George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University


Cover image of Marsden, The Soul of the American UniversityThe Soul of the American University:
From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief

by George M. Marsden
Oxford University Press, 1996
480 pages, paperback, $49.99

George Marsden outlines the complex history of the American academy in The Soul of the American University, tracing the currents and changes that transformed the old system of Bible-believing classical liberal arts Ivy League colleges into today’s vast network of secular multiversities. The change from orthodox theology to outright antagonism against Christianity did not happen overnight. To narrate this story, Marsden’s work spans a tremendous breadth of history. His project shows that Christianity fused with Enlightenment theism, only to find itself at odds with the skepticism of the late 19th century. In other words, the American university is right in step with the primary narrative of United States intellectual history.

The American academy began as a continuation of the Protestant model for education. This comes as little surprise since Puritans-Congregationalists founded the earliest colleges. Marsden believes the Protestant idea of the college struggled with the same tensions as the medieval university, i.e. the balancing act between the classical and the Christian. During the Middle Ages, the church had full authority over the university, which in turn led to the three vocations of medicine, law, and theology. For the Protestants, the university trained the leaders of the Reformation; nearly all the reformers were schoolmen that served a broad social function. The old curriculum of trivium and quadrivium remained intact, though often supplemented by Greek and Hebrew Scriptural studies. This custom carried on into America: Harvard and the other Ivy League schools were founded for the purposes of training up clergy. In other words, the early American university reflected the New England mind at the time, a learned Calvinism that sought a consistently godly life on earth. The Protestant model did usher in several substantial breaks from the medieval. Luther initiated the rejection of Aristotle in metaphysics. This philosophical move created a dichotomy between pagan learning and “earthly things” against revelation and salvation. Also, the doctrine of sola Scriptura removed authority from the church, since the individual could interpret Scripture and could legitimately disagree with the mediating institution of the church hierarchy. It was not unusual for universities separated from Rome to seek protection and provision from their civic authorities.

American schools struggled with this authority problem early in their founding, especially since most New Englanders sprang from the dissenter traditions. The presidents and directors of Harvard and Yale often struggled with dissenting faculty members over areas of interpretation or doctrine. For example, during the Great Awakening, the revivalist New Lights combated the establishment Old Lights. These battles often fell to heavy-handed “sectarianism” by the church leadership in power, which cast out highly-qualified yet aberrant instructors and students. Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania offered a new appealing model to avoid some of the ecclesiological rumblings of Harvard and Yale. The newer system offered a board of trustees with both clergymen and secular officials. Princeton, for example, had Presbyterian clergy with representatives from the colonial governor. This model birthed a muddled dual-authority for schools. That public funds and leadership were part of a religious institution was not a problem for the early Americans. Marsden points out that colonial Calvinism held to the “sacral character of all life,” which did not mind a mixed civic-ecclesial authority in a public educational institution.[1] Indeed, Americans saw a dual advantage in the college; it functioned to both train clergy and civilize society.

The 1700s witnessed a peaceful tension between evangelical Protestantism and Enlightenment thinking. Since the Protestant establishment espoused Francis Bacon’s conception of knowledge over Aristotle’s, the two got along together. Marsden points out, “Science and Protestant religion went hand in hand, since both stood for free inquiry versus prejudice and arbitrary authority. Francis Bacon, the seventeenth-century progenitor of the ideal, was high among the saints in the American Protestant hierarchy.”[2] The new progressive science was merely part of the one truth also found in the Bible. The unity of truth meant there was no threat from the natural and physical sciences. Sir Isaac Newton’s physics became the most popular alternative to Aristotle’s natural philosophy. With Newton came a world that worked by universal mechanics that explained all phenomena—God was no longer directly necessary. Soon, this removal of God was applied to the moral realm, with a belief in a universal collection of rationally based ethical standards. “Moral philosophy” replaced theology as the integrating factor for the university curriculum. Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson envisaged a secular non-sectarian university that would train up men to handle a “republic of virtue.”[3] Jefferson and other non-Christians saw the traditional faith as a helpful instrument: religion led to virtue and could therefore be cynically preserved for the good of the republic. The university served as an integral part of the Enlightenment project.

The Jeffersonians had little patience for the Calvinist sectarian battles. They despised heavy-handed policies like those under Yale president Thomas Clap, who tried to squelch the New Light position and forbid Anglican students from attending the college. Theological sectarianism chafed against the freedom-loving spirit of the age and exhausted the Christian camp. What made this issue even more embarrassing was that these institutions were partly funded by the public. How could a public university exclude a tax-paying student for religious reasons? Soon, Clap and others found themselves alienated from the culture. The older orthodox Calvinism began to face new competitors for its hegemony.

Pietism added a new flavor to the Christian academic mix. The same attitudes that fed the Second Great Awakening also influenced colleges. The pietists placed great emphasis upon individual salvation decisions, rejecting traditional authorities more than ever. In the university, they wanted a distinctly Christian education, but this was hard to practice and led to sectarianism in public institutions. Whereas the Jeffersonians had a sunny view of human nature, the pietists made a significant distinction between the saved and unsaved. Both camps liked individualism and public morality, yet distrusted traditional authorities. In fact, the two allied together during the War for Independence; they found a common enemy in the Anglican-British establishment. The Whiggish tendencies of the two camps ensured a relatively stable peace. They also compromised on the secularism issue per the division of labor principle. Protestant administrators gave more intellectual wiggle room to colleges while founding specialized theological seminaries dedicated to students seeking lifelong ministry.

