David Chesebrough (1932-2004)
John B. Freed and Alan Lessoff, October 2004
The Rev. David B. Chesebrough died on April 29, 2004, in Normal, Illinois. He was born on March 14, 1932, in Cooperstown, New York, the adopted son of Florence Chesebrough, who ran a school for children with Down Syndrome and who inspired him to serve others. Chesebrough became a professional historian later in life, but his research and teaching were infused with the experiences he had gained during the 25 years he had spent in the pulpit of several American Baptist churches, including 16 years as the pastor of the First American Baptist Church in Normal. His sermons were noted both for their intellectual content and for their delivery.
Chesebrough majored in history at Wheaton College and obtained a divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a master’s in sociology from Loyola University Chicago. While serving his church in Normal, he taught a variety of courses on a part-time basis in history, sociology, world religions, and philosophy at Illinois State University, Lincoln Land Community College, and Lincoln College and received a Doctor of Arts Degree in history from Illinois State in 1988.
He assumed that year the position of academic adviser and assistant to the chair in the history department at Illinois State. He employed his pastoral skills as an adviser and in 1995 won the university’s Herb Sanders Award for Outstanding Adviser. Chesebrough also taught a wide range of courses in American history, the Civil War, world religions, and Lincoln. He was a legendary teacher, and his classes were routinely the first to fill. He retired in 2002.
Chesebrough had written his dissertation about the northern and southern clergy during the Civil War era, and between 1991 and 2002 he published seven books that combined his knowledge of that period with his professional skills in homiletics and deep comprehension of American theology. The first was God Ordained This War: Sermons on the Sectional Crisis, 1830–65, an edited volume published by South Carolina University Press. This was followed by Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830–65 (1996), published by Southern Illinois University Press, and three volumes written for Greenwood Press about prominent ministers: Theodore Parker: Orator of Superior Ideas (1999), Phillip Brooks: Pulpit Eloquence (2001), and Charles G. Finney: Revivalistic Rhetoric (2002). A high point in Chesebrough’s professional career came in 2001 when he was invited to lecture at Brooks’ own church, Boston’s Trinity Church, on Brooks’ role in the construction of H. H. Richardson’s architectural masterpiece. This, along with his many book reviews and other professional activities, was an indication of the respect his work received among scholars of 19th-century Protestantism.
In addition, Chesebrough situated Frederick Douglass in the Protestant tradition in his book Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery (1998). Chesebrough’s personal favorite was, however, No Sorrow Like Our Sorrow: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent State University Press, 1994), a study of more than 300 sermons delivered after the president’s murder.
Chesebrough is survived by two children, Brenda Boscarino of Alpine, California, and Timothy Chesebrough of Phoenix, Arizona; grandson Tyler Boscarino; and a brother John Chesebrough of Edmeston, New York.
—John B. Freed
Illinois State University