Skip Navigation

Beloit College: A Christian College. Its Historical Ethos

By Robert H. Irrmann


Joseph Emerson wrote of Beloit College as he hoped it would be, and of any worthy college as it should be, in a memorandum of uncertain date, when he asserted that "The Christian College - - not the Common School, infinite as it is in its importance - - not the University - - high and august as that clarum et venerabile nomen may be, but the Christian College is in their [the Puritans'] esteem the central force by which the Community instituted upon the Mayflower is to be developed into the Commonwealth of Mankind." In the early life of Beloit College, the terms "Christian", "Christian College", "Puritan" and "Puritanism" appear frequently, and they appeared with great meaning for the men who employed them, and for those who heard or read their words. Professor Richardson summed this condition very nicely in his article on "The Mindedness of the early Faculty of Beloit College": "The founders did not look on puritanism as an 'historical force': they looked on themselves as living puritans, and on their mission as that of extending puritanism."

     In the justly famous Tenth Anniversary Address of July 8, 1857, Joseph Emerson spoke of the four founding conventions of 1844 and 1845 which brother Beloit College into being. "So deliberately and prayerfully did the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches of Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, who were one in the faith of the Pilgrim fathers, finding themselves in a region which God had made one, by its geographical necessities, and charged with a common responsibility for the Christian civilization of that region, determine and covenant to unite in planting for that region the institution which most peculiarly expresses the great heart and hope of the Pilgrims, - a Christian College."

     "The whole movement, from the first thoughts of the pioneer missionaries who desired such an institution, through the earnest conferences of the conventions, to the Amen, which responded to the Thanksgiving and prayer, when, at last, the corner stone was laid, - all speaks a soul, loving truth, loving man and loving God, full of faith, full of hope, full of charity. This is the soul of Puritanism."

     "Beloit College is an offspring of the Puritan spirit, and if we would know what it is, and why it is, we must study what that forming spirit is and what it means. When then is Puritanism? And what is its work, for which it needs the College - for which it needs Beloit College?"

     "The main spring of the Puritan character, is the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith. By salvation, it understands the restoration of man to the image of God; and by faith, the full, free, cordial reception and acceptance of all God's truth by the whole mind and heart of Man, - recognizing of course the needful but certain work of the Divine Spirit with and through and in the truth. In this complete salvation, not only Bible truth but all truth has its place; for, as John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrims at Leyden, saith, 'All truth by whomsoever spoken is of God and of His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, in some His manner and degree of working'."

     "Therefore the great purpose of this life is the application of truth, for cure or for nurture, to all the spiritual and intellectual being of man, of each individual man and of mankind as a race. This belief in God and in man as the image of God, and in truth as the word of God by which man is to live, has wrought out and is working out these things which we read of and these things which we see. That the word of God might not be bound, the Pilgrims came to the wilderness. - For that, they planted their free state of which our American liberty is the child. They planted it, why? Because liberty was their end? Not so? It was with them only an essential preparation for beginning their real work, which was education. ... they were to provide for a large and advancing civilization, and they needed able and learned men to be ministers of the truth and guides to such a civilization. 'Wherefor', in the words of Cotton Mather, 'a Colledge must now by thought upon, a Colledge, the best thing that ever New England thought upon.' ... It may be that the model which Puritanism has given to America ... shows that there is a living spirit here also, - a spirit, perhaps, which the world cannot afford to kill or to bind, - a spirit which, perhaps, the world cannot kill or fetter, but which will, by virtue of a life which is in it and of a spirit which works through it, give to the world itself life and liberty, that freedom wherewith the truth maketh free; - ripening the state into the true commonwealth, the Church into the fellowship of saints, knowledge into wisdom, and civilization into salvation." Moreover, "If civilization is to ... advance, it must be by the College, working to put many upon the most advanced line of general human culture yet attained, and thence spending the choice spirits onward - as the seats of learning in the old world sent forth John Wickliffe and John Huss and John Calvin and John Knox, and John Robinson and John Milton, and the whole apostolic succession of harbingers of the Kingdom of the Son of Man."

     For Emerson and his fellow New England "puritans" of the early Beloit, "a vital Christian faith ... must be the heart of a true College, and forth from that faith must go issues of life through all the system of instruction and training. ... if God and truth and salvation are not realities, then there is no use for a College, there is no use for life. But if they are realities, then the use of a College and the use of life itself, is to keep the truth. For that strife exactly was the College made. ... The true spirit of the College opposes error, but is in sympathy with every honest searcher after truth even though he be in error, and bids him speak his word, as the College itself must repeat that voice of God which in its own still atmosphere it seems to discern."

     "... our fathers, believing in God and in truth and in man's hope of restoration to the image of God through the truth, considered a Christian College an essential instrument toward that restoration. ... Here [in the Rock River valley] is this New England civilization poured into this country", and here must be established a Christian College to do at once the full work of a Harvard and a Yale for this region; if not, "civilization ... losing in a degree the character which it brings from the home of the Pilgrims, will begin to form itself upon less noble models." Truly the founders and the faculty of the youthful Beloit viewed themselves "as living puritans, ... their mission that of extending puritanism."