From about 1800 to the 1870s, liberal humanistic theism fused more closely with Christian theism in America. The Whig alliance ushered in a democratic age. This trend was no less apparent in the universities. Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and Arminianism rejected Calvinism as an overly harsh and oppressive restraint.[4] Instead of special revelation, people could turn to self-evident, common sense principles that governed the closed system of the universe.[5] The university, as the keystone of civilization, would help conquer the West and improve life for all men. Whereas pietists looked for intermittent bursts of student conversion, the less-religious Whig reformers brought revivalist enthusiasm to social improvement. Moreover, postmillenialism enthralled liberal Christians—the church would usher in the millennial kingdom of God, starting with America. The nation needed a united evangelical front to fight off social evil and encourage human betterment. America needed a general, universally acceptable, and culturally relevant Christianity religion suited for social action. There arose a great concern for industrial and commercial instruction, which slowly chipped away at the inefficient humanities. Even more committed Christians found a difficulty in balancing orthodoxy with cultural acceptability.[6] Orthodox Protestants often vacillated between political power-plays and doctrinal compromises. Why should a school administration alienate itself when it could assent to such a large set of common American ideals, such as free inquiry, social betterment, and economic prosperity? To keep cultural hegemony, Protestant schools had to assimilate more and more beliefs in order to stay on the “right side of history.”[7] This process resulted in a blander Christianity in evangelical strongholds with relatively little complaint.

One of the most significant influences for American education came from Germany. Progressive Christians saw this area as a beacon of hope for humanity and an ideal for America. When establishing God’s kingdom via material and cultural improvements, what better place to pull from than the scientific yet explicitly Protestant state of Prussia? German universities became known for their specialized professionalism, where all studies were pursued as “scientifically” objective with vast empirical research. This “Wissenschaft” approach first appeared at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the first university built ground up from this model. The appeal of scientific accuracy enticed American faculty, which already considered science and religion to always be in one accord. To meet the professional standards, however, humanities had to become “social sciences” rather than liberal arts. The German influence also introduced the idea of “academic freedom.” The doctrine of Lehrfreiheit originally taught that professors were allotted to pursue inquiries, publications, and teachings independently; in America, this translated into a professors right to hold to his own beliefs, even if contrary to the doctrines of the administration. Another idea, Lernfreiheit, translated similarly to freedom for students to hold more aberrant ideas. The new academic freedom held that intellectuals must have the freedom to carry out value-free scientific inquiry, regardless of religious restraints. Now any attempts at administrative restraint in regards to doctrine were not only distasteful, but also against pedagogical dogma. Also, the genteel universal laws of the Enlightenment fell to the historicist conceptions of morality as well as the Darwinist dogma of survival.

Near the end of the 1800s, the scientific establishment began to conflict with Christianity, leading to the “methodological secularization” of the American university. Darwinism birthed an even more naturalistic explanation for the world, removing God even more from academic study. The Bible’s creation narrative as well as miracles became scientifically unacceptable. At first, the church tried to assimilate this idea as well. Soon, even the integrating factor of ethical philosophy began to escape Christian control. Darwinists G. Stanley Hall and William James tried to make a philosophy without religion.[8] Their theories caught on quickly, pulling the powerful courses in philosophy out of the church’s hands. Christians tried to find a way to keep the increasingly-superfluous Bible in the curriculum; they found their solution in higher criticism. To meet the Germanic ideal, Biblical texts were cynically investigated in the classroom. Inerrancy had long been thrown out the window; soon after came the rejection of divine inspiration altogether. Nevertheless, the criticism classes were one of the few outlets to actually study the Scriptures at some level. Unfortunately, this concession came at the cost of even further skepticism.

Public funding also became more of an issue for Christian administrators. For example, at the University of Michigan, president John Angell basically had to reduce the Christian faith to liberal idealism in order to not fall afoul of the state. He and others had to espouse a schizophrenic compartmentalization of courses. Christian influence now came through “extracurricular religion” in the form of the YMCA, student clubs, and other Christian organizations.[9] With universal truth thrown out the window under James and others, even Christians became comfortable with the idea of the hyper-specialized, compartmental “multiversity.” Schools soon unified under different standards. The Baptist University of Chicago, for example, held together under the banner of big business capitalism and the general “ethics of Jesus.”

During the twentieth century, Christians had two options. The more liberal assimilated to the point of lost identity. As Marsden points out, “Protestants were in the process of declaring the whole nation their church, and with no institutional church in the picture the primary locations for Christianity lay in individual experience and in public morality.”[10] On the other hand, Christians could become more divisive, either retreating to their own (less-influential) schools or divisively fighting in established colleges. The main shift that Marsden observes came from the humanist liberal arts revival of the mid and late twentieth century.

This small archipelago finds derision in both news outlets and its occasional disgruntled alumni. They suffer from being supported by the fringes of religious and ideological nuttiness. Yet despite all this, these schools of the backward glance–they are a beacon of hope and light that brings together minds young and old to join in a Great Conversation. Their future remains perilous, as do the prospects for any sanity in the current age. If I may quote the great Captain Mal Reynolds: “So here is us: on the raggedy edge.”


[1] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 40.

[2]Marsden, 85.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Even though Presbyterians still had an educational hegemony, these dissidents would be far from the last detractors of Reformed theology.

[5] “Common sense” philosophy came especially from the Scottish Enlightenment’s influence.

[6] Calvinist ideas of predestination are not well-suited for a fully democratic spirit.

[7] Marsden illustrates this in the career of Noah Porter.

[8] Marsden, 160.

[9] Marsden, 171.

[10] Marsden, 410.

3 thoughts on “George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University”

  1. You MUST read “The Outrageous Idea of Christian scholarship” It was my main inspiration when I wrote my LENGTHY article on why my university should retain its “Christian Identity”

    1. I haven’t read that yet. Marsden, Noll, Hatch, and the others of the “academic school” of Christian historians are always worth a read, though I tend to be less enamored with the current state of the university, much preferring its more medieval churchly form.

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