Chiseled in Stone: John Crerar and His Library


Long before corporate America was stamping their logos on football stadiums and performing arts centers, America’s colleges and hospitals had perfected the naming game. Anyone can have their name on a building, provided they’re willing to write a big enough check. And why not? There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering those who helped make something possible. The problem, if there is one, would be if such honorifics feed a sinful pride.
Unfortunately, we are all a bit streetwise about “donor acknowledgement,” and in some ways, that’s a shame. I say that because many of the names inscribed on cornerstones are there to genuinely honor great persons of singular achievement. Thanks to modern day search engines, I routinely investigate names I do not recognize, particularly when they suggest there may a good story in the offing.
I did not hold out much hope when I first started to track down the story behind the “John Crerar Library”, but what I discovered was a story worth remembering. No, let me rephrase that, a life worth remembering. A life to hold up as an example.
John Crerar was a late 19th Century businessman who lived at the same time, and in the same city of Chicago as Anna and Horatio Spafford, whose story is told in this issue of Leben. Crerar and the Spaffords would have read the same Chicago Daily Tribune, each pulled their scarves tight as they walked down State Street buffeted by the bracing wind off Lake Michigan, and though we cannot say for certain, may have crossed paths among their mutual Presbyterian acquaintances, or in their respective labors on behalf of Chicago’s poor and downtrodden, particularly after the Great Chicago Fire.
While the Spafford history is, at once, colorful and hush-my-mouth crazy, the Crerar biography requires reflection. I hope you’ll give it the minute or two to read his obituary printed below, from the October 20, 1889 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Mr. Crerar has been well known in religious, business and social circles of Chicago for many years. He came to the city from New York in 1863 and has lived here ever since. He was a member and regular attendant of the Second Presbyterian Church of this city; he was also one of the trustees of that church and always exhibited large-hearted liberality and generous interest in the welfare of the church and of its Sabbath, mission and kindergarten schools. He was one of the original incorporators of the Pullman Palace Car company and was a director of that company as well as of the Chicago and Alton railroad, the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, the Chicago Aid and Relief Society, the Presbyterian Hospital, the Chicago Orphan Asylum, and a number of other institutions. He was also President of the Joliet railroad and a member of the Chicago Commercial and Literary Clubs. He found much enjoyment in the meetings of the Commercial Club and was an earnest supporter of the various enterprises of that organization. Mr. Crerar was 63 years of age and unmarried. His parents were Scotch, and he inherited from them the sterling characteristics of that vigorous race. He was born in New York and was educated in the schools of that city….
….In religion Mr. Crerar was a consistent member of the Presbyterian Church. He was deeply interested in religious movements and contributed largely to religious societies. Many individuals, families and charities will also bear willing testimony to his heartfelt and unostentatious liberality. In politics, he was a Republican. He never held office. At the last Presidential election he was the Republican Elector for the First District of this State. As a citizen he has been modest and retiring, but always ready and prompt to give of his means when calls for help were made upon the city. After the great fire of 1871 he was a member of the Aid and Relief Society and gave valuable assistance to that noble organization. . . . In business he has been successful, exhibiting conservative judgment.
The number of organizations to which he belonged attest the respect and esteem in which he was held by his associates. He was a man of strong personality, of refined and simple taste. He enjoyed art, literature and music. In temperament, he was genial and happy. He was also considerate, sympathetic and companionable. He was a man of positive convictions and nothing could swerve him from his sense of right.
The church has lost one of its most earnest and sincere supporters, the city an honorable and upright citizen, and his friends a warm-hearted companion. His memory will long be cherished and his name often and kindly spoken by those who knew him.
When I dug a little deeper, I found a variety of private testimonies about his charity and faith. The Sunday School movement is mentioned, for example, but in his will Crerar left the American Sunday School Union headquartered in Philadelphia the sum of $50,000, with the stated hope that it would be used in the Westward expansion to “keep missionaries in the field”. The Union established a special fund to do just that, and the annual reports subsequently showed after 25 years that 1,600 Sunday Schools had been organized, 60,000 children instructed, with assistance provided to another 10,000 Sunday Schools serving 160,000 children. More than 12,000 Bibles and portions of Scripture were distributed, 90 churches organized and more than 7,000 people professing faith in Christ as the result of these quiet, evangelistic efforts.
Friends tell of a man who invariably greeted them “standing firm and erect, the label of his coat thrown back and his thumb caught in his vest [pocket]” waiting, as usual, to hear or to tell a good story. When he had finished dispensing with his long list of benevolent bequests, showering each with gifts beyond their expectation, he finally put his name on something, leaving whatever was left of his estate to found a “Free Public Library to be called the John Crerar Library and to be located in the city of Chicago….”
But it was not to be just any library, Crerar stated that “the books and periodicals be selected with a view to create and sustain a healthy moral and Christian sentiment in the community and that all nastiness and immorality be excluded.” And just in case the executors were unclear on the matter, he added “I do not mean by this that there shall be nothing but hymn books and sermons, but I mean that dirty French novels and all skeptical trash and works of questionable moral tone shall never be found in this library.”
Today, the John Crerar Library is part of the University of Chicago library system, occupying modern quarters on South Ellis Street. Devoted primarily to the sciences, the library website continues to note Crerar’s prohibition of “dirty French novels,” and presumably continues to honor that request.
As we said before, John Crerar’s was, indeed, a life worth remembering, and we are pleased to bring his story to yet another generation of his fellow believers.

1 Bay, Jens Christian, and Goodspeed, Thomas. W., The John Crerar Library, 1895-1944, Torch Press, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, p. 15.
2 Ibid. p.20.