Portrait of William Faunce

Biography of William Herbert Perry Faunce, D. D., LL. D.

President of Brown University for a period of thirty years, Dr. William Herbert Perry Faunce was one of the most distinguished of American educators and a figure of genuine prominence in the nation’s life. As a minister he was one of the most liberal and able in the Baptist faith. As an educator and administrator he guided Brown in its development from a provincial New England college to a leading university of the country. His writings and public utterances won him a reputation for fearlessness and demonstrated his enlightened devotion to the finest principles of thought and conduct, as well as his constant support of organized civic and social progress throughout the world.

Dr. Faunce was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 15, 1859, a son of the Rev. Daniel Worcester and Mary Parkhurst (Perry) Faunce. He came of a long line of old New England churchmen, and members of this family were among the earliest settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Elder Thomas Faunce was ruling elder of the First Church of Plymouth for forty years, and it was he who extended an invitation to Roger Williams to come to Plymouth when the founder of the Baptist faith was banished from Salem. The Rev. Daniel Worcester Faunce, father of William Herbert Perry Faunce, was born at Plymouth in 1829, and in the course of years was ordained to the Baptist ministry. He held many prominent pastorates in New England and Washington, as well as executive office in his church, and was an author of considerable reputation. His first wife, Mary Parkhurst Perry, who died in 1888, was a member of the family to which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry belonged. Dr. Faunce married (second), in 1891, Mrs. Mary F. Tucker.

William Herbert Perry Faunce, of this record, was educated in the public schools of Concord, New Hampshire, and Lynn, Massachusetts. Thereafter, in 1876, he entered Brown University and was graduated four years later with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He stood with the first members of his class scholastically, and was elected to the society of Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. Other degrees and honors conferred upon Dr. Faunce in later life include the Master of Arts and honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from Brown in 1895; the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Yale in 1901 and Harvard in 1902; the honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Baylor University in 1905, and subsequently from Alabama, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Denison, Amherst, and McMaster. In 1920 he received the bronze medal of the University of Paris, and in July, 1929, the Order of Commendatore of the Crown of Italy was conferred upon him by King Victor Emmanuel, in recognition of his interest in the promotion of Italian culture at Brown.

Meanwhile, however, Dr. Faunce’s career was well under way. After his graduation from Brown he began preparations for the ministry at Newton Theological Seminary. From 1881 to 1882 he taught mathematics at Brown, taking the place of a professor who was absent in Europe, and then returned to his theological studies, being graduated from the seminary in 1884. Six months before, he had been called to the pastorate of the State Street Baptist Church at Springfield, Massachusetts, where his duties were now to center for a period of six years. Dr. Faunce remained at Springfield until 1889, refusing many calls to other churches. In that year, however, he accepted the pulpit of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in New York, offered him by its parishioners. For a young minister—he was only thirty—this was a tremendous honor. The Fifth Avenue Baptist congregation was among the wealthiest and most influential in the United States. In addition to the usual church work, it carried on a vast amount of other parochial activity and was extremely energetic in both the home and foreign mission fields. The parish expended about $100,000 annually in benevolences alone.

This church offered Dr. Faunce the fullest opportunities for distinguished service and he made the most of them. Always a remarkable speaker, his public utterances were widely circulated and attracted much attention. His leadership became a decisive factor in the work of the Baptist denomination, and it was natural that he should be frequently spoken of as a future president of Brown. In 1896 he became a trustee of the university, and on June 21, 1899, was unanimously elected president to succeed E. Benjamin Andrews who resigned. Meanwhile he had been a lecturer in the divinity school of the University of Chicago in 1897, and a member of the board of resident preachers of Harvard University in 1898-99. Twice during his pastorate at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church he was granted extended leave to visit Europe, and took advantage of these opportunities to study methods of university education in Germany.

