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Pearson, C. W. (Charles William), 1846-1905



  • Existence: 1846-1905


Charles W. Pearson, who in 1902 was to enunciate a religious doctrine so heretical that one critic offered to flay him alive and nail his salted hide to a barn door, began life peacefully in 1846 in Yorkshire, England, the son of a Wesleyan minister. Until the age of fourteen Pearson seems to have spent most of his time in school pursuing classical studies. He studied at the Woodhouse School near Leeds and at Fisher's School in Yarm where he obtained a “Certificate of Merit” from the Classical and Commercial Academy. The study of Latin, Greek, German, and French made up a large part of the curriculum. In 1860 he ended his linguistic studies when he signed on a full-rigged ship as cabin boy and sailed to Calcutta, India. For four years after this excursion Pearson worked as a clerk in a wholesale cloth house in Leeds. Then at about the age of eighteen he went to sea again, this time to Argentina. Here he expanded his linguistic skills by learning Spanish and became employed again in a business firm in Buenos Aires. He remained in this work until 1866 when he took a teaching position in a Methodist mission school. During the year he spent teaching in this school he became acquainted with a local Methodist minister–Dr. William Goodfellow–who urged him to obtain a college education at Northwestern University.

Pearson's undergraduate career at Northwestern extended from 1867 to 1871, the year in which he received his A.B. From the sources available his college career emerges as a record of high achievement; he won the Senior prize for English composition, the Hurd and Lunt prizes, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was excused from the last portion of his senior year to study German in Berlin in preparation for teaching that subject. From 1871 to 1880 Pearson served on the faculty of Northwestern as an Instructor in English Literature and German (the German Department was not organized until 1890). Beginning in 1875 he also served as the pastor of the Methodist church in Bangor, Michigan. This religious work apparently did not conflict with his academic duties for in 1876 he published Alma Mater, the first of his three major poetic works, and in 1880 was made full Professor of English Literature. Sometime after 1880 he became Chairman of the English Department, a position he held until 1902. His other published works appeared during this period: Methodism in 1891, and The Carpenter Prophet in 1902.

Pearson's long association with Northwestern University came to a close in 1902 with the publication of his article “Open Inspiration versus a Closed Canon and Infallible Bible” in the local papers. His open attack on the literal interpretation of the Bible had been considered for some time as he believed it necessary to stimulate change in the Christian religion which he felt was in danger of losing its relevance in an increasingly industrial and technical world. Public responses to his ideas were mixed. On one hand he was condemned for heresy by many whose subsequent reaffirmation of their fundamentalist beliefs was interestingly described in a Chicago Post article entitled “Stand by the Miracles.” Northwestern University's acting-President Daniel Bonbright, for example, advised Pearson that his withdrawal would be in the best interests of the school. On the other hand, Pearson had a number of sympathizers who were not pleased to see him forced out of his job. One Mr. A. Wangeman complained to the editor of the Chicago Record Herald that after all “A University is not a theological kindergarten.”

Following his resignation from the Northwestern faculty Pearson became pastor of the Unitarian church at Quincy, Illinois. He held this position until 1905 when he died while visiting a brother in England.


Martin, Ethel Pearson, “Charles William Pearson: A Tribute by his daughter” (1938), The University Extension Magazine (October 1892).

Atwell, Charles B. (ed.), Alumni Record of the College of Liberal Arts (1903).

Foster, Clyde D., Evanston's Yesterdays (1956).

Hatfield, James Taft, The Teaching of German at Northwestern University (1939).

Who's Who in America, 1903-1905.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Charles W. Pearson Family Papers

Identifier: 11/3/11/2
Abstract The Charles Pearson Family Papers document the life and career of Charles W. Pearson, Northwestern alumnus and faculty member (professor and department chair in the Department of English), as well as the lives of several family members. The collection is organized on a genealogical principle: the papers of Charles W. Pearson come first, those of his six children second, and finally the papers of Hadath and French families (related branches of the Pearson family). The description of the...
Dates: 1843-1968