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The Nonsectarian Clause at Beloit College

Wisconsin Magazine of History vol.XXII, no.2 (December 1938)
By Robert K. Richardson


THE most interesting section of the charter of Beloit college is the seventh, a section never devised by the founders of the college. It provides: 'That no religious tenets or opinions shall be requisite to entitle any person to be admitted as a student in said college, and no such tenets or opinions shall be required as a qualification for any professor, tutor, or teacher of said college, and no student of said college shall be required to attend religious worship in any particular denomination.' How did this section come to be inserted in the charter?

     As is well known the immediate prelude to the establishment of the college was the holding of four Presbyterian-Congregational conventions in the village of Beloit. The third of these assembled on May 27, 1845. In it sat delegates of presbyteries, unions, associations, and conventions of both Illinois and Wisconsin. 'From abroad' were present the president of Marietta college, a professor from Knox college, representatives of the presbyteries of Buffalo and Troy, New York, and a member of the Illinois association. Attending clergymen were Aratus Kent, Aaron Lucius Chapin (later first president of the college), Dexter Clary, Stephen Peet, and, a fact worth noting, John J. Miter.2 Chapin, Peet, and Miter had in the summer of 1844 been three of that band on the steamer Chesapeake whose deliberations had preceded the four conventions above mentioned.3 The convention accepted the invitation of the citizens of Beloit to locate the college therein, and resolved further: 'That a Committee of ten be appointed to fix upon the number and character--and to make nomination of a Board of Trustees--and to digest, and embody the principles of a Charter--and to devise other ways and means for establishing a College at Beloit, and that that Committee be authorized to call a Convention to hear their report within six months.' The committee was made up of 'Reverend Messrs. S. Peet, C. Waterbury and L. H. Loos and Messrs. L. G. Fisher, John M. Keep, Wait Talcott, E. M. Goodsell, Augustus Raymond, H. B. Russell, and John Hopskins.'4

     This committee reported a charter at the fourth convention, October 21, 1845, which charter, based on that of Western Reserve college,5 was, with some amendment, adopted: as also were the nominations of trustees.6 The insertion of any section such as the seventh of the existing charter was, of course, unthought of.

     The second meeting of the trustees, convening at Rockford, November 18, 1845, appointed Peet, Fisher, and Hickox a committee to seek the charter from the Wisconsin territorial legislature,7 and on January 14, 1846, Hickox's petition for the charter was presented to the council through Edward V. Whiton of Janesville, to be at once referred to the committee on schools, made up of Frank, Kimball, and Rountree.8 Whiton had served as speaker of the house in the third session of the second legislature and was now finishing his four-year term in the council. His legal career was to be brilliant, terminating in the chief justiceship of the state. He supported the charter in the subsequent proceedings, and it is to be presumed that his favorable attitude was known to the college authorities in advance.9 Michael Frank, chairman of the committee on schools, was from Southport, now Kenosha. Dr. Schafer's account of him in his 'Origin of Wisconsin's Free School System' is amply substantiated by Frank's own diary: 'Mr. Frank was one of German descent, but he was born, educated, and socially trained in a western New York community and seems to have been a Yankee of the Yankees, member of the Congressional church, a devoted adherent of the temperance movement, and a Free-Soiler, as well as a protagonist of the free school. In a word, like so man other second-generation Germans, he was a sharer and bearer of the Yankee tradition.'10 It may be added that he had been one of the organizers of the Southport Congregational church, had been an outspoken delegate to sessions of the state Presbyterian-Congregational convention, and was acquainted with Stephen Peet, Dexter Clary, Lucius G. Fisher, and other Beloit men.11 It would have seemed that the charter was to have an easy and routine course to legislative approval. Such, however, was not to be the case--though the resistance was to come from out of the committee.

     Frank reported the bill for the charter [No. 36 (C)] on January 16, and it was read the first and second times.12 It was considered by the council in committee of the whole on the twentieth.13 Not all that transpired in the council is revealed by the Journal and it is necessary for an investigator to have recourse to the newspapers of the day. It is clear from the final wording of the charter, as well as from a letter of Whiton to Stephen Peet, of April 13, 1846, that after the rising of the committee an amendment, in all probability introduced by Marshall M. Strong of Racine, was adopted forbidding the college to give instruction outside of Beloit.14 The Journal also indicates that after concurrence by the council in amendments not otherwise specified, Moses M. Strong of Iowa county moved further to amend a provision that not more than one-fourth of the twenty-four trustees should be ministers of the Gospel, nor more than a fourth adherents of the same denomination. This proposal was lost by a vote of 2 to 10, the two supporters being Strong himself and Curtis Reed of Milwaukee county.15 Whiton, as we learn from the Madison Express, defended the charter as presented, utilizing the opportunity to give a keen Whig thrust at the Democratic Moses M. Strong by pointing out that he 'hoped the amendment of the gentleman from Iowa would not pass. He believed it was a privilege all men had of associating with their friends. The gentleman would think it very hard if were compelled to have three-fourths of his associates Whigs.'16 Had the amendment been adopted it is doubtful if the Beloit trustees, Congregationalist and Presbyterian as they were, could ever have accepted the charter.

