The Life of William Young

William Young, a native of Brooklyn, New York, was born to William Young, Senior and Miriam Combs Barrus Young on May 9, 1918. William Young, Senior was a US Navy veteran and Miriam was a homemaker. William Young, Junior was the eldest of four children, having had two sisters—Elizabeth “Tootie” Young Cicero, Miriam Young, and a brother—Robert.

       Growing up in Brooklyn, he matriculated through the New York public school system. He attended and graduated from John Adams High School, where he excelled academically. Beginning on August 13, 1932, when Young was only fourteen years old, he began keeping a journal in which he recorded his thoughts on religion almost exclusively of any other subject. In his opening remarks Young wrote:

With God there is no sadness. The only true consolation for our so-called griefs is found in the word of God. How wonderful it would be if each one of us could say as Christ said, “I have overcome the world.” To overcome the world ought to be the height of every man’s and woman’s ambition. Then there can be no misery but only joy in the truth of Christ.

       Some of his journal entries suggest that, like Martin Luther, he was pre-occupied with his own sense of guilt—feeling entrapped in sin. On October 27, 1932, Young wrote, “I have gone through the most horrible and greatest experience of my life. I have repented of my sin. I have at last come to my Lord and master, never, no never to depart from him.”  On November 12, he wrote, “I am an evil sinner. God, as a true father, gave me all the blessings of his truth, life, and love. I sinned and departed from him. May he be merciful to me.” Later, he wrote, “I have broken the least commandment of Christ and I realize that I am least in the Kingdom of heaven.”

       On November 19, 1932, Young wrote: “From this moment I shall follow Christ, my savior. He is with me and is ready to guide me along the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life.  He is the Truth.” Comments like these appear throughout his journal, showing him to be a youth of extraordinary depth in matters of spirituality. Nearly all his comments concerned the seriousness of sin and the consequences of a condemned life without divine forgiveness.

Young's Journal

Young’s career in higher education

       Following his years in secondary education Young first matriculated through Columbia University in his native New York City. Correspondence indicates that, as a graduate of a public high school in New York City, Young was eligible for (and received) a Pulitzer Free Scholarship to fund his entire under-graduate education, which he started in the fall of 1934. The curriculum that he pursued was a liberal arts education, as his collected papers indicate that he took coursework in astronomy, English, French, geometry, German, Greek, Greek classics, history, hygiene, logic, Latin, mathematics, music, philosophy, and psychology. Young graduated from Columbia in June of 1938, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, with honors in Greek, Latin and philosophy.

       In extra-curricular activities, The Columbian annual yearbook cites that Young was the President of the Columbia Chapter of the League of Evangelical Students, an organization that was founded in 1925. Young’s collected papers contain two folders of material generated as the result of his involvement with the LES, and these include a wide variety of materials, such as correspondence, brochures, and tracts, as well as papers concerning the organization of conferences, programs and summer camps for LES members.

       Some of the brochures in these files pertain to the conflict between Modernists and Fundamentalists among Christians. At least early as 1937, Young was well-informed about the growing rift between these two factions that were dividing Christians in America.

       An item of singular importance found in Young’s collected papers are four pages of notes, handwritten, front-and-back on two sheets, on which Young outlined the historical background of the division that was then taking place between conservative Fundamentalists and a new cadre of liberal “Modernists” within the PCUSA. Young compiled these notes on May 31, 1936, when he was mid-way through his matriculation at Columbia University. These notes indicate that he was thoroughly knowledgeable of this growing schism that was taking place. In addition, he leaves no question as to his position on the issue—he entirely sided with the Fundamentalists and considered the Modernists to be (at best) apostates.

Young's Notes on Modernists and Fundamentalists

       Young started corresponding with officials at Westminster Theological Seminary as early as 1935. He seems to have developed an interest in this institution, as he followed the conflict between Modernists and Fundamentalists within the PCUSA. Also apparent is Young’s growing admiration for Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the leading founder of this new seminary. Young’s collected papers contain correspondence not only with Dr. Machen, but also with Paul Woolley and Cornelius Van Til—two other prominent officials and professors at WTS. This correspondence indicates that Young was interested in acquiring brochures, booklets and pamphlets written by Machen. These included The Attack Upon Princeton Seminary: a Plea for Fair Play, and Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, as well as other printed materials that concerned Presbyterian polity.  

       In addition to his correspondence with Young, Machen also sent brochures and printed sermons —these being The Separateness of the Church (1925), The Parting of the Ways (ca. 1925), and Fight the Good Fight (1929). In each of these writings, Machen always wrote his refrain about the essential importance of maintaining a Christian doctrine that is faithful and true to the Holy Scriptures, and even breaking away from churches or seminaries that are not dedicated to this faithfulness.

