Jim Amidon — When I was notified Friday morning that Wabash College’s legendary Professor of Religion, Hall Peebles, had passed away, my mind flooded with memories of the time I spent with him in Baxter Hall classrooms more than 25 years ago.
I had never thought about taking a religion class in college, but I quickly learned that Wabash’s finest teachers were found in the religion department.
I sought the advice of junior and senior religion majors in the fraternity house and they raved about Eric Dean, Hall Peebles, Raymond Williams, and the “young buck,” Bill Placher. Since I was tracking toward a history major, I chose a class focused on the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible, affectionately called “Rel 1.”
Hall Peebles taught the course, though we almost never called him Dr. Peebles. To us — to all of Wabash in the 1980s — Hall Peebles was simply “Yahweh.”
Most everyone knows that Yahweh is the word for “Lord” in the Hebrew Bible. But I was never sure if students called Dr. Peebles Yahweh because they thought he represented something Divine or if it was just a nickname attached to the man who taught the subject so thoroughly, so well, and with such enthusiasm.
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m fond of what Bill Placher once said about Dr. Peebles: “Students are, I think, in the long run never wrong about the quality of teachers,” said Placher. “So I have to take the students’ nickname for Hall — Yahweh — seriously. And he does have much in common with the Lord of the Hebrew Scriptures. He is, in the words of the first chapter of the book of the prophet Joel, gracious, merciful, and slow to anger.”
As I was leafing through our files on Dr. Peebles in order to write a story about his life, I received a phone call from Hall’s long-time colleague, Dr. Williams. For a good 20 minutes, we talked about Hall, Eric Dean, and Bill Placher. Those four men lifted Wabash’s religion department to national prominence — and not simply because all four were prolific and respected scholars.
Wabash’s religion department gained its reputation because the professors were excellent teachers who inspired their students and cared for them — in and out of the classroom. All had a pastoral quality about them. Indeed, I remember dozens of times when fraternity brothers worked out their personal problems not with students or even parents, but with the professors in the religion department.
Raymond said that Hall had as “close to a photographic memory as anyone I’ve ever known.” He said Peebles’ large library was always close to mind, and that he could locate specific passages in texts after a brief pause for recollection. “I never knew if that pause was because he was thinking things through or if it was to downplay the greatness of his memory.”
Yahweh was a gentleman scholar and an even gentler teacher. On more than a few occasions, he set deadlines for papers at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoons. “But of course you know that I go home at 4:30 and won’t be back in the office until Monday morning.” That was his invitation to slip our papers under his door any time during the weekend.
Changing pedagogy has led to fewer and fewer lectures in college classrooms and more discussions and seminar-style approaches to teaching and learning.
But Hall Peebles was a master lecturer, even mesmerizing. He always began by taking off his watch and placing it next to the Bible on the lectern, then pulling out his handkerchief.
For the next 50 minutes — and with scraps for notes, if there were notes — he would engage the minds of young men in thoughtful and careful reading of the Bible. Time flew by and before any of us knew it, Yahweh would tap his watch, wipe his brow, and end the class. Seconds later the bell would sound. It was as though he knew precisely how much information he could convey in the allotted time and somehow hit the mark every time.
Wabash men appreciated Yahweh’s presence in their lives, and named him an honorary alumnus of the College.
He received Wabash’s Excellence in Teaching Award, yet he was an accomplished scholar whose interests changed throughout his career. When the need arose, he focused his research on Far-Eastern religions and used his summers and sabbatical leaves to travel the world — from China’s Silk Road to the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
He never stopped learning (he published The Last Judgment and World Religions at age 76), but more important, he never stopped teaching. And at least two generations of Wabash men are the beneficiaries of his excellent teaching — as well as his intellect, kindness, and generosity of spirit.