     It is from the public press, also, that we learn of the most exciting elements in the debate, including the matter of the non-sectarian clause. It is clear from the Madison Express of January 22, 1846, that before Moses M. Strong had introduced his unsuccessful amendment restricting the personnel of the trustees, he had moved to amend the bill 'by providing that no particular religious tenets or opinions should be required as qualifications on the part of officers, teachers or scholars, and that the scholars should not be required to attend any particular place of worship'--this last phrase, of course, being the reporter's version of non-requirement of attendance on 'religious worship in any particular denomination.' Wiram Knowlton had supported Strong's motion and, says the Express, had remarked 'that he was not one of those who believed in compelling persons to serve God, let them go to the devil.'17 This description of his words provoked a letter to the Express from Knowlton, complaining that its account had been copied in other papers, that it was garbled, and that what he had actually said had been: 'I did not believe in compelling persons to serve God,--if they could not be induced to serve God without compulsion, let them go to the devil.' The Express apologized in its issue of February 5, 1846, explaining that the mistake had been a compositor's, overlooked in correction.18

     The charter received Whiton's support in this matter, as it was about to do in the proposed amendment as to the constitution of the board of trustees. He 'though gentlemen misunderstood the nature of the question. A teacher stood in loco parentis, and, as such, should have the care and supervision of the children placed under his charge. It was a great object with parents to have their children placed where they would receive good moral culture.' Whiton, therefore, had gone to the root of the matter and rested his case on what must always be the ultimate defense of required religious exercises in privately supported educational institutions, whether denominational or otherwise.19

     At this juncture Michael Frank innocently thought to clarify the situation by indicating that the 'proposed institution' 'was designed to be of theological character.'20 In this he was entirely correct. The founders of the college were earnest in intention ultimately to establish instruction in divinity.21 But the effect of the announcement must have been other than intended by the chairman of the committee on schools. Strong was roused to the utmost, replying, continues the account in the Express, 'that if that was the object he hoped it would be more fully stated in the bill; and in such a case he should vote against it. He would not, he said, vote for these religious fixings anyway.' Strong's amendment was then adopted by the council, though there is neither account of the matter nor a record of the vote in the printed Journal.

     Strong's vigorous statement, and especially the way he framed it, aroused considerable criticism in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Democrat (Madison) felt called upon to publish an editorial entitled 'Give the Devil His Due.' We quote in toto:

     A great ado is made by some of the outrageously decent papers through the Territory about the reported remarks of Moses M. Strong, in the Council, on the bill for chartering the Beloit College, which were, 'that he would have nothing to do with these religious fixins [sic].' The remark meant nothing more, and was so generally understood in the Council chamber, than that he would have nothing to do with granting charters of this sectarian character. Mr. Strong sometimes makes harsh and thoughtless remarks which we feel no disposition to justify; but as for his opposition to Christianity, we do know that few men give of their means more liberally for the support of the gospel.

     Mr. Reed comes in for a small share of the current abuse for his vote on the same question. What he peculiar religious notions are, we never inquired, but that no man sustained a better moral character during the session, we are certain.

     When religious sects ask for spiritual immunities from the legislature, they present themselves stripped of their holy character, and should be willing to submit to the same tests that are applied to all measures of a secular nature. If to question the expediency of any of the provisions of the law applied for is to be regarded as opposition to religion, then some of our purest and best men are obnoxious to the charge. It is an outrage upon common sense and common justice to think so. The design evidently is to excite the religious prejudices of the community against particular individuals.22

     This editorial of the Wisconsin Democrat was rather neatly countered by the Telegraph of Frank's home town, in a brief notice, as follows: 'Ambiguous Compliment.--The Wisconsin Democrat in correcting the Territorial Press on some remarks by Moses M. Strong requests them to give the devil his due.'23

     The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, also, on January 27, 1846, ran an editorial entitled 'Religious Fixings.' This editorial misquoted Knowlton,24 and ended sarcastically: 'This Mr. Strong of Iowa wants to be the United States District Attorney for the Territory of Wisconsin.'25 Thus did Whig and Democrat find ammunition in what today we should call a strictly non-political matter.26

