The Reverend Joseph Henry Thayer was born November 7, 1828 in Braintree Massachusetts to Joseph Thayer and Evelina Stetson Thayer. He studied at the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard in 1850. He went on to study theology at Harvard Divinity School and Andover Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the Congregational Church in 1859. That same year Rev Thayer married Martha Caldwell Davis in Boston and they had five children.
He served Churches in Quincy and Salem Massachusetts and on September 17, 1862 was commissioned chaplain with the 40th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and reported for duty on the 23rd of September that same year. The 40th Massachusetts was sent south to Fort Ethan Allen near what is now Arlington Virginia. They were involved in several skirmishes in that area during 1862 and 1863. Chaplain Thayer resigned his commission on May 15, 1863 and returned to Massachusetts.
It was not uncommon for Chaplains to serve for a short period of time the average length of service was 18 months. There are two main reasons for this one had to do with the average age of the chaplain which was 58 and the other reasons was time away from their church. Some Churches would only grant a short leave for their minister to go off to war and then they had to resign and return. It is unclear why Thayer resigned but it might have been to take the position at Andover.
From 1864-1882 he was professor of sacred literature at Andover Seminary and was also a member of the American Bible Revision Committee and was recording secretary of the New Testament Company working on the Revised Version of Scripture. His chief work was a Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament that he devoted 25 years of his life to complete. However, shortly after his Lexicon was published Gustav Adolf Deissmann published a work based on Egyptian papyri that would revolutionize New Testament Koine Greek and thus made Thayer’s work obsolete.
In 1884 he became the Bussey Professor of New Testament criticism at Harvard Divinity School where he served until shortly before his death on November 26, 1901.
The Reverend Thayer has come under some criticism of his works and has been called, in some Evangelical circles, a Unitarian and claim that he departed from traditional orthodox Christian beliefs. There seems to be much disagreement on this.