In Memoriam, Professor John F. Wilson (1933-2023)

Oct. 12, 2023

The Department of Religion mourns the death of John F. Wilson, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion Emeritus. John joined the Princeton faculty in 1960 and retired in 2004, having made a significant impact on the Department of Religion, the shape of undergraduate student life, and graduate education at Princeton and in the field of American religious history.

Randall Balmer *85 and  John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College shared this obituary he wrote of his advisor:

John F. Wilson, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion emeritus at Princeton University, died at his home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on October 5, 2023. After attending Mount Hermon School and earning degrees at Harvard and Union Theological Seminary, John joined the Princeton faculty in 1960, where he remained until his retirement in 2004.

Although his dissertation, later published as Pulpit in Parliament: Puritanism in the English Civil Wars, 1640-1648, examined English Puritanism, his focus shifted toward American religious history. His books include Public Religion in American History and a critical edition of Jonathan Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption for the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. His longtime interest in the relationship between church and state culminated in a research project that led to the publication of several volumes on that topic. Together with his colleague Paul Ramsey, he published an edited volume, The Study of Religion in American Universities and Colleges.

Within his academic field, John is remembered as a quiet but forceful presence, utterly unpretentious and content to work behind the scenes as mentor to countless doctoral students and early-career scholars. His students have gone on to distinguished careers in prestigious colleges and universities, and they chose to honor him by funding the John F. Wilson Research Fellowship, which is awarded annually by the American Society of Church History, which John also served as president.

John was a loyal and dedicated Princetonian whose extraordinary contributions to the life of the university were profound—and largely unheralded. He helped to reorganize the Department of Religion away from what he called the “zoo theory”—professors representing individual religions—toward an accommodation of new, interdisciplinary approaches to the academic study of religion. Together with a small cohort of other professors in the early 1980s, John led the effort to recast undergraduate life at Princeton. Working to diminish the sometimes toxic influence of Princeton’s eating clubs, the committee painstakingly built consensus to pave the way for the formation of the residential colleges that now define undergraduate life at Princeton. He was appointed as the first master of Forbes College. From 1994 to 2002, John served as dean of the Graduate School at Princeton, during which time he increased support for graduate study and introduced a robing ceremony to increase the visibility of graduate students at Princeton.

Princeton is a far better place because of his care and devotion over the years. Generations of students have benefited and will continue to benefit from his efforts. His career spanning nearly five decades at Princeton provides eloquent illustration for the maxim that there is no limit to what one person can accomplish if he doesn’t care who receives the credit.

In addition to his efforts at Princeton, John led the so-called Wilson Committee as member of the board of trustees at Union Theological Seminary in the 1980s. His work there restructured the school to provide long-term financial stability. He was also a board member for the Educational Testing Service and Northfield Mount Hermon Schools. In retirement, he served on the boards of the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music and the Peterborough Players.

John F. Wilson is survived by his wife, Ruth Alden Cooke, whom he married between final exams and graduation at Harvard in 1954. John and Ruth reared four children; they have twelve grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A formal University Memorial statement will be read at an upcoming meeting of the University’s faculty. The family is planning a celebration of his life in spring or summer 2024.