Matthew Simpson, 1839-1848
DePauw's First President
The first president of Indiana Asbury University, Matthew Simpson, was born in 1811 in Cadiz, Ohio, where Bishop Francis Asbury himself baptized him while on one of his western journeys. Largely self-educated, young Simpson had taught briefly in a local academy, been admitted to the practice of medicine in his native state, and been ordained into the Methodist ministry, preaching in a small church in Pittsburgh. Deciding to enroll in Allegheny College in 1837, he found himself the recipient of an honorary A.M. degree from the institution and was invited to join the faculty rather than the student body!
After two years teaching mathematics and natural science there, he accepted the Asbury presidency in early 1839. At first he taught everything except Greek and Latin while holding the chair of mathematics. Transferring later to the professorship of mental and moral philosophy, he assumed responsibility for that important subject, along with natural theology and "Christian evidences," considered the capstone of the college course and taught by all succeeding presidents for most of the rest of the century.
Like many American college presidents of his time, Simpson combined piety with an innate scholarship despite his lack of formal training. A good speaker with an ingratiating manner, he pleased the entire university constituency during his nine-year tenure. Cyrus Nutt, Asbury's first professor, wrote this in his diary about President Simpson:
The first president, M. Simpson was a man of singular ability in many respects. He was exceedingly popular with both the students and people. He was affable and exceedingly kind in address and conversation, and seldom failed to make a favorable impression upon everyone with whom he conversed. Possessed of some wit, and a smattering of all kinds of learning, and even deeply versed in intellectual science and moral Philosophy, he appeared to advantage in conversation. The elements of popularity were abundant in him. He was emphatically one of the people.... The greatest artlessness and simplicity, with the appearance of great humility were manifest in his deportment.
His pulpit ministration was another source of his great popularity with the masses. A ready utterance in a musical and attractive voice, vividness of fancy, aptness of illustration, and great fervency and glow of feeling, captivated his audience which were always tremendous, when it was known that he was going to preach. His sermons were mostly descriptive. It was seldom that he attempted an argumentative discourse.
By 1848 the infant university was well established, and President Simpson, in somewhat declining health and looking for a less strenuous post, went to Cincinnati to become editor of the Western Christian Advocate. Four years later he was elected a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In that office he soon became an influential national Protestant leader and confidant of Abraham Lincoln, giving one of the funeral addresses for the fallen President.