Every one shall consider the main End of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ which is Eternal life. John xvii.3.
—Laws, Liberties, and Orders of Harvard College, circa 1646
As for the Universities, I believe it may be said. Their Light is now become Darkness, Darkness that may be felt. . . . Tutors neglect to pray with and examine the Hearts of the pupils.—Discipline is at too low an Ebb: Bad Books are become fashionable among them.
—George Whitefield, 1744
All Scholars Shall Live Religious, Godly and Blameless Lives according to the Rules of Gods Word, diligently Reading the holy Scriptures the Fountain of Light and Truth; and constantly attend upon all the Duties of Religion both in Publick and Secret.
—Yale Laws, 11,1, 1745
A university cannot be built upon a sect.
—Charles W. Eliot, 1876
There are several major themes that command the attention of the historian of American higher education, but among these the oldest and the longest sustained is the drift toward secularism.
—Richard Hofstadter, 1952
The history of American higher education is a sad story of loss of faith by religious institutions. The presence in so many parts of the country of secularized, non-religious, at times even antireligious institutions whose foundations were inspired by religious zeal and apostolic motives seems almost like empirical proof of the contention of positivists that faith and intelligence are incompatible.
—Charles E. Donovan, S.J., 1963
We have disavowed a view of the relation between the colleges and the churches which would permit viewing them as agencies of the church in preference for a covenant relationship in which each is recognized to have its own function but a common commitment and point of view on crucial issues.
—Edgar M. Carlson, 1967
The survival of recognizably Protestant colleges therefore seems to depend on the survival within the larger society of Protestant enclaves whose members believe passionately in a way of life radically different from that of the majority, and who are both willing and able to pay for a brand of higher education that embodies their vision. Such enclaves still exist, but they are few in number.
—Christopher Jencks & David Riesman, 1968
I have watched so many small colleges sucked down the drain by specious appeals to “liberal values” and “top drawer scholarship,” as though one cannot find excellent teachers who are also Christians. It is no longer possible to believe that the great central values of Christendom will so commend themselves to the wise and just as to survive without special and even to some degree coercive nurture. How do we meet that challenge without some sort of new Inquisition?
—William Muehl, 1975
Legion are the universities and colleges in the United States founded under the auspices of the churches. Princeton, Calvin, Hanover, Tulsa, and Macalaster were founded as Presbyterian or Reformed. Brown, Baylor, Wake Forest, Spelman, and Vassar were Baptist. Haverford, Swarthmore, Earlham, Whittier, and Guilford were Quaker. Williams, Yale, Smith, Fisk, and Dartmouth were Congregationalist. Valparaiso, Saint Olaf, Luther, Hartwick, and Wittenberg were Lutheran. Duke, Emory, Northwestern, Southern California, and Syracuse were Methodist. Georgetown, Webster, Notre Dame, Manhattanville, and De Paul were Catholic. The University of the South (Sewanee), Hobart, Bard, William and Mary, and Kenyon were Episcopalian. Those were the offspring of churches with numerous foundations: nearly a hundred for the Methodists (surviving from some 900 foundations), more than a hundred for Presbyterians and Reformed, and more than 250 for the Catholics (not including all those which no longer exist). Then there is the scatter of other foundations: Brigham Young, Bob Jones, Loma Linda, Eastern Nazarene, Bethel . . .
The churches sponsored higher education before there were any state-sponsored colleges or universities; indeed, before there were states. For most of the history of the nation those Christian foundations set the patterns and carried most, then much, of the enrollment. And now, out of that galaxy of institutions founded by believers so that faith could house and nurture learning, there are few—very few—that in any effective and outright way are confessional. There has been, from earliest times, a tendency towards alienation. And that tendency has been continually associated with a striving towards academic excellence on the part of the educators, and a diffidence towards venturesome thinking (or at least expression) on the part of churchmen.
One is obliged to ask, however, whether the overall sense of this secularization enacted on behalf of progress may in some profound sense have involved regress as well. I say overall, because at almost every step in the course of this journey there have been concrete and valuable purposes pursued and improvements attained. It is clear that those who were the chief engineers of secularization did not foresee or intend or wish the alienation of their institutions from their mother churches. But the secularization came. It is not complete. The Catholic colleges and universities were somehow the last great cohort to be drawn into the process, though having once put their feet to the path they are finding their way along it at unprecedented speed. Then there are the small and culturally withdrawn colleges with a campus ethos strongly enough at variance with the dogmas and dictates of Modern Scholarship to disdain and resist it thus far; one thinks of Wheaton, Liberty, Oral Roberts, Calvin, Goshen.
Perhaps the trend is inexorable, perhaps there is some radical antagonism between a community of committed faith and a community of committed learning. Great academic leaders have been persuaded that the church is a counterproductive sponsor of ambitious higher education. The group that held this conviction the most explicitly, and who acted on it in the largest sector of independent higher education—that which belonged to the Liberal Protestants—is well represented by William DeWitt Hyde, elected president of Bowdoin College in 1885 at the age of 26:
In its religious life the college should be as little as possible denominational. The narrowness of sectarianism and the breadth of the college outlook are utterly incompatible. Denominations may lay the eggs of colleges; indeed, most of our colleges owe their inception to such denominational zeal. But as soon as the college develops strength, it passes inevitably beyond mere denominational control. Church schools are often conspicuous successes. Church colleges are usually conspicuous failures. A church university is a contradiction in terms.
Hyde was on all fours with Charles W. Eliot, during whose early presidency he had been a student at Harvard. It was Eliot who severed the last bonds of that university with its church. He had pointed out the antipathy between religious authority and free inquiry in 1869, in his inaugural address:
The very word “education” is a standing protest against dogmatic teaching. The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility. It is thus that the university in our day serves Christ and the church.
Whether or not emancipation from church be the necessary condition or the inevitable result of intellectual excellence, it behooves us to understand the history and the elemental structure of this secularization. If we do, we shall have to study primarily the colleges and universities affiliated originally with the “mainline” Protestant churches, for it is they who led the way. Our undertaking is to discern any features that recur regularly enough to be considered typical in the process of academic secularization. There are numerous theories about secularization in general. They would best be set aside here, so as to examine what may prove to be a process with distinctive lineaments of its own.
The process was usually unacknowledged, especially unacknowledged to themselves by those most responsible for its furtherance. Those who lived through the secularization of any institution would not easily know which events were marking its course. Secularization, like death, is one of those human events best understood in retrospect. I propose to study first an archetypical case: a secularization that occurred swiftly, with little anticipation, then a rush of public events, then a formal severance between the parties, and lastly a slow, even protracted process whereby the spirit and loyalty and identity of the institution is drained of manifest faith. The story we shall tell is that of Vanderbilt University. If we can disengage a pattern from that story, we can then see whether its elements suggest enough comparisons with other secularization stories to allow us to venture a hypothetical model of the process. Lastly, if successful, we might as well ask whether there be any points of wisdom to be drawn from what we discern.
