A while ago I wrote some lines on Twitter about germany’s youngest soldier to be killed in World War 1*. No one seemed to have heard about him. The same probably applies to Caspar René Gregory, its oldest volunteer. As he was a fascinating character I decided to write this short bio. I had to dive into some theological history to write it which was not easy at all (for me). Details on his military service (which is probably the part anyone will read, ignoring the rest) were far easier to find and evaluate.
*Next post here will be about him
“When England, mighty England, the country that had murdered Boer women and children, the country that bled India dry and left it starving, when this England declared war, I had no other choice than to take up arms against it“
Gregory was born in Philadelphia. His ancestors had been Huguenots, his grandfather had come to the New World following General Lafayette and had fought in the American War of Independence. After finishing school (a private school owned by his father), he studied theology at two Presbyterian seminaries: in 1865-67 at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton Theological Seminary (1867–73). In 1873, he decided to continue his studies at the University of Leipzig under Constantin von Tischendorf, to whose work on textual criticism of the New Testament he had been referred by his teacher, Ezra Abbot. He administered the scientific legacy of Tischendorf, who died in 1874, and continued his work.
In 1876, he obtained his PhD. with a dissertation on Gregorè the priest and the revolutionist. The first examiner for it was the historian, Georg Voigt. To earn money he worked as auxiliary to the english protestant community in Leipzig.
As a text critic, his scholarly work was in analyzing the textual variations in the many early manuscripts and early translations of the New Testament in an effort to recreate the original text. Working in a time when hundreds of manuscripts were being discovered, published, and analyzed, he brought a sense of order and structure to all the differing systems of identification. His classification system of these manuscripts (Die griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments, 1908) is the system in use throughout the scholarly world today.
Close to his interest in analyzing the text was his interest in understanding the history of the “canon,” the list of the books regarded as Scripture. In the early years of the Christian church, different regions preferred different collections of apostolic writings for their guidance and edification. Gradually the need for an authoritative list emerged. For centuries that list was only known from a letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, dating to 367. In 1740, however, Ludovico Antonio Muratori published a manuscript from the Ambrosian Library in Milan that included what has come to be called the Muratorian Canon. The list was thought to date from the second century, although that dating has been challenged. But the list is controversial. It includes the Gospels and many of the Epistles now in our Bible, but it does not mention Hebrews, James, or Peter and identifies two additional Epistles as being falsely attributed to Paul.
He completed his post-doctoral work in Leipzig in 1884, and became an associate professor in 1889 and a full honorary professor in 1891. He apparently had several doctorates: Karl Josef Friedrich even mentions five doctorates in his biography of Gregory. At least one doctorate in theology obtained in Leipzig in 1889 is attested.
Together with Rudolph Sohm and Friedrich Naumann he was one of the founders of the National-Social Association, a party based on the principle of Socialist Christianity. The party failed in the elections of 1898 and 1903 and was then dissolved into the Freeminded Union.
Gregory was also a member of the Sängerschaft Arion-Altpreußen (a german student corps) and a Mason (Apollo Lodge in Leipzig).
He loved travelling; in 1886 he travelled to Constantinopel for some theological studies. From there he journeyed back to the USA to marry Lucy Watson Thayer, the daughter of Joseph H. Thayer, during a brief stay of only five days.
One of the reasons he chose Leipzig as residence what its central position within Europe. From there he visited all european capitals and even travelled the Holy Land, which he crossed on a pilgrimage on foot! During these stays he always made brief trips back to germany to teach and to obtain further information for his research trips.
He loved the Germans (and the Saxons in particular) as they had welcomed him as one of their own and when in 1881 he became a german citizen he honored that by becoming more german than them. People loved him, as he was very courteous and full with american temperament and a winning personality. He was highly intelligent and tough, strengthening his body by regular, daily exercise.
His christian charity became legendary. Everyone in Leipzig knew him. He used to travel the city on foot greeting everyone. No matter if it was the poor beggar on the street corner or the rich merchant or industrialist. At one instance he helped a german farmer to catch dozens of escaped chicken all around Leipzig railway station. He kept offering advice and help to a student that mistook him for the library clerk without rectification and once paid the studying fees for a poor student whose family could not afford them anymore.
He was a humanist through and through. One of his goals what to unite the german labourers under a christian banner and to give them a sense of unity, nationality and importance. “It’s not 10.000 millionars that make germany strong and powerful, it’s the 60 Million hard-working german labourers.”
GERMANY’S OLDEST WARTIME VOLUNTEER
When War broke out in August 1914, the “American-German” Gregory was well-known and respected all over the world for his theological work, a prominent citizen of Leipzig and 67 years old.
It came as a surprise for many that he volunteered to go to war and joined the 1. Reserve-Batallion of Infanterie-Regiment “König Georg” No. 106 as a private on the 11th of August 1914! Asked for his reasons some years later he replied “I could not let them (the workers) go alone, could I? It was my social duty to join. I joined to help my neighbour who was now my comrade.”
He joined to defend germany, which in his view had been pushed into this war against its will, against the “English imperialism, Frenchmen and russian Zarism”. Even if he had a close personal relationship with Britain he wrote: “When England, mighty England, the country that had murdered Boer women and children, the country that bled India dry and left it starving, when this England declared war, I had no other choice than to take up arms against it”
The charming and ever smiling professor took part in the actual fighting. Always cared for and protected by his Saxonian comrades he bravely fought at Dinant, Somme-Py, Lille, Flanders, at the Champagne and Ypres.
KILLED FOR THE GERMAN CAUSE
Soon Gregory, now a Lieutenant, became famous in germany and his 70th Birthday was celebrated in big style. The Empire awarded him with the Iron Cross 2nd Class while the Kingdom of Saxony gave him the Friedrich-August-Medal in Silver.
On the 13th of October 1916 he was given the post of Burial Officer (officer in charge of military burials and cemetarys) of the 47th Landwehr-Division. His office was now situated in Neufchatel-sur-Aisne.
At the end of March 1917 Gregory had a riding accident when is horse had bolted and thrown him out of the saddle. Confined to bed he was unable to get himself to safety when the village was hit by an allied artillery strike on the 8th of April 1917. Severly wounded Gregory died, in the country of his ancestors, one day later.
A highly honored and interesting character. His memorial can be found in the city of Leipzig up to today.
- Ernst Barnikol (1966) (in German). “Gregory, Caspar René “. In Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). 7. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. pp. 27–29.
- Friedrich Wilhelm Bautz (1990). “Caspar René Gregory”. In Bautz, Friedrich Wilhelm (in German). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). 2. Hamm: Bautz. col. 344. ISBN 3-88309-032-8.
- Karl Josef Friedrich: Caspar Rene Gregory, in: Sächsische Lebensbilder, Vol. I, Dresden 1930, p. 125-131. (German)
- Ernst Jünger (Publ.): Caspar René Gregory, in: Die Unvergessenen. München 1928, p. 111ff. (German)
- Bruno Hartung: Caspar René Gregory, in: Das Jahr des Herrn: Kalender für die evangelischen Gemeinden Leipzigs 5. Jg. (1929), S. 36-38.