Dr. Howland Hanson – A Journey of Faith

I recently wrote an article about my great-grandfather, Dr. Howland Hanson. The article first appeared in the June 13, 2018 issue of Faith On Every Corner. His story is one of great faith and a life well lived. I hope that you will enjoy it and be blessed by it.

A Journey of Faith – Dr. Howland Hanson  1862-1936 

By Craig Ruhl

My paternal great-grandfather was Dr. Howland Hanson, a Baptist minister, and educator. He died before I was born and although I have no memory of him, I have come to know him well.  My father often spoke about his fond memories of his grandfather and that piqued my interest in learning more about him. I am blessed to have his autobiography that my father passed on to me. I also remember my grandmother, my father’s mother, telling me stories of her dad and growing up as the only child in a minister’s family. My grandmother was quite a handful and must have given my great-grandfather fits raising her.

Howland was born in 1862 to Martha Jane Howland Hanson and Frederick G. Hanson in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The house they lived in at that time was the Howland home owned by his mother’s family. Howland’s mother traced her lineage to the Pilgrims John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. Presumably, that is why he was given the name Howland.

When he was only 6 years old and now living in New York City, his father died leaving his mother solely responsible for the care and raising of Howland and his younger brother and sister. In his biography, he tells of how this was a particularly stressful and challenging time for the family. He made matters worse by getting into trouble by hanging out with a local street gang. His mother stepped in and sent him back to New Jersey where for 5 months he lived with a farmer. He wrote of his being homesick and running away to an uncle’s home, during a blinding snowstorm, wandering for over 10 hours, and navigating roads hidden by snowdrifts. He was back among the Howlands and welcomed. After living at his uncle’s home, he moved in with a cousin. During his youth, he worked at many jobs, from chores on the farm to hiring out to a truck farmer in the summer and a dump-cart driver the remainder of the year. Howland’s autobiography tells that these were years when he had good food to eat without begging for it, a real bed without livestock in it, rural school, and Sunday worship. This period in his life was not without problems. He was kicked in the face by a horse which broke cheekbones, cut nerves and muscles, leaving him with a hideous scar the rest of his life. He had numerous subsequent operations to rectify the first, but the pains, humiliations over disfigurement, and a sense of shame annoyed him the rest of his life.

In 1878, when he was sixteen, his mother and sister could no longer take care of themselves. Young Howland took the responsibility upon himself to be the family breadwinner. He rented a small house on a large lot in New Jersey. His cousin gave them a pig, a few chickens, and a sack of corn. This was the first time the Hanson family had been together for many years. It was also the first time his mother and sister had lived outside of tenements. Work was not easy for Howland to find but he was fortunate to meet the man who was the original owner of the land where Asbury Park, New Jersey was founded. His new employment consisted of cutting roads through the trees, grading streets, laying sewer pipe, and general labor. His work days were 10 hours of hard labor and a 6-mile trek to and from home. His earning for 60 hours of work each week amounted to $9.00, which was handed over to his mother each Saturday evening. Before long, the family moved to a new home that Howland built himself on a much larger lot, financed by his uncle.

The family started to flourish and gave thanks for the difference from the days in the filthy tenements, where they almost starved and constantly faced eviction and life on the streets. During this time, the family also grew socially. Howland became interested in church meetings being held in private homes. It was during these meetings that his future was cast. Howland had developed a love of public speaking and began to participate in the meetings. Not long after, he became a member of the First Baptist Church in Asbury Park. The minister and the deacons of the church took an active interest in Howland and encouraged him in his speaking. He was an ardent supporter of prohibition and spoke on the subject often. His uncle and cousin, also prohibitionists, encouraged him to go to school and study for the ministry. Problems loomed in his mind.