Methodists in America were sundered in 1844 by their disagreement over slavery, when its defenders formed themselves into the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Ten years later their quadrennial General Conference created the Educational Institute, a working group of educators and ministers who resolved in 1857 that the church needed a university. Unlike their many colleges, it would offer mostly graduate studies, in medicine, law, and literature. It would be seated in Nashville, where the church’s missionary center and publishing house were located. And it would be governed by the bishops. When they reported to the General Conference later that year, however, they were met with an almost hostile indifference. The existing colleges saw a new foundation as a rival, so their representatives persuaded the body to refuse the charter. And the war came.
After the war a campaign was mounted in the Methodist press on behalf of a central theological seminary. Most of the church’s ministry was in the hands of coarsely educated rural evangelists. The next General Conference declined this proposal, and said the money would be better spent subsidizing chairs in Bible studies at the church’s existing colleges. At this point the two frustrated proposals—for a university and for a seminary, both at an advanced level were merged and sponsored by an articulate group that included several of the church’s eight bishops and some of its most learned scholars. The Tennessee Conference hosted a convention in Memphis in 1872, and delegates from seven conferences attended. It is likely that the coalition formed there failed to notice that their merger was never perfected, for they separately envisioned two very different foundations: “one fully under the control of the bishops and one committed, above all else, to theological education . . . [and] a church-sponsored university but otherwise one without religious tests or even theological schools, one open to the latest science and scholarship.”
The convention authorized the establishment of a “Central University” provided that no less than half the required million dollars were in hand, and named the members of its Board of Trust, who were to function under supervision of the bishops of the church. A new charter to that effect was quickly obtained through a Nashville judge in attendance. But only months later the Southern Methodist bishops declined to sponsor any such university or seminary, citing their commitments to existing colleges and universities.
The bishops, however, had other motives behind their reluctance that were perhaps expressed by one of their number, George F. Pierce: “Give me the evangelist and the revivalist rather than the erudite brother who goes into the pulpit to interpret modern science instead of preaching repentance and faith, or going so deep into geology as to show that Adam was not the first man and that the Deluge was a little local affair. . . . It is my opinion that every dollar invested in a theological school will be a danger to Methodism.”
In a church whose membership ranked lower than the older Protestant denominations in education and socioeconomic status, a bishop could well speak like that. The church-at-large was no more forthcoming: fund-raisers sent round the conferences took in less than their own expenses. The panic of 1873 appeared to make the entire scheme a fantasy . . . until Bishop Holland N. McTyeire called upon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt at his home in New York. Vanderbilt had been stung, in his elder years, by public resentment of him as a crude and crooked profiteer, and he was anxious to offset this repugnant image with some philanthropy. The bishop came back to Nashville with $500,000 in his pocket and the promise of more to follow.
The Board of Trust quickly made him their President, as Vanderbilt had prescribed. McTyeire served in this position from 1875 until 1889, and in this time Vanderbilt University, on the strength of further benefactions from its namesake, followed a course of growth that was typical of the time, save that it was one of the best-financed universities in the post-bellum South.
In light of what was to follow, it should be noted that the small size of the young university, combined with the authority of Methodist bishops to control all assignments in the church, led President McTyeire to handle faculty appointments personally. He did not restrict them to Methodists; indeed, among his first ten faculty appointments two went to Presbyterians and two to Episcopalians. He did refuse the appointment of one young scholar said to incline towards evolution (about whom one advisor had written: “He is not a Methodist, and is not even a religious man . . . “). Another was terminated for Darwinian opinions, and a third was eased out after manifest problems with drink.
The local newspaper thought well enough of all this: “Parents who have sons to educate prefer the safety of that atmosphere to genteel infidelity. Vanderbilt is safe. No other institution of learning in America, at the end of three years, ever stood so safe or so strong.” But among intellectuals it seemed otherwise: A writer in the Nation declared that “Vanderbilt University, which ere this should have been a Cornell or an Ann Arbor, is now not much more than a theological seminary, where the free discussion of scientific truth will not be tolerated.” Commenting on one purge of a group of faculty who had objected openly to a salary cutback, Vanderbilt’s very sympathetic chronicler, Edwin Mims, construes McTyeire’s later career as a season of retrenchment:
Seemingly there was a growing tendency towards a less liberal policy, towards even ecclesiasticism and denominationalism that had not been apparent in the early years. As Senior Bishop he felt an increasing sense of responsibility to the Church. It was a striking fact that men who went away had been either Episcopalians or Presbyterians, and that their places were supplied in every case, until 1886, by Methodists—three of them sons of Methodist preachers. There developed a feeling in the larger public that Vanderbilt was primarily a Methodist institution.
That this was not the feeling pervading the faculty is shown by a public statement of physicist Landon Garland, the chancellor under McTyeire:
I would not have you lay aside any denominational preference you may have brought with you here. We would have you cherish the religion of your fathers. This institution is indeed under the special patronage of the Southern Methodist Church, but in its ongoings it knows no denominational distinctions. The youth of all religious denominations have equal rights here. We require no religious tests.Bigotry can never find a lodgment in the truly Christian heart. A narrow and contracted piety in the conduct of this University would dishonor the name of Wesley and disregard the wishes of the founder. We stand for a broad and thorough education—fully abreast with the advancement of literature and science.
After an interregnum, McTyeire was succeeded in 1893 by a layman, James Kirkland, who would serve with the title of chancellor for forty-four years. Vanderbilt’s historian Paul Conkin depicts his ecclesiastical sense:
Kirkland came to Vanderbilt a loyal Methodist. He joined actively in West End Church and for many years taught a Sunday school class, mostly to his own Vanderbilt boys. His opening lectures to students each fall were as much lay sermons as those of [former chancellor] Garland and not a whit less moralistic. Yet, his allegiance to Methodism never seemed so much doctrinal as a matter of family tradition and soothing familiarity. From his inauguration as chancellor on he always talked of Vanderbilt’s “broad” or “liberal” religious identity. In effect, Kirkland reinterpreted Vanderbilt’s church ties as a loose commitment to Protestant Christianity, and not at all to the distinguishing doctrines of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He defended only a loose Christian test in the recruitment of faculty. Obviously, Kirkland had no reason to speak out on doctrinal controversies in the church, but his Sunday school classes and his private correspondence indicate his rather loose, conventional Protestant orthodoxy, and his openness to higher criticism and to Christianized versions of Darwinian evolution. Kirkland reflected the most tolerant and accommodating wing of southern Methodism without ever moving to an avowed “modernist” position . . .He always tended to translate “Methodist” into “Christian,” and thus so broaden the religious ties of Vanderbilt as to include almost anyone in the South. He would not be sectarian or dogmatic, which is to say he would not be rigorous and thus exclusive on matters of religious belief.
