John F. Wilson

Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion

A Memorial Resolution

– honoring –

John F. Wilson



John Frederick Wilson, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion, Emeritus, died in Peterborough, New Hampshire on October 5, 2023, at the age of 90. During his time as a member of the Princeton faculty, from 1960 until his retirement in 2004, Wilson was a vital force in university life, contributing to the experiences of students, staff, and faculty in ways that have left a profound legacy. He served as Assistant Dean of the College from 1965 to 1972 and as Chair of the Department of Religion from 1973 to 1980. Wilson was a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life that provided direction for the establishment of Princeton’s residential college system. He was the first Master of Princeton Inn (Forbes) College from 1983 to 1992 and helped develop many of the structures and practices of college life that remain in place today, modeling care and community for students and staff. Wilson served as Dean of the Graduate School from 1994 until 2002 and, during his tenure, increased support for graduate study, enhanced the visibility of the Graduate School, and strengthened the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, demonstrating the ability to incorporate diverse perspectives and build consensus. He was a founder and director of the Center for the Study of American Religion, of which the Center for Culture, Society, and Religion is a successor.

Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1933, Wilson grew up in the parsonage of First Congregational Church, where his father was the minister. He graduated from Harvard College, where he met and married Ruth Alden Cooke, and received his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in 1962. He was an Instructor at Barnard College before joining the Department of Religion at Princeton.

Wilson’s scholarly work began with a dissertation on English Puritans, published as Pulpit and Parliament: Puritanism in the English Civil Wars, 1640-1648 (1969), but he turned to American religious history, where he contributed to the study of early American religion with a superb and unmatched critical edition of Jonathan Edwards’ History of the Work of Redemption (1989) for Yale’s project on The Works of Jonathan Edwards. His work also focused on religion and politics in America, with an important text on Public Religion in American Culture (1978) in which he mobilized diverse methods to explore the landscape of religion in American public life. He deepened this work through his leadership of the Princeton project on Church and State in America, which includes two volumes of Church and State in America: A Bibliographic Guide (1986; 1987), an edited collection of essays on Church and State in American History: The Burden of Religious Pluralism (1987) and a source book of documents, legal decisions and commentaries on church and state (2003), the latter two in collaboration with his former graduate student Donald L. Drakeman. His final book, Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History (2003), offered an authoritative and efficient account of developments in the study of American religious history over the course of his career.

Wilson was a passionate advocate for the study of religion as a humanistic field. Works like the article, “Developing the Study of Religion in American Colleges and Universities” (1968), and the volume, The Study of Religion in Colleges and Universities (1970), which he co-edited with Princeton colleague Paul Ramsey, helped emerging departments and scholars develop a common set of goals, methods, and approaches to the study of religion within the liberal arts. His contributions as a teacher, offering courses at Princeton on a wide range of topics on religion in American society, and in his leadership of the department, made Princeton a pioneering institution for the study of religion in the Humanities.

Wilson was a kind and caring advisor who motivated his graduate students with sometimes opaque but encouraging comments that made him a favorite source for impressions of the department faculty at graduate student parties. His students knew that he was a steadfast supporter who would accompany them in reading courses on intellectual tangents and open professional opportunities for them. He was similarly devoted in his mentorship of staff during his time in administration in Forbes College and at the Graduate School. After his retirement, colleagues in the Department of Religion enjoyed his affable presence in the lounge and benefited from his expert home repair advice for many years before he and Ruth moved to New Hampshire.

In his long career, Wilson received numerous honors and awards, including election to the presidency of the American Society of Church History (1978), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1980), the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities (1992), and a Distinguished Career Award from the American Society of Church History (2008).


Mister President: For the Committee I move that this Resolution be spread on the records of the Faculty; that a copy be sent to his wife, Ruth Wilson, and his children, Abigail Howe, Nathaniel Wilson, Johanna Wilson-White, and Jeremy Wilson and to the Archivist of the University.


Respectfully submitted by:

Eric S. Gregory
Professor of Religion

Martha Himmelfarb
William H. Danforth Professor of Religion, Emeritus

Judith Weisenfeld
Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion
Chair, Department of Religion