Volume 6 Number 1
Remembering Professor Otto Piper
During World War I, Otto Alfred Piper, who was from 1937 to 1962 professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, was found almost dead on the battlefield after suffering a direct hit under his right eye. This close encounter with death profoundly influenced his life. And though he seldom talked about it, he carried with him the scars, the blindness in his right eye, and the impaired vision in his left. A magnifying glass lies on the desk in front of him in his portrait that hangs in Stuart Hall. I often saw him in his study at 58 Mercer Street reading with that magnifying glass.
Despite impaired eyesight, Piper read widely and amassed a magnificent store of knowledge. He became a renowned professor in Europe, though he was not just a bookworm. He was interested and involved in German politics. Under the kaiser he was suspected of being a communist and was arrested and jailed, though soon released. Nevertheless, the arrest so affected his wife, Elizabeth, that her asthma, which had been in remission for a long time, returned and remained with her for life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Piper left the country in opposition. (His wife was of Jewish descent.)
Hardship was part of the Piper family’s history. Some of his ancestors were French Huguenots named Naveau. They had fled across the Rhine for religious freedom after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes. Now, under Hitler, the Piper family had to leave Germany. He took a teaching position at the University of Wales (1933–1937) and then came to Princeton Seminary in 1937 with his eldest son, Gero. His wife, his daughter, Ruth, and their younger son, Manfred, followed later.
During World War II both his sons were drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces.
The first service in Miller Chapel in January 1945 was a most memorable experience. According to PTS student Manfred L. Geisler, at the end of the service Piper was asked to make an announcement. He went to the front of the chapel and, wiping tears from his eyes, read from a telegram from the U.S. Army that his son, Gero, had fallen in the Battle of Bastogne on Christmas Eve 1944. Chapel adjourned with a moving prayer.
Piper had been teaching a required course for middlers on the exegesis of I John. After chapel, his class went to Stuart Hall and wondered whether he would come. He was delayed, talking to those who were expressing condolences, but to the students’ amazement he walked into the classroom fully composed and said, “Let us pray.” In sharp contrast with the hatred unleashed by the war, Piper lectured about love and brotherhood as found in I John 3. It was as if he were saying to the class, “I will show you a better way: the way of love.”
When the war ended, German cities were in ruins. Even Dresden, a center of art and culture that was of no military significance, had been mercilessly bombed by the British. Many Germans were devastated and in dire need. Piper began relief work. He collected clothing from wherever he could. We students were asked to help him sort and inventory every box. For years we spent many hours around the large Piper dining room table helping him. When the boxes were packed and sealed with a slip listing the contents, he would load them into his old black Dodge sedan and drive off to the post office to mail them. This went on until the mid 1950s. He was later recognized by the German government and awarded a medal for his relief work.
On Thanksgiving Day 1948 his wife, Elizabeth, had a severe asthma attack that she did not survive. Two years later, while on sabbatical in Germany, he married another Elizabeth. But due to the recent McCarran Act she was refused a visa, because as a school teacher she had belonged to a totalitarian organization. He came back alone. It took more than a year and a half for Piper and his wife to resolve the impasse and get her to Princeton.
They were an important part of the Seminary community. Thursday afternoons during the proper seasons, dressed in overalls and wearing a large straw hat, Piper crawled around on hands and knees in his flower garden, planting and weeding. Memorable also were the regular Friday afternoons when he and his wife had New Testament graduate students to their living room for tea. During lulls in conversation, he was always ready to bring up subjects that he thought needed enlightenment. Piper was a friend of his students, a model of service and integrity, and a man of great learning.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary