Regardless of when or how you arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary — whether you were a student, faculty member, or staff member — it’s likely that you met James Armstrong. “He wore many hats and enjoyed them all,” says Professor of Old Testament Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, who was hired by Armstrong during his time as academic dean.
Armstrong first arrived on the Princeton Seminary campus in 1951 as a student, and later returned in 1956 as an instructor. He rose through the ranks on the faculty and staff until his retirement in 2005, just shy of what would amount to half a century in service. He was incredibly intelligent (nicknamed “genius Jim” during his seminary days), with extraordinary range as a scholar, teacher, and professional. Armstrong died January 20, 2021, on his ninetieth birthday.
Known for his almost encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of theological disciplines, Armstrong taught courses such as Hebrew (for which he is arguably most known), Aramaic, Deuteronomy, Prophetic Literature, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Second Temple Jewish Literature (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), Biblical Hermeneutics, and Old Testament Ethics. A multitasker before it became a buzzword, Armstrong also held several positions at Princeton Seminary — sometimes simultaneously — including instructor and professor (1956-2006), registrar (1959-1987), librarian (1987-1997), and dean of Academic Affairs (1994-2005). But his influence spanned beyond his titled roles.
An early adopter by any definition, Armstrong became interested in computers and, around 1960, he found time amid his many duties to invent a “Hebrew learning machine” so students could incorporate technology into their studies. Armstrong also taught himself basic programming, which led him to design software that later facilitated the work of the Office of the Registrar. Later on, as the James Lenox Librarian, he brought information and communication technology to Speer Library. Additionally, Armstrong was instrumental in the creation of the Henry Luce III Library, which was built in 1994 to house the Seminary's Department of Archives and Special Collections.
“He took each new assignment on with a great sense of adventure,” says now retired reference librarian Kate Skrebutenas, who reported to Armstrong when he was the Lenox Librarian. “He had all the skills people wish for in a boss. He supported people when they had specific needs, but let them thrive in their own areas. He had a way of encouraging people to do their best work. And, he took a genuine interest in everyone.”
Beloved for his keen intellect, wonderful sense of humor, cheerful disposition, and generous heart, Armstrong was nonetheless known for his introverted personality and quiet demeanor. A rare breed, he was comfortable with all kinds of constituencies on campus, from students to administrators to staff members, crossing boundaries seamlessly and gladly. As Skrebutenas says, “It’s not accidental that he had many different roles at the Seminary.”