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Milwaukee Gives Beloit a President

Published in Alma Mater IV 1956-1957
By Robert H. Irrmann


Beloit College existed without a president from the time of its beginnings in 1847 until late in 1849 when Aaron Lucius Chapin was called from the First Presbyterian Church of Milwaukee. In this paper by the College Archivist, Mr. Irrmann relies largely on President Chapin's Papers for an account of the events leading to his coming to Beloit.

THE briefest sketch we have of Aaron L. Chapin's early career is penned upon the flyleaf of his first "Private Journal" – commenced 1837. "I was born in the year of our Lord 1817 on the 6th of February, in an old house in Trumbull Street in Hartford [Conn.]. My days of infancy and childhood were passed in the same place until I was about nine years old, when the family removed to the place which they now occupy. I commenced a course of classical study in the Grammar School in my native city, when about ten years old, not with any view to a liberal education. The summer of 1831 & 32 I passed in the country on Mr. McLean's farm. I entered college in 1833 and after completing the regular course of four years, graduated the 10th of August, 1837. I made a profession of religion, and joined the college church, June 27th, 1835."

     In October, 1837 A. L. Chapin was teaching a class of ten boys in Baltimore, ". . . between the ages of six and fifteen and varying accordingly in their several stages of advancement, a fine school to try my patience – I am situated among a rich and worldly people with whom religion holds but a subordinate place . . . God grant that [I] may remain firm in the faith which I have professed, and exhibit in my constant walk and conversation that I am a true follower of my blessed Master."1 In prefacing the details about to be entered in his Journal, Chapin had remarked that up to this time "the stream of my life has flowed on to this point very smoothly and evenly – there has been nowhere in its course any very striking event to mark the eras but one scene has followed another with the utmost regularity and altogether according to the regular order of nature –– Without any fixed purpose for the future I have gone on from step to step as circumstances may have placed me fulfilling my time in each with nothing to distinguish one position very decidedly from another." Yet withal, "I am extraordinary neither for the deformation of any vice nor the excellence of my virtues – yet the desire of rising above the common herd and distinguishing myself in the eyes of the world is no stranger to my breast, while at the same time I have a kind of sensitive modesty about me which is constantly leading me to walk with caution, to look before I leap, to draw back from any thing which will call the public attention upon me in particular. Unless I get the better of this indecision I fear it will be a clog to hinder my advancement and usefulness – 'but we shall see'."2

NOT alone did the churches and colleges of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois "see" what Aaron Lucius Chapin was to achieve by way of "advancement and usefulness", but the nation at large was to be conscious of his contributions to Christianity, education and society, working through a harmonious relationship of church and college after the period 1845-1850. When Chapin left Baltimore, the path to advancement and usefulness was still wholly before him, and his self-analysis was no mere figure of speech. In September of 1838 Chapin was appointed to a position in the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, and remained there into 1843. He studied theology meantime, and received his B.D. from Union Theological Seminary in late June of 1842.

     Chapin continued teaching at the Deaf and Dumb Institute till the spring of 1843, but his mission was in view: in July, 1842, he mentioned that he had received an invitation "to preach in Paterson [N.J.?] as a candidate – I declined it on the ground that the West seems now to be my destined home." The last entry in Chapin's first Journal concludes on this same theme: 8 October, 1842 "I have today decided the important question wh. (sic) has been agitating my mind for some time past & have concluded . . . to start for the West as early in [the] coming spring as circumstances will permit . . ." A. L. Chapin resigned the post at the Deaf and Dumb Institute on April 21, 1843, and on May 20th was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, noting in his Journal that "after a journey of nine days I have reached this place, prepared to follow the indications of Providence, whether they direct me to remain here or to proceed to a field still farther to the West. I have been welcomed here by Christian friends & treated in the kindest manner."

