The Colonial Colleges in America

Saturday, March 7, 2009

One of the gifts of the Great Awakening to British North America was the founding of new colleges: Princeton, Rhode Island College, which became Brown University; Queen’s College, founded by Dutch sympathizers with the Awakening in New Jersey; and Dartmouth College, which began as a missionary school for Indians, but it was moved by its founder to New Hampshire. These were only the colleges most directly nurtured by the awakening. Two others: the College of Philadelphia and King’s College in New York City, which was renamed Columbia after the American Revolution; also in varying degrees bore the footprint of the Awakening.

The College of Philadelphia was organized as an academy in a meeting hall in Philadelphia originally built to accommodate that grand itinerant George Whitefield on his many preaching tours. The academy organizers quickly ensured that both the academy and the college that superseded it were kept safe from Whitefield’s evangelical enthusiasm. And King’s College, which opened its doors in 1754, was deliberately designed to draw enthusiasm for the Church of England, which was struggling for representatives in the colonies. Its first president, Samuel Johnson, had actually been one of the Yale apostates from Congregationalism back in 1722.

Whitefield and the Colleges

That the Awakeners were interested in founding colleges at all may seem unusual, given the cold shoulder that Harvard and then Yale turned to the Great Awakening. George Whitefield had visited Harvard during his first great preaching tour in New England in 1740, and he found Harvard “scarcely as big as one of our least colleges at Oxford”. After all, Harvard had only one president, four tutors and about one hundred students. But worst still, “it was not far superior to our universities in piety”. This is a judgement that Whitefield did not intend as a compliment. “At Harvard, bad books are becoming fashionable among the tutors and students”.

When Whitefield journals were published, Harvard’s old-like president, Edward Holyoke, was not amused, and in December 1744, Holyoke and the Harvard faculty went to publish “The Testimony of Harvard College Against George Whitefield”, accusing Whitefield of enthusiasm and delusive management of the money he had been raising for his orphanage, and just accusing him of a general spirit of anti-intellectualism.

None of this gave Whitefield much pause because the “new-lights”, like their pious counterparts in England, Germany and in Netherlands; had an entirely different notion of how human psychology worked. The Enlightenment’s glorification of reason and nature was all well and good, argued the pious, but only when we don’t forget the limits placed upon the operation of reason by the countervailing power of the other faculties, specially the will. The celebrated German pietist, August Hermann Francke, confesses that as a theology student in Lutheran Germany, he had originally understood Christianity only in “my reason and in my thought”, it wasn’t until he had experienced repentance that “all sadness and unrest of my heart was taken all at once and I was immediately overwhelmed by a stream of joy, and gave praise to whom had shown so great grace.”

This is not necessarily an anti-intellectual stance. It was, in fact, little more than an updating of scholastic-style voluntarism. And it was shared, without any dimming of intellectual energy, by Blaise Pascal, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. But it could easily sound anti-intellectual. Nor was Whitefield, as an Oxford graduate, an intellectual slouch; but when he warned Holyoke that “learning without piety will only render you more capable of promoting the kingdom of the devil”, Whitefield was leaving the Awakening open to abuse, as much as Harvard’s embrace of reason had left it vulnerable to the blandishments of religion.

The Awakening in Yale

The dimensions of that abuse showed up not at Harvard, but in Yale, in 1741. Thomas Clap had taken over as rector of Yale in April of 1740. He was determined to overhaul the students and the curriculum to move Yale from a good state to a perfect one. And mistaking Whitefield with a vehicle for accomplishing that, Clap unwisely invited Whitefield to preach to the students on 1740. Whitefield was even less impressed by Yale than he had been by Harvard. “It has one rector, three tutors and about one hundred students, and with no remarkable concern among them concerning religion”.

But in Yale’s case, things did not stay that way. Over the next three months, the spiritual life of Yale College was quickened. The students in general became serious, Jonathan Edwards recorded, much engaged in the concerns of their eternal welfare. But they also became tumultuous and rebellious against what Whitefield had darkly described as an unconverted ministry.

