The sea captain’s son rose to head Princeton University and became friend of presidents and prime ministers.

He was born on Sunday in January 1843 — only fitting for a man who would spend so much oh his life in a pulpit. When Francis Landey Patton died almost 90 years later in 1932, his sermonising had made his reputation. The editor of The Royal Gazette, A.M. Purcell. eulogised Patton as “an alchemist in rhetoric… a master swordsman in dialectics.” The Bermudian portrayed him as a “speaker of mesmeric and tremendous power” who had been “an inspiration to a morally confused world by reason of the perfect inner harmony of his life.” Over on the walls of Christ Church Presbyterian Church in Warwick, a plaque memorialised Patton as “Most eloquent in utterance. Gracious in manner. Charitable in spirit.”

Francis Landey Patton’s life spoke to the social and religious conservatism that permeated both 19th-century Bermuda and Presbyterianism. This mindset sustained Patton through his half century career in America as a leading preacher, theologian and as president of Princeton University.

Francis Landey Patton, President of Princeton University, 1888-1902

Posterity has not been kind to the man who was Bermuda’s best known theological and pedagogic export. A primary school on North Shore Road does bear his name. A recent postage stamp honoured his role as an educator. A dormitory at Princeton University is named for him. His ideas still surface in arcane theological debates. But the man who in 1900 was arguably the best known Bermudian in the world has now slipped out of Bermudian consciousness. In America, his name, when mentioned at all, has become synonymous with arch conservatism. Despite the warm eulogies of 1932, many would today conclude that Patton’s values have been overwhelmed by secularism and modernism. Some might find it ironic that, in his fading years back home in Bermuda, Patton slowly went blind, as if to shut out the changing world around him. Perhaps, in these times when “national heroes” seem so central to Bermuda’s identity, he should be better remembered?

Presbyterianism and the Pattons have deep roots in Bermuda. Three years after the Sea Venture foundered on a Bermuda reef in 1609, the colony’s first minister, a Puritan named Lewis Hughes, arrived. He brought with him strong Calvinist inclinations: a belief in man’s predestination (the belief that God had preordained every man’s fate), a minimalist style of worship, a distrust of clerical hierarchy and an unshakable adherence to sola scriptura–the belief that the Bible is the sole font of man’s spirituality. Bermuda’s initial tilting towards Presbyterianism was accentuated by the fact that King James of Scotland–a Presbyterian–had just ascended the throne of England. Presbyterianism’s ascendancy in England would peak in the Civil War of the 1640s, when the rebellious English Parliament, eager to win Scottish support, ratified the Westminster Confession, a code of belief that forsook church governance by bishops and installed a morally-rigid Calvinistic Shorter Catechism as the anchor of all Presbyterian faithful.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, resurgent Anglicanism returned power to the bishops. But in Bermuda, Presbyterianism proved resilient. Early in the 18th century, Bermuda Presbyterians withdrew from the Anglican Church and affiliated with the Church of Scotland. In 1719, construction began on Christ Church Presbyterian Church in Warwick, often said to be the oldest Presbyterian church in the western hemisphere. A steady succession of redoubtable Scots (including a McDowall) was brought in to preach the virtues of the Shorter Catechism from Christ Church’s pulpit. On April 2, 1843, in the shadow of that pulpit, Francis Landey Patton was baptised into this rigorous Presbyterian world.

Pattons had been present in Bermuda since at least the 1720s, when the name of Thomas Patton, “tailor,” first appears in colonial records. Thomas’s descendants, beginning with his son Francis Landey in the 1760s, had the good Bermudian sense to turn to the sea for their livelihood. Francis’s son, Eli, sailed the American seaboard and eventually retired to New Jersey. In turn, his son George John Bascombe, born in Warwick in 1805, then took hold of the ship’s wheel and proceeded to find fame and fortune for himself on the high seas. Captain George, for instance, sailed his ship, the Adeona, from Bermuda to the Turks in an astonishing four days, seven-and-a-half hours, a time that rivalled that of the new-fangled steamers that were appearing on the mid-19th century Atlantic. To celebrate his success, Patton in 1844 bought a home- Carberry Hill-and an adjacent three acres in Warwick for £160 and raised three sons- Francis Landey, Joseph Steele and Robert Hunter–there. Then, in 1849, Captain Patton died, leaving, as The Royal Gazette noted, his widow in “comfortable circumstances.”

