Beacon Street Diary blog

Seeds of Education

College freshmen are settling into their new dorm rooms and starting classes this month, congregating on campuses with the common goal of improving their minds. It was the same in the fall of 1850 when Aaron Lucius Chapin addressed Beloit College. "Year by year, it gathers into its bosom a crowd of bright youth drawn from families of every rank and profession." Chapin was a Congregational minister and the first president of Beloit College. Inspired by Congregational missionaries in the United States and abroad, he was part of a movement to found a dozen Congregational colleges in the mid-1800s.

Chapin and his contemporaries took up mission work to make New England values, religion, and education accessible to people outside the northeastern United States. A Yale graduate himself, Chapin felt obligated to extend the privilege of his education to others by replicating a Yale education, and what he called the 'virtuous society' he found in new England across the growing country. Writing in 1850, Chapin saw this process beginning.

"You and I, brother, as sons of Yale, have enjoyed singular advantages, and it behooves us to do what we can to transmit these blessings to succeeding generations, who shall occupy these verdant prairies and be planted along this silvery stream, destined at no distant day to become the crowded residence of wealth, intelligence, and refinement, and all the attractions of virtuous society, in its highest style and development. What was, fifteen years back, the wild man's hunting ground, in fifteen years more, will be as near a paradise as we shall be likely to find on this side Heaven."

For Chapin, academic discipline was inseparable from spiritual rigor, and a college was the best place to instill both in young people. The state universities springing up in the Midwest were too secular for Chapin's taste. He preferred colleges like Yale and Harvard, where New England Congregational values blended with English university academics. But Chapin saw those colleges as distant trees, whose seeds of education could hardly be expected to float all the way to Wisconsin. If a college was local, thought Chapin, its virtuous influence on the community would be stronger.

"A hand from the East will be stretched out to help on the establishment of genuine Christian colleges, judiciously located here and there in the West," wrote Chapin. Beloit College was part of a larger project by Congregationalists at the time to extend their influence outside of New England. Congregational missionaries travelled to frontier towns from the East Coast, both to convert native people and to keep settlers on the proper Christian path. Education was one of the central goals of the Congregational missionaries because it was so closely intertwined with their faith. In 1878, Chapin spoke before to the Mission Board.

"To secure and make abiding these results in all of those young States, colleges have been founded. They are the natural outgrowth of Home Missions. They stand as fortresses to maintain the ascendancy of the truth. In them recruits are trained for service on the field. They are living fountains in which science and religion — kindred elements — are blended according to their natural affinity, to pour forth into the forthcoming civilization healthful streams of intelligence and refined culture."

Many early graduates of Beloit College fulfilled Chapin's vision, and went on to serve as missionaries elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Congregationalist missionaries founded colleges stretching from Pennsylvania to Utah, all founded in the same spirit of bringing New England values to people in the West. The colleges were meant to be "permanent centers of Christian influence," as Chapin wrote. History intervened.

"In the 1950s and early 1960s, Beloit College had transferred to a more civic-religious sense of identity. It still called itself a Christian college, but it had moved away from call itself Congregational," explained Bill Conover, who runs Beloit's present-day Spiritual Life Program. "The 1960s brought a sense of secularism and a sense of upheaval across our campus and other Christian institutions. The faculty took a vote to take 'Christian' out of the college's name an identity." A Protestant chaplaincy remained until the 1970s, but it was cut during a budget crisis.

Ashley Cleere is the chaplain of Piedmont College, one of two colleges still affiliated with the Congregational tradition. She thinks the gradual secularization of Congregational colleges was a result of Congregationalism's decentralized nature. "Congregational colleges don't have the burden of doctrine they have to maintain on campus, and we don't have something like a denomination giving us money," said Cleere. "It's part of the nature of Congregationalism that made it easy to drift away."

"I would guess that I'm one of a handful of people who even know about the historic connection with the Congregational church," said Beloit's Conover.

Although the explicit Christianity is gone from most Congregational colleges, the tradition of learning, openness, and self-improvement is as strong for the freshmen who started at Beloit College this month as it was for the students Chapin addressed in 1850. Conover sees Congregationalism's stamp even on the secular Beloit College campus. "In the life of the institution, someone who knows Congregational values would really see them," he says. "Congregationalism is really associated with a strong emphasis on freedom of conscience and speech. I feel like there is kind of a Puritan-influenced sense of the necessity of constant improvement, and we really value the project of endless improvement and reform."

The Congregational Library & Archives' collections include many documents related to Congregational colleges founded by American missionaries.

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