A Eulogy for Jonathan Wood: Historian, Christian, Friend

BroadThis morning I had the opportunity to eulogize my friend Jonathan Wood.  Several of you in attendance this morning asked for a copy of my remarks.  I have included them below. (Parts of this eulogy were drawn from an earlier blog post commemorating Jonathan’s death.)

Eulogy, Jonathan Wood, April 29, 2017, Old Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Bridgeton, New Jersey.

On my first real “research trip” as a history graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I spent some time at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. As I perused the card catalog in the Department of Special Collections I came across a reference to the diary and writings of Philip Vickers Fithian.  I knew the name.  I had read part of the diary he had written in 1773 while serving as a tutor on a tobacco plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck.  But I had no idea that there was so much more to learn about this seemingly obscure character in the annals of American history.  I also had no idea that I would spend the next twelve years—years raising a young family with my wife, and starting a career as a college professor—trying to understand this 18th-century man and his place in the ever-changing world of revolutionary America.

I  finished the dissertation and eventually published a biography of Fithian titled The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It was the story of man who lived in two worlds. On the one hand, Philip was an educated gentleman.  He loved to travel (although, unlike Jonathan Wood, he never made it to Germany or Japan or Africa). He loved to learn new things (he was, after all, the graduate of an Ivy League institution–just like Jonathan). He read great books. And he loved to have deep and meaningful conversations about ideas that mattered.  All of these attributes made him a cosmopolitan–a citizen of the world.

On the other hand, Philip was a man committed to his Presbyterian faith—a faith that was nurtured in the soil of what he always referred to as his “beloved Cohansey.” Philip had a deep connection to his homeland.  He knew the rhythms of everyday life in this place. He understood its history and was eager to tell others about it. When he answered his country’s call to serve in the American Revolution he did so gladly, as both a citizen of a new nation built on the radical ideas of liberty and natural rights and as proud inhabitant of a local place—the small communities of Cumberland County nestled along the Cohansey River that he knew so well.

At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to talk to Jonathan Wood, one of the officers of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich.  I was born and raised in Morris County, New Jersey, but, to be honest, I had to check the map to see where Cumberland County was located, as I had never been to this part of the state.  I corresponded with Jonathan for several months before finally driving to Greenwich to meet him. I recall it was a crisp Fall weekday in 1996.  I was there to pick his brain about local history.  Jonathan, as always, was ever-gracious.  We got in his Buick and he drove me around town, telling me about his career as a history teacher in Millville, his family history (Jonathan always made it clear that he was NOT from the Wood family that founded WAWA convenience stores), and, of course, the history of what I was soon realizing was also his “belov-ed Cohansey.”

We hit it off immediately.  Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian.  He quoted passages from Fithian’s diary at the drop of a hat. He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich, Bridgeton, and the surrounding townships.

I think he saw me as a kindred spirit.  There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level. As we said goodbye at the end of that day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes.  At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student in search of a dissertation topic. But as I got to know Jonathan I realized that he saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see.  And I am glad he did.

We stayed in touch. At least once a month during this period I would go to the mailbox to find a manila envelope, usually bursting at the seams, filled with materials that he thought might be useful to my book project.  I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project.  I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We continued to walk the grounds of his “beloved Cohansey.” He knew the historical value of such a practice and how important it was for making sense of the lost early American world that we were both trying to uncover and explain.  Eventually I began to see this place through his eyes. And as I began to see this place through his eyes, I began to simultaneously see this place through the eyes of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Jonathan taught me well.

After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008, Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters.  He liked the book, but he also thought that there were a few small dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong.  I always pushed back at his constructive criticism.  He rarely backed down.  Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation.

Whenever I returned to Greenwich he always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville.  We stayed up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, our shared Christian faith, and the many books stacked-up next to his reading chair.   He would always have a hand-written list of things that he needed to talk with me about, and sometimes lecture me about.  He filled the guestroom with early American history books from his personal collection. In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the Lummis Library for the day.

I remember during one visit Jonathan told me about a book he was reading called Amish Grace. It was the story of the 2006 shooting in a one room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. (Perhaps some of you remember this).  The focus of the book was the power of forgiveness.  Jonathan was greatly moved by the story of the way the people of the Amish community, as a practical way of exercising their Christian faith, offered forgiveness to the shooter who took five of their children that day.  I remember talking about the incident with Jonathan and at one point in the conversation he paused for about 30 seconds. His mind had clearly drifted away in a moment of reflection.  After this period of silence he turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, pointed to the cover of the book, and said “John, now that is true Christianity.”

I stayed in touch sporadically with Jonathan over the years and made several more visits to Greenwich, often bringing students to help with research. I chronicled some of that history in the blog post that has been circulating. I know some of you have read it.

I had not seen Jonathan in several years when I learned of his passing.  I did not know he had been sick.  It is one of my great regrets that I did not get a chance to say goodbye.  I did not know him as well as most others in this room today, but his friendship toward me, and the things he taught me about how to be a Christian and a historian, I continue to take with me in my work.

Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a man of deep faith, and, at least from my point of view, the heart and soul of the local history community here in his beloved Cohansey.  If you are part of that community I hope that you see the magnitude of what you have lost.  Today we celebrate one of your wise men.  Jonathan was a seemingly endless source of wisdom who has challenged you, in a quiet and humble way, to see that society cannot move forward without first looking back.  We need more of this kind of thinking.

I am sure Jonathan is absolutely thrilled that we are in Old Broad Street Church today. This is the place where his passion for his Lord met his passion for local religious history. Actually, I am a little bit jealous of him right now.  He is probably watching this service with his good friends Ebenezer Elmer, Jonathan Elmer, Judge Lucius Q.C. Elmer, Rev. William Ramsey, Rev. Enoch Green, Rev. Andrew Hunter, Andrew Hunter Jr., Elizabeth Beatty, and the rest of the eighteenth-century Cohansey Presbyterians—the people he spent most of life getting to know. Right now he is having the kind of reunion that historians dream about.  And I have no doubt he has already had multiple meals with Philip Vickers Fithian.  I can almost picture him leaning over the table, grilling Fithian with questions and getting the answers he has been long awaiting.

Jonathan Wood’s way of improvement has finally led him home.

Rest in peace my good friend.

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