     As to the quality and manifestation of this puritanism, the late Prof. Richardson made this clear in his aforementioned article on "The Mindedness of the early Faculty ..."It was less ... in dogma than in fervency of devotion to the college's mission of bringing men to the 'image of God' that Professor Emerson, like his colleagues, we presume, was puritan. In this manner his pronouncements rise to eloquence..."

     "In a paper on 'Christian Education' Professor Emerson indicates what he considers essential to a college proposing to offer a puritan and christian education. 'Its tendency should be to promote vital godliness.' 'A mere gentlemanly respect for religion ... may be the very barrier against the vital influence of religion which reaches the soul. Bland complaisance of manner is a chief instrument of fraud among men.'

     "Specifically, the christian college is marked by three features. First: The personal influence of the instructors is on the side of vital piety - the greater their reputation in research and as to judgment, the greater their influence on the minds of the young if they witness for the christian faith. ... Second: A college church, 'organized in accordance which the structure of the community, which its regular prayer meetings upon the college premises, with its committees in each class or division.' This church, like any, must have 'the form of some denomination, yet its prayer meetings know no such distinction.' Third: College revivals. 'But for the hope of these, I should not dare to advise to send any young man to college, who had not already the shield of Christian faith. ... I remember but cannot tell how our hearts sunk in the commencement of the enterprise at Beloit when we found only about six or eight Christians among sixty young men reciting daily in the college building.' "

     The intimate relation between the puritan spirit of Yale and of Beloit is expressed in President Noah Porter's sermons in 1876 when Yale College moved its center of the celebration of religious exercises from the Old Chapel to the New [Battell Chapel]: "Not a few," said Dr. Porter, "have been here inspired and strengthened to go forth to assist in laying the foundations of many generations, in the forest and prairie states, while as yet the prairies were unbroken and the forest were unsubdued. ... And still the good work goes on. I cannot count the number of heads of colleges and schools, of professors and teachers, of Christian ministers and missionaries, or bishops and missionary superintendents, of Christian magistrates and laymen, from the Chief Justice of the nation down to unofficial citizens, who have been conspicuous in the newer States in propagating those sold principles of the Christian faith and duty which this college has taught or confirmed."

     "Of all this, early Beloit was offspring and microcosm. Here were the same small means, the same teachers each capable of teaching any part of the curriculum. Here were like contacts of teacher and pupil, the same serious students and Faculty, the same chivalrous courtesy of teacher to teacher, the same unity throughout the Institution once eulogized by Professor William Porter. Here were the same fervency or religious conviction, unfettered by theological hair-splittings, the same religious tolerance as to expression, the same atmosphere of evangelical revivalism, the same requirements of public worship, the same zeal for the College's becoming, in its turn, the founder, through its graduates, of like institutions in regions more remote, even across the seas, and the trainer of Christian citizens, magistrates and men of the professions. If Beloit's Professors, as long as they remained upon its Faculty, did not display the same fruits of erudition as did Yale's, it was less from lack of ability than of opportunity - - a matter on which Joseph Emerson seems to have reflected somewhat wistfully.

     "If Porter's address on leaving the Old Chapel displayed elements in Yale's past identical with those in the older Beloit, his discourse on entering the New Chapel [Battell] stressed ideals for Yale or any college which religiously and intellectually were those of Beloit.

     " 'I must assume,' he said, 'that the obligations of religion are supreme - - that its importance is transcendent, that Christianity is a supernatural religion, that to Christ belongs supreme authority in heaven and earth and that the goes on of nature and the events of human history, including the developments of science and letters, of culture and art, are all in the interests of Christ's kingdom. ... I would also premise that a college is a community by itself, having a separate and a peculiar common life. Its members must to a large extent be shut up to the society of one another. ... Such a college is clearly distinguished from a university and also from any school of special or advanced studies in which the students by reason of greater age or of their nearer connection with the active life of the community, are supposed to be less closely organized by the bonds of common intellectual and moral sympathies.'

     "On this prefatory basis, Dr. Porter erected the following ideological and educational conclusions:

1.     College instructors and pupils 'are subject to religious responsibilities and require religious inspirations.' Hence, 'a common place of prayer to hear and respond to these lessons of truth as they together life their hearts to God in worship.'
2.     The words of Milton should be pondered: "'The end, then, of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may be the nearest by possessing our souls, of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up the highest perfection.'"
3.     College and universities are peculiarly liable to the temptation, as old as Eden, to 'intellectual insight and pride - Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.' Especially insidious and strong, said President Porter, is this temptation 'in an active and ambitious university.'
4.     'A positive religious influence in required in college and university life to arrest and turn back those atheistic and anti-Christian tendencies which are now so active in the circles of science and culture.'
5.     Although 'in the divided state of Christendom' college worship and teachings 'should conform more nearly to the practice of some religious denomination,' there is no need 'that these should offend either the convictions or the tastes of any earnest or positive Christian believer.' So far as the college 'is true to the lessons of science and culture, so far will it be anti-sectarian in its teachings of history and the amenities of culture all lift the Christian scholar above the narrowing influences of denominational divisions and the petty excitements of sectarian or personal quarrels, and open his heart to a more enlarged Christian charity.'

