Two or three times a year, at some conference or other, I hear bleak prognostications of the future of the Christian colleges. Sometimes the reference is to their financial plight—many of them are mortgaged to the hilt, and the additional specters of inflation, unemployment, and a plummeted stock market are hardly propitious for material progress. At other times the reference is to an anticipated drop in enrollment because of the spiraling cost of education, the declining birth rate, and changing evaluations of a college education. More often the reference is to the fact that on some church college campuses students seem more antagonistic to faith than on state university campuses, while at some evangelical schools they are more prone to take their faith for granted than to elucidate and integrate it.
Of these concerns the last is the most disconcerting, since colleges presumably have their justification in being the intellectually critical centers of society. The mood on many church-related campuses recently prompted a nationally known scholar who lectures to many students to ask, Is the Christian college a lost cause?
A comprehensive reply to that question is impossible, of course. And obviously not all Christian colleges fall into the same mold, although most would claim some common excellencies. One of these pluses is the assurance that students are treated as individual persons and not as nameless and faceless statistics. An amusing personal experience prods me to question somewhat their fulfillment of that claim. Three years ago I requested catalogues from several evangelical colleges. My inquiries were apparently computerized, for ever since my modest request I have been getting “De Carl” letters inviting me to come for an interview for freshman application, to bring my parents to Parents’ Week, or to see what Homecoming is like.
But back to the question. Since I was one of eight or ten observers of the American scene to whom the inquiry was addressed, let me superimpose it over some notes in my “education” folder. Perhaps that’s being like the university student who changed an examination question so it would fit the answer he knew. But there is, I think, some intrinsic connection between the following comments and the present crisis on church-related campuses.
In 1795 Timothy Dwight was called to the presidency of Yale, whose post-war student body was marked by extensive infidelity and moral laxity. Some students were better known to one another by the adopted names of notorious French and English infidels than by their own. Besides carrying administrative burdens President Dwight as professor of theology taught the seniors. It was his custom to turn their classroom forensic tendencies into a debate over central Christian issues, and while the tenor of the class was at first intellectually rebellious and hostile, he gradually convinced the students of the superficiality of their arguments. Before long infidelity had no place to hide; it soon became as popular on campus to be openly identified as a Christian as it had been to be a pagan.
For ten years Dwight refused permanent assignment as professor of theology and accepted only annual reappointment. While his position as president did not require it, he nonetheless soon after induction delivered a lecture series on “Evidences of Divine Revelation.” His biographer notes: “He held the Scriptures to be a plain intelligible Revelation of the Will of God; and every man who has them, to be equally responsible for his faith as for his practice.” The value of friendship and applause Dwight considered “less than nothing” alongside the value of truth and a clear conscience before God. Yet he treasured as well the visible fruits of the Christian life.
In our day of evangelical exuberance it will surprise some that Dwight never spoke of himself as a Christian; his humility was such that he was reluctant to mention his own spiritual attainments, believing that mere professions count little and that genuine piety is unostentatious. He spoke rather of God’s great and precious promises, and witnessed by his life that he was free of distressing doubts and apprehensions.
One of his sermons, on the text “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer. 8:20), twice brought a revival among students; on one of these occasions half the student body united with the college church after hearing the sermon.
There were great odds against the kind of leadership embodied by Timothy Dwight. He himself had been a Yale student at a time when administrative problems, lack of discipline, and loose views of morals and religion plagued the campus, and he sacrificed much of the academic value of his first two years. At the outset of his junior year he rededicated himself to properly motivated study, rising often to study by candlelight even before morning prayers at 5:30. As a senior he devoted fourteen hours a day to his studies, and he was graduated in 1769 at the age of seventeen at the head of his class. His hopes of pursuing law studies were shattered by health problems; by twenty-three he had lost all effective use of his eyes for reading and study, and in addition he endured constant and sometimes severe pain that was to try him for the remaining forty years of his life. (Two thousand miles of walking and three thousand miles of horseback-riding in a single year were credited for the measure of recovery that enabled him to serve as a chaplain to Revolutionary War troops. He wrote the song “Columbia.”)
While he was president and professor at Yale, Dwight’s eyesight became so weak that he could scarcely read or write more than a single sentence in preparation. At times he suffered such excruciating pain behind his eyes that he walked many miles in the middle of the night to encourage a modicum of sleep. As a professor of divinity he regularly preached a sermon each Sunday of the college term—a hundred sermons over the four-year span—dictating the content in advance to a secretary early in the week over a period of a day and a half and then preaching the following Lord’s Day without notes. He used illustrations from the history of the nations and from prominent biographies as well as from the history of thought.
Dwight was active in projecting a society for foreign missions, and also an American counterpart to the British and Foreign Bible Society (the American Bible Society was formed in the last year of his life), and he rejoiced in reports here and there of spiritual revivals. He knew, however, that academic power is what justifies the existence of a college, and to the presentation of Christian truth he brought not only a devout spirit and respected tradition but also a disciplined mind.
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