Sidney Harper Marsh

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Sidney Harper Marsh

Also Known As: "Sidney H. Marsh"
Birthdate: (53)
Birthplace: Hampden-Sidney College, Hampden Sydney, Prince Edward, Virginia, United States
Death: February 2, 1879 (53)
Walker Hall, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Washington, Oregon, United States (Tuberculosis)
Place of Burial: Forest Grove, Washington, Oregon, United States
Immediate Family:

Husband of Eliza Lavina Marsh

Occupation: 1st President of Pacific University
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Sidney Harper Marsh (includes b/w photo of painted portrait) p.28

That [Pacific University] came to be what it is... is largely due to the vision of one man, Sidney Harper Marsh. Myron Eells, writing of Marsh after his death, said that he was "a man of one idea." That one idea, in Marsh's own words, was "To realize the very special purpose of a liberal education-not merely to develop the powers needed to make a living, but all the powers, physical, intellectual and spiritual, preparing the man to do his part of God's work in the world." To a remarkable degree, Marsh's idea- modified by the exigencies of place, people, and economic pressures-is embodied in the present-day institution that we know as Pacific University.


New York City, November, 1852: huge crowds daily throng the streets to watch a colossal edifice of glass and iron-arched, columned, turreted, and topped with the largest dome America has ever seen-springing up as if by magic not far from the future site of the New York Public Library. The entire city is in the throes of preparing for a great international event, the World's Fair of 1853. Within earshot of the construction, in Union Theological Seminary at University Place, a 27-year old seminarian named Sidney Harper Marsh has received an invitation to meet with George Atkinson of Forest Grove, Oregon, to discuss an educational venue in the wilds of the Pacific Norrhwest.

The young man whom George Atkinson was about to interview was no stranger to adversity. A Southerner by birth-he had been born at Hampden-Sidney College, Virginia in 1825-and a New Englander by education, Sidney Marsh had lost his mother when he was three, then his stepmother (his mother's sister) shortly after turning 13, and finally his father at the age of 17, when the elder Marsh was president of the University of Vermont and Sidney was already a student there. The Reverend James Marsh had been only 48 when he died of lung disease. He had passed on to his son not only an abiding dedication to the ideals of liberal education, but also a lifelong pulmonary condition, which, at the time of Atkinson's invitation, was weighing heavily on young Sidney's mind. The two men met in Brooklyn in that November of 1852, and we know little of what transpired at the meeting. Was Atkinson, a graduate of Dartmouth College, aware that he was interviewing the great-grandson of Dartmouth's founder and first president, Eleazer Wheelock? What we do know, however, is that a letter from Atkinson formally offering a position was waiting for the young Marsh when he arrived back at Union Theological Seminary. He responded immediately:

My lungs are proving themselves too sensitive for this climate, and for a few days migration to Florida or some warmer climate would be better than remaining here. Under such circumstances ... your letter seemed almost Providential, and I feel like assenting at once to what I understand you to propose.

Never mind that neither man could have fully understood what was being proposed (Marsh was formally hired as an instructor for an academy; within a year he would be appointed first president of a new college). Never mind that Oregon's climate was a far cry from Florida's. The voice of Providence had spoken, and Sidney Marsh had heard the call. especially I have been thinking that migration With characteristic enthusiasm and industry, Marsh spent the following winter and spring rounding up a library of over 1,000 books for the prospective college. He even managed to attract the notice of the New York Times, which, mistakenly identifying him as the nephew (actually cousin) of the U.S. Ambassador to Constantinople, commended his efforts and wished the new enterprise well.

On May 1, 1853, Sidney Marsh was ordained in the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York. He would set out by sea on his own pilgrimage to the West a month later, shortly after the grand opening of the World's Fair. He could hardly have missed it: cannons roared, bells peeled, an inaugural chorus sang, and President Franklin Pierce himself, on his steed Black Warrior, led the procession past the exhibitions of intricate machinery, wood carvings, musical instruments, paintings by European masters, and the grand centerpiece-a life-size marble statue of Christopher Columbus, his left hand resting on a globe of the world, and his right hand pointing to a remote spot on that globe-probably not Forest Grove.