Carberry Hill, Warwick, where Patton was born and died

Young Francis Landey did not adopt his father’s seafaring ways–but there was no avoiding the sea of Presbyterianism all around. At Christ Church, he fell under the influence of the Rev. Marischal Keith Firth, who fanned the young lad’s interest in theology. For schooling, Francis was sent to nearby Presbyterianism Warwick Academy, the island’s oldest school, where Scottish teachers steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment–with its emphasis on the application of reason to the human predicament -shaped young Bermudian minds. (One such teacher, Robert Hunter, boarded at Carberry Hill and saw his name given to Francis’ youngest brother.) Precocious is the word that best sums up Captain Patton’s eldest son Francis: he could read by age three and was conversant in Latin at seven.

Bermuda in the mid-19th century was a narrow place for a precocious mind. Francis was therefore sent off to Toronto in Upper Canada–today’s Ontario–where he rounded out his basic education at a grammar school and then enrolled in Knox College, colonial Canada’s Presbyterian seminary, and the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Patton shared rooms with Canadian John King, a fellow Presbyterian and aspiring law student. The friendship would last. But Patton never completed his Toronto studies. Instead, he headed south to Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. There, he flourished, graduating in 1865. That year brought other momentous changes in Patton’s life. He was ordained into the Presbyterian Church and received his first call to Eighty-fourth Street Presbyterian Church in New York. And on October 10, 1865, he married Rosa Stevenson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minster. Francis and Rosa took their vows in the renowned Brick Church, New York’s century-old Presbyterian flagship. Francis Landey Patton had arrived in America in every sense of the word.

From the outset of his long career in America, Patton confronted two forces that were radically altering the American way of life: modernism and secularisation. He regarded each with unflinching skepticism. America had emerged from the Civil War as an industrial juggernaut. Its cities were burgeoning. The familiar bonds of rural life were dissolving into the anonymity of city life. The nation was launched into the Gilded Age–the title of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel, a scathing attack on conspicuous consumption and class polarisation. (Twain and Warner would habitually escape to Bermuda to bask in its anti-modernist ambiance.) Prosperity, many worried, had created a fever of individualism and self-indulgence. Culture and communalism wilted in the heat of national philistinism. All this secularism seemed an affront to the sturdy Presbyterian values.

Modernism did not stop outside the church door. Materialism not only liberated the individual, but it also provoked questioning of old-time religion. If man was now free to satisfy his material yearnings, then why should he also not control his own spiritual guidance? Religion could no longer simply be taken at face value. A society increasingly dependent on science now looked for “proof” of God’s existence. The Scriptures were consequently subjected to the rigours of the so-called Higher Criticism–the application of historical verification to the Bible’s authority. Many called for Christianity to become a “social gospel” more dedicated to doing good on earth rather than fixated on ethereal rewards in heaven. Religion must be active and adaptable, not just a dogmatic creed. All the while in the late 19th century, Christianity tried to navigate through a powerful riptide of Doubt (usually capitalised) that found its origin in the writings of men like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. Did God exist or was man the outcome of biological determinism?

From his New York pulpit, Rev. Patton had no doubts about his own spiritual bearings. Liberalism was a scourge. Doubt corroded true belief. In his first book, The Inspiration of the Scriptures (1869), Patton attacked “that increasing class of men who are disposed to speak with hesitancy concerning the divine authorship of the Bible.” For Patton, the unadulterated Scriptures, not man’s restless ego, were the only “infallible guide.” The Bible’s “parts fit into each other like the pieces of a mosaic.”

Patton coupled such writing with a fiery and accusatory style of pulpit oratory. Although still in his late twenties, he soon enjoyed a reputation as a hard-line Presbyterian. He dressed for the part. Woodrow Wilson, an Atlanta lawyer and devout Presbyterian, gave us a snap shot of Patton in action some years later: “A tall, lean, spare-visaged man with a narrow knit brow and a mouth set to the taste of vinegar.” Sideburns, wire-rimmed glasses, a dark clerical frock coat and high collar completed Patton’s formidable clerical armour. Wilson reported that, when in full rhetorical flight, Patton was subject to “angular twists and darting forefingers.” Despite sympathy for Patton’s theology, Wilson didn’t care for Patton’s overheated style. Neither did his fiancée Ellen, who felt that Patton “has no more warmth about him than an iceberg… I wonder he [doesn’t] freeze himself to death.

Other Presbyterians liked what they saw. Cyrus McCormick, the millionaire maker of farm equipment and progenitor of International Harvester, worried that Presbyterianism was succumbing to liberalism and endowed a chair in didactic and polemical theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago. Patton got the job. He quickly became the attack dog of Old School Presbyterianism. He drew a bead on Rev. David Swing, a persuasive advocate of New School Presbyterianism, who argued that the faith should attune itself with the new realities of American life. Blind adherence to the Westminster Confession held Presbyterians back from truly living the values of their faith. Surely, Swing argued, nobody believed that David had written every single psalm in the Book of Psalms of that Solomon was the sole author of the Song of Solomon? Patton was apoplectic. Swing was fraying the fabric of two centuries of belief. This was heresy. And Patton set out to prove it.

