Childhood & Early Years
Henry Jackson van Dyke Jr. was born on November 10, 1852, in Germantown, Pennsylvania into a family of Dutch origin. His father Henry Jackson van Dyke Sr. was a prominent Presbyterian clergyman, known for his anti-abolitionist views in the pre-Civil War period. His mother’s name was Henrietta Ashmead van Dyke.
Van Dyke was his parents’ oldest son. His younger brother Paul Van Dyke grew up to be an eminent historian and author. Of his two sons, his father had once said, "Paul was born good, but Henry was saved by grace."
By the time Paul was born in 1859, the family had moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Van Dyke Jr. was enrolled at ‘The Polytechnic Institute’, which was later renamed as ‘Poly Prep Country Day School’. Although not much is known about his boyhood days, he did not seem to be a model child.
Sometime in 1858, he met General Robert Edward Lee, who took him for a ride on his horse. Later, he counted Lee among the three men who influenced him most; the other two being his father Dyke Sr. and the poet Alfred Tennyson.
Van Dyke Jr. learned to love the natural world from his father. But while his father tried to drive his attention to the peaceful aspect of nature, he preferred trampling energetically through the forest trail, climbing the wooded hills and fishing trout in the brooks.
His father also infused in him a will to uphold honor and fight for a cause. However, he did not want to follow into his father’s footstep and intended to become a writer instead.
In his adolescence, van Dyke was equally influenced by the poet Alfred Tennyson. He bought a pirated edition of his poems for 50 cents at the age of 15. However, he later started ranking Tennyson third after William Shakespeare and John Milton.
In 1869, he finished his schooling and enrolled in the ‘Princeton University’, graduating from there with a B.A. degree in 1873. Although he was a good student, he was no bookworm, taking part in myriad extracurricular activities, such as writing his college’s ‘Triangle Song’.
Van Dyke was famous for his youthful pranks during his university days. His college scrapbook included a poster that offered a 50-dollar "reward for the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons who took the gate and damaged the fences on the Seminary and Library grounds." On the poster’s margin, he wrote: "They didn't catch us. H.v.D."
After earning his B.A. degree in 1873, van Dyke Jr. joined the ‘Princeton Theological Seminary’, possibly on his father’s insistence. Even then, he was not sure that he would join the ministry.
On 21 October 1875, while still studying at PTS, he gave his first sermon at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Entitled ‘The Voice of God’, the sermon was about trying to hear His voice in nature. His love for nature, infused by his father, always remained an important part of his faith.
In 1877, van Dyke graduated from the ‘Princeton Theological Seminary’. He then traveled to Germany to study at the ‘University of Berlin’ before returning home in 1879. By then, he was ready to enter the ministry.
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Henry van Dyke Jr. joined the Presbyterian ministry in 1879 after being appointed the pastor at the United Congregational Church of Newport, Rhode Island. Very soon, he became known as a nature-loving pastor. Concurrently, he also launched his career in writing.
In September 1879, he visited the Red River Valley wheat farms with his friend W. S. Macy, and there he saw how large agricultural systems were exploiting migrant laborers and destroying the environment. Subsequently, they submitted an illustrated article on the issue to a magazine.
Van Dyke’s article on Red River Valley was published as the lead article in the May 1880 issue of the Magazine. Thus, began his career as a writer. It is possible that he started working on his first book ‘The Reality of Religion’ around this time.
In 1883, he moved to New York to become the pastor at the well-known ‘Brick Presbyterian Church’. In his new capacity, he established the tradition of not taking any important action without the unanimous agreement of the elders attending the session. He was able to achieve a lot despite traditional rules, reflecting his courage, tact and diplomacy.
During his years as the Pastor, van Dyke tried to lead the church into confident cooperation with science, declaring that churchmen had nothing to fear from science because every truth was nothing but God’s truth. He also tried to establish that doctrines should be based on facts, not vice versa.
His first book ‘The Reality of Religion’, taken directly from his sermons, was published in 1884. The work was hailed as culturally very important by scholars.
His second book ‘The Story of the Psalms’ was published in 1887. It was a result of his habit of reading the Psalms every day. One day, while meditating on one, he wondered where the author was when he wrote it, leading to an in-depth study, which led him to write this book.
In 1888, van Dyke published his sermon ‘National Sin of Literary Piracy’, in which he attacked America’s habit of pirating foreign works. By then, he was recognized as an established writer
He published his first book on literally criticism ‘The Poetry of Tennyson’ in 1889. The work, which reflected van Dyke’s notion that poetry should dignify life, was very well received by the public.
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Tennyson was 80 years old when van Dyke sent a copy of his book to him. Soon after that, he received a letter of thanks from the celebrated poet. It also included autobiographical notes, which were added to the second edition of can Dyke’s book.
The clergyman traveled to England in 1892 and met Lord Tennyson on August 18. The poet told him that he liked his book, except for his write-up on ‘Maud’. Tennyson read out the poem to him, after which van Dyke changed his mind about it and made the necessary correction in the book’s third edition.
