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On May 27, 1880, Yale’s aging president, Noah Porter, spoke at Wellesley College on “The Christian College,” a subject then being much debated. The setting tells us much about the era and the topic. Wellesley, a women’s college, had been recently founded by Henry and Pauline Durant, ardent evangelical Christians. Henry Durant, who ran the college personally, made sure that everything about the institution proclaimed that, as its first announcement said, “The Institution will be Christian in its influence, discipline, and course of instruction.” Extensive required Bible study supplemented the regular curriculum. Each of the professors, all women, would have to be able to teach such courses in addition to her regular offering. Porter was speaking at the laying of the cornerstone of Wellesley’s second building. The ties to the old Christian humanist college ideal were signaled not only by the presence of Porter himself, but also by the choice of the sainted Mark Hopkins of Williams to offer the invocation. Hopkins had already been immortalized by James A. Garfield, who at an 1871 Williams alumni banquet, in response to suggestions that the school was falling behind the times, remarked, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” The pious Garfield, himself a model of the old-time college product, was now two weeks away from the presidential nomination. Prestige and piety converged at the cornerstone ceremony. The Rev. S. F. Smith, author of “America,” wrote a hymn, “Founded on Christ,” suggesting that Christ would be “the true cornerstone” at Wellesley. Dwight L. Moody, a friend of the Durants who shared their religious style, was present as a member of the board of trustees. The board, whose president was Noah Porter, was made up mostly of distinguished clergy and clergy-educators. Like the faculty, they were required to be members of an “Evangelical Church.” For Porter, in his seventieth year, it was a sign of the times that his strongest allies in concern for Christian colleges were ardent advocates of revival like Moody and the Durants. At mid-century Porter and other leading Congregationalist scholars of the generation, such as his friend Horace Bushnell, had turned away from strong revivalist emphases, stressing more the role of the college in cultivating Christian character. Now, however, the era was at hand when the most vital expressions of Christianity on campus would be in extracurricular piety. Porter’s Wellesley address, which was immediately published, was an important manifesto on a broader point. In addition to fostering a place for piety on campuses, Porter insisted that Christians must play a vital intellectual role as well. In particular, as he announced at the outset of his address, Christians should recognize that they were in a battle with the “secular” view of education that claimed it “must be free of all alliances with religion.” Christianity was thus fighting for its very survival in the academic world. It was crucial, therefore, that “Christianity must control the college in order to exclude its antagonist, or rival, in the form of some false religion.” Atheism and the recently popularized agnosticism “are religious creeds as truly as are theism and dogmatic Christianity.” In this intellectual warfare there was no neutrality. “Ethics, politics, and social science suppose a decisive position to be taken one side or the other in respect to both theism and Christianity: even elementary treatises on these subjects teach a positive faith or as positive a denial.” Instructors also could not be neutral. Even if they claimed an objective stance, agnosticism might be taught “indirectly by gentle or sarcastic insinuation” or even “unconsciously . . . in subtle ways of impression even by an instructor who may honestly strive to withhold the slightest suggestion of his faith or his feelings.” Porter’s comments were weighted with significance since he was in the midst of the controversy of his life. The audience at Wellesley was well aware of this because during the previous month Yale College had suffered the embarrassment of having its affairs exposed by the public press. On April 4th and 5th the New York Times had published two extensive front page accounts of recent efforts by President Porter to stop William Graham Sumner, one of the Yale’s best-known younger teachers, from using as a text in his senior course Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology . As the Times put it, Spencer was well-known as the “White Czar of Agnosticism,” and his iconoclastic book classed Christianity with “the superstitions of the Mohammadans and South Sea Islanders” as the sort of bias that true scientists needed to be rid of. This controversy, the paper proclaimed, divided the Yale faculty down the middle and “involves the whole issue between science and religion . . . . [I]ts final settlement will decide the attitude of the college toward the modern spirit of inquiry, which proposes to be guided by reason rather by faith.” The Times followed the next day with a satirical editorial that, mocking Spencer’s tone, granted that “no intelligent man in this age of the world will for a moment maintain that there is any truth in Christianity,” but added that since Christianity still had a strong hold on “the ignorant masses,” Yale’s giving it up would cause a great outcry. After all, the editorialist sarcastically suggested, if Spencer is right, and everything is relative, then it does not matter whether Spencer and Comte’s positivism or Christianity is “the recognized faith to be taught to Yale students.” It is all “mere prejudice,” so we might as well “rid ourselves of prejudice as well as religion,” and let Yale continue to be Christian. At Yale all this was a great embarrassment. However divided the Yale faculty might be, they all agreed that such matters should be settled privately, among gentlemen. The Rev. William Graham Sumner himself had a correct pedigree. Before coming to Yale he had been an Episcopal rector in Morristown, New Jersey. He was also very much part of the Yale family. Porter had prized him as one of college’s promising recent graduates (‘63), and after a tour in Europe, Sumner had served as a tutor at Yale before going to Morristown in 1867. In 1872 he was appointed to the Yale faculty in the chair in Political Science. At the time he was still a traditional, though broadminded, Christian, who, against the Unitarians, affirmed the full divinity of Christ and who considered the Bible “a true revelation of spiritual and universal truths.” Sometime early in his Yale tenure, Sumner’s religious views began to change rapidly. Although he remained an Episcopal priest all his life, he dropped the “Rev.” from his title. Later he made the famous and revealing remark, “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs into a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing there at all.” Sumner’s conversion to scientific naturalism came in the mid-1870s via the influence of Spencer, Darwin, and T. H. Huxley, writers whose work he had not earlier been able to accept. As he himself explained in a letter to Yale officials in June of 1881:
Four or five years ago my studies led me to the conviction that sociology was about to do for the social sciences what scientific method has done for the natural and physical sciences, viz: rescue them from arbitrary dogmatism and confusion.
Of the few sociology texts available, Spencer’s seemed the best, though unsatisfactory in some respects. Sumner did not think, however, that Spencer’s religious views were even relevant to the question:
Mr. Spencer’s religious opinions seem to me of very little importance in this connection, and, when I was looking for a book on sociology, the question whether it was a good or available book in a scientific point of view occupied my intention exclusively.
Since Sumner was a gifted teacher, known for this brusque and forceful manner, his new views that science was the only relevant intellectual authority and religion was at best irrelevant had soon come to President Porter’s attention. Recognizing the threat to his Christian humanist citadel, Porter attempted to hold off the alien forces by exercising his presidential authority. In December 1879, Porter wrote to Sumner that the use of Spencer’s The Study of Sociology had created “a great deal of talk.” Even though Porter himself had used another of Spencer’s works in a graduate course, he considered The Study of Sociology to be much less solid, “written very largely in a pamphleteering style.”
The freedom and unfairness with which it attacks every Theistic Philosophy of society and of history, and the cool and yet sarcastic effrontery with which [Spencer] assumes that material elements and laws are the only forces and laws which any scientific man can recognize seem to me to condemn the book as a textbook for a miscellaneous class in an undergraduate course.
