John F. Wilson

April 1, 1933 ~ October 5, 2023 (age 90) 90 Years Old

John F. Wilson Obituary

John F. Wilson (90) of Peterborough, NH, died on Thursday, October 5, 2023, when COVID rapidly overwhelmed his precarious health.

Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1933 to Esther Gregory and Frederick Colburn Wilson, John spent his youth exploring the parsonage of the First Congregational Church where his father was the minister, and it was rumored that pirates had buried treasure. He learned woodworking skills from a local craftsman and helped his father identify planes during WWII, among other adventures. After graduating from Mount Herman School, he attended Harvard College, where John met Ruth Alden Cooke. The two married between final exams and their graduation in 1954.

After earning his doctoral degree from Union Theological Seminary, John joined the Princeton University faculty in 1960, where he remained until his retirement in 2003. A historian of American religious history, John pursued scholarly work focused primarily on the relationship between church and state in America. His publications include Public Religion in American Culture, a critical edition of Jonathan Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption, The Study of Religion in American Universities and Colleges, and Religion and the American Nation. He developed and was the director of the Princeton Project on Church and State and was president of the American Society of Church History. Within his academic field, John is remembered as a quiet but forceful presence. He served as an exemplary mentor to many doctoral students and young scholars.

In addition to producing scholarly work in his field, John spent countless hours serving Princeton University as a whole and the broader academic community. He was instrumental in developing the university’s residential college system and served as Dean of the Graduate School until he retired. He also served on the boards of Northfield Mount Hermon School, Union Theological Seminary, and Educational Testing Service. One of his graduate students observed that John’s four-decade career provides eloquent illustration for the maxim that there is no limit to what one person can accomplish if they don’t care who receives the credit.

Along the way, John and Ruth raised four children: Abigail, Nathaniel, Johanna, and Jeremy; they have 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

In spare time, John loved to tackle challenging electrical or plumbing projects and any number of other household problems. New wasn’t better. A solution could be conceived and built with materials found in the garage or basement—which were always packed with things that may be useful some day! John was also the family navigator. From memory, he could recite the directions one should take and what lane to be in before taking an exit. He also maintained a vast collection of old-fashioned road maps; his children didn’t need AAA or Google maps, they had John.

In 2009, John and Ruth moved to RiverMead in Peterborough, where John made many close friendships and involved himself in several committees.  He also served on the boards of the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music and Peterborough Players, and enjoyed visiting his lake home, doing projects, and engaging with his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

The family is planning a celebration of his life in spring or summer 2024.


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