     The following day Chapin was on trial: "The way was just opened for me to enter into this field and commence labor here. I preached twice today in the basement of the Presbyterian Church in this place [Milwaukee] to congregations respectable in point of numbers & apparent intelligence."3 Candidate and congregation of the First Presbyterian Church [predecessor of the present Immanuel Presbyterian Church] were mutually satisfied, and the relation continued until more properly formalized on January 3, 1844, when the congregation showed its intelligence in calling Chapin to be its pastor. The call was worded thus: ". . . well satisfied of the ministerial qualifications of you, Aaron L. Chapin, and having good hopes, from our past experience of your labors, that your ministrations in the Gospel will be profitable to our spiritual interests, [we] do earnestly call and desire you to undertake the pastoral office in [our] . . . Congregation; promising you, in the discharge of your duty, all proper support, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord." Signed by the Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church, the Moderator, Stephen Peet, added this authentication: "I hereby certify that at a regular meeting of the Presbyterian Church and congregation the above call was duly considered and passed by a unanimous vote." Most certainly the Presbyterian congregation did not consider that indecision was clogging Chapin's "advancement and usefulness." They were to continue steadfast in the allegiance and devotion to their pastor until circumstances literally tore him from their body in 1849. He was to leave only for his larger work at Beloit College, much against his people's will.

THE Rev. Mr. Chapin carried his Church and his people to surprising accomplishment. By January, 1844, the church building – "The Old White Church" – was completed and dedicated. Licensed to preach in New York State, Chapin was formally ordained in his own church on January 24, 1844. In 1847 the edifice was enlarged, with a seating capacity of possibly six hundred people. When Chapin began to preach to the church in late May of 1843, he confessed that there were ". . . discouraging circumstances, wh. (sic) sometimes fill my mind with doubt & despondency. The chh. (sic) is small & feeble & must by the force of circumstances at present stand in competition with the Cong[regational] Chh. (sic) wh. (sic) is now a stronger & more vigorous body of Christians."4 Four years later Chapin had infused his congregation with vigor and with numbers: 132 members had been added. According to Stephen Peet's HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN AND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCHES AND MINISTERS IN WISCONSIN (1851), 240 members were added in the years 1843 through 1849, the years of Chapin's pastorate. There appeared to be little in Milwaukee that was hindering the Rev. Mr. Chapin's "advancement and usefulness", especially to his church.

     The old First Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee quite inadvertently and unintentionally and indirectly aided in the conception of Beloit College by a most kind act of her officers. Chapin recorded the event in his journal under date of June 8, 1844: "In the course of the afternoon my session waited upon me in a body with a proposition that I shd. (sic) start for Cleveland to attend the Convention of Western Ministers this week, offering to furnish all the necessary means. I was gratified. It removed a part of the cloud by assuring me that I had a place in the affections of my people." Chapin returned from the Cleveland gathering "laden with rich experience of the goodness of my God in things temporal & yet more in things spiritual."5 Particularly did Chapin return with ". . . the grand & moving view obtained of this wide field [the West], its wants, its importance, the encouragements to labor in it . . ."6

One segment of this vision, unmentioned in the Journal, was the conception of a college. The return from Cleveland was made on the steamer CHESAPEAKE, passing on Lake Erie. Seven men crowded into a stateroom on the passage, attending the ill Stephen Peet, Western agent for the American Home Missionary Society. Theron Baldwin, long to be the Corresponding Secretary for the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West, sat beside the supine Peet, describing the aims and plans of the Western Society. As Chapin reminisced when Beloit College was twenty-five years old [1872]: "there is light and hope in what he [Baldwin] says. 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. Peet seizes on the gleam of encouragement; his uttered thoughts kindle enthusiasm and hope in the rest. There is an earnest consultation – there is a fervent prayer – there is a settled purpose and Beloit College is a living conception."Beloit

THIS is not the place to relate the details of how Beloit won the college. The seven companions on the CHESAPEAKE undertook to call a meeting of the friends of Christian education in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Four conventions met between August 1844 and October 1845; at the May, 1845 meeting the college was located in Beloit; in October a Board of Trustees was selected, and the Rev. A. L. Chapin of Milwaukee was one of the sixteen original Trustees, and in time a member of the Committee to find a president for the infant college. On November 9th, Chapin noted in his journal that "at prayer meeting this eve, talked about our college."