     Whether emboldened by his success with his non-sectarian amendment, or stirred by the information that the college was proposing instruction in theology, Strong proceeded to introduce his amendment intended to de-denominationalize the board of trustees, with the result above indicated. Then, says the Journal, the bill was 'ordered to be engrossed to be read a third time. And the ayes and noes having been called for, Those who voted in the affirmative were, Messrs. Baker, Frank, Kimball, Knowlton, Marshall M. Strong, Whiton, Wilcox and Dewey, (President)--8. Those who voted in the negative were, Messrs. Kneeland, Reed, and Moses M. Strong,--3.' Strong had carried out his threat to vote against the charter but had not carried a majority of the council with him.27 On January 23, Reed, from the committee on engrossed bills, reported 'No. 36 (C) "A bill to incorporate Beloit College,"' as correctly engrossed.28 The further stages of the bill through the house of representatives seem to have been uneventful, and on February 2, 1846, it received the approval of Governor Dodge.29

     Strong's simple comment on the matter in his History of the Territory of Wisconsin is:

     Beloit College was incorporated by a special act of incorporation. It was required to be located in the township of Beloit, Rock county, and to--

     'Be erected on a plan sufficiently extensive to afford instruction in the liberal arts and sciences.'

     The first corporators were [list given].

     The name of Prairieville Academy was changed to Carroll College, and the trustees incorporated as a collegiate institution.30

The debate was evidently less irenic than the record by the debater! Contemporary accounts give an unavoidable impression of energy, not to say vehemence, on Strong's part in the debate. Marked manifestation of emotion was characteristic of the man: of any such vehemence his temperament is sufficient explanation.31 But why should his emotions have been stirred upon this occasion? And what were the bases in experience or conviction of the policies he then advocated--in part, it would appear, without opportunity for prior consideration? It is submitted that the answers to these problems are probably to be found in Strong's pre-Wisconsin career; in the local and national situation at the time of the legislative session; and in his rooted political opinions.

     His pre-Wisconsin career had been such as to give him a thoroughly anti-puritan slant.

     Young Strong's college eyes, 1825 to 1829, were years of strenuous religious experience and rebellion. His sister, Mrs. Betsy M. Royce, a woman overflowing with piety of the contemporary New England revivalistic and Calvanistic type, never tired in exhortations to her brother Moses. As early as the spring before his entrance to Middlebury college she is writing of her gratification at his religious state and urging perseverance.32 On October 15, 1825, thereafter, she is expressing her hopes and fears as follows:

     My dear brother . . . I cannot express to you the deep interest which I feel for your eternal welfare. Your advantages of a religious nature are very great. I hope you will prize them as you ought. I long to hear you making the enquiry 'What shall I do to be saved?' 'Remember your creator in the days of your youth.' 'Seek him while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.' You may never have another opportunity for repentance if you neglect the present. Perhaps some of your fellow students will attempt to ridicule the idea of your reading a portion of Scripture daily and of spending a portion of each day in prayer; but fear them not if any such there be. It is of little consequence what the world thinks of you provided you conduct [yourself] in such a manner as to meet the approbation of your Heavenly Father. I should be very happy to have you write what the state of your mind is at present if you feel disposed to.33

For a time things go well. In November the sister is expressing her joy 'upon hearing of the happy change' that the brother has 'experienced,' but is warning him that he 'may by deceived after all.' So far, indeed, he has progressed that she can say she is 'glad that you have set apart one day in the week to pray for Rutland.' In fact he seems evidently to be thinking how he many help in the conversion of his somewhat redoubtable father. His sister admonishes him:

     As yet I can perceive no change in our own family but I do hope I shall before long. I am very glad to have you write to them upon the subject but I wish to give you one word of caution. When you write to father don't let your feelings carry you so far as to say any thing which will have the appearance of being disrespectful. Perhaps it will be as well generally to direct your letters to some of your brothers or sisters. It may do more good than if they were directed to him.34

On December 27, following, his classmate, Thomas I. Ormsby, writes him that he would like to give him pleasure, but cannot be a Christian.35

     In the end Strong joined the Congregational church of Rutland, but only to backslide. He did poorly in his studies at Middlebury,36 and his father felt it wise to transfer him for his senior year to Dartmouth. It is clear that the temptations of college life had been too much for Strong's pleasure-loving and convivial nature. A letter from Ormsby of October 12, 1828, enquires the reasons for his removal to Dartmouth, and then, for all practical purposes, answers its own question: 'I know that we were all of us too fond of conviviality to study enough to make us respectable students. I very well know that we were too dissipated to gain a respectable name among the cold and colorless people of Middlebury.'37