To-day, Pacific University .. . assumes a position from which there is no honorable retreat. After five years of preparation, of painful and strenuous effort, this institution takes a step in advance; the idea of education has taken a higher form of development; the Academy has become the College.

Thus begins the inaugural address of Pacific University's first president, Sidney Marsh, whose "idea of education" at the age of 28 would guide the new college for the next quarter of a century. To understand that idea, and how it must have struck many of those who listened to these words, we need to place it in the context of the New England soil from which it sprang.

In 1853, the year that Sidney Marsh arrived in Forest Grove, Ralph Waldo Emerson was at the height of his career as an essayist and lecturer, and Henry David Thoreau had just finished reading Darwin's recently published Voyage of the Beagle, and was busy writing the fourth draft of Walden. It is unlikely that Marsh had heard of Thoreau, who, even after Walden was published, remained relatively obscure. Bur he would certainly have known of Emerson and, like many another young man of the time, had probably read and been fired up by the great man's essays, including the famous "The American Scholar." Originally delivered as a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar" is a paean to the practical adequacy of the individual, the imperative of self-reliance, and the superioriry of the whole person to the specialist: "If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." Ironically, many of Emerson's central ideas here derived from his reading of an introduction to Coleridge's Aids to Reflection that had been written in 1829 by James Marsh, Sidney Marsh's father. Consequently, the younger Marsh, whether or not he had read Emerson, had probably been exposed to these transcendentalist notions from his earliest years.

Speculation aside, the Emersonian spirit permeates Marsh's inaugural address as Presi- dent of Pacific University in 1854. He speaks of "a wisdom that we all have, that we cannot understand" : ... living ideas, those strong convictions of what is best, derived from former generations, from the race ro which we belong ... ideas and convictions, whether imbibed with our mothers' milk or developed by external influences, that we feel to be obligatory upon us ... that we should be unnatural not to acknowledge. Marsh's defense of learning-for that is what his inaugural address amounts to-is that "an undeniable impulse has driven man to seek it, and there is an innate respect for it":

These studies are indeed valuable for other ends, but chiefly because they tend to satisfy the craving thirst for knowledge, which our souls demand, not for their pleasure, or temporary happiness, but for their permanent well-being. All of this, with the possible exception of the respectful nod to "former generations," echoes the basic tenets of American Transcendentalism, of which Emerson, "The Sage of Concord," was the chief spokesman. But this was not Concord, and one wonders how these lofty phrases, these paeans to "knowledge as its own reward" must have fallen on the ears of the necessarily practical-minded folk of Forest Grove. Myron Eells, writing in 1881, sums it up: "The educational atmosphere was not in sympathy with a thorough education . .. the great majority of the people had come from the frontiers and mines, people who were good-hearted and kind, but whose early training and want of advantages had been such that they could not appreciate its benefits." Marsh himself, recalling his inauguration a quarter of a century later, admits that he must have "seemed as one that theorized." The simple fact is that Sidney Marsh was more than George Atkinson, or anyone else in Forest Grove, had bargained for. Atkinson had foreseen a small college, and a Congregationalist one at that; Marsh, ever the visionary, insisted on calling the new institurion a "university," and would spend a good part of his tenure fighting tooth and nail to avoid Congregionalist control. To many of the Forest Grove Congregationalists, the chief enemy was religious in nature-rival denominations, Roman Catholics, and, above all, the Jesuits; to Marsh it was decidedly secular-the rising spectre of scientific materialism that would receive such a boost from the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, just five years after Marsh's inauguration. Marsh was not anti-science, but as the son of a beloved father who had served for many years as professor of moral and intellectual philosophy, he deplored the idea of scientists assuming the mantle of moral authority. Mainly, both by temperament and training, Marsh detested narrow thinking of all kinds, and one of his greatest challenges as president would be learning to understand provincialism at least to the point of being able to deal with it effectively. That he never entirely succeeded in this is evident from a speech that he gave to the Board of Trustees of Pacific University in 1878, the year before his death and 25 years after his inaugural address. Placed side by side, these two documents speak tomes about the first q~arter-century of Pacific University. In Marsh's later address, the original vision remains intact, but the idealism of youth has been tempered at the forge of administrative duties. Marsh speaks of how "Spirits and energy were frittered away by unnecessary cares and anxieties which yet I could not avoid," and calls it "the greatest event of my life" that, "At last, after 25 years .. . the community among whom I had lived so long had come to see what I was 'driving at' and what was meant by a College." But he spends the greater portion of his 1878 address discussing the two matters that had plagued him from the start and that he would most liked to have rid himself entirely: the financial security and the "denominational relations" of the institution. As we shall see, the two issues were not unrelated. "M I SERABLE B U SINESS " From the beginning, Pacific University had been heavily dependent on Congregationalist support, most notably on the American College Society, for the salaries of the president and the instructors-$600 in 1853 and $1,200 for the following five years. By 1858, the same year that founders Tabitha Brown and Harvey Clark died, it had become clear that a more secure endowment was needed, and R. T. Baldwin, secretary of the College Society, sent President Marsh a free pass to New York on what would be the first of four protracted trips east to solicit funds. This was one of the duties of a presidenr that Sidney Marsh did not "fully understand," and that he never fully resigned himself roo That he was good at it, however, is clear from the record. On his first trip east, which kept him away from the college for almost three years, Marsh managed ro raise $22,000 in subscriptions and 1,200 in books. He also met and wed Eliza Haskell, by whom he would have eight children, three of whom died before their father. Five years later we find Marsh back in the EaSt again for a full year, this time returning with over $25,000 for the general endowment. Marsh hated the work. Writing home ro his wife during this trip, he notes: "I can get ten thou and here without much doubt. But this is miserable business. I despise the reputation that I am getting by it." Or again:

