Faith at Dartmouth: Vigor and Vestiges

William Jewett Tucker, a strong supporter of Dartmouth's turn-of-the-century religious organizations

William Jewett Tucker, a strong supporter of Dartmouth’s turn-of-the-century religious organizations

Dartmouth College has a long and storied history; the college boasts a plethora of traditions and unique features by which it is known. To some we are just a mini Harvard, but to others we are a group of the best and brightest intellectuals solving the world’s problems while trekking around the wilderness in Patagonias and Birkenstocks. Whatever view of the school you choose to hold, there is an undeniably important characteristic that sets us apart from any of the other colleges in the Ivy Leagues. Dartmouth College was explicitly created with a missional purpose: it was founded to advance the Christian faith and provide a liberal arts education to the nearby Native Americans. Since then, our religious legacy, though suppressed, has not wavered and continues to play a part in the college’s culture.

Our religious inception is found within the College’s founding charter granted to Eleazar Wheelock on December 13, 1769. The purpose of the College as specified by the charter is as follows:

“KNOW YE, THEREFORE that We, considering the premises and being willing to encourage the laudable and charitable design of spreading Christian knowledge among the savages of our American wilderness […] constitute that there be a college erected in our said province of New Hampshire by the name of Dartmouth College, for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youth and any others.”

The charter lays out the college’s mission pretty clearly, and it is essential that we continue to remember and respect the vision and legacy of Eleazar Wheelock. These ideas form a core tenet of our college’s rich historical past. When viewed from a modern perspective however, one may think that it was a disrespectful and ignorant way to portray the Native Americans. However, Wheelock’s intentions were positive and his words reflected the vernacular of the time. The legacy of his good hearted intentions are seen in the College’s efforts to expand the population of Native Americans on campus and provide tools to the underserved community. Though the other seven Ivy League institutions were also established to spread the gospel, none specifically addressed the Native American population in hopes of educating and converting them. This emphasis on the Native American population is a defining feature that has stayed with us and we can thank the “religious zealots,” as critics so often refer to many individuals with good intentions stemming from their faith, for men and women such as Mr. Wheelock who strove to advance education.

Our dear ol’ Dartmouth is no stranger to religion and we should not disregard the importance that it had in making us one of the nation’s premier colleges. Dartmouth, like many of our nation’s first schools and universities, sprang up out of the religious revivals of the Great Awakening in 1740. This was a period when Christian revival hit New England through the fiery sermons of Jonathan Edwards and other famous itinerant preachers. They focused on the idea of becoming more invested in spiritual matters rather than material gain. During this time, the country’s climate was ripe for change as the outpour of conversions occurred during this pivotal point of American history. Thus, because of the efforts of clergymen who valued education, America established its first educational institutions. For years, the school would continue to operate as a Christian college and successfully trained some of the leading ministers involved in the abolitionist movement.

These connections to religious thought extended beyond the classroom, however; as early as 1801 the college established a religious society. The Society’s programming was originally devotional in nature but later consisted of religious dissertations and theological debate. Later the Society would add a monthly Monday evening prayer meeting to pray for the advancement of the gospel among their peers. The Society was quite popular, and, by 1869, nearly a third of the alumni had become part of the Dartmouth College Theological Society. The Society became such an influential part of campus culture that in 1815 they spawned a religious revival that lasted until 1893.

Apart from the Theological Society, the college later added a Society of Inquiry that focused on missionary work and an international aspect of Christianity. Such societies were a cornerstone of the college, and their impact is clear: the societies helped foster both spiritual growth and a global outlook that would enable the students to succeed internationally.

In 1875 both the Theological Society and the Society of Inquiry decided to unite and become known as the “Christian Fraternity.” This name would stick for 7 years, but was changed to the Dartmouth Young Men’s Christian Association in order to bring it closer to other related organizations. Then-President William Jewett Tucker supported the organization and welcomed the Association with a generous confidentially sourced gift.  In 1905 the organization would change its title once more; this time, it was renamed the Dartmouth Christian Association. This was an effort to become more inclusive and allow not just those with membership in an evangelical church to join but instead, any “Dartmouth man willing to support its object.” The story of this religious society serves as an example of how religious organizations are not opposed to academia but rather are an inclusive and essential component of campus life that cultivate debate and intellectual growth.

This stands contrary to what many secular students believe. For example, Daily Dartmouth columnist Lucy Stonehill ‘10 wrote an article titled “See You in Hell,” in which she argues that religious beliefs blind and deter educational discussion. In reality, this is a very narrow minded views of others’ moral beliefs. These claims are completely unsubstantiated claims and impede the very “tolerance” which students like her often claim to fight for. It is exactly the exchange of viewpoints and ideas stemming from religious discussion that Dartmouth so dearly cherishes. A look at Dartmouth’s core values shows just that, “Dartmouth supports the vigorous and open debate of ideas within a community marked by mutual respect.”

A deeper look at Dartmouth’s religious history also unveils a series of religious social movements, some of which helped promote temperance on the college campus. The abolitionist movement also gained many of its die-hard proponents from the ranks of the Dartmouth student body, and the movements also brought hundreds and thousands of students to the Christian faith.

However, even though much of the student body was transformed during these seasons of religious zeal, the college slowly became increasingly secular during the 1870s. This can be attributed to the growth of liberalism on campus and scientific advances that led to skepticism of religion among many students and faculty. Only residual traces of Dartmouth’s Christian origins remained by 1930 and this decline of religious thought and tradition would continue well into the 21st century. In the 1970s, however, the work of Eric Wadsworth ‘74 and Peter Conway ‘74 brought a spiritual awakening to the campus once more. This massively successful evangelistic movement spawned nearby local church, Wellspring Worship Center, because there were so many new converts that Rollins Chapel could no longer house all of the religious students during services.

The formation of many of today’s current Christian fellowships on campus is also the product of the 1970s evangelistic movement. Cru came to campus in 1980, Navigators joined in 1985, and the Asian Christian Fellowship (now known as Agape) was founded in 1993. These organizations do in fact provide an intellectually stimulating environment and tools to strengthen spiritual health, which is often a neglected part of holistic wellness. Not only are they a way to help foster personal spiritual growth, they also create alternative social spaces and a community that is caring and seeks to serve many other parts of the campus as well as student body. In recent years however, the widely popular Christian Union organization has come under unfair scrutiny. For years Christian Union has attempted to become a campus recognized organization under COSO but has failed to receive a fair hearing. The organization boasts over 200 members, nearly 5% of the student population, but can’t seem to catch a break. Administration officials have sidestepped the issue and COSO denied the group recognition because its bylaws require leaders to be Christians, a measure the student-led council considered too exclusive. Besides not being held in the same regards as other clubs under COSO currently, the university further discriminates against religious organizations by segregating them and requiring separate approval for them through The William Jewett Tucker Foundation. This is an injustice that cannot stand among one of the nation’s top tier colleges. An argument could be made that because our college was founded on Christian principles, we should preserve and have a respect for some semblance of it as a tribute to its legacy much like we continue to hold the education of Native Americans to be an important goal at Dartmouth.

It seems as if every passing day the religious community loses ground to the militant voices of secular radicals seeking to suppress the opinions of those who disagree with their views. Now is the time we must take up the cause and champion free speech and equal rights even if we have no religious convictions ourselves. We live in a nation that succeeds greatly because of diversity and equal opportunity; this unfair treatment towards religious voices on campus is unacceptable. How is it that we become more politically correct in efforts to be accommodating to all people yet often neglect those very same rights to groups whose fundamental values run counter to us? That is not tolerance and should not be the case in such an “inclusive” community as Dartmouth College.

There once was a time when Dartmouth had a Native American brave for its mascot, a time when it was an all-male school, and even a time when its main purpose was to evangelize and educate missionaries. Though those days are long gone and the college’s religious ties have been cut, the religious community has continued to thrive and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In recent years, the number of members in the Christian community has expanded and the Jewish faith boasts over 400 self-recognized members on campus. This is no shabby feat, especially given the college’s secular and progressive culture. I salute Noah Riner ‘06 and the Christian Unions of the world for unashamedly standing up for their values in light of the opposition. It is because of these men and women that fight the good fight that our rights though challenged, continue to be protected.

I leave you with one final remark given by Lucius Waterman as a prayer over Dartmouth College. It is one of the most precious relics of our long lasting religious tradition on campus.

Make, we beseech thee, this society of scholars to be a fountain of true knowledge, a temple of sacred service, a fortress for the defense of things just and right, and fill the Dartmouth spirit with thy spirit, to make it a name and a praise that shall not fail, but stand before thee forever. We ask in the name in which alone is salvation, even through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

  • D’17

    The author wants COSO, which is funded by ALL students, including the 95% of students who are not practicing Christians, to fund a club that revolves around Christian and religious activities… The religious community is so opressed, they have to go to Tucker, the religious and faith student center, for funds. It’s so tough out there. Give me a break.

    Then, the author writes: “an argument could be made that because our college was founded on Christian principles, we should preserve and have a respect for some semblance of it as a tribute to its legacy”… what about the fact that Dartmouth was founded to be a men’s only institution? Should we bring that back to celebrate the school’s legacy? You can’t just pick and choose the parts of history that you like.