     To cap all, as he was about to enter Dartmouth, church circles took up the case. Charges were presented at church meeting: and he stood accused of renunciation of the duties of religion, of connection with the church, and of the hopes of a Christian; of treating the exercises of religion with indecent levity; of abstaining from religious meetings; and of valuing 'the pleasures of the Ball-room higher than the worship of God.' Three members presented him with a letter of admonition, signed by the pastor, in which it was pointed out that 'the whole church have been requested to pray' for him; and in which, further, he was admonished 'of the anguish' he would have caused his sister and of the pain he would have occasioned the church should it be 'obliged to proceed' to excommunication.38 To make a painful story short, after a second admonitory letter, voted at church meeting, September 24, 1828, and after further efforts at reclamation of the sinner, Strong refusing any satisfaction to the church, the church excommunicated him on September 16, 1829, and the excommunication was read in public on Sabbath, September 27.39 A man was subjected to these public and humiliating experiences, particularly a man as high-spirited and basically as generous and honest-minded as was Moses M. Strong, whatever his failings, would not be likely at any subsequent time to be greatly attracted by the earnest Stephen Peet, the revivalist Clary, and the enthusiastic Miter!

     In the summer of 1831, Strong was studying law at Litchfield, Connecticut. On the eleventh of August he wrote to his fiancée, Miss Caroline F. Green, of Windsor, Vermont, of a visit from his former Rutland pastor, the Rev. Charles Walker. The letter not only indicates the man's forgiving disposition, but sets forth quite clearly what must fifteen years later have been his attitude toward the views which he supposed were represented by the founders of the college.

     I have just had a call from my former clergyman Mr. Walker. He is traveling for his health. His lungs failed him a few weeks since in the pulpit and he is now endeavoring to reinstate them. I was of course very glad to see him inasmuch as he is a townsman. He says there has been a great revival in Rutland, and that every young lady in the village except the Misses Temple have been converted, which must I think very much alter the appearance of society. There has been a very powerful one in this village, but I believe it was left me very much in the situation it found me, for to say the truth, I have paid very little attention to the numerous meetings etc. Nor do I think it expedient, but that religion is a very different thing from what most of these fanaticks deem it to be.40

This, it will be remember, was written by the man, who, in 1846, was to 'these religious fixings'--small wonder!

     And yet Moses M. Strong was not an irreligious person. He concurred with Mrs. Strong in the holding of family prayers in the Mineral Point home;41 he joined the Washingtonian temperance society in an attempt to put a bridle upon himself in the matter of his drinking;42 he was the bearer of a letter from Bishop Kemper to the Rev. Dr. Wainright of New York, describing him as one 'anxious to interest you and other friends in the welfare of the church at this important place';43 he was confirmed at Mineral Point on June 21, 1857;44 and he was, at the time of his death, chancellor of the diocese of Milwaukee.45 He was simply not of the Calvinistic Puritanism of the founders of Beloit college--in their mores or in their thinking.

     Moses M. Strong's earlier experience could not have predisposed him too favorably toward a new puritan college. But, in the second place, neither could contemporary conditions in Wisconsin and in the nation.

     The fourth and fifth decades of the nineteenth century witnessed not a little religious commotion in the United States. The Irish had begun to enter the country in large numbers in the 1840's and had, in New York, forced the passage of a school law by 1842. Fears developed among American Protestants, and stories began to be told of the iniquities of Roman Catholic monasteries. The pseudo 'Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk,' supposed to have been an inmate of such an institution in Montreal, were widely accepted. 'In 1844, there were several riots in Philadelphia directed against the Irish and the Roman Catholics. In a few days buildings were burned in that city and neighborhood, the militia and public officials standing idly by.' 'The most spectacular of these aggressions on the Roman Catholics' had been the burning of the Ursuline convent at Somerville, near Boston, as far back as 1834. By the time of the founding of the college the crystallization of these tensions had become the Native American or Know-nothing party.46

     At such a juncture the Rev. John J. Miter, a man prominently identified with the founding of the college, pursuant to Governor Tallmadge's Thanksgiving day proclamation, on December 12, 1844, preached a Thanksgiving sermon in the First Congregational church of Milwaukee, using as his text Proverbs xxix, 2: 'When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.' The speech was clear in its arrangement and dignified in general tone, but it could have left no doubt in the mind of his audience that the 'wicked' were Roman Catholic Irish immigrants, and the righteous (especially in view of the orator's reference to Theodore Frelinghuysen, president of the American board of commissioners for foreign missions, and but a short time before defeated as Clay's running-mate in the election of 1844), the party of the Whigs! The speaker explained that he stood 'under no unfurled party banner' but that he took his 'position as an American, and the defender of her [sic] home-born, venerated principles and institutions.' He then urged the cultivation of a patriotic spirit and adverted 'to the duty of the American citizen to cultivate a proper estimate of the responsibility, and sacredness connected with the exercise of the elective franchise.'

