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Soaping the slippery slope

Two books document the decline of once-Christian colleges into bastions of unbelief

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Soaping the slippery slope
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What happened to so many once-Christian colleges in the United States? Two fine books describe the decline. George Marsden's 462-page The Soul of the American University shows how once-Protestant universities became secular look-alikes. James Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches uses 868 pages to show not only how schools moved from liberal theism to secularism but how, before that, they moved from theologically conservative to liberal stances.

I'll try to give the high points of 1,330 pages in fewer than 1,330 words: Three central messages are (1) Follow the money, (2) Watch the college president, (3) See what the college does with Darwin.

Follow the money: Andrew Carnegie, antagonistic toward Christianity, established in 1905 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which the following year began giving matching grants to fund the retirement of professors-but it excluded colleges and universities under denominational control. During the first four years of Carnegie grant-making, 20 schools changed their boards, statement of faith requirements, or hiring requirements so as to get Carnegie money for professors who might otherwise fall into poverty.

For example, Beloit College quickly sent Carnegie a message that suggested the board's resolve to have trustees from any denomination or no denomination. In the 1920s the trustees selected as Beloit's new president Irving Maurer, who said in one talk, "What does God mean to me? He means doing my duty, being good, allying myself with the right things." Maurer decried "the doctrine of the Virgin birth" and said, "I believe in the divinity of Jesus because I believe in the divinity of man. I believe that man and Christ have the moral characteristics of God."

Occasionally college leaders pushed back. Syracuse University chancellor James Day defended his Methodist school in 1910 and said, "Other colleges may do as they please. If they wish to crawl in the dirt for such a price, that is their privilege. But no university can teach young people lofty ideals of manhood and forget itself respect and honor, or sell its loyalty and faith for money that Judas flung away when in remorse he went out and hung himself. It is an insult for such a proposition to be made to a Christian institution." Most colleges, Carnegie found out, welcomed such insult-and Syracuse eventually succumbed to other blandishments.

The love of money was the root of all kinds of evil. New presidents loved to find new money sources but often in the process abandoned a biblical focus-because no money came without strings of some sort. Burtchaell shows how the Lafayette College board with its Presbyterian trustees, "terrified of a sudden insolvency," hired a president who objected, "as all right-minded people do, to being thought sectarian." Boards at Millsaps, Davidson, and Wake Forest moved away from denominational influence upon receiving "a sudden, large benefaction."

Watch the college president. Burtchaell shows that many college presidents cared more about respectability in the eyes of materialists than they did about Christ. These presidents were "attractive, and trusted," but at critical moments they helped their colleges gain money and students by abandoning the original Christian mission. Some were not even conscious of what they were doing: "All change was supposed to be gain, without a sense of loss." But losses there were: In college after college "the critical turn away from Christian accountability was taken under the clear initiative of a single president."

Marsden shows how decade by decade, college after college, presidents led trustees in making small accommodations, often with little understanding of the ultimate import of such moves. Boards of trustees assumed that Christian principles and objectives, often encrusted like fossils in mission statements, were still operative, but in practice they were increasingly marginalized.

Burtchaell shows how the presidents often got their way because the colleges were tired of being poor and often tired of "doctrinal preoccupations that spoiled the religious, devotional, and behavioral commonplaces which the modernists took as cultural lozenges." For example, James Kirkland, who became chancellor of Vanderbilt in 1893, spoke less about the Bible and more about the "'upbuilding of Christ's kingdom,' a phrase that could encompass everything constructive in modern civilization." Kirkland spent 20 years reducing the role of Southern Methodist leaders on his board of trustees.

The largest Northern Methodist university, Northwestern, dismissed in 1902 an English professor who attacked biblical inerrancy in a local newspaper. The firing brought some negative national publicity, and Northwestern's new president told its board in 1908 that Northwestern should offend neither "the denomination which gave it birth or the great community which is becoming interested in it without respect to denominational considerations." No school can serve two masters, and Northwestern was soon playing to the "great community."