Porter concluded that since “I am presumed to authorize the use of every textbook, I must formally object to the use of this.” At the outset of his presidency, Porter had maintained that any religious tests at the college should be informal ones, left to the discretion of the college president, who did the hiring. Sometimes a teacher with “honest doubts,” he had said, would be preferable to the overbearing orthodox dogmatist. In some chairs, Porter thought, the religious views of the incumbent could not affect the teaching. In others, however, “an anti-Christian sophist or a velvet-footed infidel might pervert [it] to the most disastrous uses.” By thus making religious tests a matter of judgment more of character than of creed, Porter reflected the impulses of his generation to move beyond strict dogmatism. He could thus proclaim the college to be “nonsectarian,” which was prerequisite for schools that were to serve the public, even though “nonsectarianism” meant only that they would not stand narrowly for the views of one Protestant denomination as opposed to the others. Porter’s generation, while still valuing Trinitarian orthodoxy, nonetheless remembered well the bitter controversies of earlier days involving rock-ribbed conservatives who insisted on precise credal tests. Moving back to such tests did not seem an option. Once the doors of an institution were opened to a wider public, they could not easily be closed. Yale, like most other early colleges, had always been creature of both church and state. That could work so long as the ruling elite was fairly homogeneous. In an era of increasing diversity, however, it was becoming impossible to impose credal tests on institutions that were defined by their public service. The only checks on infidelity would be the power of personal influence. At the Yale gentlemen’s club the reliance on personal suasion left the door open for compromise. Sumner took the point and met with Porter privately to air their differences. The result was that Porter in fact allowed the course to go on in the spring term of 1880 still using the Spencer text. However, when the controversy hit the newspapers in April, the issue took on a new life. The publicity put the matter on the agenda of the Yale Corporation which met in June, shortly after Porter’s Wellesley speech. At that meeting ex-President Theodore Dwight Woolsey was prepared to offer a resolution that the president did indeed have veto power over texts. Porter, however, calmed the waters by assuring the corporation that part of the understanding in December had been that Sumner would not use the text again. Both Woolsey and Porter held the view that discipline of an erring faculty member should be dealt with by the faculty, meaning the president, rather than the corporation. Again the matter was kept quiet, so it was not until the following December, when the time for offering the course again was near, that Sumner was informed of this resolution. He was furious to learn that Porter had claimed that he had agreed not to use the text again, when he himself did not think he had endorsed any such agreement. Still the gentleman, however, he was eager to avoid more sensational publicity. So he decided that it would be better for his students to have no course in sociology than to be exposed to such emotionally charged discussion. At the end of the term in June 1881, he addressed a letter to his colleagues and to the corporation somewhat bitterly detailing his discontent and announcing his intention to seek other employment. The controversy was then successfully kept from the public eye and eventually died down. Sumner, who was an important asset of the school, was prevailed upon not to resign. The issue was left unresolved. On the one hand, Sumner was no longer using the Spencer text. On the other hand, he had not conceded the principle that administrative interference in the choice of texts was unacceptable. Academic freedom was not yet established as a principle in American higher education, but its components were emerging as the rights of a professional to regulate his own affairs. No longer would the rules for higher education be modeled on those that prevailed among clergy, where it was presumed that in a religious association everyone should think more or less alike, and that individuals should submit to a duly constituted authority. Time was clearly on the side of Sumner and academic individualism.


Had the issue been purely intellectual, Porter’s emphases on the threats to Christian distinctiveness might have received wider hearing. The matter was not a question of a warfare between science and clerical dogmatism as Sumner, Andrew Dickson White (president of Cornell), and others represented it. Nor was it, as is often thought, primarily a debate over Darwinism. Yale, like almost all leading colleges in the North, was teaching biological evolution by 1880. Rather, the crucial issue was the assumptions on which natural scientific inquiry would be founded. As Charles Cashdollar has shown ( The Transformation of Theology, 1830–1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America ), the underlying challenge to Christian thought in this era was the challenge of positivism. Positivism, arising from the views of Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the founder of the field of sociology, asserted that true science precluded religious considerations. In Comte’s construction of history, humans were progressing from a religious stage in which questions were decided by authority, through a metaphysical stage in which philosophy ruled, to a positive stage in which empirical investigation would be accepted as the only reliable way to truth. Noah Porter, like some other thinkers of the era influenced by idealism, recognized that the question concerned the assumptions that would determine the context in which science would take place. In his substantial text, The Human Intellect (1868), he concluded with a purely philosophical (i.e., not directly Christian or biblical) argument for “the absolute.” Belief in the absolute, Porter argued, was a presupposition necessary to explain how we can know anything.
