the most precious legacy of DDH and Chicago was for him “the inculcation of an open-ended view of reality and truth.” How quickly today’s “straight line thinkers” as Ted Gill calls them, rush to the conclusions of their religious absolutes; how quickly they avoid truth’s contradictions and complexities. But John Donne said, “Is not the statement of truth more a surrounding than a seizing?” And a là Gill, “Are we not teasing and affirming opposites, with the truth a moving, uneasy vibrancy, always to be relocated and re-identified between the extremes?”

See Sam striding up the street: English cap, plaid sport coat, trousers frequently matching, valise in hand, umbrella under arm, stepping lively and to his own music, open to reality and truth and open always to the truthful fruit of research and discussion, yet reserving to himself the custodial care of self, and spirit and soul. (Ah, there goes Chicago, as I once I mused on observing Sam going home along Delmar Avenue in St. Louis heading west as I drove east.)

Sam Pearson has been “coming around the mountain” of truth for some time with great verve and some suffering, and with considerable success, gracious charm, a quick and funny and sometimes piercing wit—overflowing when Sam gets wound up, and holding a full ten seconds’ worth of tolerance for fools when Sam gets wound down.

During his years at the House, he was the Assistant to the Dean and the National Representative. He has served on the Alumni/ae Council, as a class representative, and as a member of the Centennial Planning Committee.

For the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he has been a member of the board of the Division of Higher Education, a life member of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, and a member of, and archivist for, the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion.

At Union Avenue Christian Church he was a founding member of Joint Community Ministries—a constant, sometimes frustrated, but relentless voice for every compassionate and enlarging project we undertook. As an Elder, he was a bearer of such thoughtful prayers to the Table as to help those of us in the sanctuary remember the importance of our being there and cause us to say, as if to ourselves, a whispered and simple, “Yes.”

His A.B. is from Texas Christian University (cum laude) and all the rest: D.B., A.M., and Ph.D. are from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and the Disciples Divinity House, to which he matriculated in 1951 at the impressionable age of nineteen!

He taught at Lynchburg College and at St. Paul’s College. For some three decades he was a member of the faculty of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. For seven years Sam was the University’s Chairperson of the Department of Historical Studies, and for twelve years the Dean of the School of Social Sciences. When his colleagues at Southern Illinois speak of Sam, they speak of a gracious, progressive, liberal-spirited academic administrator: a scholarly administrator. They speak with genuine respect and always add a word about his great sense of humor as well as his capacity to be firm and direct in his speech.

Sam was in China as a Fulbright Scholar in 1995-97, and 1999-2001. In 1995 he was named Outstanding Foreign Expert of Northeast Normal University, Peoples’ Republic of China; and in 1999 he received the Provincial Award for Teaching Excellence.

His publications, papers, reviews abound. I have dipped my hand in and bring you a tiny sample. These are mostly from recent years and mostly the fruit of his years in China—recent years that everyone who knows Sam Pearson knows have been among the most rewarding and challenging years of his career. A few titles suggest what he has been thinking and saying to his Chinese colleagues and students: “The Place of Biography in Intellectual History” (Beijing University); “Ideological Disorder: American Religion and the Gilded Age” (Nankai University); “American Entrepreneurs Transform Religion” (Dalian University of Foreign Studies); and, most recently, “Expanding Horizons: American Religious History in Global Context” (Nanjing University). On a subject nearer at hand, many of us were moved last year to hear Sam’s splendid paper on “Barnett Blakemore and Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago 1945-75.”
—Thomas V. Stockdale, Minister Emeritus, Union Avenue Christian Church, St. Louis

When an unanticipated honor comes your way and you know all too well that there are countless others equally and probably more deserving who might have been selected, what is there to say? “Thank you” immediately comes to mind and certainly can be said with sincerity. “Why me?” is also a possibility.

The dean remarked in her letter announcing the award that it had not previously been given to anyone “whose vocation has been primarily that of a scholar and professor.” This is certainly the key to an answer to my second question, and therefore I accept the award not simply as recognition of my work in academia but also as recognition that many House alumnae and alumni have found their calling in the realm of higher education, establishing fine scholarly reputations in a vast array of schools. The accomplishments of these comrades are humbling to me even as I presume to accept this award that might appropriately have gone to any one of them.

I would like to reflect for a few moments on the meaning of Disciples Divinity House in shaping my life’s work, a labor spent mostly at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, an urban, comprehensive state university, but with occasional forays into other educational milieu: a Disciples college, a Catholic college, an historically black Episcopal college at the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and most recently in several universities of the People’s Republic of China.

First and foremost, Disciples House deepened my sense of community and of the importance of community even as I prepared for a career that is, in America and in the humanistic disciplines particularly, highly individualistic.

I am fortunate to have arrived at the House exactly fifty years ago as a part of an exceptionally large entering class. We learned together, struggled together and with one another, and established not only our individual identities but a corporate identity as well. We learned from one another as well as from our older and younger comrades, from the gifted faculty of the Divinity School and University, and from Dean Blakemore and the eminence grise, Ames, Garrison, and Morrison, who occasionally dropped by to grace our meetings or, as they likely would have put it, to check on how young Barney and the boys were getting along.

I am happy to report a half-century later, that we were doing just fine, thank you very much, learning from the past but unfettered by it, building our own community, one appropriate to the times, that would sustain us through the rigors of our academic programs and the diverse careers that followed. Though our opportunities for gathering together have been limited since we left Chicago, the comrades with whom I shared the House remain very special in my memory, and those among them who are no longer with us evoke a special sense of loss.

The contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty attacks the common distinction between objective and subjective that is assumed to lie at the root of the contrast between scientific and humanistic disciplines. In determining “objective truth,” he insists, all disciplines finally fall back on the presence of unforced agreement or what he terms intersubjective agreement within the disciplinary community. Thus, for Rorty, the primary contribution of the sciences to our common life is that of a method which gives concreteness to the idea of unforced agreement, persuasion rather than coercion. Such agreement, critical to all learned discourse, relies on the existence of a community. I think it was at Disciples House that I began to understand the enormous importance of community.

Second, Disciples House, its Dean, and the Divinity School faculty were critical in shaping the liberal but rather inchoate Protestant views with which I arrived into a viable and more or less coherent philosophy of life which has served me well in subsequent years as American higher education, American religion, America itself, and most of the world have experienced rapid and wrenching social changes unimaginable a generation or two earlier. It was there that I was prepared and prepared well, I believe, to study and teach the history of religion in America, a discipline that daily grows more complex as the story of religion becomes stories of religions encountering one another, changing and being changed, shaping and being shaped by society.

Third, more mundane but no less important, Disciples House through the benefactions of good men and women, provided the assistance that enabled me to leave Texas, then extraordinarily provincial and mired in a last-ditch struggle to maintain patterns of racial segregation that were soon to be declared unconstitutional, a racism that poisoned the life of that state, for the socially and intellectually freer climate of Chicago. I have often commented when asked about my background that I was born in Texas and remained there until I got a map and a compass. That’s not quite right; I remained there until I received a map, a compass, and a Disciples House scholarship.

For all of these reasons and for countless more, Disciples Divinity House has always been and remains for me a very special place. I feel that I should be honoring the House rather than receiving its alumni award. Nonetheless, I accept the award with gratitude and pride and am so pleased to be here within this community of women and men who have also shared in the life of the House.