Ephraim Emerton

  • Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1882-1918)


Ephraim Emerton was born February 18, 1851, in Salem, Massachusetts, to James Emerton, an apothecary, and Martha West Emerton. After graduating from Harvard College in 1871, he worked as a reporter for the Boston Advertiser and then studied law, enrolling in the Boston University Law School in 1872. After a year of traveling in Europe, he enrolled in Leipzig University and studied under Theodor Mommsen and J. G. Droysen. His 1876 thesis Sir William Temple und die Tripleallianz vom jahre 1668, was published in 1877. He married Sibyl M. Clark in 1877.

At Harvard, he served as an Instructor in History and German from 1876 to 1878 and then as an Instructor in History from 1878 to 1882. He was elected in 1882 to be the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, the post he held until his retirement in 1918. In addition to textbooks, such as Medieval Europe, 814-1300, shown here, he wrote Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1899), Unitarian Thought (1911), The Defensor Pacis of Marsiglio of Padua (1920), and Humanism and Tyranny: Studies in the Italian Trecento (1925).

He was one of the founders of the American Historical Association, President of the American Society of Church History from 1920-1921, and President of the Cambridge Historical Society from 1921 to 1927.

He died in Cambridge on March 3, 1935.

His 1921 book Living and Learning: Academic Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) includes an essay "The Rational Education of the Modern Minister." This passage (pp. 271-272) reveals something about his own character and about his view of the ministry:

"That the institution of the Christian ministry is to go on and will try to do substantially the work it has always tried to do is here assumed, in spite of all prognostications to the contrary.  My own conviction on this point may be illustrated by an early experience.  A generation ago, when I was a young teacher of History in the university I was sudddenly offered the newly founded professorship of Church History in the Harvard Divinity School.  I was a layman, with only a very loose connection with a religious organization and I had made, up to that time, no detailed study of either the institutions or the doctrines of the historic Church.  In my preliminary conversation with President Eliot he asked me among other things what was my feeling in regard to the permanence of the ministerial profession.  In view of the obvious rivalries of the press, of charitable organization, of scientific study, of popular education, did I feel that the profession of the minister was worth maintaining in dignity and honor as a part of the function of a great university?  My reply was, thatI did not believe the time had come or was likely to come soon when the spoken word would lose its power over the minds of men.  If the Christian ministry under its present form should dis-appear tomorrow, under some other form it would reappear the day after to-morrow and would go on doing the same work it had always done."

Additional source of information:

American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.