Have gOt one subscripton of one hundred dollars, and two of fifty. Notwithsranding, am miserable. One cannot butt his head against a stone wall twenty times a day without getting a headache, even though once in a while he knocks down a few srones. I have $23,500 done-want ro get $1,500 more. So long as I make progress I shall stick to it. " 0 long as I make progress I shall stick to it"-thi might well have been Sidney Marsh's epitaph. The progress that he made during his tenure as president of Pacific University is summarized in a small memorial pamphlet published on the occasion of his death in 1879:

President Marsh found Pacific University a a small academy, with scholars not much if any further advanced than those in common school ought to be; with a ingle building, nothing of a library ... and not a dollar of endowment except that the interest on ten thousand dollars had been pledged by the College Society, through the efforts of Dr. Atkinson. He left it with two buildings, and funds partially pledged for a third, with about five thousand volumes and eight hundred pamplets in the library ... while the institution was worth $91,086.38, and forty-nine persons had graduated from the University.


Despite Sidney Marsh's arduous work and impressive successes on behalf of the college, he was not universally popular as a president. When, at the age of 53, he finally lost his long battle with tuberculosis on February 2, 1879, the memorial reviews from the faculty were mixed. "Not everyone was able to understand his objects," one mourner observed, "nor did they always commend themselves when understood." And another: "He had the nerve to do right as he saw the right, and the man who does so will have enemies." Still a third put his finger on what was unquestionably the sore spot of Marsh's administrati~n: "Dr. Marsh was a Congregationalist, and while he subscribed to the Congregational faith, yet he ever strove to make Pacific University an unsectarian, Christian school."

These last, at the time of Marsh's death, were fighting words to some in the audience who counted themselves as Marsh's enemies, at least on the sectarian issue. While President Marsh held the administrative reins, few of them had entertained any serious hope of overriding his commitment to the ideal of a liberal arts university free from the narrow bounds of sectarianism. He had never pulled any punches on that matter, as this passage from one of his letters to the Board illustrates: I do not expect support from a good many Congregationalist ministers, and repudiate the interference of such in what is not their affair, when they talk and act as if they had some authority above the constituted authority of the Board of Trustees. We want friends, but intelligent friends if possible. I would welcome the co-operation of anyone, so he did not assume to dictate. But to Roman Catholics and Congregationalists alike I say the same thing. I invite their inspection. If the Roman Catholic likes it, I am glad of it, and am sorry if either he or the Congregationalist does not, and in the case of the latter, cannot help being disappointed and grieved. My position repels no one.