We assume that this absolute exists, in order that thought and science may be possible. We do not demonstrate his being by deduction, because we must believe it in order to reason deductively. We do not infer it by induction, because induction supposes it; but we show that every man who believes in either, or in both, must assume it, or give up his confidence in both these processes and their results. We do not demonstrate that God exists, but that every man must assume that He is.
The objection to Spencer was that he a priori excluded any absolute and asserted that observable phenomena are all we can know about. As Porter put it in a sharply worded review of Spencer’s The Study of Sociology in the midst of the Sumner controversy, Spencer’s iconoclasm was based simply on arguing in a circle. Having defined science in such a way as to exclude all absolutes, he then triumphantly concludes that science shows there are no absolutes.
And so he ends this long discussion with the assumption with which he begins, that in social phenomena we can only recognize natural causation, because, forsooth, if Sociology is a science it cannot admit any other agencies.
In retrospect, Porter does not appear obviously to have had the worst of the argument, as sometimes seems assumed. He recognized, as is largely granted today, that both natural science and social science always take place within a framework of assumptions. Sumner’s view that religion could not be relevant to social science seems indeed to be built on uncritical acceptance of the Comtean positivist claim that science must be defined outside any theistic context. Clearly both natural science and social science investigations could take place either within or without theistic assumptions. In fact, in Porter’s day Sumner represented a tiny minority of American academics who explicitly rejected the relevance of theism. Even many American sociologists attempted for another generation to relate their sociology to their Christianity, at least to Christian ethics. The significance of the episode, however, is that even on the limited ground of undergraduate education Porter could find no acceptable way to establish effective institutional safeguards against Christian theism being undermined in the name of positive science. Sumner remained at Yale and continued there into the twentieth century as a formidable alternative to popular evangelical influences. Given Yale’s history of commitment to serve the public as well as the church, there was much to be said for this solution. No modern college that aspired to be a university could have a president who might simply fire faculty members with whom he disagreed. Porter looked like an obscurantist because he was attempting to impose standards of the church on an institution that had more than church loyalties. And for the time being there was little danger that Yale as a whole would lurch off into agnosticism. In the short run it had enough ties to its evangelical past to absorb some diversity of opinion and to be all the more stimulating a place for it. During the next generation most Christian academics came to believe that wide freedom of expression for faculty and opportunities for students to encounter representatives of a variety of viewpoints were essential to the best education. Despite the evident merits of these considerations, however, Porter should be credited with recognizing the danger in what was happening, even if he could do nothing about it. In the long run, as Porter understood, the Sumners would win. Standards for science that a priori excluded considerations of faith would become the norm. Within two generations Porter would look like something out of the dark ages, and it would be difficult to remember an era when at leading schools Christianity was thought to be the norm for the classroom. Porter had been immobilized by a latter-day version of the Puritan dilemma of how to live in the world but not of it. On the one hand, he had inherited the establishmentarian side of Puritanism which assumed that Christians should dominate the culture. In the republican context of the nineteenth century such tendencies had merged with Whiggish ideals of liberty, moral reform, free scientific inquiry, and progress. On the other hand, Porter was also heir to the sectarian side of Puritanism, which was still vigorous in New England theological debates. This side of the heritage emphasized the distinctiveness of Christian thought in opposition to all rivals. On this reading of the tradition, New England provided a haven of purity against the corruptions of old-world rivals. The sectarian side of the heritage said that he should fire Sumner; the establishmentarian side said he could not. Commitments by Yale to being part of the establishment, that is, remaining a leading institution defined by its service to the public, were bound to prevail. Porter was left with only an ambiguous and unsatisfactory compromise. During the immediately succeeding generations the establishment of cultural Protestantism survived in the academy, but only at the price of giving up the distinctiveness of Christian teaching as a factor in higher education. George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. The present article is adapted from his book The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, published this month by the Oxford University Press.