Albion Interactive History / People / James Gilruth

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / People / Albion College

Rev. James Gilruth
Founder of Wesleyan Seminary


Rev. James Gilruth was the first Methodist minister to serve four years as a presiding elder (today the district superintendent). Gilruth is at once an enigma and an elucidator. Whereas in recent years he has emerged as perhaps the primary factor in the Wesleyan Seminary movement, his name never appeared in earlier college histories. Rev. James Gilruth was the only Methodist minister in Michigan during the the 1830s who kept a detailed daily journal.

James Gilruth himself was a man about whom one would like to know more. In appearance alone, he was an impressive figure. Pilcher describes him as “one of the largest, and yet one of the most supple men we ever knew.” well over six feet in height and 200 pounds in weight, on his long routes over bad roads he found it necessary to have two horses. In one journal Gilruth tells of being assigned to sleep with a rather diminutive preacher while they were attending an Ohio Conference. When the little fellow expressed apprehension about being “overlaid” by his bedfellow, Gilruth obligingly slept on the floor. On the rostrum his booming voice and energetic manner assured him full control over his auditors, and he had little difficulty in quelling the rowdies who often came to harass the preachers at revival meetings.

Because he grew up in the backwoods of Ohio, Gilruth was largely a self-taught man who never lost the desire to improve himself by study and reading. The breadth of that reading is truly remarkable for one in his position at that time, ranging though ancient history and classical literature to the poetry of Burns and the New York Christian Advocate. His insatiable curiosity even led him to borrow the apocryphal books of the Bible, the Presbyterian confession of faith, and a biography of Mary Queen of Scots. Throughout his journals he followed the circuit-rider’s habit of reading on horseback as he traveled his rounds. Deprived of a formal education himself, it is a small wonder that he was so insistent upon the establishment of a church-sponsored institution of learning for the oncoming generation under his charge.

For the history of Albion College, the journal entry for March 27, 1833 is of special interest. A bare five months after his arrival in the community of Ann Arbor, Gilruth wrote, “Spent the evening with Dr. Packard and Brother Thompson till 10 talking measures and means in relation to establishing a Methodist seminary in Michigan.”

Source: Keith Fennimore. The Albion College Sesquicentennial History: 1835-1985. Albion, MI: Albion College. 1985.

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