William Dodge

From Grace Note to Symphony:
The Life of
William E. Dodge

Many a melody and song have arrived in this world to pass their days in the mouths of anonymous whistlers and amateur musicians; though to be sure, composers have taken an interest in some few of them, to outfit them with a harmony and an arrangement, or maybe even a counterpoint. But seldom has a composer arisen with the blessed capacity to let the melody sing, and augment, developing in myriad graceful variations, and moving at last to a crescendo remarkable more for beauty than volume. Only rarely has a theme been so honored by masterful coaxing to its full expression.

The life of William E. Dodge was the score of such a symphony, developed by a Composer of infinite care and grace. Its theme could only have been played upon a human heart that had answered Jesus’ “Come, follow me” with a simple Yes.

In 1818, when New England prepared to send its first Christian missionary to Hawaii, Dodge was eager to support the fledgling work. He was only 13 years old and he had no money, but didn’t let that stop him. Instead, he turned an unused, swampy patch of ground into a flourishing potato patch and gave the proceeds from the sale in the fall of its produce to the missionary. As he grew older, his ability to contribute wealth as well as time and care was expanded many times by his success in the import-export trade. The growth and prosperity of Phelps, Dodge & Co. over the decades placed him among the wealthiest and most influential men in New York and the nation. But despite his growing riches, the center line of his life and his central theme remained constant, for he loved Jesus best of all.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you probably find the spiritual atmosphere at Columbia a real challenge, and you may feel somewhat intimidated. Most people on campus are taken up in pursuits that have little or nothing to do with serving Him and you may feel you are almost a minority of one in seeking to do so.

If so, let this theme, hidden as it is in the Columbia architecture, encourage you every time you catch sight of Teacher’s College, St. Paul’s Chapel, Hartley or Earl halls, for they are standing witnesses to the wide trail blazed in New York and elsewhere in the last century by another disciple of Jesus, William E. Dodge. The buildings were donated to Columbia by his children and grandchildren, but it was Dodge himself who made them possible as just one result of the life he lived in the Lord. And in a day when committed Christians are seldom found anywhere near the levers of economic or political power, the record of what God did with Dodge in business, government, and in Christian work, deserves attention.

Dodge was 13 when he first heard of preparations being made to send young Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian orphan being educated in Cornwall, Conn., as the first Christian missionary from America to Hawaii. Having no money but eager to help, he proposed a “missionary potato-patch” to some of his friends. Together, they took an unpromising patch of swamp land near home, reworked the soil in their spare time, and planted potatoes they had purchased with their pocket money.

Though other crops in the area did only indifferently that season due to a lack of rain, the love and care put into that reclaimed swamp land produced a bumper crop, and a very happy William Dodge went to Cornwall to deliver the materials they had bought with the sale proceeds. Of the episode he later said, “I never in my life felt more proud or happy. From the time of this missionary potato-patch, everything I touched seemed to prosper.”

At the age of sixteen, by popular account, he was a gallant, considerate, good-natured, and well-respected young man in the Hartford, Conn. area. Happily for him, however, his pride and self-composure were mortally wounded by his pastor’s remark, made as he was about to return home after a week of revival meetings at his church: “What! Going home and taking that hard heart with you?”

He came forward at a prayer meeting soon after to request prayer for his spiritual condition, and from that night in June, 1821, he was the Lord’s. The same year, he established his first Bible study and prayer meeting, in his hometown.

Ten years later a newcomer to New York heard a stirring address at a local Christian meeting. The speaker was William E. Dodge – “I asked who the speaker was, and learned he was a merchant in active business, but quite as active in his Master’s work.” As the years passed, he became one of the leading merchants in New York and a principal in Phelps, Dodge & Co., major exporters of cotton and the largest importers of metals to the U.S. (today’s Phelps Dodge Corp. is a direct successor to Phelps, Dodge & Co.), and a partner in financing the transcontinental railroad expansion, notably the Union Pacific Railroad.

On the other hand, it is harder to describe adequately the scope of Dodge’s support for foreign missions. From the first potato-patch to the end of his life, he gave prayer, time and money freely to support them. Within the United States, he helped to strengthen many struggling young churches – no one knows exactly how many.

In his personal spiritual work also, he was a fruitful man: “In passing through New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, like his master he could not be hid. Some Christian tradesman, teacher or preacher would hail him, and gratefully acknowledge that the seed he had sown in their youthful minds had ripened into a harvest of manhood and piety. But in nothing was he so much at home as in revival work.” Dodge was a chief ally and supporter in New York of the revivalist Charles G. Finney. He was also active in the daily work of New York’s spiritual revival of 1858.

Throughout his long business career he kept his priorities firm and plain. In his middle years, for example, letters arrived one day reporting that certain Pennsylvania iron and coal miners he had recently spoken to had since found Christ. Though it was a busy work day and many people were waiting to see him he took time out for the letters, saying to a friend, “No matter. Let them pound away! I care more about the souls of these miners than about any of those people out there who have come to talk about money.” It is not surprising, when you reflect on it, that Dodge was nevertheless one of the most successful businessmen of his day.

In his single term in Congress, 1865-67, Dodge urged a policy of reconciliation with the defeated South, as Lincoln had done; he foresaw the long bitterness promised by the harsh terms of Reconstruction, but finding himself in the minority he could do little to mitigate the vengefulness of the post-war legislation.

Looking at the thrust and impact of his life, you have every right to take encouragement from the 16-year-old Christian who wholeheartedly sought to do his Master’s will, whose life later broadened and deepened into a channel of wide and good influence throughout the country. God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all you could ask or think, so if you give your life to him you too will prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God in your own experience. Then you will one day be able to say as Dodge said, at age 73:

“Let us be thankful for all the way in which the Lord has led us, and keep on hard at work while He gives us strength. I do not expected this ever to be ‘the place of my rest,’ I was never so fully pressed in my life.”

May it be said of you, as a friend spoke of Dodge after his death:

“He was alive to whatever touched the spiritual interests of men … when God sought for a man among them that should make up the hedge, Mr. Dodge was not wanting there.”

© 1973 The Beacon Committee