EARLY AMERICAN CHRISTIAN COLLEGES

Dr. David S. Dockery

Dr. David S. Dockery is President of Union College (Jackson, TN). He has written an article entitled “Integrating Faith and Learning in Higher Education” where he gives an overview of early American history of colleges and Universities. The web site is listed below where you may read the entire article. Here are a few excerpts of that article. [1]

The integration of faith and learning is at the essence of authentic Christian higher… This was once the goal of almost every college in America. It is no longer the case. Prior to the 19th century, every college started in this country—with the exception of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia—was a Christian based college committed to revealed truth. All of that changed with the rise of secularization and specialization, creating dualisms of every kind—a separation of head knowledge from heart knowledge, faith from learning, revealed truth from observed truth, and careers from vocation.

What happened was a loss of world view in the academy. There was a failure to see that every discipline and every specialization could be and should be approached from the vantage point of faith, the foundational building block for a Christian worldview. The separation of faith from learning and teaching was the first step toward creating the confused and disconnected approach to higher education, even in church-related institutions. [2]

A brief overview of Christian higher education will help us see the shifts and changes in purpose and focus across the years. Early Christian education emphasized catechetical purposes as foundational. Medieval universities (those developed between the 11th and 15th centuries) were largely for the purposes of professional education with some general education for the elite. Of the 79 universities in Europe during this time it was Salerno that was best known for medicine, Bologna was best known for law, and Paris was best known for theology.

The Renaissance period emphasized the revival of Greek and Roman literature with the addition of newer subjects developed during the medieval period like arithmetic, geometry, and music. The Reformation and Post-Reformation period placed all aspects of education within the context of a Christian worldview. Higher education reached its zenith, building on what had gone before, in America. Early American colleges governed by trustees from related religious groups provided education within the context of faith and grounded in the pursuit of truth (veritas). Some of these schools included:

  • Harvard College [University], Massachusetts founded in 1636 was founded as a Congregational school.
  • William and Mary, Virginia founded in 1693 was an Anglican school.
  • Yale, Connecticut, founded in 1701 was a Congregational school.
  • Princeton, New Jersey, was founded in 1746 as a New Light Presbyterian school.
  • Columbia, New York, was founded in 1754 as an Anglican school.
  • Brown, Rhode Island was founded in 1765 as a Baptist school.
  • Rutgers, New Jersey, was founded in 1765 as a Dutch Reformed school.

Pennsylvania and Virginia were essentially the first secular institutions. The German model espousing research and academic freedom began to widely influence American Higher Education in the 19th Century. Johns Hopkins, founded in Maryland in 1867, was the first pure research institution in this country.

During the 19th Century state supported higher education began to flourish, following the University of Virginia model, which had separated the theological influence from the curriculum by abolishing the chair of divinity in its reorganization of 1779. The University of Michigan adopted a credit point system; Harvard introduced an elective curriculum, and majors and specializations followed as we moved into the 20th Century. [3]

The rise of enlightenment thought was a watershed in the history of western civilization; it was a time when the Christian consensus was broken by a radical secular spirit. The enlightenment philosophy stressed the primacy of nature, a high view of reason and a low view of sin, and an anti-supernatural bias; and it encouraged revolt against a faith-affirming perspective of education. [4] Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers severed faith from philosophy and morality. Faith was understood only in pietistic terms having no connection with matters of truth. Though Schleiermacher tried to save the Christian faith, in reality he separated it from the exploration of truth—even the Jesus of history and the study of the Bible was separated from the Christ of faith. [5]

Early twentieth century American education was impacted by this mindset in the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies. Both groups in various ways tried to save “faith” through various pietistic approaches, on the one hand, you could find the separatistic pietism of American fundamentalism, and on the other there was the pragmatic pietism of William James, the common faith civil religion of John Dewey, and the a historical experiential religion of Harry Emerson Fosdick. The result, however, was the divorce of faith from teaching and scholarship in universities across the country in the arts, the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, and all other spheres, including the scholarly study of religion. There was during this time still a belief in objective truth in all fields, but the dominant perspective, with rare exceptions, maintained that faith had to be bracketed from this search for truth. The situation has changed even more drastically at the end of the twentieth century with the rise of postmodernism, which includes the loss of a belief in normative truth, and the influence of relativism in almost all spheres of knowledge. [6]

Following World War II a rapid expansion of higher education has taken place all across America. As we enter the 21st Century there are approximately 3,600 institutions of higher learning: 2,000 public and 1,600 private. Many of the public institutions are community colleges. Others are large research universities. Of the 1,600 private institutions almost 800 maintain some church relationship (about 400 mainline; a little less than 300 Roman Catholic; and few more than 100 Evangelical).

In thinking about Christian higher education we cannot rapidly leap over the foundational issues. We need carefully and intentionally to think about the importance of integrating faith and learning as the essential issue for defining Christian higher education.

[1] http://www.uu.edu/dockery/092000-erlc.htm
[2] This disconnection has been ably documented by George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); and James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Burtchaell sadly acknowledged that the story of the disengagement of the schools from their denominations and constituencies is in fact “more melancholy than the author expected.” (p. xi); also Mark R. Schwenn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the American Vocation in America (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
[3] See Robert Rue Parsonage, Church Related Higher Education (Valley Forge: Judson, 1978); Bernard Ramm, The Christian College in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963); Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975); Douglas Sloan, Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994); Charles D. Johnson, Higher Education of Southern Baptists (Waco: Baylor University Press, 1955).
[4] See Colin Gunton, Enlightenment and Alienation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 111-52; also Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
[5] See Schleiermacher’s posthumously published Leben Jesu (1864).

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