Braxton Craven (1822-1882)

Braxton CravenIn educational history, one frequently used to hear that every institution is but the lengthened shadow of one person. Such a sentiment accurately reflects the nineteenth century history of Trinity College. For forty years one man, Braxton Craven, presided over the institution giving it a special identity that ultimately led to university status in another place at another time.

Braxton Craven was born in 1822 in rural Randolph County on the North Carolina frontier where all too often hard work had to be accompanied by luck for one to overcome imposing obstacles. At age seven he was living with an adoptive Quaker family where constant physical labor was expected in exchange for room and board. He later reported he was "sorely oppressed" as a youth but he also learned industry, thrift, and self-reliance.

Converted at a nearby Methodist Church, he seized upon religion and education as a means for personal betterment. Almost exclusively self-taught, he gained influence in the community by teaching school and preaching at Sunday schools whenever the ever-present demands of planting and harvesting permitted. After saving some money, Craven enrolled in the nearby Quaker school, now Guilford College, when it admitted non-Quakers for the first time.

When his savings ran out after two years, he returned to his home community to assist Brantley York who had recently organized a growing school. The school was known as Union Institute because of the uniting of Methodist and Quaker family interests in providing permanent education for their children. In 1842 Craven succeeded York as principal when York was called to organize another school. For the next four decades the history of the school was largely the biography of Braxton Craven.

After conducting a successful academy for nine years, Craven had the institution chartered by the legislature as Normal College with its graduates licensed to teach by the state. Ever aware of the need for consistent income, he simultaneously sought support from the Methodist Church promising to educate preministerial students free of charge. Church ties proved stronger and in 1859 Craven changed the name of the school again, this time to Trinity College. As the college outgrew the boarding capacity of the community, ambitious plans were approved for an expanded all-purpose building which included the school's first dormitory. Civil War, however, halted expansion and almost ended the school. Without Craven's commitment and personality it is doubtful that Trinity College would have survived the poverty of the defeated South.

Before his death in 1882, Braxton Craven presided over an institution under three different names with a faculty from two to seven to ten members and an enrollment that fluctuated from less than twenty to over two hundred students. Craven himself taught Ancient Languages, Mental and Moral Science, Metaphysics, Rhetoric and Logic, National and Constitutional Law, and Biblical Literature. At the same time he constantly preached and lectured throughout the region, wrote two novels, and engaged the Smithsonian Institution in debate over the exact time for the eclipse of the sun. When his calculations proved to be correct the Smithsonian sought his services but he politely declined. Aware of his lack of an earned degree he acquired permission to stand examination upon the entire course of study at Randolph Macon College in Virginia. When he passed all exams without ever attending any classes that college awarded him an honorary A.B. degree. Later the Universities of North Carolina and Missouri, among others, awarded him honorary degrees in recognition of his contributions to fostering higher education.

Though a strict disciplinarian and formal in the pulpit and classroom, Craven was at ease in an educational setting. He always boarded students in his home. The terms of his will reveal strong family ties as well as a life style that undoubtedly contributed to his popularity among generations of students. After providing for his wife and assuring that his children "be thoroughly educated," he bequeathed modest but prized possessions as follows: To his wife, Irene, the mantel clock and his melodian; to daughters Emma and Kate, the piano and gray mare named Bounce, and the silver pitcher and goblet; and to sons James and Willie, the young black horse named Jeff, and his gold watch.

Craven's legacy is a school that survived and even prospered in the face of tremendous odds. He personally selected the name Trinity College and the motto, "Eruditio et Religio" that defines the character of Duke University today. We honor him with the name of Craven Quadrangle and through the awarding of the Braxton Craven Scholarship. Numerous descendents have graduated from Duke University and three have served with distinction on the Board of Trustees—James B. Craven, grandson; J. Braxton Craven, Jr., great-grandson; and Isobel Craven Drill, great-granddaughter. In 1989, Mrs. Drill received the university's Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest award of the General Alumni Association.


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© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.