Incorrigible Optimist

by Jon Pactor '71

January 12, 2011

 

Arthur Judson Brown was 100 years old and had certainly earned the right to be a curmudgeon when asked at a banquet honoring him in Manhattan in 1956, "How has the world changed since you were a young man, and what do you think of the young people today?

But the centenarian rose to his feet without a hint of nostalgia and said he thought the world was improving.

 “I do not sympathize with the common lament that the young people of today are not what they once were. Thank God they are not!” he said. As for the world in general, Brown was equally hopeful.
 
“A century ago war was an accepted method of settling international disputes,” said the Wabash graduate from the Class of 1880. “Wars have ravaged the world in this century, but there is a stronger moral protest against them…If the conditions of the last century had existed in this generation, a third world war would have begun before this.”
 
He called himself the “Incorrigible Optimist,” a fitting outlook for the Presbyterian minister and missionary who would become a pioneer in the ecumenical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.
 
He was born in the same year as Woodrow Wilson, and he died in the same year as John F. Kennedy. He knew presidents in the interval; Herbert Hoover was his friend. He promoted the Christian church while at the same time promoting peace and harmony among peoples of different faiths. He fought for the rights and protections of religious minorities, and he did so with such grace and humor that he earned the nickname  “missionary statesman.”
 
Like many Wabash men before and since, Brown was encouraged by an alumnus to attend the College. Brown lacked funds, but President Joseph Tuttle said that he would accept him if he “were worth educating.
 
With his Wabash education, he changed the world. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1883, 
Brown was elected administrative secretary of that church’s board of foreign missions in 1895 and served in that post for 34 years. His career took him from coast to coast and to a staggering number of points around the globe, including China, Japan, Philippines, Scotland, France, England, and Belgium. He traveled on an elephant to reach regions of northern Siam. 
 
“Like Satan in the Book of Job,” he remarked, “I have spent considerable time going to and fro in the earth.”
 
Motivated by his belief that a divided church could not save the world, he organized one of the landmark events of 20th-century Christian history: the Ecumenical Missionary Conference of 1900, which took the first major step toward ending the wasteful competition of church missions.
 
During World War I, at Hoover’s urging, Brown helped to establish relief committees which helped an estimated 1.5 million persons displaced by the war.
 
In 1931, he became the first president of Save The Children Federation.
 
He had a special interest in the Church Peace Union, founded and endowed by Andrew Carnegie in 1914 to promote international friendship and peace.  
 
He was the first chairman of The American Committee on Religious Rights and Minorities, headquartered in New York City.
 
He authored more than 20 books, including The Foreign Missionary, which became the “bible” for new missionaries of various denominations. It went through more than 20 printings and was translated into French and German.
 
He had been a student journalist at Wabash, where he’d also won the Baldwin Oratorical Contest.
 
He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, and served as student marshal at Caleb Mills’ funeral. 
 
He lived to the age of 106 and lucid, witty, and spry well past 100. He reflected on his Wabash experience 80 years after graduation. 
 
“I can still see that spacious campus, with those noble oaks and elms…and the kindly President and professors who took a personal interest in a struggling student and gave him an encouraging word when the going was hard. Yes, I hold Wabash in affectionate remembrance."

Photo courtesy of the Robert T. Ramsay, Jr. Archival Center at Wabash

 


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