Sheldon Vanauken: Memories of a Favorite Professor

I transferred to Lynchburg College in 1966, the beginning of my junior year as a Business Administration major. I wanted to make money after graduation, and a business major seemed the way to go. By the end of the fall semester I quit going to my business classes and changed my major to history.

I loved history, but let’s face it; there is no future in history. The future for liberal arts majors was not as gloomy then as it is now, but it was not bright either. I figured I could make money by day and read history books in the evening. What disrupted my plans and put me on the path to a different future was a history professor, Sheldon Vanauken.

At first, Sheldon Vanauken was just a name to me, someone offering an interesting course that would count as an elective. I soon discovered that he was different. He was not your usual professor who stood before a podium and lectured from an outline. Also, I began hearing all sorts of rumors about this mysterious person. It was said that he lived in a little one-room cottage behind the library, and that after his wife died some years before, he carried her ashes around in the glove compartment of his Triumph sports car.

Vanauken was rather “odd” in a number of ways. He was always dressed the same—grey slacks, blue blazer, and one of two shirts. During the winter, he would add a scarf, an “Oxford scarf,” I was told. He would enter the classroom, sit at the desk in front of the room, open the text, light a cigarette, and begin talking. He talked, told stories, read poetry, and occasionally got up to illustrate the formation of a Roman legion or the Battle of Salamis on the chalkboard. A time or two during a class, he would get up, open a window, flick a cigarette butt out the window, close the window, and then return to his seat to light up another cigarette.

In addition to the text, we were required to read between 10 and 12 additional books of our choice. One semester I took two history courses from Vanauken (2 texts plus 20-24 additional books) and a political science course from another professor whose reading list included 8 titles. Those were, I might add, the days when college students were still literate and usually motivated. I must confess that I did not actually read the required number.

Midway through the semester of one of the classes, he announced that he had to post mid-semester grades. Since he had not given any exams, or assigned any papers at that point, he asked who wanted what grade? He reminded us that the mid-semester grade had no relationship to the final grade. Thus, it was wise not to pick a grade that might be dramatically different than one’s final grade.

What really counted was the final exam, an oral examination given in his one-room cottage. It consisted of Vanauken asking the student questions, general and specific, over the subject of the class—Greek history, Roman history, English history, etc. It was not restricted to the text, his lectures, and the list of 10 to 12 books the student handed him before the interrogation started. His goal was to see how much the student knew about the subject, not how much the student remembered from the lectures, or memorized from the text.

I still remember my examination for ancient Greek history. Vanauken held up a picture of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC and asked: “What can you tell me about this picture”? Of course he wanted me to discuss the architecture. He held up silhouettes of vases and pictures of statues and asked me to identify the style and period. One question I remember was, “If you are wandering around in the Middle East and come upon an amphitheater, how do you know if it is Greek or Roman?” There were questions about philosophy, art, drama, wars, geography, and much more. A history class from Sheldon Vanauken was more than just history; it was a humanities course.

When I finished answering all of his questions, he said: “Normally I would give you an ‘A’, but I told you that you had to be able to pronounce the Greek terms, and damn it, you can’t. So, how about a ‘C’?” I knew better than to refuse his generosity. If one did, it was rumored that he would ask one additional question, the answer to which would result in the “C” being changed to an “A” or a “D”. The choice was simple. I thanked him for the “C” and went away determined to take every class I could from Vanauken during my remaining semesters.

In between classes Vanauken would stand around outside smoking and talking to students. The better I got to know him, the more I admired him and wanted to be like him. “Why,” I asked myself, “would I want to spend my life doing something I hated, when I could be a history professor at a small liberal arts college with lovely old buildings?” Sitting on a bench in front of the library one afternoon, I made the decision that changed the course of my life. I got up, went over to the Registrar’s office, and changed my major to history. I wish I could say that everything turned out as I hoped it would. It didn’t, but that is another story for another time.

As with any popular professor, Vanauken had a following. Those students who were close to him were like “Miss Brodie’s girls” in the movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I was never one of them. I was very conservative in those days, I am sorry to admit. I perceived Vanauken as a liberal, which he was. It was Vanauken the professor that I admired, not Vanauken the anti-war activist. It was only later, when my political views moved to the left of center, that I admired that side of Vanauken. The Vanauken I knew during my two years at Lynchburg College was the Vanauken revealed in his second book, Under the Mercy, not the man found in A Severe Mercy. I never suspected him of being a Christian.

I graduated in the spring of 1968, bummed around Germany for the summer, and taught 6th grade in Saginaw, Michigan for a year to avoid being drafted. After winning the first draft lottery in the fall of 1969, I was off to graduate school to earn a doctorate in history. I was back on course, so to speak, after fending off General Hershey’s draft board.

I did not have any contact with Sheldon Vanauken after leaving Lynchburg College, that is, until I returned to Lynchburg in 1989 to teach history at Liberty University (a.k.a., the Falwell Plantation). During the intervening years, I occasionally saw a reference to him in the LC alumni magazine. The exception was the appearance of A Severe Mercy in 1978. I obtained a copy, read it, and wrote a review of it for His magazine, the monthly periodical published by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (October, 1978, p.22).

By 1978, I was a Christian reading the usual authors popular among Christian students during that time—e.g., C. S. Lewis, Francis A. Schaeffer, John White, John Stott, and James Montgomery Boice. Years later, I came across a pamphlet by Vanauken titled Encounter with Light. It was written and originally printed during my time at Lynchburg College. As I read it, I felt as though I had read those very words somewhere before. Sure enough, I found them in A Severe Mercy. This led me to believe that Vanauken must have been writing A Severe Mercy (at least parts of it) during the late sixties.

