July 25: Sprague on the Influence of early Yale Alumni

SpragueWBIt was on this day, July 25, in 1860, that the Rev. William Buell Sprague was called upon to address the annual meeting of the alumni of Yale College. A small portion of his rather lengthy address follows. Click here to read the entire address:

What say you of the importance of the Chief Magistracy, or the Supreme Judiciary, of the separate States? Is not each vitally connected with the public weal? If either the reins of government or the scales of justice are not held with an even hand, what else can we expect than that the State will become a scene or restlessness and agitation, if not of open revolt? To be the Governor of a State, or a Judge of the Supreme Court of a State, is to occupy a position from which there goes forth a current of influence that works a channel for itself through every portion of the community. But of Governors, this College has furnished twenty-seven; and of Judges of the Supreme Court, a hundred and six; and on each list I find names now a few, which our common country has long since adopted as her own. As a representative of the latter class, I think of Roger Minot Sherman; and as a representative of both, I think of John Cotton Smith;–two as find spirits, I had almost said, as our fallen humanity can show. Judge Sherman I knew well—he was the friend of my early as well as mature years; and I may be allowed to pause beside his grave long enough to place an humble garland upon it. His mind was a clear as the sun, and as comprehensive and well balanced as it was clear. His heart was fertile in generous feelings, and purposes, which were sure to ripen into acts of substantial beneficence. There was a calm dignity in his manner that bespoke wisdom and thoughtfulness; and his movements seemed to be by rule; but his exactness was so qualified by kindness, and even gentleness, that he won the confidence and love of everybody. He was deeply imbued with the spirit of the Gospel, and you could not find a Christian whose heart would throb more tenderly at the remembrance of his Saviour’s love. He was a great lawyer, and a great judge, but he was a great theologian as well—I remember how ably and impressively he used to expound God’s word to us at the weekly conference, in the absence of his pastor, when it seemed to me that we should scarcely have been gainers if we had had Dr. Dwight in his place. He knew how to guide the minds of the inquiring, to resolve the scruples of the doubting, to encourage the timid and rebuke the wayward, as well as any minister you would meet. His life was a scene of eminent usefulness; and, far beyond the community in which he lived, his name will be held in profound reverence by many generations.

If a College is an acknowledged fountain of vast influence, then surely he who presides over such an institution, has a hand upon the very springs of social and public happiness. He is constantly giving direction to minds that are soon going forth to give direction to the concerns of the Church and the State; and through them he circulates invisibly but most effectively throughout the whole domain of society. No less than forty-two of our alumni have held or are now holding this important office,—to say nothing of the multitude who occupy Professorships and other posts of instruction, many of which bring them in immediate contact with a greater number of youth than even the Presidency itself. Among the earlier Presidents which the college has furnished, are Jonathan Dickinson, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Edwards, and Aaron Burr,—names which have lost nothing of their freshness by the lapse of a century; and, as we come further down, we find the catalogue illumined with other similar lights of equal brilliancy. Who can begin to measure the influence which this College has exerted merely in training others to take the direction and mould the character of institutions like itself?

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