Kirkland’s tenure marked a resolute climb of the university towards academic excellence. In 1901, however, one of the bishops. Warren Candler, stunned Kirkland by introducing a motion in the Board of Trust that, all things being equal, Methodists should be preferred for faculty appointments. The motion was accepted unanimously, and Kirkland let the occasion pass without turning it into a confrontation. Three years later, however, when he presented the name of a Baptist faculty member to be dean. Bishop Candler observed that now eleven of the nineteen faculty in that department were non-Methodists, as were all deans in the university but one. A motion to postpone the appointment failed by only one vote. Kirkland told the Board shortly thereafter that he intended to resign. He stated his position in a long paper which Conkin summarizes:
Vanderbilt was Methodist in many ways, including the faith of board members. He even used the term “ownership” to express the church’s claim. “I have felt that Vanderbilt University was Methodist, not in the sense that Methodists made it, but in the sense that it was a great trust committed to the Methodist Church to be carried out, not for selfish ends, but for the good of society and the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom.” This could not mean that only Methodists had rights in the university. What about the Vanderbilt family? He had appointed suitable Methodists, which accounted for the higher percentage of Methodists than those of other denominations on the faculty. But to serve the trust given to Vanderbilt he sought those most suited to the task. Who, when ill, would choose a physician because he was a Methodist? Why was the teaching of young men different? Kirkland could not fill the Engineering or Medical faculties with Methodists. No one seemed to mind this. Why did they pick on the Academic [Arts and Sciences Division]? If Kirkland followed the policy suggested by Candler he would soon sabotage the university. Sectarian requirements would drive away all non-Methodists on the faculty and, even more critical, alienate major benefactors, for they endorsed a “liberal Christian policy.”
But it was when he spoke directly to this subject of financial support that Kirkland came closest to his fundamental purpose:
I say to you candidly, as I have said before, I have never found a man, be he Methodist or be he non-Methodist, willing to contribute to our work here who has not endorsed a liberal Christian policy in the administration of affairs . . . I have never denied our Methodist allegiance, I have never denied our Methodist history, but I have maintained that, greater than Methodism was the cause of Christ and that the call for service in His name was greater than the call to the service of the Church.
The Board capitulated entirely, and gave him a vote of confidence framed in terms as ambiguous as Kirkland’s, though perhaps less wittingly so:
Resolved, by the Board of Trust of Vanderbilt University, belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, That in accepting and administering the great trust of a Christian University our chief concern is to promote the highest type of Christian scholarship and Christian character, and to this end we shall seek in the future, as we have in the past, to secure for its chairs the most competent scholars, of unquestioned loyalty to Christ and of the highest attainment in their several departments.
Only four months later, however, Kirkland was striving to secure a substantial grant from a trust fund, and to its trustees, Conkin indicates, he expressed himself in quite another way:
Churchmen had conceived Vanderbilt but the Vanderbilt family had provided all the means. The church had contributed no funds except for limited donations to the “theological” department. The government of the university was “vested exclusively in its Trustees. No conference or other ecclesiastical body elects them, nor can any such body give them orders or directions. They elect their own successors and no law exists requiring that they be Methodists.” The board made the bishops ex officio members of the board “in order to secure the support and patronage” of the church, and for the same reason submitted the names of other board members “after election to the General Education Board of the church for confirmation.” In all likelihood, he said, the Vanderbilt board would soon change the role of bishops; some bishops desired a change. He insisted that Vanderbilt used no denominational test in appointing professors, save in the Biblical [Department]. His purpose, he said, was to make Vanderbilt a “genuine university, broad and liberal and free. Outside its Theological Department we do not wish it to be the exponent of any sect or creed, save such as belongs to our common Christianity.”
Was this one man with a single policy, giving it appropriate inflections for different audiences? Or was it a man who was devious and equivocal, determined to alter the orientation of the university before anyone be the wiser? Kirkland’s financial plans at the time make clear that he had spoken more candidly to the outsiders he was courting than to his own trustees.
A recent fund drive in the church, out of which Vanderbilt had been promised $300,000, had been oversubscribed, yet the allotment to the university amounted to less than one-tenth of that commitment. Kirkland clearly had to look in other directions for support. George Peabody College was a normal school in Nashville that would very likely come into a million dollars with the dissolution of the Peabody Trust, and Kirkland was working energetically to persuade its trustees to move their college across Nashville next to Vanderbilt, thereby making a well-funded school of education available to the university at no cost to itself. Andrew Carnegie was creating a ten-million-dollar foundation to finance pensions for retired faculty, but only for those at nonsectarian colleges. And the General Education Board, funded by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., was becoming a most promising source of funds for promising universities. Kirkland was situating Vanderbilt for appeals to all three of these funding sources, and its ties to the Methodist Church were now a handicap; in the case of the Carnegie Foundation they were outright disqualifying.
Thus Kirkland had a plan quietly underway to change the charter of the school, removing from the bishops their right to ultimate control. In anticipation of that, in 1905 he had his Board change the bylaws to restrict the number of bishops in their body. Since their founding, the church had increased its bench of bishops from eight to thirteen and was likely to add still more; Kirkland secured an arrangement that henceforth only five of them would sit on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust: and not by right, but by the choice of the Board. In addition, he was quietly working to acquire adequate financing for the Biblical Department to allow it to be separately though subordinately incorporated, with its own board. By segregating all that was unambiguously church-related from “Vanderbilt proper,” he could hope to emerge with a university freed from denominational involvement and restraint. The dean, who thought of this as an upgrading of his department rather than as a quarantine of religion, became Kirkland’s enthusiastic ally in the endeavor.
This ignited a man who was destined to become the university’s bitter antagonist. Bishop Elijah E. Hoss, a former faculty member and editor of the Nashville Christian Advocate, the leading Southern Methodist journal that McTyeire had once directed. Hoss had three chief grievances, besides his own disenfranchisement as a bishop from the Vanderbilt Board. First, student behavior had become boorish and immoral (he had in mind intoxication and sex) due to lax discipline by the administration. Second, the theological teaching at Vanderbilt was becoming deviant, if not heretical. Third, the “whole inner drift and spirit of the University has been away from Methodism, and nothing short of a revolution can restore the original and true status.”
Kirkland surely had the support of faculty, students, and alumni, but Hoss spoke to the convictions of many fellow bishops and of many in the church at large. He was strident and made few friends, but he raised the cry in a way that Vanderbilt could not stifle. Conkin observes:
He minded not that [Vanderbilt] remained poor if it remained holy. He rejected Kirkland’s vision of a liberal university that joined the world in order to get worldly support [he spoke of Carnegie as a “thug”], that enlisted in behalf of all types of progress. He was not as narrow as he sounded. He wanted to keep the university close to the church, but this did not mean he wanted every professor to be a Methodist or that he advocated piety as the key qualification for a teacher. His real quarrel was with his fellow Methodists who compromised the older beliefs and practices or, worse, expressed contempt for them.