In 1893, van Dyke published two works on religion ‘The True Presbyterian Doctrine of the Church’ and ‘The Bible As It Is’. A year later, he published another book on religion called ‘The Christ Child in Art’.
His collection of essays on the importance of outdoor life, ‘Little River’, was published in 1895. It was followed by three religious books: ‘The Gospel of an Age of Doubt’ (1896), ‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’ (1896) and ‘The First Christmas Tree’ (1897).
In 1899, van Dyke wrote one more book on his favorite theme of the outdoor life called ‘Fisherman's Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things’. ‘The Gospel of a World of Sin’, published in the same year, was another of his well-known works of this phase.
As an Educator
Henry van Dyke left the ministry in 1900 and accepted the chair of ‘Murray Professor of English Literature’ at the ‘University of Princeton’. However, he did not sever his ties with religion, publishing a small volume of literary criticism, entitled ‘The Poetry of the Psalms’ in the same year.
Van Dyke remained at the ‘University of Princeton’ until 1923. Simultaneously, he continued his literally pursuit and published ‘The Ruling Passion’ in 1901, ‘The Blue Flower’ in 1902 and ‘Childhood of Christ Jesus’ in 1905.
While he was teaching at Princeton and writing, he also accepted other responsibilities. When a committee was formed to write the first Presbyterian printed liturgy in 1903, van Dyke was elected to chair it. Under his guidance, ‘The Book of Common Worship’ was published in 1906.
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In 1908, he went to France to serve as a lecturer at the ‘University of Paris’ for one year. In the same year, a collection of his essays was also published. Entitled ‘Counsels by the Way’, it contains the essay ‘Books, Literature and the People’, in which he distinguished between good literature and best-sellers.
Van Dyke accepted a new position after his classmate, President Woodrow Wilson, asked him to become the American ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Although van Dyke was not a trained diplomat, he proved to be an able ambassador.
With the onset of the First World War in 1914, American citizens from all over Europe started rushing to the Netherlands, as it had remained neutral to the war. Van Dyke successfully defended the rights of the American citizens and arranged for relief.
He resigned from the ambassadorship in the beginning of December 1916 and joined the U.S. Navy on his return to his homeland, serving as the lieutenant commander for the Chaplain Corps. He was highly anti-German and faced no conflict between his faith and the war he was fighting.
Van Dyke published his biographical work ‘Fighting for Peace’ in 1917. It was followed by ‘What Peace Means’, a collection of three sermons, published in 1919. In 1922, his ‘Companionable Books’ was printed. It was a collection of essays on various authors, and it also dedicated two chapters to the Bible.
In 1923, he resigned from his position at the ‘University of Princeton’. He remained active in various spheres of public life and gave two radio talks on 3 October 1928. Entitled, ‘In Defense of Religious Liberty’ and ‘For Freedom of Conscience’, they were distributed by the ‘Democratic National Committee’ in 1928.
In 1928, when a committee was formed to revise ‘The Book of Common Worship’, van Dyke was elected to chair it. The final version was published in 1932. It is mainly due to his efforts that Presbyterians now have a service book, containing beautiful orders of worship, suitable for all occasions.
According to many scholars, ‘The Book of Common Worship’ was Henry van Dyke’s most important work. Although there were others in the committee who co-wrote the book, his literary stamps can be found all over it. The marriage service, the five litanies and many prayers were contributed personally by him.
Van Dyke is also remembered for his short novel ‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’. It talks about a fourth Magi, who also sets out to meet baby Jesus, but after failing to do so, he starts performing charity and receiving god’s grace. The book has been reprinted many times since then.
Awards & Achievements
Around 1916, Henry van Dyke was elected to the ‘American Academy of Arts and Letters’. He was also an honorary member of the ‘Royal Society of Literature’ and a corresponding member of the ‘Société Gens des Lettres’.
For some time, he served as the president of the ‘National Institute of Arts and Sciences’.
In 1919, he was made a commander of the ‘Legion of Honor’ by the French government.
Family & Personal Life
Henry van Dyke married Ellen Reid of Baltimore in December 1881. The couple had nine children, including four sons: Benard Van Dyke, Henry Jackson Van Dyke, Bernard Van Dyke Jr. and Anthony Ashmead Van Dyke; and five daughters: Elaine Van Dyke, Katrina Van Dyke, Paula Van Dyke, Fanny Brooke Van Dyke and Dorothea Van Dyke.
His son Henry Jackson legally changed his name to Tertius van Dyke. He later followed into his father’s footstep and joined the ministry for a few years, working as his father’s secretary. He also wrote his father’s biography, ‘Henry Van Dyke: A Biography’.
Van Dyke died on April 10, 1933 in Princeton, New Jersey. He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery.
His sermons, notes and addresses from 1875 to 1931 have been preserved by the ‘Presbyterian Historical Society’, Philadelphia. Two biographical essays and a poem from 1912 have also found place in the collection.