     The following is, perhaps, the most important passage of the first part of the speech:

     If the foregoing positions are sound, or if inflexible integrity and discretion are indispensible [sic] limitations to the right of voting, then it will, and ought to be the great topic of thought and argumentation in the political world, how far this sacred franchise should be extended to that class of our European emigration who do not possess these acquirements. Mark my phraseology--that class of foreigners who have no just claim to the attributes of integrity and clear-sighted discretion. That such there are, no intelligent, disinterested citizen can for a moment doubt. The number is swelling to a frightful multitude, whose votes can be obtained through the bribery of our modern CATALINES, or who cast them at the nod of some European despot. We are not in want of politicians who will advocate their rights for the convenient reason that, their independent (!) suffrage can be bought for an electioneering bow, or a 'social glass.' And while the high-minded patriot would scorn the thought of stooping to such acts of nefarious parasitism, corruption will monopolize the whole of this political capital.47

The orator, to be sure, wants the country to hold 'enlarged views' as to certain citizens of foreign birth, to remain 'The land of the free, and the home of the brave,' and duly to appreciate the Irish Charles Thompson, the Scottish Dr. John Witherspoon, the English Alexander Hamilton, the French Lafayette, and the Polish Kosciusko. None the less, he would 'urge upon every true American citizen the duty of understanding the aims, and of watching the movements of the agents of the Pope of Rome in this country.'

     The balance of the address, and over one-half the whole, was directed to the Romanist question, under two captions: '1st . . . the innate


unchanging spirit of Romanism itself,' and '2d . . . the disposition shown by certain politicians to pay court to this great anti-republican hierarchy'-this second matter being introduced in connection with an article in the Courier criticising clergymen of orthodox churches for being '"in operations against the democratic nominee for Sheriff, because he was an Irish Catholic."' This conduct Miter defended on the ground 'that both the aims, and the tendencies of Romanism are political, and not religious.' 'The Pope through his Bishops, and they through his ghostly Priesthood, can control every Roman vote and use them [sic] to carry out his despotic purposes.' It is at the conclusion of this part of the address that the attack of the Roman Catholic Boston Pilot on Theodore Frelinghuysen is mentioned, a matter which one of Miter's associations and backgrounds would take much to heart.

     As to the 'unchanging spirit of Romanism' itself, the speech concerned itself with the alliance alleged to exist between the despotic monarchies of the time and the Pope and directed against the United States, the persecuting spirit exemplified in the revocation of the edict of Nantes, the intolerance of the new constitution of the Swiss Roman Catholic canton of Valais, and the enormity of the curse supposed to have been directed by the bishop of Pennsylvania against William Hogan.

     A brief exordium lifted 'the voice of thanksgiving to Heaven for the rich boon of freedom' and urged the transmitting of the national blessing 'unvitiated, to posterity.' Should this be successfully accomplished, the effulgence of our national sun would 'only be eclipsed by the meridian beams of the sun of righteousness, pouring in one broad sheet of glory over a ransomed world.'

     Altogether, there was some occasion in the speech for Roman Catholic resentment, and for the description of the address in an editorial in the Milwaukee Courier of December 18, 1844, as 'a bitter Native American whig stump speech from the pulpit.' The same number of the Courier not only devoted a little over three columns to a refutation of the allegations relative to the Hogan curse, but contained a Thanksgiving sermon written by the gifted Catholic editor, Josiah Noonan, in illustration of the qualities which he believed should have been exemplified in such addresses. So great a stir, indeed, was occasioned by the affair that twelve admirers of the sermon-some of them, such as James Bonnell, Richardson Houghton Jr., Asahel Finch, and Eliphalet Cramer, deservedly prominent in the commercial and legal life of Wisconsin-begged Miter to publish his oration as 'favorable to the best interests of our country' and in order to 'correct the misrepresentations which have been made respecting the same.' To this the clergymen consented, and at some time after the following New Year the discourse was printed in pamphlet form under the title: 'The Patriot's Duty, a Discourse Delivered in the First Congregational Church, Milwaukee, on the Day Appointed for Public Thanksgiving, December 12, 1844.' The brochure is twenty-nine pages long, the first three, however, devoted to the request for its publication and the considerations moving its author to consent.