     "Toward the close of this discourse President Porter adverted to the progressive and liberal spirit animating Yale. 'We desire never to forget, we should be traitors to the past if we did, that all the traditions of this college hold it to the service and honor of Christ, yet in no slavish or narrow spirit. It has not been backward to hail the beginnings of modern physical science. It has not feared to follow the subtleties of metaphysical speculation. It has not shrunk from new inquiries and new results in Christian theology. It has not been behind other institutions nor behind the age in applying the historical sense and the historic imagination to the rational interpretation of scriptural and Christian history. It has maintained a broad and free spirit in all its enquiries after truth, not loving Christianity better than the truth, but loving and honoring Christ, because he is the truth. It has cherished a catholic spirit toward all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity."

     How conscious was the continuing sense of her conviction and mission is seen in the repeated assertion of the Aims or Objectives of the College in her Catalogues. As Mr. Gage so happily provided in the November, 1965 issue of the Bulletin, the College's aim as expressed in the catalogues from 1867-68 to 1870-71 was "To provide permanent facilities for the thorough, liberal, Christian education of young men ... and the elevation of man in harmony with his high destiny as a rational, immortal creature of God." "With ... intellectual training, there is joined the constant inculcation of Christian truth to develop the moral faculties and form the character."

     Through the 1870's the catalogues reiterate the same aims though in somewhat different phraseology: "Believing that positive principles of religious faith are essential to right thought, as well as to right life, the institution is intended to be a religious college - - not denominational, but distinctly and earnestly evangelical. Its endeavour is to combine in its culture, learning, religion and morality, so far as to form habits of thought, faith and rectitude which will best fit men alike to succeed in the world, to do the world good and to realize the Christian's hope in the world to come."

     From 1879 to the mid-1880's, the College catalogues include an historical sketch of the origin and growth of the college, as well as reaffirming the aims of earlier years. The College motto was included in the statement, and the conclusion thereof reaffirmed Beloit's educational objective: "The union of different denominations in the plan [of forming a college - Congregational and New School Presbyterian] marks its religious character as at once positive, evangelical and unsectarian. It starts and proceeds on the conviction that a complete, liberal education must combine in its culture learning, religion and morality, - - that Christian truth is the highest department of that world of universal truth which is the proper sphere of human science, - - that is, to form and exercise an intelligent Christian faith is as essential to the full development of a human soul as to draw out and train the faculties of perception and reason, - - and that Christian truth, received and obeyed in love, is the spring of righteousness in the individual life and of pure and healthful morals in the social state. So the College adopted for its motto, Scientia vera cum fide pura


     What Emerson in 1857 had affirmed, and what the statements of Aims and Objectives in successive College catalogues reaffirmed in the later nineteenth century, had been first enunciated at the very moment of the inception of the College as a visible entity: at the laying of the cornerstone of Middle College [then THE College] on June 24th, 1847, and again at the inauguration of Aaron Lucius Chapin in 1850. The statements alluded to are phrased in the measured words and thoughts of the greatest mind of the early Beloit - that of President Chapin. At the laying of the cornerstone, when the prayer was but a breath in the air, Chapin spoke of the meaning of the College then called into being in a material sense: "The first promptings of this effort came not from the ambition of the settlers of one precinct to magnify the importance of their own rising village, nor from the covetousness of speculators, seeking to enhance the value of their lands & fill their pockets with money, nor from the sectarian aspirations of one religious denomination to make their own influence predominant to the exclusion of all others. The suggestion came, we believe, from the spirit of God, first to the minds of Christ's ministers, men who had not local city or village interests to promote, nor anything to be invested in town lots, & whose love & aspirations, we trust, are more for the spread of the Gospel & the glory of God, than for the elevation of sect or party. ... In view of the kind favours of Providence, in progress thus far we are ready to write on the stone which we lay here today our Eben Ezer. 'Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.' With faith inspired by this past experience in connection with the firm promises of God, we address ourselves to the difficulties before us, with confident hope that he who has thus far led us by ways that we know not, will perfect the work he has permitted us to begin, and make it redound to his glory and the good of men."

     At the Inaugural of Beloit College's first President, on July 24, 1850 (three years and one month to the day after the laying of the cornerstone) Aratus Kent, as chairman of the Board of Trustees, gave Chapin his charge as head of the institution: "As it is devolved upon me, Dear Brother, to invest you with the Presidency of this literary institution, allow me to speak a word of admonition and of encouragement. ... However ... we may be at a loss about the path of duty in other matters, we are sure beyond a peradventure, that the education of youth is one of the most important services which a man can render to his Creator and to his country.

     "It is equally plain that God intends to have the culture of the mind and the discipline of the moral faculties carried on together; and accordingly, the Church has always been foremost to promote such an education. Our best Colleges have been established under an influence which recognizes these principles. And it has been the purpose, from the first, of those who originated this College, to place it upon much a basis that Christian nurture should be carried to the highest practicable point."