       As an enthusiastic and committed Christian, Young felt called to ministry, and with opinions like his, it is only natural that Young should apply for admission to WTS within a few years’ time. Though Young’s correspondence with officials at WTS during a time that transcended the death of Machen, nothing in the Young papers tell us how Machen’s death affected him—though it must have weighed heavily on his heart. Following his graduation from Columbia in 1938, Young moved to Philadelphia to begin his matriculation at WTS. Young’s studies there were comprehensive in scope, and it seems that he obtained an outstanding education during his time there. Young received his Th.B. and Th.M. degree from WTS in 1941.  

       An event of major importance to Young’s life and career during his time at UTS was his ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—a milestone that took place on October 8, 1942. The OPC Presbytery of New York and New England conducted a special meeting to discuss Young’s candidacy for ordination, as well as an ordination service for him. The scanned minutes of the Presbytery meeting, shown here, indicate that Mr. John Rankin, Dr. John Murray, Mr. John Skilton, Mr. Bruce Coie, Dr. Edmund Clowney, Ruling Elder Robert Wallace, and Mr. David Freeman participated in Young’s ordination service.  

       Following his graduation from WTS, Young returned to the city of his birth to pursue a ThD degree from Union Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, Young’s collected papers only contain a very small assortment of materials documenting his time there. A précis of his doctoral dissertation indicates that he was interested in Dutch Calvinism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as his dissertation was entitled "The Development of a Protestant Philosophy in Dutch Calvinistic Thought Since the Time of Abraham Kuyper." It was at UTS where William Young became Doctor William Young, when he completed the requirements for a ThD degree in 1944. Dr. Young did take additional steps to further his education—at Oxford University, but at a much later date.

Young’s career and calling following his formal education

       The Young collection contains little information concerning World War II, and the fact that Young never served in any branch of the US military must have been due to his enrollment in divinity school—he must have had a ministerial deferment—though his papers do not include such a document. There is not enough material here for us to conclude what Young’s position was concerning military service, though he may have been a conscientious objector. This may strike the observer as odd, considering that his father had a career in the Navy and Presbyterians are not normally known to embrace pacificism. It is also noteworthy that Young never took any courses on chaplaincy during any of his years of formal education. The Young collection does contain a permit from the United States Selective Service allowing Dr. Young to depart from the United States for Canada and is dated April 2, 1945. Among other things, this permit gives us information on the physical description of William Young—most notably, he was a diminutive five feet, three and a half inches tall.

       After graduating from UTS, Young received an invitation from the leadership of Bloor East Presbyterian Church, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to serve as a guest pastor on several occasions. Dr. Young traveled to Toronto to supply the pulpit for several Sundays in the summer of 1945. One of his personal connections at BEPC was a woman named Ruth Campbell. Young was acquainted with Miss Campbell at least as early as 1941, and on a few occasions, it was Campbell who wrote to Young on behalf of the BEPC, extending invitations to supply their pulpit at times when there was no one else available to preach. On April 4, 1944, Miss Campbell wrote to Young, stating,

I am authorized by the Supply Committee at Bloor to write and ask if you could come as Supply for the month of May. Nothing has been decided yet for the summer months. If you are free to consider remaining for the rest of the summer, you might say so when you write. It may be possible to make arrangements before you come. In any case let us know about May.

According to “A History of the Presbyterian Reformed Church” by Sherman Isbell, Rev. Young was the stated supply at BEPC from 1944 to 1946.

       Having left his pastoral call at Bloor East Presbyterian Church, Dr. Young transitioned to a teaching career starting in 1947. Dr. Young received an offer to fill a faculty position as an assistant professor of philosophy at Butler University in Indianapolis, where he remained until 1954. Unfortunately, Young’s collected papers contain only a few folders of material concerning his time at Butler University, and those are rather sketchy.  

       Young moved to Jackson, Mississippi to teach in the 1956-57 academic year with a contract to teach philosophy and psychology at Belhaven College. Belhaven College (now Belhaven University) has a long Presbyterian history, which must have been what attracted Dr. Young to seek employment there. Unfortunately, like the documented record of Young’s time at Butler University, there are just a few folders of materials that document his time at Belhaven, and these provide little information about his activities while he was there.

A return to formal education

       Following his one-year teaching stint at Belhaven, and a brief period of time preaching at BEPC, Dr. Young took a sabbatical to pursue a PhD at Merton College, Oxford University, starting in the fall of 1957. While there he attended courses and wrote a proposal for a doctoral thesis concerning the origins of G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical methods.

       On May 6, 1960, when Young was living in Oxford, Dr. Francis H. Horn, President of the University of Rhode Island, wrote to Young informing him that the Board of Trustees had approved his application for a teaching position in philosophy at URI. It seems that he had reached a point in his doctoral research where he could work from home, rather than at Oxford—though he did periodically return to Oxford to stay in touch with his review committee and to do research.  

       Young submitted his thesis for review to his committee late in 1964. A letter from Dr. Ron Hane, dated December 16, 1964, explained the committee’s decision concerning the fate of his thesis and that it did not fulfill all the requirements expected of a PhD candidate. Young must have been terribly disappointed not to have earned that coveted doctoral degree from one of the world’s most acclaimed universities—especially considering that this goal was so close at hand.  