Hoss was joined in his grievances by others in the church, and storm darkened the sky over Vanderbilt. The General Conference of 1906 appointed a commission of five Methodist civil judges to advise on the legal relationship between the church and the university. The judges found for the church. The Vanderbilt Board received their report and ignored it. But as the bishops began to assert their supervisory powers through several vetoes, the Vanderbilt Board, after various attempts to sidestep them, eventually rejected their authority. The College of Bishops went to court, and at the trial level they were thoroughly vindicated. In 1914 the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, however, resting its judgment heavily on the fact that the church had never validated its patronage by any significant financial subsidy (university lawyers pointed out that the church had expended more on the lawsuit than it had contributed to the university before the controversy had arisen) and that during the first three decades of Vanderbilt’s existence they had never asserted their supervisory powers.
A few months later an angry General Conference shook the Vanderbilt dust from its sandals and walked away from even the limited participation in governance that the court had offered. The Board’s response was meticulously generic: “Dedicated in the beginning of its history to the union of education and religion, it proposes in the future, as it has done in the past, to make the upbuilding of character its chief task. Not learning alone, but learning transferred into life and dedicated to the highest service of God and man is to remain our ideal and standard.”
By this time Methodist students were a minority in all but the two weakest departments. Biblical and Academic. The faculty was 60 percent Methodist. The YMCA was brought in as the nondenominational campus ministry. What had already begun under Kirkland has continued: the students’ commitments have been more closely shaped by their being Southern and relatively affluent than by any imperatives offered by the church. The Biblical Department became a School of Religion. As Conkin says, “In their terms, they would now emphasize ethics over theology and reflect a ‘serious scientific spirit.’ They would emphasize convergent paths to religious truth and grant equality to students of all denominations.” Kirkland lived to garner nearly forty million dollars from Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller sources. On the occasion of his fortieth anniversary in the chancellorship in 1933 he would be hailed by the presidents of all the colleges of the Southern Methodist Church as the unquestioned leader of education in the South. His successor was a Presbyterian.
To situate the Vanderbilt transformation and ascertain to what degree it might be taken as typical, one must appreciate that there have been several distinct waves of secularization in higher education. The first occurred in the eighteenth century in continental Europe: the universities were secularized formally by being nationalized politically, after which they were secularized intellectually by the Enlightenment. That first wave of secularization had no discernible effect on either the British universities or the few young colleges in America, however.
The next wave of secularization, the second in the West and the first in the New World, the transition to which Vanderbilt belongs, affected liberal Protestant institutions—first the new universities, then the colleges—in the four decades after the Civil War, roughly 1870-1910. What David Bebbington says of British universities in this period applies equally to the American situation: the secularization process “consisted of gradual modifications called for by professing Christians rather than any sharp discontinuity achieved by militant secularists.”
A third wave of secularization then followed, affecting both state universities and colleges and those which during the first wave had deactivated their church allegiance. This change, which replicated what the Enlightenment had done to most continental universities in the eighteenth century, discredited religious belief and practice as alien to valid scholarship, and insisted that religious belief be allowed no status in higher education except as private and extracurricular. To the men who had led their universities and colleges into a churchless Christianity during the prior period this would, of course, have been viewed as a catastrophe, but it was they who had stripped their institutions of defenses which might have immunized them against this Kulturkampf of the secularists.
A fourth wave of secularization has been underway since World War II, affecting mostly the Catholic universities and colleges, and it seems to be following a dynamic very similar to the second, post-bellum, wave. Those institutions which appear not yet to have been drawn into the undertow are the traditional black colleges, the Bible colleges, and the “enclaves” to which Jencks and Riesman referred in our epigram.
The first and third waves, which were the work of nonbelievers with overt ideological hostility to Christian belief, are matter for another study. What we are after here is the handiwork of professed believers who intended their actions to enhance rather than annul the Christian culture of their institutions: a process possibly common to the estrangement of the academy from the liberal Protestant churches following the Civil War and from the Catholic Church following World War II.
Let us now discern the basic elements of the Vanderbilt experience and suggestive parallels to be found in the wider Protestant experience.
First, there had been a period of stagnation in higher education, which came to be blamed upon a depressive influence by the churches. Then followed a period of great intellectual turbulence, when fresh findings and methods and disciplines raised fearful philosophical challenges to theology. Spokesmen for the church’s concerns, by a compound of incapacity and animosity, exacerbated the apparent hostility between the church and rigorous scholarship.
At Vanderbilt, the Methodists had very few highly trained intellectuals who could help the faithful perceive that authentic scholarship might be an appropriate though astringent medication for their religion.
Also Bishop Hoss, who was one of the few to intuit the destination for which Chancellor Kirkland was bound, happened to be a strident, impassioned, and unattractive antagonist, who defined the issues in so anti-intellectual a way that he strengthened Kirkland’s credibility among those who sought an institution of rigorous learning. As often happens, the church was served by officers to whom advanced learning was an unknown. Hoss was the very incarnation of that to which an ambitious company of scholars would not wish to be accountable.
Just after the Civil War, bright young American literati exposed to the new surge of scholarship at continental universities came home only to be dismayed by the lethargy and intellectual squalor of their no-longer almae matres. The mediocrity they now noticed had afflicted American campuses since the turn of the century: seven decades of torpor. The ancient, endowed colleges seemed hardly more serious or alert than the scores of younger ante-bellum foundations.
When the innovative publications of Darwin, Marx, Comte, Renan, James, and others raised theories that few American professors could cope with, the instinctive response of college faculty and administrators was either to shun them or to denounce them. In doing so they failed to notice that it was not the findings of Darwin, Marx & Co. that threatened to bring the intellectual integrity of the Christian establishment tumbling down. It was the philosophical conclusions the innovators had so swiftly assembled, not their empirical findings or their first constructs, that put the Christians’ feet to the fire. And since the liberal Protestant establishment had been left philosophically impoverished by their ancestors, their response was simple disdain for the entire challenge: facts, findings, and philosophy. In the eyes of the hotshot cadet generation, the impotent professoriate and the authoritarian presidents and trustees only made manifest that it must have been the church’s domination that had deadened their colleges.
There was a general impatience expressed by forward-looking educators about the ineptitude of the collegiate system. Francis Wayland had given it voice in his Report to the Corporation of Brown University, which anticipated in 1850 most of what would happen in 1870-1910.
We have now in the United States . . . one hundred and twenty colleges . . . All of them teach Greek and Latin, but where are our classical students? All teach mathematics, but where are our mathematicians? [He quotes George Ticknor:] “Who, in this country, by the means offered him, has been enabled to make himself a good Greek scholar? Who has been taught thoroughly to read, write, and speak Latin? Nay, who has been taught any thing at our colleges with the thoroughness which will enable him to go safely and directly to distinction . . . ?”
Wayland and the other reformers saw the church as a principal source of the conservative resistance they met in their efforts to open higher education to intellectually capable students. It was not so much that the churchmen were convinced the classical curriculum was the best; they were no longer capable of even discussing the issue in the breadth that it deserved. While claiming to follow a traditionally learned vocation, they had in fact ceased to be truly learned men.