James Davenport, a Yale graduate of 1732 and then Whitefield wannabe, showed up in Connecticut claiming direct inspiration from God and sponsoring a bonfire of books, principally on divinity. While the books where in the flames, Davenport cried out “thus the souls of the authors of those books, those of them who are dead are rusting in the flames of hell; the fate of those surviving will be the same unless speedy repentance prevent it.”

Clap tried to appease the uproar by inviting Jonathan Edwards to deliver the commencement address. But by the beginning of the next school year in September of 1741, the trustees of Yale were forced to pass a resolution threatening that “any student at this college who directly or indirectly says that the rector, either the trustees or tutors are hypocrites or unconverted men, he shall for the first offence make a public confession in the hall; and for the second offence be expelled.

And to show just how much they meant it, when a junior student, David Brainerd, snorted that one of the tutors had no more grace than a chair, rector Clap expelled him. If Clap thought he was serving an example, he was wrong. Brainerd left Yale to become a missionary to the Indians. He left in Edwards’ hands his melodramatic diary, which Edwards later published as a memorial to Brainerd’s integrity and Yale’s stinginess of heart. Brainerd’s journal went on to become one of the great religious best-sellers of the next century.

The Founding of Princeton and the Arrival of Witherspoon

Given this kind of reception, no one could be surprised if the awakeners decided to take their interests elsewhere, and begin the string of colleges that I mentioned at the beginning. But again, the result turned out to be a very mixed bag. This is because colleges founded around a valorization of the will, rather than the intellect, had a hard time justifying their existence. Usually either they disappear when the will grows weary, or allow themselves to be transformed into holes of reason just like the others, simply to justify their existence.

The College of New Jersey, Princeton, became something of a marker of how difficult it was to sustain the will for revival within the tight structure of 18th century college education. Founded through the initiative of Whitefield’s Presbyterian admirers, Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr. the new college was generally perceived as a statement of protest by New Lights against Yale’s treatment of David Brainerd. If it had not been for the treatment received by Mr. Brainerd at Yale, Aaron Burr remarked, New Jersey College would never have been erected.

On the other hand, the college had trouble trying to keep going the same way that Brainerd did. The first of the presidents of the college of New Jersey, Jonathan Dickinson, was a Yale graduate class of 1706, who had been minister to a community of New England migrants in Elizabeth town, New Jersey. Within a year of founding the college, Dickinson was dead. So, leadership of the college was transferred to Aaron Burr, who’s principle credential for the job was that he happened to be Jonathan Edwards’ son-in-law. Burr moved the college in 1733 to land contributed to the college trustees by the town fathers of the village of Princeton. It delighted Esther Edwards Burr, the wife of Aaron Burr, to find a considerable awakening in the college. By February of 1757 it looked to her exactly like God’s descending into the temple in a cloud of glory. But Aaron Burr died of malaria that fall, and when the trustees brought Jonathan Edwards to Princeton as his son-in-law successor, Edwards died as well.

For the next decade, election as president of Princeton came increasingly to look like the kiss of death. Samuel Davies succeeded Edwards but collapsed and died on the strain of the work in February 1761. Davies was followed by Samuel Finley, who actually survived for five years in office before death removed him too in July of 1766. By this point, the fires of controversy over the Great Awakening had cooled considerably, and in 1758, the quarreling factions among the Presbyterians had worked a reconciliation, which they hoped to crown by recruiting as the next president of Princeton a Presbyterian, who, if not exactly the first choice of anyone, was at least the least objectionable choice in everyone’s mind: John Witherspoon. He was neither identified with the pro-awakening or anti-awakening factions, largely because he was a Scotsman and never been in America.

The arrival of John Witherspoon in Princeton in 1768 has always been regarded as something of a watershed in American intellectual life. And with good reason. For one thing, he actually lived long enough in Princeton, until 1794, to make a difference as the college’s president. Long enough, in fact, to serve in the continental congress as one of New Jersey’s representatives, and to sign the Declaration of Independence, the only clergyman to do so. For another thing, Witherspoon was successful in making moderation into an aggressive quality rather than just an exercise in appeasement. Witherspoon carried with him the old-worldish sense of the Church’s place within society and the theory of the sacramental educational religion. Not the separatism, not the voluntarism, and not the wild fire conversion enthusiasm of the Awakening.