Burtchaell writes about William Jewett Tucker, president of Dartmouth from 1893 to 1909, who took difficult parts of Scripture as metaphorical and called for "a Bible set free from the last bondage to literalism." As conviction of the Bible's truth disappeared, all that was left was "vague moralizing," and in time "the purge of Christian purpose" became evident to all. Tucker changed the board of trustees so that in 1906, near the end of his incumbency, a majority of board members were not active members of any church.

Tucker's comments as he left office showed why Dartmouth was on its way to becoming indistinguishable from secular counterparts: He did not want to discuss "distinctive tenets" of the Bible but only "those fundamental obligations and incentives of religion in which we are all substantially agreed." Then he proclaimed, "Formerly the distinction was, Is a man orthodox or heterodox? Today the distinction is, Is a man an optimist or a pessimist?" Tucker's successor as president, Ernest Hopkins, said in 1921 that "friendliness and good will [are] the essence of the religion Jesus taught." Churches, in other words, were clubs.

Watch the treatment of Darwin. At Dartmouth during Tucker's reign, chapel became voluntary but a course on evolution compulsory. Wake Forest's president from 1905 to 1927, William Poteat, tried to meld Christianity and evolution, and oversaw religious drift. When Ohio Wesleyan President James Bashford interviewed zoologist Edward Rice for a faculty position, Rice said he would teach evolution and Bashford replied, "I wouldn't want you if you didn't."

Francis Patton, Princeton's president from 1888 to 1902, hired Woodrow Wilson to be a professor but told him he should teach "under theistic and Christian presuppositions." Patton complained, "In your discussion of the origin of the State, you minimize the supernatural & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution & the genesis of the State as to leave the reader of your pages in a state of uncertainty as to your own position & the place you give to Divine Providence." In 1902 the trustees made Wilson president, and Wilson over the next 10 years undermined what was left of Princeton's biblical base (see sidebar).

Marsden quotes at length an article Cosmopolitan magazine published in 1909-Harold Bolce's "Blasting at the Rock of Ages"-that summarized a national tragedy: "Those who are not in close touch with the great colleges of the country, will be astonished to learn the creeds being foisted by the faculties of our great universities. In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the Decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils; that immorality is simply an act in contravention of society's accepted standards."

How the mighty had fallen.

Woodrow Wilson and the 'evolution' of government

Once upon a time-no, let's give the exact year, 1888-critics of seminary professor James Woodrow outed him as a Darwinist and ousted him from his professorship. The Southern Presbyterian General Assembly, meeting in Baltimore, reviewed and upheld the dismissal. That would be a minor historical footnote except that a 32-year-old future president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, attended the convention and became "unorthodox in my reading of the standards of the faith." In essence, he became a theistic evolutionist.

In the late 19th century Princeton President James McCosh emphasized biblical teaching. His successor, Francis Patton, rated eloquence above biblical orthodoxy when recruiting professors, so he hired Wilson but expressed concern that the new professor emphasized the influences of Roman law in shaping Western civilization yet was "silent with respect to the forming & reforming influences of Christianity." Patton told Wilson that Princeton trustees "would not regard with favor such a conception of academic freedom or teaching as would leave in doubt the very direct bearing of historical Christianity as a revealed religion upon the great problems of civilization."

Patton's prediction was incorrect. The trustees in 1902 also chose a good talker rather than a solidly biblical thinker. Wilson as Princeton president announced what many had come to believe: Princeton "is a Presbyterian college only because the Presbyterians of New Jersey were wise and progressive enough to found it." Wilson quickly eliminated Bible classes (under pressure, he partly relented) and made sure that students received indoctrination in evolution.

Ten years later Wilson ran for president and suggested that the real candidates were not Taft, Roosevelt, and himself, but Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. America was in trouble, Wilson declared, because some people had the "Newtonian" view that the government should have an unchanging constitutional foundation, somewhat like "the law of gravitation." He argued that government "falls under the theory of organic life. ... Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of Life."

Wilson's summary: "All that progressives ask or desire is permission-in an era when 'development,' 'evolution,' is the scientific word-to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle." In other words, forget about the text of the Bible or the Constitution: As society rapidly evolves we must have "a living constitution" open to judicial reinterpretation, regardless of the words on the page. Just as colleges were on a slippery slope, so was government.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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