Andrew White, who would become the founding president of Cornell University, one of the first institutions explicitly nonsectarian from its foundation, had been soured by his one year at a small Episcopal college. Dissipation among the students and history forcibly put to the church’s service were the memories he carried away with him on his way to find serious love of learning at Yale and Michigan. His Cornell inaugural in 1869 declared: “I deny that any university fully worthy of that great name can ever be founded upon the platform of any one sect or combination of sects. . . . We will labor to make this a Christian institution; a sectarian institution may it never be.” He recounted a string of horror stories of sincere scholars being thwarted on church-run campuses. “Any institution under denominational control inevitably tends to make allegiance to its own form of belief a leading qualification. It may become a tolerably good denominational college, like the hundreds already keeping down the standards of American education, but it can become nothing more.”
As president of a university that drew to itself all of New York’s land-grant income besides a founder’s ample endowment, White’s dislike for the church colleges, intensified by their resentment of Cornell’s wealth, drew him to appreciate the animosity Henry Tappan had experienced at Michigan:
The worst difficulty by far which [Tappan] had to meet was the steady opposition of the small sectarian colleges scattered throughout the State. Each, in its own petty interest, dreaded the growth of any institution better than itself; each stirred the members of the legislature from its locality to oppose all aid to the State university; each, in its religious assemblages, its synods, conferences, and the like, sought to stir prejudice against the State institution as “godless.”
Daniel Coit Gilman, founding president of The Johns Hopkins University, the other new nonsectarian institution of higher learning, grieved over a government report that as of 1876 there were 545 degree-granting institutions in the country. “Most of these colleges are inadequately endowed, and consequently the instruction which many of them offer is of a very secondary character. A very large part of them represent some sectarian or denominational opinion; some of them have little more than a name, a charter, and a bias.” Years later he could “see all over the land feeble, ill-endowed, and poorly manned institutions, caring a little for sound learning but a great deal more for the defense of denominational tenets.”
Charles W. Eliot, who with White and Gilman comprised the triad of influential educators who led the secularization movement in the late nineteenth century, has already been heard from. At the Johns Hopkins inaugural he joined in the critique, though somewhat more defensively: “A university whose officers and students are divided among many sects need no more be irreverent and irreligious than the community which in respect to diversity of creeds it resembles. . . . This University will not demand of its officers and students the creed or press upon them the doctrine of any particular religious organization; but none the less—I should better say, all the more—it can exert through high-minded teachers a strong moral and religious influence.”
This negative perception of church influence in higher education found explicit enactment in the removal of church officers from governing boards. At Harvard nearly half the seats on the Board of Overseers had been filled by clergy; by 1894 those fifteen had been reduced to one. The last Congregational minister had departed the Corporation ten years earlier. This was the accomplishment of Eliot, Harvard’s first lay president. Yale’s board had from the foundation been composed exclusively of Congregational clergy from Connecticut. In 1905 the first layman was elected, and by 1920 there were only four clergy left among the eleven on the Corporation. This was the accomplishment of Arthur T. Hadley, Yale’s first lay president. At Princeton, where Presbyterian clergy had dominated the board, their representation was reduced by two-thirds by the end of the period we are studying. This was largely the accomplishment of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s first lay president. And so it was, as well, at Amherst and Dartmouth and the rest of the Protestant colleges and universities. Clergy emerged from that period occupying only one seat out of every ten on their governing boards. James Kirkland, Vanderbilt’s first lay chancellor, was acting quite within the mainstream of his peer institutions when he drew his board away from the bishops in 1910.
It should also be noted that this only followed upon a severe reduction of clerical presence and dominance on campus. At the time of the Civil War, 262 of 288 college presidents were clergy. A survey of campuses of the time suggests that somewhat more than a third of the faculty were ministers. The proportion of graduates entering ministry from places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (at Harvard it had stood at 70 percent in the earliest days), which as late as 1830 amounted to about one-third, had plummeted by 1876 to one in thirteen.
It was the explicit belief and claim of each of these presidents, as it had been of White and Gilman at Cornell and Johns Hopkins—and as it would be of Kirkland at Vanderbilt—that the absence of ecclesiastical governance rendered their universities and colleges nondenominational but Christian: indeed, they were freed to be more authentically (and surely more wisely) Christian than before. It would, they believed, be all gain and no loss.
The estrangement of Vanderbilt from the church required two antipathetic forces: an oppressively uncomprehending atmosphere among church officers, and an administrator decisive and deft enough to remove them as the last obstacles to his pursuit of excellence for the college or university. In this respect it seems to embody an experience that is typical of the other mainline Protestant foundations.
Second, there was a president determined to raise the institution to a higher cubit of excellence who saw the ecclesiastical establishment as a real or potential adversary to his project and rival to his power.
Bishop McTyeire was himself both an intellectual and a bishop, and in his unique position as both president of the Board of Trust and chief executive officer he disposed of unchecked power. Neither his fellow bishops nor the Board nor the faculty could stand in his way. Nor were they likely to wish to do so, since his administration occurred at a time when the new university’s initial affluence was large enough and the university model still modest enough for the energies of growth to be well absorbed.
But President McTyeire held office at a time when Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale, Michigan, Brown, Princeton, and the other colleges that had just entered upon the ambition to become universities presented a model which the Southern Methodist Church had no ambition to pursue, no resources to finance, and probably no readiness to permit. Kirkland, his successor, took office with the conviction that Vanderbilt was called to follow the lead of those reforming universities. To do so would mean wresting the institution and all its constituencies out of their traditional norms and expectations, and this meant an exceptionally effective and decisive chief executive.
It was exactly in these years, the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, that colleges such as those mentioned made the break with their past and were transformed into universities, whereas others like Wesleyan, Union, Haverford, Randolph-Macon, and Kenyon did not. A chief difference was that the former, unlike the latter, were led by chief executives of exceptionally sturdy ego who, in their campaigns to consolidate enough power to make a radical break with their collegiate past, used that power as well to sever any capacity of the church to obstruct their personal sovereignty.
What catalyzed the circumstances at Vanderbilt was the leading presence of a resourceful and ambitious administrator who saw clearly that the church was a hindrance, not a help, in the pursuit of all the academic goals he set before himself. To gain the university’s freedom from the churchmen he forewent clarity in his public utterance in order to conceal as long as possible from his traditional constituency the full outcome of what he was doing. Inevitably the moment of crisis arrived when ambiguity could no longer blur the issue. Because of the inability of church officials to engage him intellectually, the confrontation became a matter of sheer control. When Kirkland won, one might say that it was not the university that gained power, but the chancellor himself, since in order to achieve his transformative program he had had to manage his own governing board to the point where they could present no real threat to his personal authority.
The Methodist bishops, as a group, were not really adverse to the devout Methodist layman, Kirkland. Nor were their understated concerns to preserve the Methodist identity of the university designed to undermine his authority. But it was their reserved power, usable in a last resort, which he saw as the only threat that could bring disaster upon his campaign to make Vanderbilt an institution of the highest rank.
