October 11: Reflecting on the Death of a Great Man

Dr. Robert Dick Wilson

We have written before how one of the great Princeton professors and a founding professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, died on this day, October 11, at the start of the second academic year at Westminster. Today, we present a different insight into his death, as Dr. Allan A. MacRae, another of the founding Westminster faculty, wrote home to his parents and related something of Wilson’s death, his funeral, and the resolution of his estate:—

October 14, 1930

Dear Folks:

No doubt you have read in the papers of Dr. Wilson’s death. When I wrote you last week he had been ill for a few days but it did not seem to be serious. The turn for the worse came quite suddenly. We thought at first that it was simply a bad cold but it seems more probably to have been a weakening of the heart that was coming on for some time. He had said a few words at the opening of the Seminary, and had conducted one class before he was taken ill. He was in bed about four days and seemed to have trouble with his breathing, a thing that had never bothered him before. Monday evening Mrs. Wilson phoned me rather later and asked me to come over. He was having a spell of hard breathing and imagining that some one was choking him. I succeeded in quieting him and he seemed to recover completely. But the next day the doctor had him taken to the hospital. After three days of comparatively little trouble there he suddenly took a turn for the worse. He was unconscious from Friday afternoon at three until Saturday afternoon at five. Mrs. Wilson, Dr. Allis, a few others and I spent the whole of Friday night with him, expecting the end at any moment. But he was unconscious and I do not believe that he suffered a great deal. The funeral is to be this afternoon at four o’clock.

It is a blow to the Seminary and a great loss to me in particular. I had looked forward to working with him a great deal this year. But when I think of the great amount that Dr. Wilson accomplished in his life and of the tremendous help that he gave the Seminary by his testimony and his personal assistance during its first year, I feel that we should rather rejoice in his great usefulness.

He was very cheerful and happy right up to the last. In the hospital he was joking and making light of his suffering when I last talked with him. He always had an unusually genial spirit.

The relatives of Dr. Wilson and of Mrs. Wilson have been arriving one after the other during the last three days. I have met some of them at the train and have tried to do anything I could to help. Both of them are members of large families. Dr. Wilson had five brothers and four sisters. The youngest of the brothers to die was fifty-seven and he and the other who has passed away were along in their seventies. His oldest brother, who is two years older than he, is here now. They are all very fine people and several of them have been very successful in various lines of work. The brother who died at fifty-seven was a missionary to Persia and died as a result of his treatment in a Turkish prison during the war.

After the funeral this afternoon they will all go out to Indiana, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Wilson was born, and where he wished to be buried. They will return tomorrow evening.

Mrs. Wilson has asked me to go over all of Dr. Wilson’s books and papers. It will be quite a task but I am sure I will find a great deal of valuable material. Just before he went to the hospital he handed me the manuscript of an article that he had been working on during the summer and asked me to go over it. She has also asked me to go over the financial things with her. She will appoint herself executrix, but she would like me to help her in determining what to do. She has had very little business experience, in her life. He was never in a position to save very much, so it is important to conserve for her what he left.

Words to Live By:
This letter by Dr. MacRae is found among his own papers, now preserved at the PCA Historical Center. Among that material were several boxes of manuscripts that constitute the papers of Dr. Wilson. All of which stands as a warning to our present electronic age, with its email and social media which is so ephemeral, so easily deleted or passed over. In centuries to come, as historians look back there will likely be a void—an absence of detailed information—at least at the individual level, such as that provided above, for many of us fail to preserve the important communications that come our way. We fail to treasure up our history, to do what is necessary to preserve it. Again, partly it is because of that electronic format, but perhaps the larger problem is our own attitude towards the value of our history. The whole problem exposes well our low view of the value of history. And isn’t it interesting that, for a culture with a low view of history (and thus a low view of self), we now find ourselves engaged in an intense struggle over issues of identity?  

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