The Soul of the American University

America’s Ivy League universities were established to prepare pastors for the ministry. Harvard, our first college, adopted the mission statement In Christi Gloriam, “for the glory of Christ.” This was set aside in 1836 (on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Harvard’s founding) in favor a one-word mission statement, Veritas, “truth.” It seems to me a suitable moment to review George M. Marsden’s magisterial history of our Ivy League schools, The Soul of the American University. Marsden does not wish for a return to a golden, bygone era, for the early days were fraught with sectarian feuds and scandalous chicanery. Take the founding of Dartmouth College, for example.

Reverend Eleazer Wheelock (1711-1779) announced his intention to establish a school to train Native Americans as missionaries. To that purpose Samuel Occom, a Mohegan Indian and a convert to Christianity, sailed to England where he raised funds for two years. However, when Occom returned to Connecticut, Wheelock redirected the funds to start a college for white male seminary students. The school was named after a donor, Lord Dartmouth. Occom wrote a letter, breaking off his relationship with Wheelock. Occom led his Indian Christian followers to Oneida, New York where they established the Brothertown tribe.)[1]

Despite such disquieting episodes in the early days of the universities, Marsden admires those Calvinist professors who confessed their sins and looked to the Sermon on the Mount to guide them in the way to live. It was Christians who, studying the life of Christ, formulated an enlightened philosophy of respect for the opinions of others written in the Westminster Confession, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” From this vantage point the next generation could write the First Amendment of the US Constitution, guaranteeing our freedom of speech, religion, assembly, petition, the press. These national treasures would not have been possible to enshrine in law without a long debate over the true meaning of “the way of the Lord.” Today’s educators do not study a book of revealed truth to find their bearings. None in academia, it seems, “examine themselves to see if they believe” that every person is made in the image of God, that faith, hope and love abide, that the greatest of these is love, that everyone who follows Christ will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life. All this has been disposed; in its place is what William F. Buckley called “established unbelief.” Established unbelief is what Marsden rues:

While American universities today allow individuals free exercise of religion in parts of their lives that do not touch the heart of the university, they tend to exclude or discriminate against relating explicit religious perspectives to intellectual life. So much are these exclusions taken for granted many people do not even view them as strange. Nor do they think it odd that such exclusion is typically justified in the names of academic freedom and free inquiry.[2]

In 1840 four-fifths of the college presidents of denominationally related colleges were clergymen, as were two-thirds of state college presidents.[3] Conversion of young men was, in fact, one of the common rationales for promoting and sustaining colleges.[4]

Higher education was rightly considered risky without an equal measure of training in Christian virtues. Francis Wayland, in the era’s most popular college text on Political Economy, “intellectual cultivation” will only “stimulate desire, and this unrestrained by the love of right, must eventually overturn the social fabric which it as first erected.” The study of religion was the way to insure that the souls of college students would value their fellow man. “No nation can rapidly accumulate or long enjoy the means of happiness, except as it is pervaded by the love of individual and social right; but the love of individual and social right will never prevail, without the practical influence of the motives and sanctions of religion; and these motives and sanctions will never influence men, unless they are, by human effort, brought to bear upon the conscience.”[5]

In 1805 with the election of Henry Ware as the Hollis Professor of Divinity, the Unitarians wrested control of Harvard from the moderate Calvinists. Reeling from this defeat, Massachusetts Calvinists established Andover Theological Seminary in 1808. The Andover charter went to considerable lengths to guarantee that in future generations liberals could never take it over. That guarantee could not hold liberalism back even for a century, however. In the early 1880s, Andover Seminary dramatically emerged as the center for Congregational liberalism.[6] Marsden is astonished:

George M. Marsden

How was it that, by 1880, distinctively Christian teaching could be displaced so easily from the central and substantive role that it had held in American higher education for over two centuries and in the universities of Christendom for many centuries before that? Why were the fledgling universities of the late nineteenth century, despite their founder’s expressed commitments to Christianity, designed in a way that would virtually guarantee that they would become subversive of the distinctive aspects of their Christian heritage of learning?[7]

University of Chicago. The University of Chicago was established in the 1890s and early 1900s out of the concern of Baptists that they were falling behind in the educational race in the West. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., selected Chicago as the place to build a great new university. In choosing William Rainey Harper to head the new university the Baptists were looking to one of their own. Teaching Hebrew and the Old Testament were overriding passions for Harper. For Harper, the key to salvation was through a return to the purity of the biblical word.[8] Harper shared with many of his contemporaries enthusiasm about the power of “scientific study” to settle longstanding human debates in all areas. He accordingly justified the inclusion of the Bible and other distinctly religious subjects in the broadening university curriculum on the grounds that they could now be studied scientifically.[9] However, succeeding generations of faculty and presidents took the University of Chicago in a more secular, if rigorously academic, direction.

Blincoe. I sat in a University of Chicago classroom at “parents day” in 2004. A professor of science spoke critically of the Catholic Church for suppressing, in the 17th century, the voice of the astronomer Galileo (1564-1642). Probably every parent in the room knew about this religious interference with scientific discovery. The most interesting thing happened an hour later; I sat in another classroom, and another professor, not from the science department, also spoke derisively of the Catholic Church’s attempt to silence Galileo! Is there anything else to lecture on at the University of Chicago? I raised my hand and asked, “Has the Catholic Church changed its mind?” “Oh yes,” he replied, “The Catholic Church today has one of the most well-regarded astronomical observatories in the world.” This was good to hear, but the professor’s commendation of the Catholics was mentioned only when a parent asked a question.

Conclusion. I studied at college in the 1970s, in the “age of Aquarius.” That age seems chaste compared to the self-important conceit that has created an ersatz liberty and justice for all on campuses today. Our universities seem to have lost their way. Marsden “saw it coming.” He would cringe, as I do, at the long decline from “the Glory of Christ” to Veritas to ‘My truth.’” The soul of the American university is on a ventilator. It cannot end like this; not with our prayers for renewal. Renewal will come, but it will come from the Holy Spirit ways that we least expect.


[1] For more on this incident read a summary of Power, Honor and Authority, the Founding of Dartmouth College here.

[2] George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University : From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). 6

[3] Ibid. 81

[4] Ibid. 83

[5] Ibid. 102

[6] Ibid. 182

[7] Ibid. 31

[8] Ibid. 236-241

[9] Ibid. 243