The irony in all this, however, was that the “full outcome” went quite beyond Kirkland’s anticipation: affecting not merely the governance of the institution but its very character. His intention was that it be laicized, but it was secularized as well. His intention was that it no longer be sectarian, but the result was that it was no longer Christian or religious.
Charles Eliot saw the new universities educating, no longer just the clergy or the other traditionally learned professions, but the bankers, industrialists, engineers, statesmen, and scientists. For that new kind of education a new kind of leader was needed. It was not that the older presidents lacked great, even autocratic, authority, but that the present task was so formidable: the institutions had to be made over entirely, and made answerable to new constituencies. Stronger men were required, he wrote in the very year he assumed Harvard’s presidency.
The American colleges have taken, and still take, their presidents from the clerical profession almost exclusively . . . It is gradually becoming apparent that even the colleges are suffering from this too-clerical administration. Fortunately for the country, education is getting to be a profession by itself. For the discharge of the highest functions in this profession, the training of a divinity student, years of weekly preaching, and much practice in the discharge of pastoral duties are no longer supposed to be the best, or at least the only, preparation. Several other classes of men are now as cultivated as the clergy. As a class, ministers are as fit to be suddenly transferred to the bench at forty-five or fifty years of age, as they are to be put at the head of large educational establishments.
Eliot somewhat overstates his case in omitting mention of numerous clerical executives who had come up through the academic ranks as scholars and teachers. What he meant, in his put-down of parson-presidents, was that the churches were not providing leadership for the new universities any more than they were providing financial subsidy. Circumstance did raise up a generation of exceptionally sturdy chief executives, each of whom led his institution away from the possible superintendency of a founding church: Wayland at Brown, Eliot at Harvard, Hadley at Yale, Wilson at Princeton, William Jewett Tucker at Dartmouth, Hyde at Bowdoin, William Rainey Harper at Chicago, G. Stanley Hall at Clark, David Starr Jordan at Stanford, F. A. P. Barnard at Columbia, and James Kirkland at Vanderbilt.
Third, the estrangement from sponsoring church occurred at a time when the funding the church may have provided was clearly inadequate for the new academic ambitions of the university, and when new, secular sources were offering an infusion of funds.
The Vanderbilt crisis came at a time when the advancement of the university required massive financial help: help which the church was unable or unwilling to provide, but which was available elsewhere . . . on certain conditions. The Carnegie Foundation’s program to fund professorial pension funds was, as we have seen, available only to institutions that were nondenominational. Only fifty-one institutions seemed, at first, to qualify. The Foundation then specified, however, that a college that was merely “in sympathy” with a church would not be excluded. There was an immediate wave of schools that renounced their denominational allegiance in favor of “sympathy” in order to qualify for the grants: colleges such as Dickinson, Goucher, and Bowdoin. Hofstadter and Metzger observe:
In many places, church control was an incubus which the college was attempting to throw off, or which it endured merely because the charter made remedial action difficult. In few institutions was it reckoned a positive, necessary good. When the Carnegie Foundation inquired as to “whether denominational connection or control ministers to the religious or intellectual life,” the respondents in the denominational colleges declared “almost without exception that such connections played little, if any, part in the religious or intellectual life of the student body.”
The one benefit the churches might possibly have provided that would almost surely have sustained their governance and influence over the universities and colleges was financial subsidy, whether as direct grants from the churches or as gifts from affluent church members. The churches, however, were mostly meager funders of their schools; what they gave amounted to only a token part of the budgets each college had to balance annually.
Fourth, there was a transfer of primary loyalty from the church to the “academic guild,” especially on the part of the faculty.
Vanderbilt was founded at the very time that the German universities had introduced the research doctorate as the prescribed training for a more serious academic career. Yale, Michigan, and Cornell were specifically and often mentioned as models to be followed, away from the liberal arts colleges and their more casual attitudes towards scholarship. Leading faculty were understood to be closely acquainted with their best peers at leading universities, and recruitment looked only to those research institutions. This quickly brought the Vanderbilt community to the point where it could criticize the church from the standpoint of the academy, yet lacked any inclination to criticize the academy from the standpoint of the church. This proved to be a point of no return.
The shift from a clerical to a lay president, from a church executive to an academic, also drew Vanderbilt to appreciate the one professional guild more than the other. And in a season when churchmen were looking askance at the university for its libertine secularism, and intellectuals were looking askance at it from the opposite direction for its narrow sectarianism, Vanderbilt academics were at pains to deny both charges, but with this difference: While they denied both the norms and the facts of their ecclesiastical critics, they embraced the norms and denied the facts of their unbelieving critics. At a time when their colleagues who spoke for the church were conspicuously incapable of giving the faith a good account in the eyes of the learned, the Vanderbilt academics preferred to dissociate themselves from their religious leaders rather than take up their cause as allies and persuade them that sound scholarship was God’s good servant too.
As a result, the university people had unwittingly transferred their primary sympathy and professional loyalty to the cultured despisers of their own church.
The Anglo-American model, set by the earliest foundations—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, etc.—had been a college primarily for the education of future clergy. One of the motives for establishing new colleges was distrust between the churches, or between parties within the same church. Yet there was little that was specifically church or faith-specific in those colleges. Academically, the colleges offered mostly Latin, Greek, and mathematics. The collegiate curriculum offered no theological courses; future ministers acquired that later, in apprenticeship to an older divine or in a divinity school. For undergraduates, there was just the obligatory set of lectures on moral philosophy, often given by the president himself, typically to seniors. There was no pastoral system to speak of, save for obligatory chapel.
If the colleges were Christian it was due, not to their program, but to their immersion in the conventional piety of the surrounding church. The church was not so much in as it was round about a college. The Christian character of the early American Protestant colleges was nothing very reflective. It might never have been publicly asserted with much animus were it not for the invariable resistance of students to compulsory worship and punitive discipline, both of which had recurring need of justification by appeal to the godly character of the college.
The colleges were not only for the future clergy but were conducted mostly by the clergy. Schoolteachers in colonial America and for years afterwards were typically parsons in need of another source of income. Indeed, until the 1890s the teaching faculties of the state universities continued to include sizable proportions of clergy. But in a society perceived as amiable to the Protestant conventions, there was little evangelical zeal or countercultural determination in these colleges. They were ecclesiastical because they were clerical, and they were clerical because learning at this level was traditional for scholar-parsons. They did not assert the church’s faith; they presumed it.
It is ironic that the age when the colleges threw off the churches was really the first time, had they wished it so, when the churches could have sponsored an educational endeavor that was both intellectually and religiously vital, intentional, truculent, and integrative. This was a time when theology was beginning to mature to the point where it might have been strong enough to provide the unity and spunk in an institution of strenuous and innovative scholars. It was for want of any rigorously intellectual churchmen that the clergy were, in both their minds and those of the reformers, content to be identified with the furtherance of mediocrity.
