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Salter, William
(November 17, 1821–August 15, 1910)

–minister, lecturer, author, historian, and community leader—was born in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Manhattan at age five. The original Salters had arrived in New Hampshire in the mid 17th century. Not until William, one of six children born to Captain William Frost Salter and Mary (Ewen) Salter, did a Salter break from the family tradition of seafaring. William chose instead to follow a call to the ministry, which came when he was still a student at the University of the City of New York. After graduating in 1840, Salter taught briefly at South Norwalk Academy in Connecticut before matriculating at Union Theological Seminary, where, until 1842, he studied languages, historical and applied Christianity, and the Old and New Testaments. Developing a strict orthodoxy, Salter chose Andover Theological Seminary to complete his education; at that time Andover was a holdout of orthodoxy against the tides of Unitarianism and other moderations of Old School Calvinism.

    At Andover, Salter became part of what would eventually be called the "Iowa Band," a group of 11 earnest young men who yearned to bring orthodox Christianity to the West. It was soon decided that the group would evangelize the Iowa Territory with help from the American Home Missionary Society. They arrived late in 1843. Salter's parishioners in Maquoketa and Andrew showed little interest in Christianity as he understood it. Still, he persisted, riding on horseback to visit rough-hewn cabins with ailing children and unsympathetic, overworked farmer and their equally overworked wives. Preaching the gospel of sin and salvation, Salter remained resolute in his sense of vocation despite living for most of his Maquoketa years in quarters provided by an already cramped local family in which his only study was a partition made by a hung curtain.

    Deliverance came in the year of Iowa's statehood in the form of a call from a congregation in Burlington, a small but growing town well positioned on the Mississippi River and soon to be blessed with a railroad hub. The church's first minister, Horace Hutchinson, an original member of the Iowa Band, had met an early death from consumption. Salter preached robustly at the Burlington Congregational Church for more than 60 years. First taking the pulpit on April 10, 1846, Salter went back east for his bride–Mary Ann Mackintire, of genteel New England stock–that same summer and returned to build a congregation mostly out of fellow New England pioneers. He and Mary Ann would have five children, of whom three would survive to adulthood. The eldest, William Mackintire Salter (1853-1935), planned to follow his father's footsteps into the ministry but during graduate study in Germany encountered the higher criticism and lost his faith. He soon became a labor activist, philosopher, and author based mostly in Chicago, as well as an early leader in the Society for Ethical Culture founded by Felix Adler.

    William Salter's theology, too, softened over the years, the doctrinal rigidity of his early creed yielding to a more humanistic religion of love by the time of his retirement in 1908. His social positions similarly mutated. A firm antislavery man when he embarked for Iowa in the 1840s, Salter became an outright abolitionist in the 1850s. He delivered a fiery and eventually famous sermon in December 1859 titled "Slavery and the Lessons of Recent Events"–events such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision (1857)–in which he argued for immediate emancipation. As soon as the war began, Salter began assisting fugitive slaves. He signed up for the U.S. Christian Commission in 1864 and spent about eight months as a delegate in the field, preaching to, serving, and burying soldiers at the front. He also wrote a pamphlet titled The Great Rebellion in the Light of Christianity for the American Reform Tract and Book Society.

    Most of Salter's energies, however, went into building his congregation, community, and the state of Iowa itself. In 1844 Salter had supported the establishment of Iowa College–which eventually merged with a college established by Josiah Grinnell and became Grinnell College–and was one of its first trustees. Twenty years later he accepted an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the State University of Iowa. In 1852 he served as president of the Burlington school board, and in addition to lecturing widely at local schools, he became a trustee of Denmark Academy and of Burlington's first public library.

    But Salter's principal preoccupation was writing. He edited and wrote a substantial number of works in the last several decades of his life, including a biography of Iowa's third governor, James W. Grimes, and a major history of Iowa. When death came to William Salter in his sleep at age 89, it closed eyes, in the words of his biographer, that "had read by candle, gas and electricity."
Sources A comprehensive and still useful biography is Philip D. Jordan, William Salter: Western Torchbearer (1939). For a contemporary assessment, see James Hill Langdon, Reverend William Salter, D.D. (1911). For Salter's own retrospect, along with sermons from the last decades of his career, see William Salter, Sixty Years and Other Discourses with Reminiscences (1907); he also edited Letters of Ada R. Parker (1863) and Memoirs of Joseph W. Pickett (1880), published sermons and addresses, and wrote The Life of James W. Grimes (1876) and Iowa, the First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase (1905). His major papers are in Grinnell College's Special Collections and Archives, Grinnell, Iowa, although his letters to his son, William Mackintire Salter, were moved to the Knox College Archives, Galesburg, Illinois.
Contributor: Amy Kittelstrom