     In the later 1840's Mr. Chapin was drawn more and more to a concern for the development of the college. He delivered the historical address at the laying of the cornerstone of Middle College on June 24, 1847; on November 4th the first class of four men was enrolled, and the life of Beloit College was now in its infant fulness.

     In the fall of 1849 Chapin's continuance in the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church was rendered somewhat doubtful when a call came from the American Home Missionary Society. On October 13th, Dr. Milton Badger wrote to the Rev. Mr. Chapin, announcing his unanimous appointment, as a Corresponding Secretary, by the Executive Committee of the Society. A telegram to the same effect was filed the same day. Once again the Milwaukee Church, out of affection for their pastor, had provided Chapin with the funds to journey east – this time to New York and Hartford; the fruit of this journey and meeting with members of the Board of the A.H.M.S. was this resultant call to become Corresponding Secretary, and to remove to New York. In their desire to show their affection for their pastor, the people of the Old White Church twice made possible journeys east, both of which resulted in calls to other office.

     Chapin was attracted by the offer, and wondered if he could not best serve the cause of the churches in the West by accepting the Secretaryship, viewing this as being ". . . called back East for the benefit of the West . . ." He wrote soon to his friend Stephen Peet, agent for the A.H.M.S., requesting Peet's counsel, asking in particular: "how does the thing strike you?"7 Mr. Chapin was at the very moment wrestling with his conscience: should he or should he not accept the A.H.M.S. appointment? On October 23 he wrote out for his own guidance a nine-page, closely written, memorandum: "Considerations in favour of my remaining in Milwaukee" and "Considerations which move me to accept the appointment." Aaron L. Chapin's considered opinion, derived from this soul-searching, was that "there is a voice within which is constant in its utterance bidding me Go. I think it is the voice of conscience echoing the call of God."8

     Frequent letters from interested parties in the East flowed in upon Chapin, urging his acceptance of the Secretaryship. This offer moved the Executive Committee of the Trustees of Beloit College, who had been seeking a president and temporizing in the matter of a decision, to strike at once. On that same October 23rd, the day that Chapin's appointment to the A.H.M.S. was known in Beloit, Dexter Clary, Secretary to the Board of Trustees, wrote with vigor to Chapin: ". . . there is but one voice & that is – that you should come under all the cares & burden of the Presidency. . ."9 The Executive Committee recommended this action unanimously to the Trustees, and on November 21st the Board with equal unanimity approved Mr. Chapin's call to the presidency of Beloit College.

CHAPIN meanwhile searched his heart and soul once more, in the light of these two conflicting calls to higher service. He wondered first if the Secretaryship or the Presidency were a higher mission than his Milwaukee pastorate. Again he wrote out another self-analysis: "The Question Reviewed. New Considerations."8 In eight closely written pages Chapin again analyzed his motives and desires – for going East, for going to Beloit, for remaining in Milwaukee. Chapin's prayerful conclusion was that "the College has fr. (sic) its first starting had a place near my heart. It has had my labor & my prayers, & I am willing to devote myself entirely to its interests, trusting in God to provide for me & bless my work."11 Two days thereafter the Rev. Mr. Chapin announced his decision to his people of the First Presbyterian Church, and in so doing presented a magnificent statement on behalf of the cause of Christian education, the wholesome union of Church and college in a common cause:

The necessity is upon us to build up institutions of learning under Christian influences through which the piety of this chh. (sic) and of all chhs. (sic) may multiply & spread its influence by the power of educated and at the same time sanctified intellect, in all stations, thro' all grades of society. This necessity was acknowledged, when the college at Beloit was founded, & presses with greater weight to day than ever before. It will continue to press until that institution is established & pours forth its streams rich and full to bless the length & breadth of the land . . . Next to the interests of my own chh. (sic), the interests of this College, have from the first moved my desires & prayers to God, & engaged my earnest cooperation. Tho' never thinking to hold any other relation to it than that of a counsellor, I long ago pledged, in heart, my best endeavors, my most earnest prayers and my largest sacrifices for its welfare.