Those who might have spoken for the church, and many who did, had the misfortune to range themselves in opposition to the movement to liberate the curriculum from “dead” languages and inapplicable mathematics, a reform led by men such as Francis Wayland of Brown, Charles Eliot of Harvard, and James McCosh of Princeton. As Freeman Butts observed: “ . . . where the conception of a liberal education was firmly grounded upon religious and intellectual authority and discipline, the prescribed curriculum was more likely to be maintained longer against the inroads of the elective system with its attendant doctrines of freedom and flexibility.” Thus the interests of the church were identified with opposition to an enlarged curriculum, and were defended by men who appeared as nay-sayers to all that smacked of imagination in higher education.
American elite culture was beginning to show itself skeptical and even covertly contemptuous towards Christian belief. The church officers were not learned or prophetic enough to read these signs of the times and had no imaginative sense or desire to be generous and eager patrons of a more purposeful (and costly) establishment. When the colleges and universities might—for the first time in America—have been purposively and competently engaged in formulating a higher culture within the churches, the churches lacked the competence and the determination to have it so.
All this came to crisis in the years immediately preceding Vanderbilt’s renunciation of church governance. The governance that the angry General Conference wanted to have and sued to retain was not what would have done the church any good in the days to follow, for it had narrowed its view of what it meant to be Methodist to things like a religious test for all faculty and disciplinary control over students. Absent any larger vision of Christian education, this program was unrelievedly negative, and assured the educational reformers that the church had no stomach for ambitious scholarship.
Fifth, erosion of the will to consider active communion in the church as a requisite or even a qualification for admission to its several constituencies—governance, administration, faculty, and student body—extinguished the university’s ability to consider itself a unit of the church.
The fact that without the Biblical Department Vanderbilt’s student body included only a minority of Methodists could be construed in either of two contrary ways: either the University had failed to attract its native constituency, or it had been so academically successful that others were crowding in. Under either interpretation, an educational institution that enrolls less than half its students from within its sponsoring church begins to be an external activity of that church.
In the matter of faculty appointments, the critical issue was not simply the dwindling proportion of Methodists (and their fractional presence in the professional schools), but the growing conviction that it was impertinent even to consider someone’s membership in a community of faith to he a professional credential qualification pertinent for a faculty position at Vanderbilt.
The fact that leadership positions (deanships) had been filled more rapidly than faculty positions by non-Methodists made it all the less likely that religious identity could he effectively favored in faculty recruitment.
Paradoxically, Methodist presence was strongest on the Board of Trust, yet this body had been so co-opted by the chancellor that its members acquiesced in his view that overt deference to the church in any effective way would be adverse to Vanderbilt’s academic ambitions. Thus, by unnoticed but inexorable depletion, Vanderbilt lost the ability to affirm in the first person plural that it was Methodist. The inertial force of custom prolonged the existence of religious observances: required chapel, behavioral discipline by church standards, pastoral activities such as YMCA centers. But the formal rupture with the church, in the belief that there could be a Christian house of learning bound by no communion to an actual church, made these activities inappropriate, and after a generation of increasingly awkward continuance they had to be eliminated.
This entire process illustrates well how formal, structural principles are followed, sometimes with considerable delay, by the actual social changes which they prescribe. For example, the charters of schools like Union, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Brown, and Michigan all provided that no religious test could be used in appointments. Yet for years there were religion-based norms that clearly limited what faculty could profess or how they could behave—including, in some instances, to what church they could belong—that excluded candidates from appointment at these institutions. Only later, when self-conscious identity shifted and the official rule was appealed to in dispute, did practice actually conform to the formal principle. Likewise, the structural disengagement of the universities from their churches preceded by at least a generation the functional sequestration of religion on campus to individual and private status.
It seems not to have been noted how powerful a change it was for the person presiding over the college or university no longer to be able (or, before long, willing) to preside over the educational community in prayer or worship. What Eliot called a “friendly but neutral” attitude toward religion simply did not have the stability he and his contemporaries imagined. Laicization need not entail secularization, but in this case they were inevitably linked.
Sixth, there was a progressive devolution of church-identifiers: first from Methodist to generically Christian, then to generically religious, then to flatly secular.
It was never considered by Kirkland that any formal bond between the university and the church was required to make Vanderbilt an effectively Christian university. In fact, it seems to have been his hope that by drawing back from the bishops’ reach Vanderbilt could retain what was best in Methodism while protecting itself from the worst—which for higher education meant the streak of anti-intellectualism in the clergy. Kirkland eventually succeeded in renegotiating the church-campus relationship exactly as he wished, and he did not understand that he had destabilized it, that the formal break with the church began a process of alienation that inevitably would run its course to total secularization.
Kirkland’s effort to finesse his program led to a purposeful blurring of nomenclature, and eventually the rhetorical slide ran from simply “Methodist” down through “ownership,” “sponsorship,” “patronage,” “support,” “affiliation,” to “relationship.” In an atmosphere where an effective bond to the Methodist Church instinctively evoked references to bigotry, exclusion, narrowness, sectarianism, and selfishness, there was an effort to describe the relation to the church as inefficaciously as possible.
During the period when a college simply functioned as a gathering of the church, with its foibles and deficiencies as well as its advantages and virtues, its Christian identity seemed not to require affirmation or reflection. The church held quiet title. It seems to have been precisely later when many colleges, unmoored from their sponsoring communities of faith, began to drift out into ever swifter currents of learned disdain for faith, that their officers began to assert volubly as never before that they were Christian. They reached out for a vocabulary that was indistinct enough not to make them accountable to anyone, but with a familiar-enough ring of piety to he reassuring. But the evidence shows beyond a doubt that such collegial Christianity as had existed began to lose vitality once there was no church link.
Then, when the severance was complete, the educators had no difficulty in interpreting their institutions’ relation to the churches as no more than historical. We have already noted Eliot saying this at Harvard. The Princeton newspaper, on the occasion of the election of Woodrow Wilson as its first lay president, had claimed: “Princeton is and always will be religious.” Wilson, the minister’s son, who led prayers as soon as he took office, made it promptly clear that Princeton was not religious by dint of any continuing bond with a church: “Princeton . . . is a Presbyterian college only because the Presbyterians of New Jersey were wise and progressive enough to found it.”
Seventh, in its anxiety to appeal to one constituency (the state, or the intellectual elite, or noncommunicant students, faculty, or donors) while not antagonizing another (the church or its communicants on campus), the academy replaced its religious identity with reductionist equivalents.
The years of Vanderbilt’s youth were a time when most Protestants lost conviction about the particularities of their churches. Whatever had been the historical or doctrinal issues that had splintered the children of the Reformation into so many tribes and clans, those defining distinctions had a faint grip on the minds of bright Christians in post-bellum America. The absence of an established church and of the antagonisms it would inevitably have aroused, plus the dominant nationalism which for many Americans was a sacred allegiance that exacted a loyalty higher than their churches could—both of these influences made the specific differences between the Protestant churches seem to liberals not only insignificant but indecent.