Who would pay the mortgage? Who would pay for the school? He had not even completed the lowest of grades and the family was illiterate. His uncle said he would just let the mortgage “ride” and the New Jersey Baptist Educational Society agreed to underwrite the schooling, room, and board. The community promised to take care of his mother and sister. Promises were made, but no one foresaw the difficulties ahead. It was about 1880 when Howland left home to seek knowledge and to become a minister. He thought that he would study Hebrew, Greek, Latin, which the ministers referred to. Instead, at his first school, he studied writing, reading, spelling, and arithmetic. He remembered that time as being a bit embarrassing since he was a full grown man learning with children. During this time, he worked at menial jobs around the school and sent the small earnings home to his family. Four years quickly passed and then he moved on to Princeton. Howland’s memories of school there were very pleasant. In 1892, he graduated from Princeton as the class orator having won numerous debates. During this time, he often clashed in a debate with a classmate who would become President of Princeton University. A side note here, I have one of his pocket watches which has the Debate Society key attached to the fob chain. During his time at university, he was called to the First Baptist Church in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. He would visit his parish on weekends and during vacations with the church paying him $15.00 per week and members of the church providing food and lodging while he was there.

In 1893, Howland moved to Chicago, Illinois and enrolled at the newly opened University of Chicago. While there, he studied and played football and baseball under Amos Alonzo Stagg, a sports icon and also a devout Christian. It was during this time that he also met and wed Sara Whited. Together they continued to serve their church and community. Howland was hired for a preaching position at a church in Savanna, Illinois.  The couple moved to the west side of Chicago to lessen the traveling distance to the university. In 1895, the Hansons were blessed with the birth of my grandmother, Hope. Howland recalls in his autobiography how special his relationship with Hope was. He called her the “Best Pal of my life.” I remember how fondly my grandmother spoke of her father.

Howland’s first full pastorate began in Beloit, Wisconsin at the First Baptist Church. It was an old, well-established church with a lively and friendly congregation. The Hansons loved this period in their lives and many long-lasting friendships were formed. In 1905, it was on to a new ministry at First Baptist Church in  Des Moines, Iowa. He called it the most delightful field of his Baptist ministry. Howland pastored that church for fifteen years. During that time, he often spoke at various clubs and organizations in and around the capital city, especially enjoying talking to the youth.

In 1921, Dr. Hanson made a professional transition from ministry to teaching. Des Moines University offered him the position of Head of the Bible and Religious Education Department and he accepted. Some years later, unfortunately, the school went through some turbulent times, radical upheaval, and soon became defunct as a Bible college, causing my great-grandfather to leave his position. In the midst of chaos, a unique opportunity was about to become available.

In 1927, citizens in the community of College Hill near Cedar Falls, Iowa had begun planning the organization of a community church. Since Howland had spoken at a number of conferences, it was decided that he should undertake leadership in the movement. The pioneering group consisted of members from just about every church denomination in the area. Based entirely on faith, having no assets, and with considerable resistance from some churches, they began. For a number of years, they struggled against terrible odds and challenges. Success did come from their patient faithfulness and a new, non-denominational, church was fully established.

During this time, Howland became Head of the Bible Department and Director of Religious Education at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He also became the Pastor of the Interdenominational Church. Two of his passions came together: teaching the Bible and preaching on the college campus. He remembered this time as inspirational, exacting, and a challenge. He believed that one’s Bible and theology had to be taught again. Religion had to remain Biblical, yet meet the necessities of the scientific mind. The faith of our youth who come from Christian homes must be conserved.

In 1934, Howland was in ill health and had already surpassed the required age for retirement from the university. He semi-retired at that point but continued to speak at grade and high schools in the area giving talks centered on character and good citizenship. In all his efforts, he strove to be true to his faith, his family, and his profession. In 1936, he passed from this world into the arms of his heavenly Father. Another good and faithful servant of the Lord going home.

Much of the information I used to write this article came from the original typed pages of Howland Hanson’s autobiography. There are a number of handwritten corrections and notes, one of which is where he struck out the word Autobiography and wrote Auto-Obituary. I wish I had been able to meet him, I have so many unanswered questions and so much to discuss with him. One day, I will have that opportunity. The story I have told is in some ways one of the “rags to riches” kind, except in this case the riches were of a spiritual and emotional nature.


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