W. H. McGuffey

McGuffey: The Man
William Holmes McGuffey 

Professor William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey, son of Alexander and Anna Holmes McGuffey, was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1800. His father, Alexander, had been a brave and resourceful soldier and frontiersman. In 1802, Alexander brought his family to Trumbull County, Ohio, and settled in the Western Reserve. The McGuffeys were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, a sect that believed in education. Anna McGuffey, praying for her son William to become a preacher, taught him his first lessons. When he was older, he went to Youngstown, where he acquired some knowledge of elementary surveying and mathematics, and began the study of the Latin language.

The Reverend Thomas E. Hughs while traveling about the country, discovered this intelligent boy who earnestly desired an education. He took the lad into his own house at Darlington, where he could attend the "Old Stone Academy." To earn his board and room, young McGuffey worked in the house, did outdoor chores, and took care of Reverend Hughs' church. The meals the family shared with him were simple. For breakfast there was bread and butter with coffee; for dinner, meat and potatoes; for supper, milk and bread. At the academy he learned the facts that would enable him to pass the required examinations for teachers, at the same time learning enough Latin to enter college. At the age of fourteen, he taught his first school, receiving $80 for a four month term. 

From 1820 to 1825 McGuffey attended Washington College. His funds ran so low that he had to leave school before graduation to open a private school in a smokehouse at Paris, Kentucky. Washington College, however, graduated him with honors in 1826. He was then considered qualified to teach moral philosophy and the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages.

McGuffey Arrives in Oxford

Robert Hamilton Bishop, President of Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, met the young teacher in Paris, and was so pleased with him that he recommended him to his Board of Trustees as a professor of languages. The following fall, William H. McGuffey, accompanied by his ten-year-old brother Alexander, rode into Oxford with his saddlebags stuffed with personal copies of books on moral philosophy and the languages he expected to teach.

The new professor was of medium stature, with a compact body, swarthy complexion, dark, coarse hair, blue eyes, his face plainly showing his rugged Scottish ancestry. He had a wide mouth, prominent nose, and high broad forehead. For many years he wore knee breeches, black silk stockings, and low shoes with gleaming silver buckles. An immaculate white linen collar folded over an ample black silk stock. While his contemporaries still clung to their hats of honest beaver fur, McGuffey wore the new-fashioned stovepipe hat of silk.

At Miami, the professors took turns at preaching in the college chapel on the Sabbath. Some of them, on their free Sundays, preached in country churches. In 1829 McGuffey was ordained to the ministry by the Oxford Presbytery at Bethel Church on Indian Creek, near the small village of Millville. The Rev. Thomas preached the sermon, and President Bishop of Miami gave the charge. McGuffey had been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Oxford since September 9, 1826.

McGuffey always told his students that country preaching was the best of training. It was in the country churches that he improved extemporaneous speaking and learned to put his ideas into simple words that even the illiterate could understand. While preaching at nearby Darrtown, he ran into trouble. A committee waited upon him to say that they liked his preaching but thought he was too stylish. He drove a horse and carriage, they said, and wore a silk coat. The suave professor showed them his "silk coat", proving that it was not made of silk, but of cheap shiny bombazine. He further convinced them that he needed his equipage. Without Charlie, his horse, and the carriage, his wife, being in delicate health, could not attend church at Darrtown with him. The committee retired discomfited and ashamed.

Text by Dr. William E. Smith, 1973

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