Sunday, October 12, 2008

Conditions of Orthodoxy at Founding Era Colleges

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other colleges were founded in the 17th and early 18th centuries, when America was a bunch of British Colonies and before Church and State were separated, with explicitly orthodox Christian "missions." Most realize that something changed along the way, but few understand when and how it happened. The institutional changes occurred primarily during the 19th Century. After all, during the founding era, Timothy Dwight -- a fire and brimstone fundamentalist preacher -- was President of Yale. Yet, it was during this time -- early to mid 18th Century -- that such colleges became hotbeds of infidelity, in other words, when the seeds of change were planted. And Harvard, institutionally, officially became "infidel" around the turn of the 19th Century.

"Infidelity" -- that is, non-orthodoxy, or deism, unitarianism, Arminianism, and universalism -- was a dissident movement in 18th Century America [some of these were harder forms of infidelity, some softer; my contention is America's key founders -- the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin and a few other leading lights, were soft infidels]. However, so was Whiggery a dissident movement in England. American Whigs, as such, were disproportionately imbibed in these "infidel" principles, which never captured the minds of the masses, but did capture the minds of the elite, educated men who gave America the principles upon which it declared independence and constructed the Constitution.

[For the rest, see the original post here.]


Tom Van Dyke said...

The counterargument is that it's too facile to focus on those who put "the American mind" into words [like Jefferson did in the D of I] instead of the millions who comprised it. We often give too much credit to the "lawyers" and the law instead of the spirit that moves them in the first place.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, do you think George Washington saw himself as an infidel?

Jonathan Rowe said...

No. But I also don't believe Jefferson, Franklin or J. Adams saw themselves as infidels either. They saw themselves, if anything, as "Christians." But the ORTHODOX did think of the non-orthodox as heretics at best, infidels at worst.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Jon, I'm glad to read from you that "I also don't believe Jefferson, Franklin or J. Adams saw themselves as infidels either. They saw themselves, if anything, as 'Christians.'"

But what basis do you offer for the claim that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and what you call "other colleges" (presumably Henricopolis, William & Mary, King's College, Philadelphia College, Brown, Rutgers, Dartmouth) had explicitly orthodox missions?

Yale was really the only one that was consistently traditional (in a broad sense) in the early years, and the only one that I know of that was explicitly intended to promote orthodoxy. Indeed, the involvement of the Mathers in promoting the school (not yet named Yale), and Cotton specifically in securing Elihu's grant, was a reaction on their part to the perceived liberalism of Harvard already in their time. Or am I wrong? You always have such interesting quotes at your fingertips...


Tom Van Dyke said...

From 1894.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Let me double check. It could be that you are right. Those universities, I am told, were founded with "Christian" missions at a time when the unitarian heresies really hadn't come into vogue. So I assumed their "Christian" missions were orthodox. That's what I was basing my case on.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I seem to recall Madison or Franklin being incensed that those ambitious Presbyterians had seized control of the University of Pennsylvania.
From 1893, claiming that American education---with the exception of Franklin's influence on the U of P, had its roots in the various sects, which supports Jon's assertion.

Me, I'm not terribly interested: there's a theory out there that the longer an organization exists, the more it moves to the left [see: Ford Foundation]. Harvard was an early casualty, and the inexorable fate of all institutions, even Cotton Mathers', is chronicled in the seminal and historic God and Man at Yale.

Odd that "conservatism" ["orthodoxy"] is the one that is called to reinvent---re-create---reestablish---itself, as its structures are subsumed by "liberalism" or "new" ideas. [As if there's anything new under the sun.]

But I reckon any worthy orthodoxy must by definition be up to the challenge. All orthodoxies started out as liberalisms or new ideas themselves, after all. Including what some call "Judeo-Christianity", the ultimate in historicism. Phil.


Jonathan Rowe said...


Yes, it's my understanding that schools that came into being during America's Founding and by America's key Founders (Jefferson's UVA, Franklin's Penn, etc.) were founded with more or less secular Enlightenment missions.

The colleges founded in the 17th Century were founded with more traditionally Christian missions, but during the 18th Century movements of "heresy" or "infidelity" began to take charge with Harvard officially becoming "unitarian" in the early 19th Century and Yale under the leadership of Timothy Dwight quashing such tendencies towards "infidelity."

Though I know a lot more about the late 18th and early 19th Centuries than I do about the periods before and after. I'll eventually learn more about them in more detail as the years go by.

Kristo Miettinen said...


Not so fast. That the institutions "had their roots" in denominations is just a smear - the implication being that Christians are incapable of establishing enlightened institutions.

Jon's claim, which I question, was that they were all established with some orthodox mission, e.g. an explicitly orthodox charter or equivalent intrinsic bias. With the exeption of Yale, established as Puritan reaction against the prevailing libertine atmosphere at Harvard, this is just not true.

Take Princeton: Tom would say it "has its roots" in the Presbyterian denomination. My rebuttal would be, of course, that it has multiculturalism (colonial style, i.e. nondenominationalism) written explicitly into its charter. So, denominational roots, but enlightened institution.


PS the idea that the only "orthodox" charter among the colleges was established by the Puritans, a sect driven out of Europe because of their unorthodoxy, is just another indication of my general thesis, that American Christianity in the colonial era was by consensus unorthodox.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Kristo, I claim to know nothing about the subject except what I helpfully linked to.


The Princeton University website includes the below, and we shall make of it what we will, depending on what we might take "Church" to mean in 1746:

"The charter was issued to a self-perpetuating board of trustees who were acting in behalf of the evangelical or New Light wing of the Presbyterian Church, but the College had no legal or constitutional identification with that denomination. Its doors were to be open to all students, "any different sentiments in religion notwithstanding." The announced purpose of the founders was to train men who would become "ornaments of the State as well as the Church."