In the spring of 1874, Patton brought charges of heresy against Swing before the Chicago presbytery. Swing, he alleged, had not faithfully maintained the truths of the Gospel and was therefore not fit to be a minister. For weeks, reporters crammed the courtroom, turning the case into a national spectacle. The trial generated 300 double-columned pages of dense testimony. Patton spearheaded the prosecution. Was the Westminster Confession to be turned into a personal wish list for every Presbyterian? That would balance faith on a very “rotten platform, he argued. Patton buttressed his case with endless chapter and verse of Biblical authority. “Paradise,” Swing retorted, “was not to be a reward of scholarship.

In the end, Swing won. The presbytery, unconvinced by Patton’s attempt to apply theological precision to the vagaries of faith, acquitted Swing 48 to 13. But it was a pyrrhic victory. In 1874, Swing resigned his ministry in the church and went his own way. As if inoculated by the controversy; the American Presbyterian Church avoided any fundamental revision of its central doctrine until 1902. Like Horatio at the bridge, Patton had held the forces of modernism in check.

Patton was on the rise. He edited a Presbyterian paper, The Interior. He was elected moderator of the church’s general assembly. More books followed. And in 1881, he was appointed Professor of the Relations of Philosophy and Science to the Christian Church back at his alma mater, the Princeton Theological Seminary. The seminary was a bastion of Old School Presbyterianism.

Just down the road was the College of New Jersey, more generally known as Princeton College. Princeton had a pedigree that dated back to 1746, when it was founded as an educational byproduct of the Great Awakening, a broad, fundamentalist revival in American religion. Princeton never formally affiliated with any religion, but it saw itself as an embodiment of Presbyterian ideas. Presbyterian ministers’ sons, for instance, enjoyed free tuition. Its students were nurtured on the classics, ethics and doses of old-time religion. For its leadership, Princeton reached across the Atlantic. In 1866, for instance, it named James McCosh, an Edinburgh-trained minister and ‘A tall, lean, spare-visaged man with a philosopher, to its presidency. When McCosh announced his retirement in 1888, the college’s trustees saw no reason to alter course and narrow knit brow and a appointed the nearby Rev. Dr. Patton to the post.

Few were impressed. Patton was another non-American and, more importantly, he seemed profoundly out of kilter with the needs of higher education in the new America. Modernism was obliging most American universities to equip their students with scientific, practical knowledge, not just a pleasant polishing in the arts. Indeed, many feared that Princeton was falling behind the times and was rapidly becoming a Presbyterian country club for the indolent sons of East Coast patriarchs.

Patton quickly disarmed his critics. At his inauguration, he wooed them with his oratorical skills. He understood that a university “is meant to be a place of research. It is a hive as well as a home.” He knew that a college president had to be worldly wise, able to tell the difference between “an interest-coupon” and a “railway ticket.” Patton came across as the very model of a modern educator: “college administration is a business in which the Trustees are partners, professors are the salesmen and students the customers.” President Patton won further allies by showing up at Princeton Tigers’ football games to applaud the sweaty efforts of his undergraduate charges. He was off to a good start.

On one level, Patton met the challenge of modernism at Princeton. He oversaw a spurt of building on campus. Student dormitories, an infirmary, a new gym and a grand auditorium sprang up. The library was expanded and transformed from a place where books were stored into an intellectual hub. New faculty was hired and new academic disciplines, more in tune with the secular society, were embraced. Patton saw the need for students to understand the political structure of the nation and accordingly hired a rising star of American academe, Woodrow Wilson, as professor of jurisprudence and political economy.

Moreover, President Patton moved against Princeton’s tradition of rampant and reckless student hazing. He promoted student self-government, allowing the students to invigilate their own exams on the honour system and to establish their own dining clubs on campus. He even-reluctantly-allowed them to serve beer and wine in their clubs. Within a decade, Princeton’s enrollment had doubled to over 1,200 students. A new tradition in undergraduate excellence–still at the heart of Princeton’s culture–was born.

Patton also acquired the wily ways of a seasoned administrator.  When an anxious mother cornered him and insisted that the president take her gormless son under his direct supervision, Patton gravely replied: “Madame, we guarantee success or return the boy.” When trustees complained that new elective courses introduced by Patton were gaining a reputation as “snap courses” and were promoting loafing, Patton wittily responded by mimicking Tennyson:

‘Tis better to have gone and loafed

Than never to have gone at all.

