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Cummings, Joseph, 1817-1890



  • Existence: 1817 - 1890


Joseph Cummings was born on March 3, 1817 in Falmouth, Maine, to Reverend Cyrus Cummings, a Methodist minister, and his wife Elizabeth. Following in the footsteps of his father, Cummings devoted his early life to education and the promotion of Methodism. He worked to furnish the funds for his attendance at the Maine Wesleyan Seminary (now Kents Hill School in Maine) in preparation for his matriculation at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1836. After graduating from Wesleyan in 1840, Cummings was called to many teaching positions around New England, including the Amenia Seminary in Dutchess County, New York (1840-1843). Erastus Otis Haven, another President of Northwestern University (1869-1872) taught at the Amenia Seminary just three years after Cummings left the seminary. After he finished his time at Amenia, Cummings married Deborah Haskell (1816-1900) in 1843, with whom he adopted two daughters. 

In 1854, Cummings was appointed President of Genesee College in Lima, New York (now Syracuse University), a position he kept for three years until being called to the presidency of his alma mater, Wesleyan University, in 1857. Cummings taught moral and mental philosophy while at Wesleyan, which allowed him to mix his two greatest preoccupations, teaching and preaching. Although he stayed on at Wesleyan as a teacher until 1878, Cummings relinquished the presidency of the university in 1875 so he could focus more on his preaching. He took up full-time preaching again in 1878 and continued to travel the country giving sermons until he was asked to become the President of Northwestern University in 1881. 

Cummings’ time at Northwestern (1881-1890) was marked by expansion of the campus and university, and a greater level of financial solvency than Northwestern had previously known. During his nine-year tenure, his skill and experience, as well as the return of financial stability to the University in the 1870s, allowed Cummings to eliminate the University's longstanding debts, increase faculty salaries, and add new buildings to the Evanston campus (e.g. Fayerweather Hall of Science in 1881, Dearborn Observatory in 1889, and Hatfield House, a dormitory for men, in 1890). He was also an influential teacher; former Northwestern president Charles Fowler had been his student at Genesee College, and a number of Northwestern professors—including Robert Cumnock and Herbert Fisk—had studied with him at Wesleyan.

During his lifetime, Cummings was widely recognized as a Methodist scholar and pastor, which is evident from the numerous honorary degrees he received for his good works. He was granted an honorary D.D. from Wesleyan University in 1854, another from Harvard College in 1861, and an L.L.D. from Northwestern University in 1866. When Cummings died on May 7, 1890, his funeral was attended by prominent educators and ministers, and the eulogies given on his behalf were bound (copies in Folder 4 of this collection). He was survived by his wife, Deborah, who remained a trustee of the university until her death in 1900, and his two adoptive daughters, Mary (born in 1846) and Alice (1856-1932). Daniel Bonbright, Northwestern’s Latin professor from 1856 to 1912 and President from 1900-1902, married Alice Cummings in 1890, and it was in their house that Joseph Cummings died. Joseph Cummings and his wife Deborah Cummings are buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Joseph Cummings (1817-1890) Papers

 Collection — Box 1
Identifier: 3/8

Joseph Cummings was President of Northwestern University from 1881-1890. This sparse collection of papers consists of correspondence, biographical information (including genealogy and memorial materials), and two sermons.

Dates: 1854 - 1967; Other: Majority of material found within 1854 - 1890