William Dexter Wilson (1816-1900)

The article in the first number of “The Dial,” on Channing’s translation of the “Ethics” of Jouffroy, and that in the fourth number, on “The Unitarian Movement in New England,” were written by William Dexter Wilson, who had been a Unitarian minister for about two years, and who was about quitting that denominational connection. He was one of those persons attracted by the transcendental movement, but who never came into full sympathy with it. He saw that the development of the spiritual sense leads to an intuition of what must be, of the absolute and necessary; but his attitude seems to have been too theological and churchly for an active co-operation with the transcendentalists.

Wilson was born at Stoddard, N. H., February 28, 1816. He entered the Academy at Walpole in that State, in 1831, and soon became the assistant teacher in Mathematics in that institution. In 1835 he entered the Divinity School of Harvard University; from which he graduated in 1838. At this time he devoted much attention to French, German, Italian, Arabic, and Syriac. While preaching as a Unitarian minister, without settlement, he wrote the two articles in “The Dial,” the second one being a severe criticism of the theology of that denomination. All the writers for “The Dial” were connected with the Unitarians, and it indicates a most tolerant and generous spirit that such a criticism was given to the public in its pages. However, “The Dial” editors were not denominational Unitarians, and this because they accepted the spiritual philosophy.

In 1843 Wilson took orders in the Episcopal Church, and was settled at Sherburne, in Central New York. In 1848, he published a book on “The Church Identified,” which passed through several editions. He became the professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy in Geneva, now Hobart College, in the spring of 1850. While at Geneva he taught a small class of students in theology, and he also prepared an elementary work on Logic. For a greater part of the time of his connection with this college he was the acting president. On the opening of Cornell University, in 1868, he was selected for the chair of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, and he took an active part in the organization of the University, as well as in its administration. He held this position until 1886, after which he was an emeritus professor until his death in 1890.

In 1882 Wilson was the Paddock lecturer before the General Theological Seminary of New York City, and his lectures were published in a volume under the title of “Foundations of Religious Belief.” He also published “Lectures on Psychology, Comparative and Human,” 1871, and in revised and enlarged edition, 1880; “Text-book of Logic,” 1872; “Introduction to the Study of Metaphysics and the History of Philosophy,” 1872; “Live Questions in Psychology and Metaphysics,” 1877; “First Principles of Political Economy,” 1877; and other works of a similar character. He was also a contributor to “The Christian Examiner,” “True Catholic,”Church Review,” and “Church Eclectic.” He wrote several articles for “Appleton’s Cyclopedia” and the article on Logic in “Johnson’s Cyclopedia.” He was an active member of the University Convocation of the State of New York, and several of his papers read before it were published in its Proceedings.

Wilson took an active part in the councils of the church of which he was a member, and he held the highest offices in it except that of bishop. He was the senior vice-president of the American Church Congress, the presidency being held only by a bishop. In 1872 he was called to the presidency of one of the leading State Universities in the Northwest, but he declined the invitation. His taste was for metaphysics, and he was a successful lecturer in this and kindred departments. His philosophy was original and suggestive, and he elaborated a metaphysical system of his own, though it did not come into recognition outside his own immediate sphere of influence as a teacher.

—George Willis Cooke, A Historical
and Biographical Introduction to the Dial
(Cleveland: Rowfant Club, 1902) v. 2, pp. 51-53