Simon Greenleaf I (1783-1853)
Bill Long 12/8/05
Setting the Record Straight*
[*A few additional essays on Greenleaf, considering primary sources not yet seen by anyone else, begin here.]
This and the next essay are my only (for now) essays on Simon Greenleaf, a man about whom almost nothing is written on the Internet or in scholarly literature and what is written is generally wrong or difficult of access. This essay seeks to do two things: to correct the misconceptions out there about Greenleaf and to suggest research directions which would fruitfully examine this most under-examined figure in the history of American law.
Getting Started--Exploding a Few Myths
The only reason Simon Greenleaf is known in a very narrow spectrum of educated Evangelicals/Fundamentalists ("E/F") is that he was a Harvard professor who supposedly set out to disprove the truth of the resurrection of Jesus but who, upon examining the evidence, came to believe the Gospel. For example, this linked website is typical of those which repeat the popular wisdom without any attribution or footnote. Another version of the story has it that Greenleaf was "challenged" by some of his students to study the Gospel narratives to see if they were true, that Greenleaf took the challenge and ended up believing the Gospel. Finally, it is claimed by many that he was also the founder or "one of the principal founders" of the Harvard Law School.
These are the kind of heart-warming stories, or interesting facts, that E/Fs love to narrate. It helps them make their point that brilliant people, if they really set their mind to looking at the "evidence" for and against Christianity, will end up converting to E/F Christianity every time. They (the E/Fs) need to try to find people in elite institutions in order to make these claims because none of the E/Fs ever end up in those institutions. Well, the only problem with respect to Greenleaf is that what they say is false. Let me just clear the decks of this falsity and then talk about an "agenda" for Greenleaf studies.
Some Facts about Greenleaf
The only thing that might be close to true about what some E/Fs say about Greenleaf is that he was a founder of the Harvard Law School. Not quite, but here is the story. The school was originally chartered in 1817 but really didn't get off the ground until they hired Joseph Story as the Dane Professor of Law in 1829. Story was a native of MA but had been serving on the US Supreme Court since Madison appointed him at the frightfully young age of 32 in 1811. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court term was quite short at that time, and Story would have some time to teach at Harvard as well as begin to churn out some of his remarkable collection of treatises on equity, the Constitution of the United States and other legal subjects. Story, however, was up to his neck with his other activities, and so he recommended hiring Simon Greenleaf as the Royall Professor of Law a few years later. Greenleaf had cut his teeth as an editor of the Supreme Judicial Court reports for the new State of Maine (statehood in 1820), and had put out nine volumes of cases from 1820-1831. As John G. Marvin, the most famous law bibliographer in early American history said about Greenleaf's Reports:
"In these Reports the statements of the Cases are condensed, yet clear, the arguments of counsel are arranged with logical exactness, and a well conceived brevity; yet they are allowed to be in substance given, and the actual questions before, and decided by the Court, are stated with accuracy in the head notes...in the legitimate execution of his duty, he has had no superior and but few equals." John G. Marvin, Legal Bibliography (1847); Reprinted 1953, at 348-49.
So, Story recommended Greenleaf to become a professor and the endowment from the Royall estate was used to fund his position. He started teaching at Harvard Law School in 1833 at age 50 and continued until his retirement late in the 1840s. It is true that he was probably the most significant figure in the day-to-day running of Harvard Law School in its first three decades. However, after Greenleaf's death in 1853, HLS fell on hard times, and really did not become the center of legal scholarship that later generations associate with the name until the deanship of Christopher Columbus Langdell (1870-1896). Langdell was hired by the brilliant young President of Harvard, William Eliot, and he completely transformed not only the way Harvard taught law but the nature of American legal education. That is another story, which I only hint at here. Thus, it is true that Greenleaf was one of the chief figures in the early days of Harvard Law School; it is not too much to say that he was the law school during Story's long periods of absence in the 1830s and 1840s.
It is not true, however, that Greenleaf set out to disprove the biblical testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus or that he was challenged by students to explore the historicity of the Gospel narratives regarding Jesus' death and resurrection. In fact, Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian, an Evangelical Episcopalian in the 19th century meaning of that term, who always was very involved in the life of his church and his diocese. He was active in the Massachusetts Bible Society; he wrote tracts for the American Tract Society; he was active in promoting theological education in the West (i.e., beyond the Appalachians); he drew up constitutions and bylaws for these schools; he was a leading force in the American Colonization Society, which was committed to repatriating American Blacks to Liberia as a way to "solve" the slavery problem. That is, Greenleaf was a powerful spokesman his entire adult life for themes, movements and concerns that motivated the 19th Century Evangelicals. Thus, there is no truth in the allegations of his "unbelief" or his willingness to take up a student challenge regarding the reliability of the Gospels. He was a faithful and true Episcopal laymen his entire adult life.
But I see I need one more essay to tell you why I think the study of Simon Greenleaf should be the concern of more people.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long