Back in Rhode Island

       In the 1960s the Christian Association at the University of Rhode Island had a strong and thriving membership. This organization had twenty-seven members on its advisory board, some of whom were on the URI faculty. Moreover, it offered a wide range of programs and services, including Sunday evening discussions, regional and national conferences, study groups, orientation to seminary, its own library, Sunday morning worship, personal counseling, non-credit Biblical courses, marriage preparation counseling, and more. This dynamic program would be a natural attraction for Dr. Young. Though the courses that Dr. Young taught included such things as classical philosophy (Ancient Philosophy, Logic, Advanced Logic, and Symbolic Logic), he also taught courses on Christian aspects of philosophy—Christian Ethics, Church History and Philosophy of Religion. Young remained at URI until his retirement in 1988. During his time there he attained the faculty rank of associate professor, and he was awarded emeritus status when he retired.  

Young and the Presbyterian Reformed Church

       In a letter dated January 23, 1976, William Mattheson, the Clerk of the Session of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, wrote to Dr. Young saying, “This letter is to confirm the information given by telephone on December 27, 1975, advising that on that date the Presbytery of the Presbyterian Reformed Church unanimously agreed to extend … an invitation to consider joining our Presbytery as a ministerial member.” Dr. Young continued in his role as the stated supply of the Presbyterian Church of Rhode Island in East Greenwich until 1995.  

       Young’s collected papers contain hundreds of letters that he received from his associates in the Presbyterian Reformed Church, and they pertain to all matters of denominational administration, such as the ordination or calling of new pastors, meetings of the Presbytery, supplying pulpits during the absence of the usual pastors, planting new PRC churches, the possibility of accepting congregations from other branches of the Presbyterian denomination into the PRC, the nomination of elders or deacons in one or another congregation, the occasional disciplinary action taken against members or pastors who had violated the PRC constitution, committee assignments, and personal matters concerning various church members.  

        He was also interested in, and to some extent interacted with other branches of the Presbyterian denomination, and his collected papers contain documentation from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the PCUSA, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, in addition to the Presbyterian Reformed Church.  He also supported Christian missionary efforts in Korea and Japan. Though he was deeply involved in Presbyterianism in a variety of ways over many years, it was his pastoral call at the Rhode Island Presbyterian Church (a congregation in the Presbyterian Reformed Church) were he made his biggest contribution, as its stated supply for fourteen years. Toward the end of his life his eyesight diminished to the point of blindness, though his friends attest that he remained mentally sharp.  Dr. Young died in Kingston, Rhode Island in 2015 at the age of 97.

Young in his later years

Young’s diverse interests

       Like the company a man keeps, a lot can be determined by the materials that he accumulated over the course of his life.  A series in the Young collection entitled “Subject File” provides not just a glimpse of this man, but an in-depth view of his interests, opinions, and values. There are more than seventy folders in the Subject File, concerning everything from A to W (from Abortion to Women in the Church).  Most of the subject materials he gathered concerned religion—Christianity, and Calvinism in particular—as well as moral and political issues, such as communism, feminism, marriage, Mormonism, prostitution, the Viet Nam War, wine and Christianity, and much more. One of Dr. Young’s greatest interests was the philosophy of Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher who lived from 1889 to 1951.  Wittgenstein’s interests were in logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, and mathematics.  Dr. Young wrote a monograph on the celebrated philosopher for the Modern Thinkers Series.

Young, the joiner

       Young was someone who could easily be described as a “joiner.” His collected papers contain files on some eighty different organizations with which he had some sort of affiliation, and though he did not join all of them, he did join many of them. A fact that may enter into Young’s prolific joining may have been the fact that he never married, and joining organizations likely fulfilled his need for social connection. If it is possible to surmise a man’s values by the company he keeps, it is easy to see that Young was someone who was an accomplished academic (especially in philosophy), as well as a devoted and conservative Christian and Presbyterian.

Young’s writings

       As revealing as these subject files are, even more revealing are the things he wrote, and his collected papers contain a cornucopia of written material on a wide range of issues. To say that Dr. Young was a prolific writer would be an understatement. Dr. Young was someone who was constantly writing notes on one or another aspect of theology or philosophy, and this collection contains folder after folder of papers in his handwriting on these matters. His mind must have been perpetually ruminating on matters philosophy and theology. Some of his monographs bear indications that he was writing late at night or during the very early morning hours. His papers contain seventeen folders of manuscripts for articles, eleven book manuscripts, and two folders for brochures he wrote. The Young collection also contain folders containing over ninety essays—essays which he may have transformed into articles, lectures, or sermons at a later date.  Though Young spent many years teaching in higher education and must have written hundreds of lectures, his collected papers contain only five written lectures.  He also wrote notes for prayer meetings, one folder of which survives. His papers contain two folders of written public addresses, and sixteen book reviews. As a pastor or pulpit supply for several decades, his papers include forty-eight folders containing hundreds of his sermons.

Robert is the Research and Archives Services Librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary's Montgomery Library

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