The Rev. Islay Walden was a formerly enslaved poet from Randolph County, North Carolina. He had graduated from the Normal Department at Howard University in Washington, D. C. He then traveled to New Jersey where he was one of the two first African American students at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The other young man was John Bergen. Interestingly, they were both vision impaired.
This article on Walden’s ordination appeared in the New York Evening Post, a paper of William Cullen Bryant. It detailed not only the events of the ordination itself, but also gave a substantial biographical sketch of Islay Walden’s life, most notably here, that Walden was the first African American to be ordained from the Seminary. A transcription of the article appears below.
An Interesting Ordination
How Islay Walden, a Young Colored Man Obtained His Education –
From Slavery to the Pulpit.
New Brunswick N. J., July 1, 1879
The ordination of Islay Walden, a young colored man, took place in this city this afternoon, the laying on of hands having performed by the classis of NJ in the Second Reformed Church. Considerable interest was manifested in the ordination in the fact that Mr. Walden was the first colored man who was ever graduated of the theological seminary of the Reformed church of America which is in this city, and from the fact that he is the first candidate from the colored race who has been ordained by the New Brunswick classis or any other classis in New Jersey.
Mr. Walden has had to struggle against apparently insurmountable difficulties to obtain an education. He was born in NC and he and his mother were several times sold as slaves. The price obtained for both when Walden was a babe in arms being $800. His father escaped from slavery by running away from his master and getting to Indiana on a forged passport. Young Walden was declared free when he was 22 years old and then he was ignorant of even the letters of the alphabet. At this age however, he formed a determination to become a teacher. He left home and traveled to Washington DC, where by force of his entreaties he was allowed to enter Howard University. He remained there for more than six years and obtained a good education, notwithstanding that he was almost blind, defective vision being an infliction which came with his birth. After graduation at Howard University, he came north selling a small volume of poems of his own composition to obtain funds to pursue a theological education. He made applications to be admitted into the seminary at Princeton College, but Dr. McComb interposed some objection that very much disheartened Walden. He was more successful at New Brunswick, where Prof George W Atherton of Rutgers College interested himself in his behalf and introduced him to the faculty at the theological seminary. About the time Walden was knocking at Prof Atherton’s door, seeking an admission, the Rev. Dr. C. D. Hartranft, formerly of the Second Reformed Church of this city but now Professor of the Hartford Theological Seminary brought word that a member of the Rev. Dr. Coles’s Reformed Church at Yonkers N. Y. had just left a legacy of $8500 for the education of a colored man. The Board of Education of the Reformed Church then took Mr. Walden under their care and he entered the theological seminary for three years course with another colored man named John R. Bergen. His innovation met with no opposition from the other students, but instead the utmost good feeling prevailed throughout the three years of his life there. The colored students although both suffered from defective vision kept their places in the classis and not infrequently distanced the white students in efficiency and aptness. They were both graduated last month and have been licensed to preach by the New Brunswick classis. Mr. Bergen will be ordained once his field of labor is decided upon. He has expressed a desire to go to Africa, but his physician thinks his constitution as not robust enough for that climate. Mr. Walden has been engaged by the American Missionary Society to go south and labor among the freedmen. The Reformed Church has no missionaries in the south or Mr. Walden would have gone there under its auspices. At the ordination services this afternoon, the Rev. Dr. J. L. See, President of the Classis and Secretary of the Board of Education presided. The Rev J. M. Corwin, of Middlesex N. J., preached the services. The other clergymen who participated, were the Rev. Dr. W. H. Campbell, President of Rutgers College, the Rev. Dr. Lord of Metucheon NJ. The Rev. Messrs. Jacob Cooper and Doolittle of Rutgers College, the Rev. Dr. D. D. Demarest, Professor of Pastoral Theology and the theological seminary, and the Rev. Dr. Van Dyke of Hertzog Hall of this city. The Rev. Dr. Strieby, Secretary of the American Board of Missions was also present.