What is the Eleazar Wheelock Society?

By Blake Neff

While it would be foolish to say that religion is dead or no longer a major force in society, it is undeniable that religious adherence is on the wane. Fewer Americans attend regular religious services while the ranks of the irreligious and stridently atheist rise every year. One of the flashpoints of this shift is on college campuses, where students exposed to new ideas and no longer under the direct influence of parents abandon childhood faiths in droves.

Perhaps just as troubling for the religiously-minded is the loss of respect religion has been suffering. A bevy of books from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have helped popularize the idea of religious faith being fundamentally irrational, a relic of the past that is holding back moral behavior instead of maintaining it or pushing it forward.

At Dartmouth, though, a growing coalition of Christians is seeking to fight back. Refusing to submit to this intellectual assault, they make the case that religion and reason are not in conflict, but rather strongly complement each other. This coalition manifests itself in many forms. First on the scene and most prominent was the Christian journal on campus, the Dartmouth Apologia, now in its fifth year of publication. Rising in importance, though, is a supporting organization that stands in the background: the Eleazar Wheelock Society, or EWS. This coalition of alumni, faculty, and students is driving a proliferation of faith-based activities on campus and aggressively reasserting the intellectual viability of religion and particularly Christianity.

The Wheelock Society’s origins are tied with those of the Apologia. In the fall of 2006, incoming freshman Andrew Schuman ’10 was hit by a spark of inspiration to create a Christian journal on campus. After rounding up several like-minded freshmen, he began putting his vision into action while receiving guidance from Prof. Gregg Fairbrothers ’76. Fairbrothers, a professor at Tuck and the founder of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, applied his expertise in entrepreneurship to help develop Schuman’s vision, and stayed on as a faculty advisor once the journal got off the ground.

Although the first Apologia issue was not precisely like the form it takes today (creative writing was a third of its content), the critical element of its existence was laid out in its first article, “Why Apologia?” by Chris Blankenship. Blankenship noted that the word apologia means “defense” and wrote about how early Christian apologists had adopted the Greek and Roman techniques of rationalism and educated thought in order to defend their new faith from criticism. Drawing upon their example, he described the Apologia’s mission as one to “articulate Christianity in a manner that requires neither blind acceptance nor the rejection of one’s education” and show how two millennia of Christian intellectual tradition can relate to issues of the present day. While the founders of the Apologia may not have realized it at the time, this concept, that Christian faith and the reason of the academic world can cooperate and strengthen each other, would have a particular appeal to a good number of people.

One such person was Greg Allman ’76, founder of Atlanta real estate firm Regent Partners, whom Fairbrothers describes in an interview as a driving force in the eventual foundation of EWS. The Apologia’s goal of combining faith and reason resonated with him, and gave him a desire to directly support the journal. This led him to forge a working relationship with Fairbrothers in the fall of 2008. Over time, Allman rounded up a small group of alumni who were deeply interested in the Apologia’s mission, and began holding meetings focused on supporting them. After several informal meetings at the Hanover Inn, Fairbrothers said, the idea arose that they could better support the Apologia’s mission by creating their own organization. After hammering out the basic details, the Eleazar Wheelock Society was born in the spring of 2009, taking its name from Dartmouth’s first president, himself a man possessing both great faith and a strong intellectual orientation.

EWS was not large at its inception and it is not particularly large today. At its core are about a dozen alumni, with about 4 dozen significant peripheral supporters and a few hundred others on the mailing list. While still small and in relative infancy, though, the organization has an expansive vision of itself as a strong supporter of an academic, reasoned approach to faith on campus.

Fairbrothers described the Society as having a rather unique structure, since it has ex officio positions for students, faculty, and alumni on its board and seeks to combine all of their efforts. The primary advantage of this approach is its ability to facilitate a direct engagement between students and alumni, with the resources and expertise of alums enabling a growth in the faith lives of students still on campus.  Thanks to the strong role of alumni in the organization, it seeks to add vocation into the mix with faith and reason, believing that alumni can mentor students and help them find careers and paths in their life which are compatible with their Christian identity.

Fairbrothers also described EWS as having two main philosophical pillars. The first pillar is a drive to embody the so-called “Fourth Quadrant,” a mathematical analogy representing the union of faith and reason. This analogy imagines faith and reason on an x-y axis where one may have neither, one of each, or both. EWS and the Apologia seek to be in the “Fourth Quadrant” where both faith and reason are present.

