Portrait from the Baker Beacon, May 15, 1893.
A distinguished figure in Kansas religious and educational matters during the mid 19th century, Werter Renick Davis was a transplant to Kansas from Ohio, having been a Methodist minister in the latter state for over two decades. The first president of Baker University (established in 1858), Davis organized the first faculty at that institution and would achieve further distinction as a representative in the first Kansas state legislature and as a chaplain and Lieutenant Colonel during the Civil War.
Born in Circleville, Ohio on April 1, 1815, Werter Renick Davis was the son of Henry and Avis Slocum Davis. In addition to Werter, the Davis family could also count Edwin Hamilton (1811-1888) and Joseph Slocum Davis (1812-1885) amongst its ranks. A law partner of future Congressman and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, Joseph S. Davis served two terms as Probate Judge of Knox County, Ohio and was a former Mayor of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Edwin Hamilton, the eldest of the brothers, became a noted authority on prehistoric Indians and as an archaeologist accumulated the "largest collection of relics ever assembled in America."
At the age of just fifteen, Werter Davis enrolled at the Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio and at a young age converted to the Methodist church. Davis left Kenyon before graduating but would later earn a degree in medicine and dentistry from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Cincinnati. In 1835 Davis entered the ministry, joining the Ohio Conference, and in June of that year was licensed to preach in Hillsborough, Ohio. He would subsequently be ordained as a deacon in 1837 in Xenia, Ohio.
For the next eighteen years, Davis' ministry would take him throughout Ohio, accepting pastorates in "Wilmington, Union, Eaton, Germantown, Zanesville, Putnam, Hebron" as well as Dayton, Lebanon, Hamilton, and Ripley, Virginia. Davis married in Putnam, Muskingum County, Ohio in May 1843 to Minerva Russell (1822-1897). The couple were wed for just over fifty years and would have several children, including Minerva (1846-1926), Werter Renick Jr., Allie (1853-1933), Katie, and Henry T. Period sources relate Davis' "oratorical gifts", as well as his being jailed while in Virginia due to "preaching antislavery sentiments." Davis' is further remarked in the Methodist Review as having been a sight to behold in the pulpit, noting:
"In those days the people called Baptists were inclined to be argumentative, and young Davis came to be in demand to debate the question of baptism. Among his bound pamphlets are some of these discussions, printed by the communties where the debates were held. Indeed, for many years he found delight in giving a word of exhortation and sound doctrine to his friends of the immersionist persuasion; and on such occasions they were treated to something besides water."In 1853 Davis was transferred to the Missouri Conference and would hold a pastorate at the Ebenezer Chapel in St. Louis. He remained here for only a year, and in 1854 accepted a position at the McKendree College in Illinois, where he would teach natural science. He would serve as acting president in his last year at that school (1858), and late in that year left Illinois for Kansas, to accept the presidency of the newly organized Baker University in Baldwin City. "Empowered to organize his own faculty", Davis took stock of the Baker Campus and briefly returned to McKendree College to entice professors to come and join the newly established college. Following his return to Kansas in spring 1859, Davis set about organizing the curriculum and professors and would serve as college president from 1858-62. After leaving the presidency Davis remained connected to the college and by the time of his death in 1893 Baker University had grown to be "equipped with the necessary appliances for successful work, with substantial buildings, a faculty of twenty-one teachers, and an annual enrollment of over five hundred."
Werter R. Davis' brief involvement in politics began when he was elected as a Republican to the First Kansas State legislature as a representative from Douglas County. Taking his seat in 1861, he chaired the house committee on education and during his term " his voice was heard in its halls for freedom and civic righteousness." Davis is also referenced as having served as Superintendent of Public Instruction for Douglas County during his term.
During his college stewardship Davis still remained connected to the ministry, being named as a presiding elder of the Wyandot Conference for the Baldwin City district. He would put his church work on hold in 1862 to join in the ongoing war effort, becoming a chaplain for the Twelfth Kansas Infantry. Despite having no previous military experience, Davis' was remarked as having a soldier-like bearing, and following his appointment as chaplain was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel, to assist in organizing the 16th Reg., Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Davis was subsequently given command of that regiment and served with it until the close of the war. In the waning days of the Civil War Davis would serve as the commandant at Ft. Leavenworth for a brief period, and is remarked as having taken part in an "expedition against the Indians in the Black Hills."
From the May 19, 1909 edition of the Western Christian Advocate.
Davis continued in the ministry after the Civil War and again served as president of Baker College from 1868-69 and briefly in 1870. He was a presiding elder in both the Leavenworth and Topeka districts and in 1880 removed to Salina, Kansas to accept a pastorate. In 1881 he was a delegate to the Ecumenical Methodist Conference held in London and three years later was named a delegate to the Centennial Conference of American Methodism in Baltimore. Davis would later return to a pastorate in Baldwin City, where he died on June 22, 1893 at age 78. Memorialized for his eloquence and as a man whose "saintliness shone like a star", Davis was survived by his wife Minerva, who, following her death in 1897, was interred alongside her husband at the Oakwood Cemetery in Baldwin City.
Portrait courtesy of www.bakeru.edu
From the Barton County Democrat, June 29, 1893.