I felt that one reason he wrote the book was an attempt to understand and affirm in his own mind his faith in Christ. A Severe Mercy is more than a true love story. I tried to make that clear in these two paragraphs from my review:

“As a love story, the book is deeply moving without calling forth pity from the reader. Perhaps the book is most remarkable when read, after the manner of St. Augustine’s Confessions, as the author’s attempt to understand himself and his faith in Christ.

“At some points the reader is left wondering if Van’s conversion was only intellectual, a sincere desire to share the joy Davy found in her relationship with Christ, yet an inability to comprehend and experience her simple, childlike faith. Like the man in the Gospels who brought his son to Christ for healing, he seems to cry out from between the lines, ‘Lord I believe; help my unbelief!’”

I ended my review with the comment, “I will be surprised if it does not become a Christian classic.” It has become a classic, and I am not surprised.

My review of A Severe Mercy did not result in any contact with Vanauken. It wasn’t until the fall of 1989, when I moved back to Lynchburg, that I spoke with him for the first time since 1968. I called him on the phone, and he invited me over for a visit.

We talked about writing, the South, Virginia, C. S. Lewis and various other little things that I have long since forgotten. I asked him a question that my wife wanted me to put to him. She was wondering whether he ever regretted not having a child with Davey. He did not give me a direct answer. Instead, he gave me a copy of an essay he had written about finding, or being found by, Davey’s daughter. I knew nothing about that part of his story until then. That story can be found in his last book, The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies (1996).

I do remember one thing that he did say with regard to his Christian faith. I do not remember the context, but since I was teaching at Liberty University, therefore obviously an Evangelical Protestant, we touched on the subject of one’s salvation. He said, and I am not sure if these were his exact words, “We Roman Catholics are never quite sure of our salvation.” I am sure that he was not saying that he doubted his salvation, but rather that he was more Arminian than Calvinist on that question. I “think” what led to that part of our conversation was my mentioning the fact that, not only he, but other Christians who I admired—e.g., Malcolm Muggeridge—were “going back to Rome.” I sometimes think that Roman Catholics find in the church (especially the Eucharist) the security that some Protestants find in a creed.

I met with him only one time after my visit. That was one evening at the Old Courthouse in Lynchburg. He agreed to speak to a group of my history students about the subject of his book, The Glittering Illusion (1985, 1990), which I reviewed in the June 30, 1990 issue of World (p.14). It was a delightful evening. Several of my students paid visits to Vanauken during my remaining years at Liberty U. (I left Liberty University and moved away from Lynchburg in 1993.)

I regret that I did not take advantage of my years in Lynchburg to get to know Sheldon Vanauken better, to have developed a friendship with him. However, those were difficult years for me. The Falwell empire was under great stress during those years—another story for another time. Many of us worried that we might be unemployed at a moment’s notice. I had two infant daughters and a wife to provide for, and so I was much too distracted. I should have found the time, but I didn’t, and that is one thing I will always regret.

Apart from memories and copies of Under the Mercy and The Glittering Illusion which he autographed for me, the only mementos I have are the two postcards below. I am including them for those who are interested in whatever letters, etc., of Vanauken’s remain.

Vanauken post 1I

Vanuken post 2

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

6 responses to “Sheldon Vanauken: Memories of a Favorite Professor

  1. Great blog Paul. Perhaps Protestants and Catholics are engaging in more heartfelt and fruitful dialogue, as your example with Vanauken shows. For more on Protestants and Catholics together check out the Taize community on the internet.


  2. As a huge Vanauken fan, I really enjoy this essay of your memories, as well as the postcards. Thanks for sharing!


  3. As a resident of Lynchburg, I always enjoy hearing personal stories about Vanauken. As an educator, I found your account of his final exam (in his home, oral exam, not specifically tied to a ‘textbook,’ etc.) to be an interesting example of a methodology that violates many modern ‘assessment’ practices, and yet is probably a far superior method of assessment than techniques currently used.


    • I understand. I have been teaching for over 35 years, and have seen many changes. I do like Vanauken in my upper level classes. I sit and talk about the subject. I do not use any power points (I wouldn’t know how.), overheads, outlines, etc. That makes me really weird in comparison to my colleagues. College administrations want everything done according to a script, so that anyone with the minimal credentials can walk in the room with the script in hand and “teach” the course. It may work well, if you assume that the students are unprepared for college level work and unmotivated to learn anything. Unfortunately, that is often the right assumption. I fondly remember sitting in seminars led by Pat Kelley at Lynchburg College. There were a small group of us sitting around a table. We read books, wrote papers, and discussed. Today, that would be considered too expensive. Not only that, but there are fewer and fewer students interested in education. For most, a degree is merely a license to look for a job.


  4. Greatly enjoyed your posting re Vanauken. We exchanged several letters after I read ASM and I called him out of the blue one day to see if I could meet him. I lived in Seattle, WA and was in New Jersey on business. He surprised me with an invite for the following afternoon. I was a little star-struck but had a wonderful couple of hours with him talking about books and learning.


    • Thanks for your response. It was a great privilege for me to have been one of his students. I am more aware of that today than before. Do read Under the Mercy and The Little Lost Marion, if you have not done so already.


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