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John P. Peters


Centurion, 1895–1921

Full Name John Punnett Peters

Born 16 December 1852 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Died 10 November 1921 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Saint Michael’s Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York

Proposed by Arthur Brooks and George Haven Putnam

Elected 5 October 1895 at age forty-two

Archivist’s Note: Father of John P. Peters; brother of William R. Peters; father-in-law of John A. Church Jr.

Seconder of:

Century Memorial

It may be doubted if the members of the Century ever quite realized the remarkable qualities and remarkable achievements of John Punnett Peters. All of them knew the little man with the whimsical smile, the friendly manner, the black skull-cap and the low voice as the Rector of St. Michaels, interested in archaeology; probably few of them were aware how great a scholar and tireless an investigator they had been talking with at the Club’s dinner-table, or in a chair after adjournment of the annual meeting from which he was so rarely absent. As lately as 1919, when Dr. Peters was revisiting Palestine on the heels of the Great War, determined to complete his study of the actual background of the Psalms and Hebrew history, and when friends warned him not to push on further while the natives were in a state of exasperation over the Zionist intrusion, they did not know their man. “I told them no Bedouin would mistake me for a Zionist,” Dr. Peters used to say, smilingly, in telling the story, and certainly no roaming son of the desert would have discovered in his countenance the imprint of the Chosen Tribe. But Dr. Peters would equally have carried out his plan of investigation if he had been sure of the tribute of an Arab bullet.

This steadfastness in an uncommon purpose was the story of his life. Withdrawn from school because of shaken health, he pursued his studies privately with such diligence as to enter Yale at sixteen. At Yale, a not altogether usual distribution of activities made the young Peters member of the University football team and coxswain of the crew at the time when he was making his way to a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Comparative Philology. Completing his Semitic studies by an intensive course at Berlin and Leipzig, Dr. Peters returned to New York at the age of thirty, one of the most accomplished Assyriologists of his time, and quietly resumed parochial work in his father’s church.

But the instinct of the scholar and investigator would not wait; in a very few years he was excavating at Nippur, where the Babylonian inscriptions presently unearthed by him carried documentary history two thousand years further back than any previously discovered records. How real a thing this organized community of four thousand years before the Christian era was to Dr. Peters, the people his mind could conjure up in its streets and temples, the military records, the religious legends in its library of clay, and how exact was his knowledge of the period, appeared in a strikingly interesting way when he confuted the pretended discoveries of Professor Hilprecht with the accumulated evidence and personal indignation of a controversialist denouncing a garbled version of the Versailles conference.

A life of just such achievement, in these days of diffused activities and desultory learning, is an interesting landmark. The fact that Dr. Peters was also a leader in community service at his parish house of St. Michael’s, that he studied and spoke on the problem of capital and labor, that he bore a part in every municipal reform campaign, served in 1903 as chairman of the Transit Reform Committee of One Hundred for regulation of the New York street car service, and took a hand as chairman of the Committee of Fourteen to suppress the Raines Law Hotel iniquities, shows the many-sidedness as well as the public spirit of the man himself. But these responsibilities never interfered with the purpose to which his inborn genius directed him, any more than they did with his cheerful social qualities. They went to show how far we have got from the day when to be a deeply-learned scholar was to be a recluse, when the investigator of ancient history lost sight of history in the making. But they also illustrate the fine sense of civic duty which marks the real New Yorker and which, in our confused municipal career, has always been the city’s safeguard.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1922 Century Association Yearbook