Dr. Faunce assumed his duties at Brown with the complete confidence of its trustees and the leaders of the Baptist faith. This confidence was completely justified by the high character of his administration, and under his guidance Brown soon became one of the leading universities of the East. He initiated many progressive policies. He revised and modernized the curriculum, and directed the material growth of the institution. Largely through his efforts an endowment fund of two million dollars was raised. Six new buildings were erected, the famous John Carter Brown Library of Americana was acquired; new laboratories and seminaries were established, and a thoroughly modern equipment provided for the university. The appearance of the campus was greatly improved, and during Dr. Faunce’s thirty years in office the student body was increased almost three fold by matriculation from the South and West. This remarkable development was paralleled by hardly any other American university during these years, and reflected, of course, the greatest credit upon Dr. Faunce’s leadership. He became a preeminent figure among American educators and his influence was extended to many fields.

To quote from an editorial tribute at his death:

His career at Brown had two great concomitant divisions, one within the walls of the university and the other outside them. Both in a sense were labors for the university and both brought it distinction at home and abroad. Within the walls of the university he carried on the work envisioned by Robinson and founded by Andrews—that of transforming what had been an urban college into a true university, without neglecting its undergraduates. . . .

But all the statistics (of growth) must be interpreted in the light thrown upon them by the character of Dr. Faunce, his liberality of spirit, his humanism, his unconquerable faith in progress. These qualities inspired all that he did for the university, and so “clothed upon” by the externals of the newer Brown, represent what Brown stands for to itself and to the outside world. There were three great occasions in the college year during the presidency of Dr. Faunce, the opening day of each semester, graduation and the baccalaureate sermon. His utterances on these occasions constituted his message to the students of Brown, and a noble legacy they now form, embodying and enforcing as they do the qualities that he impressed upon the character of the university or that, finding there, he confirmed.

No college president was listened to with closer attention by the American public. Though having no disposition to put himself forward as a champion even of the causes nearest to his heart, he at times found himself so recognized and bore himself bravely and triumphantly. More than to anyone else is due to him the respect for modernism within the ranks of the Baptists. Almost at the very end of his days he took another stand characteristic both of his liberalism and of his courage in calling for a reconsideration of our national prohibition laws.

He was an internationalist as well as a patriot. He sought peace, but through the agencies fundamental to peace, mutual understanding and good will among nations.

Providence knew him and loved him as a great citizen. No civic interest was too small to gain his active support, none too large for him to pour out his strength to advance it. . . .

As we reflect upon the closing of so distinguished a career the words of Shakespeare rise to memory as its fittest characterization:

“His life was gentle; and the elements 
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”

Dr. Faunce’s twenty-fifth anniversary as president of Brown was celebrated in May, 1924, and five years later, in 1929, he retired, after thirty full years of service. He was president emeritus of the university until his death. Dr. Faunce was a trustee of Newton Theological Institute, Worcester Academy and the Rhode Island School of Design. He w T as a contributor to various religious and educational periodicals and the author of the following published volumes: “The Educational Ideal in the Ministry,” 1908; “What Does Christianity Mean”? 1912; “Religion and War,” 1918; “The New Horizon of State and Church,” 1918; and “Facing Life,” 1928. Dr. Faunce was always active in the promotion of international peace and good will, supporting the League of Nations and World Court movements, and serving in his latter years as president of the World Peace Foundation. He was affiliated with the Delta Upsilon Fraternity.

On June 18, 1884, Dr. William Herbert Perry Faunce married Sarah Rogers Edson, daughter of Nathan W. and Ellen Edson of Lynn, Massachusetts. They became the parents of one son, Perry Edson, who died shortly after his graduation from Brown. At the commencement of 1924 Dr. and Mrs. Faunce gave to the university a sum to establish a scholarship in his memory.

Dr. Faunce died at his Providence home on January 31, 1930, in his seventy-first year. His death was the entire nation’s loss, and his passing called forth tributes from the leaders in American life and education. Dr. Faunce built for the years of the future and the value of his work will remain.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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