Northwestern, like many religiously affiliated schools of the 19th century, frequently turned to the ordained ministry when appointing senior administrators. Randolph Sinks Foster, a respected pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, served the young University only briefly but, through his skill as an eloquent and admired orator, solidified Northwestern's position as a principal institution within Methodism.
Foster was born February 22, 1820, the son of devout, prosperous Methodist parents, in the river town of Williamsburg, Ohio. He attended Augusta College in Kentucky, a Methodist institution and a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment within the region. Unlike any other Northwestern president, Foster never received an undergraduate degree. He left Augusta to accept—while still a teenager—his first ministerial appointment. Foster served pastorates in Kentucky and Ohio and made a name for himself as a revival speaker and through the publication of theological texts written in defense of his faith and his denomination.
Foster's skills did not go undiscovered outside of the old Northwest and upper South. In 1850 he moved to New York City and took over the pulpit of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church. He held church appointments in metropolitan New York before election to the presidency of Northwestern University in June, 1856. Northwestern's Board of Trustees granted Foster a leave of absence from the presidency in 1856-1857 so he could continue his ministerial duties in New York, and his formal inauguration as University president was held June 18, 1857. At Northwestern Foster took particular interest in the establishment of a library. He requested that the salary accrued during his leave be applied to the purchase of books. At a time when some areas of scientific inquiry were feared as inimical to religious dogma, Foster—confident in his faith—pressed the University to acquire needed scientific apparatus and to establish a natural history museum.
Foster's orations were noted for both their erudition and emotional power. He possessed an open, engaging personality that won friends for himself and for the University. Unfortunately, he was considered to be impractical in business matters, surely a handicap, and had little interest in the routine affairs of administration. Foster resigned the Northwestern presidency to return to the pulpit, at the Washington Square Methodist Church of New York. He held other positions within his denomination and in 1868 accepted a professorship of systematic theology at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. Foster took over the presidency of Drew in 1870 and remained there until 1972, when elected to the episcopacy of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Foster and his wife, Sarah (Miley) Foster, had several children. He died May 1, 1903, at Newton, Massachusetts. Northwestern's Foster House residence is named in his memory.
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