Patton escorts former US President Grover Cleveland (centre) at a Princeton convocation, 1901

The culmination of Patton’s Princeton reform came in 1896, when the college celebrated its 150th anniversary. A grand fete was organised, attended by US President Grover Cleveland, who in retirement would soon move to Princeton and become a trustee. To crystallise the college’s transformation, Patton announced that it would now be styled Princeton University. In his keynote address to the celebration, Woodrow Wilson gave the new university both a motto and a mission: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”

But Patton’s legacy at Princeton was shaped as much by what he didn’t do as much as by what he did do. Despite his recognition of a new world unfolding in America, President Patton remained in the grip of a primordial conservatism. “I hope that Princeton will always stand for belief in the living God, the immortal self, an imperative morality and the Divine Christ,” he declared in 1896. In many ways, he avoided change. Students were still required to take Greek in a nation that now demanded practical learning. He resisted calls for a law school and a graduate school. He refused to segment the university into defined academic departments; professors simply taught a subject of their own choosing. (Patton himself taught ethics.) In response to calls for fundamental change, Patton perfected the art of strategic delay and walling up those who opposed him.

Patton compounded all this by being “a wonderfully poor administrator,” in the words of Princeton’s historian James Axtell. He was, Axtell claims, “the stand-pat president.” For most of his presidency, he maintained no office and no secretary. He wrote all his own correspondence, laboriously making a hand-written copy of every letter he sent. He presided over the university from his library, where (as one student recalled) he spent hours “grasping a cologne-scented handkerchief in his thin hands” perusing a book. Eventually, he nepotistically hired his own son, George, to act as secretary, but George was actually there to run interference for his father.

The “young Turks” in the Princeton faculty soon grew restless. Woodrow Wilson threatened to leave, his dream of a law school stymied by the president. “Our president,” he confided to historian Frederick Turner,” does not bother us by having a mistaken policy, he daunts us by having no will or policy at all.” Wilson likened Patton to King Log in Aesop’s fable about the frogs in the pond who asked Zeus for a new leader. Zeus sent them a log as ruler. Nothing, of course, happened. When the frogs demanded a more dynamic leader, Zeus sent them a stork, which promptly ate them.

Paton seemed to know when his time was finally up. In 1902, sensing that the new century would bring more unruly change, he resigned. The trustees then broke the mould and appointed Woodrow Wilson to replace him. Wilson was a modern man who had never felt the constriction of a clerical collar around his neck. He soon, in fact, became Aesop’s stork, battling the students over their elitist dining clubs and battling his colleagues over their wish to make Princeton’s graduate school an ivory tower. He lost these battles, but went on to become governor of New Jersey and, in 1913, the 28th president of the United States.

Patton retreated to the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he presided as president until 1913. In 1906, Princeton students petitioned to have their new residence named after their departed president. Every year, the Princeton class of ’91 sent Mrs. Patton a birthday telegram. But as Princeton plunged into the 20th century, Patton clung to his 19th-century roots. He returned to Carberry Hill in his native Bermuda. Over the years, he had pointed American acquaintances, like Wilson, towards Bermuda for rest and relaxation. Now he took his own advice. (Son George followed in his wake, becoming Bermuda’s Inspector of Schools.) Relaxation did not come easily, however. In 1926, Macmillan published his last book, Fundamental Christianity. It was vintage Patton: “My own opinion of this new Christianity is that ‘the old is better.” Western man was slipping into a morally dangerous and “easy- going relativity.”

In 1930, Patton welcomed a Canadian visitor to Carberry Hill. William Lyon Mackenzie King was the son of Patton’s old room mate in Toronto. Willie King was now Canada’s prime minister and had come to pay his respects. He found Patton “tall and erect, looking very kindly and distinguished” and also totally blind. They talked of the Empire, of King’s parents and King’s political career. King, a Presbyterian, had copies of Patton’s books in his library in Ottawa. Patton grew introspective and talked of “letting slip the vision in every particular.” As he departed, the prime minister kissed the cleric on the cheek. Patton insisted on shuffling to the gate to bid his visitor farewell. “I felt as I came away,” King confided to his diary, “how beautiful was the atmosphere of that home and how much finer than all else its intellectual and spiritual culture.”

Two years later, Francis Landev Patton was dead. In the words of the headline in The Royal Gazette, “Bermuda’s Grand Old Man” was gone. There was no doubt that he embodied the fading of Old Bermuda–sailing ships, sabbatarianism and sanctimony. But, in his canny conservatism, his aversion to change for change’s sake and his old-fashioned courtesy, perhaps Bermudians can still detect an abiding element of Old Bermuda.

Reprinted from Short Bermudas: Essays on Island Life, by Sandra Campbell & Duncan McDowall.