But, of course, such a position had repelled many. And when Sidney Marsh died in 1879, many of those who favored a strong Congregationalist bent to the college emerged from the proverbial woodwork. The final irony of Marsh's presidency was that for all of the original resistance to calling the prospective institution a "university," the more dubious word in the school's name at the time of his death might well have been "Pacific."

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Sidney Harper Marsh's Timeline

August 29, 1825
Hampden Sydney, Prince Edward, Virginia, United States (includes b/w photo of painted portrait) p.28

JAMES MARSH - Father of Pacific's First President:

James Marsh, father of Sidney Harper Marsh and a key figure in American Transcendentalism, was born on July 19,1794 in Hartford, Vermont. James
was intended to follow in his father's footsteps and manage the large family farm, while his brother, Roswell, had been elected to go to Dartmouth. But Roswell balked at the indignity of carrying a leg of mutton off to college in partial payment of his board and ran away from home, leaving the way to Dartmouth open for James.

It was at Dartmouth, which in 1813 was still awash in the eddies of the
Second Great Awakening, that Marsh converted to Congregationalism. He
began his studies for the ministry at Andover Theological Seminary in 1817
and, after returning to Dartmouth for two years as a tutor, graduated from
Andover in 1822. In the following year, he went to Hampton-Sidney, Virginia
to teach oriental languages, and in 1824 married Lucia Wheelock, granddaughter of Eleazer Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College, and a
niece ofJohn Wheelock, a former president of Dartmouth. Their only child,
Sidney Harper Marsh, was born on August 29, 1825. A mere three years
later, Lucia Wheelock Marsh died of tuberculosis, leaving James a widower
until 1830, when he married Lucia's sister, Laura Wheelock. Laura became
the mother ofJoseph Walker Marsh before she too succumbed to tuberculosis
in 1838. Strictly speaking, then, Sidney Harper Marsh and Joseph Walker
Marsh, pivotal players in Pacific University's early days, were both half-brothers
(three-quarter brothers?) and cousins.

Chroniclers of Pacific's early years routinely note that James Marsh served
as president of the University of Vermont (1826-1833). None of them seems
aware, however, that he was also a major influence on the thinking of such
giants in American literature as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David
Thoreau. In 1829 Marsh edited Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection,
thus becoming the link between English Romanticism and what would become American Transcendentalism. Marsh's introduction to the book fired Emerson's imagination and became a touchstone of his thought. Robert Richardson in his biography Emerson, The Mind on Fire, notes of Marsh's introduction: "Here was a sober, modern, defensible, intellectually rigorous account of the nature of the power that resides in each individual soul. Marsh's formulation became over the next few years a conviction Emerson would hold for the rest of his life."

February 2, 1879
Age 53
Forest Grove, Washington, Oregon, United States

Harper Marsh died in this
small frame house [now Pacific University's Walker Hall], which was
built in 1859 on College Way
across from the campus. The
house was remodeled in 1946
and named for Charles L.
Walker of Hillsboro, a 1906
graduate who left his estate to
the university. It currently
houses philosophy faculty
offices and two classrooms.

Shortly after Sidney Marsh's death in
1879, his wife and five children
moved into [Knight Hall] the large
Victorian house next door under
construction as the
new family home when
Marsh died-and lived there
for many years. Purchased for
the university years later, this
house is now known as
Knight Hall According to a
long-standing campus myth,
the house is haunted by a
female spirit named "Vera':·
every Halloween, radio and
TV stations contact the university
to inquire about Vera
and her activities.

Age 53
Forest Grove, Washington, Oregon, United States

Sidney Harper Marsh

Birth: Aug. 29, 1825
Death: Feb. 2, 1879

Family links:
Eliza Lavina Haskell Marsh (1841 - 1906)*

Mary Marsh (1864 - 1880)*
Lucia Marsh (1868 - 1888)*

Born At Hampden Sidney College, VA

Forest View Cemetery
Forest Grove
Washington County
Oregon, USA