Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Memorials: Michael (Mike) McGiffert

Mike McGiffert served as Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly at the Omohundro Institute from 1972–1997. He also taught at the College of William & Mary.

Mike McGiffert (d. July 2, 2016) An Appreciation by Norman Fiering (July 2016)

I was happily based at the OIEAHC from 1969 to 1983, initially as a fellow and then as the book editor. Mike came in 1972; so for about ten years we were close colleagues and friends, constantly talking shop and being sociable. The Institute milieu as a whole was paradise for a specialist in early America, with six Ph.D.s in the field in continuous residence—specifically in those years Thad Tate, John Selby, Mike, me, and the changing company of research fellows. There was no other such concentration anywhere in the country. We met together for lunch once a week, which was a pleasant superfluity, since as far as conferring and consultation went, it was ongoing everyday in the relatively small suite of offices—discussing professional news, circulating submitted manuscripts, proffering advice to each other, gossiping about the academic luminaries, planning conferences and the like.

I learned more in that environment than I can possibly recount, above all as a working editor, and Mike was a model, especially as a line editor. I can still picture clearly a clean page of typescript put before Mike, and he peering down on it, sharpened pencil in a somewhat chubby hand, and then with dazzling swiftness marking it up, slicing away the fat, immeasurably improving the text in what seemed like only seconds. He worked fast, authoritatively, and with concentration. This was editing as a perfected craft. By comparison, I felt painfully deliberative, slow and unsure. It went along with this skill that Mike was also extremely well organized. When he left the office at night, his desk was clear, no sloppy piles, everything carefully filed away but ready for the next day’s work.

Mike had refined and educated tastes—he and his wife Genevieve, a voice coach, were devoted to opera, among other things—but he was notably unpretentious, given that he had a family lineage a lesser man would have exploited. One had to pry out of Mike that on his mother’s side he was an Eliot, a great grandson of the famous Harvard president Charles William Eliot. T. S. Eliot was a cousin. His maternal grandfather was Samuel A. Eliot, president for many years of the American Unitarian Association.

His paternal grandfather was Arthur Cushman McGiffert, one of the first Americans to study church history and divinity in Germany, the mecca. He earned a Ph.D. at Marburg and ultimately became president of Union Theological Seminary. He was the author of a classic, Protestant Thought before Kant (1911). Mike’s father, A. C. McGiffert, Jr., in the footsteps of his father, became president of the Chicago Theological Seminary.

I said a lesser man might have paraded this heritage on both sides, which Mike never did. It was more like a secret. On the other hand, a lesser man could also have been crushed by the weight of the past. One wonders why Mike himself wandered into church history and doctrine as an academic field when as a matter of personal salvation he could easily have sharply deviated, often the pattern in such situations. One answer may be that Mike entered Harvard as an undergraduate in the mid-1940s exactly when Perry Miller was a giant star remaking Puritan history and attracting thousands of acolytes. The lure must have been irresistible, although Mike’s early publications—on American national character, for example—were rather far afield. His dissertation at Yale was on Christian Darwinism, and he also earned a divinity degree there.

I remember vaguely that Mike’s mother (née Elisabeth Eliot) and father once visited the Institute. As you would expect, they were lovely, unassuming people. Visits did not happen more often, perhaps, because Mike was childless; without grandchildren to see, there was less incentive. In any case, the great family ritual was the gathering at Mount Desert Island for a month every summer. One could sense the excitement in Mike as vacation time approached every year.

When Mike came to the Institute in 1972 to be editor of the WMQ, it was with some relief. He was not happy teaching at the University of Denver, and although he was publishing significantly on the history of covenantal theology and other subjects, as it turned out it was nurturing a great scholarly journal for twenty-five years that became his life’s work. He was quite aware that by accident he had found his true calling.

All editors become alert to particular forms of language misuse that are like a disease infecting prose everywhere. I remember Mike groaning with hopeless frustration when an author used the phrase “lion’s share” to refer to the major part of something gained in a confrontation. No, no, Mike would protest, look at the delicious irony in the Aesop fable, the lion’s share is not part but all! Would any self-respecting lion settle for less? Mike was an isolated champion of correctness on this error. The mistake is still made every day in the most fastidious publications (not the WMQ, I hope). When I see it, inevitably my mind returns to those good years, with Mike just down the corridor.

Norman Fiering
Director and Librarian, Emeritus
John Carter Brown Library
Brown University