     The time has come when that College must have a head . . . I am prepared if such is the will of God, to identify myself & sink or swim with it, trusting that he who planted will cherish & sustain this enterprise & bless my labor in connection with it to the promotion of his Glory & the shedding of blessings innumerable & rich on this his heritage.12

     The Congregation of the Old White Church was exceedingly reluctant to surrender their beloved Pastor to any call, be it New York or the nearer Beloit. They refused to dissolve the pastoral relationship of A. L. Chapin and the First Presbyterian Church, and the matter was finally committed, at Chapin's suggestion, to the Milwaukee District Convention. This Convention met on December 18, 1849, and considered the resolution of the Congregation of Chapin's church: "that we cannot concur with the views expressed by our pastor as to his duty to accept that call & we do not think that he can promote the cause of Christ or in any way render himself more useful in that capacity than in the station which he now occupies."13

THE case was fully aired and explored at the Convention; nine ministers and eleven lay delegates were in attendance, and six corresponding members were invited to, and did, attend. Mr. Chapin was obviously torn by his conflicting loyalties. To the District Convention he observed, that "appreciating as I do the force of the considerations general and particular, which have pressed the minds of this people & forced them to believe & to say that I ought not to leave them, I am not so fully convinced that this is the call of God as to be ready to insist, in the face of theirs, on the strength of my convictions, that the tie which binds us must be sundered. With great earnestness I look upward, in this dilemma with the Question, 'Lord what wilt thou have me do'? . . . I have thought . . . I might expect by your counsel to learn the mind of Christ. It is with this confidence on the part of the Church & on my own part, that we have united to submit this question to your consideration."14

     The final vote, some members having previously departed, was 12 to 2 for Chapin's dismissal to the Beloit presidency. Chapin telegraphed to Peet: "The Convention says Go to Beloit Febry. 1st."15 Reluctantly the people of the First Presbyterian Church heard the voice of God through his ministers, and reluctantly they gave their beloved Pastor to Beloit College. On January 20, 1850, Chapin spoke his farewell to his people, and the Session Clerk entered this record of the event: "This has been a day of peculiar interest to the Church. After six years and eight months faithful labor, the Pastor stood up for the last time before the Congregation as their Spiritual Leader. The House was filled to overflowing with attentive hearers, eager to catch the last farewell remarks of him, whose confidence and esteem began at the earliest commencement of his ministry and continued in a most happy and vigorous growth even to its close. It is with sorrow the Church records the sundering of this relation, yet joy in the hope that greater good will be accomplished for God in having him who has so faithfully served this church, placed at the head of that Christian Institution [Beloit College] in which rests, to some extent, the hopes of this our Western Zion."16

  1. Private Journal, October, 1837. Beloit College Archives.
  2. Ibid., Introduction.
  3. Private Journal, #2, May 21, 1843. Beloit College Archives.
  4. Ibid., May 25, 1943.
  5. Ibid., June 30, 1843.
  6. Ibid.
  7. ALC to Stephen Peet, Milwaukee, 10/20/1849, Chapin Corr. in the Beloit College Archives. S.P. to ALC, Beloit, 10/23/1849. Loc. cit.
  8. Mss. dated 10/23/1849.
  9. Dexter Clary to ALC, Beloit, 10/23/1849. Chapin Corr. in the Beloit College Archives.
  10. Mss. Dated 10/29/1849.
  11. Ibid.
  12. "Brethren & Friends, the Beloved People of my Pastoral Charge", October 31, 1849. Address to his congregation. Mss. in Chapin Papers, Beloit College Archives.
  13. Resolution, 12/3/1849. Chapin Papers, Beloit College Archives.
  14. Address: "To the Milwaukee District Convention, December 18, 1849", Chapin Papers, Beloit College Archives.
  15. ALC to S.P., telegram, 12/18/1849.
  16. The Centenary of the First Presbyterian Church (predecessor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church), April 11, 1937, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [Privately Printed, 1937], "The Old White Church" by William Ward Wight, page 24.