What is more, the post-Enlightenment knack of reducing Christianity itself to vague, generic qualities hardly distinguishable from gentle manners or sound citizenship (about which more below) yielded a foundational notion of Christianity—an “essence,” it was often called—so insubstantial that it could hardly sustain any specificities or provoke any controversy at all. In the early Vanderbilt period this all combined to leave a bright and ambitious scholar of liberal Protestant inclination wholly unaware of any particular advantage his church might offer to his college or university. At Vanderbilt as elsewhere, “sectarianism” and “denominationalism” were invariably negative terms, suggestive of exclusive access, censorship, and obstructive ecclesiastical overlords.
During his struggle for independence Kirkland wrote: “I have never denied our Methodist allegiance, I have never denied our Methodist history, but I have maintained that greater than Methodism was the cause of Christ and that the call for service in His name was greater than the call to the service of the Church.” The Board of Trust, in affirming him in the struggle, gave some sense of what “service in His name” would mean: “ . . . our chief concern is to promote the highest type of Christian scholarship and Christian character . . . “ Nowhere in Kirkland’s writings can we find that he acknowledged any intrinsic benefit for the mind in Methodism. But when he moves from this “sectarian” concern to regard Christianity transcendent, here too there is no exploration of the faith which would suggest that it was illuminative of the mind. Thus he was reduced to seeing Christianity as indistinguishable from the repertoire of the cultivated American.
At Vanderbilt the constituencies were reassured that the university was persisting in its primal Christian commitment because of high standards in academics, or a liberal or broad or thorough curriculum, or freedom from dogmatism, or the cultivation of moral character, or social conscience regarding racial integration or the relief of poverty, or decorum and discipline in fraternities and at football games.
The most appealing and frequent surrogate for religious faith was moral: the university would persist in its dedication to the cultivation of moral character. This was expressed in various ways. Hadley of Yale: “It is, I think, the distinguishing characteristic of a gentleman that he accepts self-imposed obligations. . . . It is this that constitutes the fundamental character of a Christian.” Tucker of Dartmouth thought religion would cultivate in the educator rightmindedness (clear thinking undistorted by prejudice, avarice, or vanity) and service (the capacity to give moral inspiration to students, especially those in the “distinctly commercial callings”). Compulsory chapel service, explained Yale chaplain Anson Phelps Stokes, is “a factor of social importance in making the college feel its unity by bringing together all its students daily, and of moral importance in requiring that men must be up and dressed at an early hour, a serious deterrent to dissipation.” Wilson defended the chapel requirement at Princeton, explaining that “it has been regarded of the essential tradition of the place to give this flavor to the day’s appointments.”
This, of course, was an account of moral character which saw it as a substitute for Christian faith and community, rather than its outcome. What is more, it did not relate moral character to the mind at all. Christianity was thus doomed to be extracurricular. Earl Brill has astutely noted that “the major defect in the religious life at both Yale and Princeton was its lack of integration into the academic life itself. Religion was regarded as a kind of diffuse atmosphere. It was seldom subjected to rigorous analysis or evaluation.” It could not be otherwise, for generic Christianity must always be a diffuse atmosphere. The moral equivalencies imagined as its goals and evidences functioned, in fact, as secular surrogates for sacred convictions and commitments.
Eighth, theological studies and church ministry were set apart from the academic center, a strategy which they took to be an enhancement of their autonomy, but which functioned as a banishment into marginality.
Kirkland strove to extract financial support from the Southern Methodist Church for the one element at Vanderbilt in which it could be supposed to have a direct interest, the Biblical Department. When that failed, the department was both an academic liability (as the least scholarly unit in the university) and a financial one (as unlikely to attract endowment from any other source, and a possible obstacle to the university’s ability to receive funds from the state and certain foundations). The dean and faculty welcomed their redesignation as a nondenominational School of Religion, which then exposed them to almost total isolation when the church withdrew recognition of its right to prepare ordinands.
It might seem that in this respect Vanderbilt was untypical. For just as they were becoming secularized some new universities and some colleges were looking to establish or reinforce their “religion” departments with newly serious biblical studies. These departments were generally acceptable to the other arts and sciences departments because they fostered studies that were philological, historical, and comparative, and had dropped the older confessional courses that were expositions of or exhortations to the Christian faith. And in several institutions free-standing divinity schools were absorbed into the university.
Thus there were two quite distinct styles of religious instruction on the campuses: disinterested, non-normative studies, conducted in a regular academic department, and ministerial studies based on an assumption of shared commitment, in marginal divinity schools. Yet despite minor structural differences at Vanderbilt and elsewhere there was an inflexible understanding at work: that a rigorous academy would not harbor learned discourse about religion in its central precincts unless conducted with the systematic detachment of nonbelievers. This was but a logical application of the principle of secularization itself, which wished neither to sponsor nor to countenance any overlap of the community of academic inquiry with the community of credal conviction. The divinity schools typically served as reservations or compounds where overt dealings with faith could be sequestered.
Ninth, it has been active Christians, not hostile secularists, who were most effective in alienating the colleges and universities from their communities of faith.
The transformation typically occurred in three stages. The first change, enacted by Christians without any intention of extinguishing or even compromising the Christian character of the college or university, consisted in muting all overt claims of the academic institution to be functioning as a limb of a particular church. Statements, decisions, and symbols that had been public, explicit, and unapologetic became private, silent, and bashful.
The period which followed, initiated by well-meaning and believing administrators of the first generation, was a time of high morale, because academic standards and aspirations were on the rise, funding and prestige were up, and the residual religious atmosphere was durable enough (even somewhat more sophisticated) to reassure the reformers that the intellectual gain had been without religious loss. Faith was mute but present.
It was only later—usually about a generation later—that a new cadre of intellectuals, whose obedience was to a rational empiricism with no hint of bashfulness in the exercise of its articles of faith, transformed an institution whose original identity could no longer be confessed or asserted into a secularized academy. This was the third stage. It is worthy of note that public faith, unlike an agnostic exclusion of faith, cannot survive without public profession.
The reformers had unwittingly deprived their institutions of any capacity to retain their Christian identity when exposed to a secularist faculty in the third generation. Ambitious but improvident leaders had suppressed their schools’ Christian immune systems, and since the virus of secularization would not seek out these now-defenseless institutions until the professional personnel could be replaced by scholars predominantly of no faith or a hostile faith or an intimidated faith, the reformers had no way of understanding how much farther their actions would carry beyond what they intended.
Robert H. Knapp and H. B. Goodrich noticed some time ago this three-phase process of secularization in the liberal Protestant colleges. During the first period religious expression was naive and censorious, resources were limited, and intellectual disciplines undeveloped. In the second period there was a decline in religious observance and moral discipline, a revision of curriculum favoring newly specialized disciplines, and a heightened interest exhibited by educators and students in affluence: the former for new resources and the latter for more remunerative careers. This was a period of keen morale. In the third period the institution is wealthy and cosmopolitan, and religious discourse and expression is extinct.
The conclusion of this essay, to appear in next month’s issue, will set forth how the pattern of change in liberal Protestant colleges and universities outlined above seems now to be underway in evangelical and Catholic institutions.
James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.