The other pillar of EWS is a desire to reach out to those who are currently not very active in faith-based activities on campus, and draw them into greater involvement. Prof. Fairbrothers compared students to points on a normal curve, observing that while some students are very involved in religious activities and some are stridently anti-religious, there is a large majority of people sitting in the vast middle-ground, many of them nominally religious or otherwise attracted towards the perspective the Wheelock Society represents. By sponsoring events and supporting initiatives that can reach out to this vast middle, it is hoped that these fence-sitters will become more active in matters of faith and thereby allow it to play a greater role in their life.

The primary way that EWS fulfills its mission is simply by supporting the Apologia; it contributes about a quarter of its budget and is otherwise committed to ensuring that the journal continues to put out two issues a year of high quality work (the journal was chosen as the Best Student Publication 2009-10 by the Council on Student Organizations). However, EWS has also begun to spread its wings, and both it and the Apologia are making a solid effort to promote their faith/reason synthesis beyond the confines of a biannual journal. For EWS, this expansion is important because it allows it to fulfill the service and vocation elements of its mission by more directly engaging students.

One way that EWS is attempting to reach out to people is through its new annual conference, the appropriately named Wheelock Conference. Held for the first time last spring at Tuck, the Wheelock Conference dedicated itself to the matter of vocation and how it interacted with both faith and reason. Its main feature was a diverse array of panels featuring individuals from fields such as law, business, and science who offered their perspective on how faith related to their chosen vocation. Panelists included notables such as College trustee Stephen Smith ’88 and Professors Koop and Whaley. Serving as the keynote speaker was Kadita Tshibaka D’70 T’71, a former CitiBank executive whose Christian beliefs led him to serve as the CEO of the Christian microfinance organization Opportunity International.

By most indications, the conference was a major success. Several hundred people showed up for the various events and there was a lively interaction between the students and panelists throughout the day. Not surprisingly, EWS is organizing a second conference this year and is hoping to refine their approach to achieve even greater success. To appeal to those who may not otherwise attend an overtly Christian event, panels are being considered for topics such as social justice or neuroscience.

Another major prong of Wheelock’s outreach is the Waterman Institute, founded this year and directed by Schuman following his graduation. The Institute is named for Rev. Lucius Waterman, who authored the Prayer of Dartmouth College, which hangs outside Parkhurst Hall, and strongly encouraged students at the College to integrate their faith into their academic pursuits.  Although not directly a part of EWS, it operates under its umbrella and a host of former and current EWS board members comprise its leadership. It emerged from the effort of various students, faculty, and campus ministers to engage students in faith matters by offering independent seminars and classes on Christian topics using an academic approach. The success of classes offered by Prof. Lindsay Whaley and Ryan Bouton ’01 led to the expansion of this effort and the creation of the Institute which aims to have several offerings for students every term. In the upcoming winter term, some seminar option include one by Schuman and Aquinas House chaplain Fr. Jon Kalisch on Christian perspectives on free societies and another by Professors Whaley and Allen Koop on the question of what it means to be human. On top of these offerings, the Institute also supports discussion groups, such as one on C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, as well as retreats, public lectures, and other special events.

Viewing the various activities of EWS may give one the impression that they are trying to win converts, but Fairbrothers insists this isn’t the case.

“This is not a para-church, and we’re not trying to fill pews,” Fairbrothers claims, while the Apologia’s About Us page asserts that the journal “does not exist to proselytize but to discuss.” 

Instead, Fairbrothers describes the long-term goal of Apologia and EWS as one of changing the image many people have of Christians. He suggested that many have the impression that Christians are “rubes” or “fanatics” which prevents them from constructively approaching matters of faith in their lives. Removing this stigma, he believes, is something that everybody can support, Christian or not.

“We want to show that Christians can be as thoughtful, academically rigorous, and reasonable as anybody else,” he said.

This argument does have a ring of truth to it. Nothing EWS does crosses into outright preaching, and sponsored events have sometimes involved an interfaith aspect or even a debate between Christian and non-Christian perspectives (the Apologia, for its part, has even interviewed atheist philosopher Daniel Dennet). That said, it seems impossible for the EWS to have no elements of proselytization at all. When EWS argues that Christian faith and human reason are completely compatible or even reinforcing, it is responding to a criticism that has come from opponents of Christianity, and implied in any defense of one’s position is the accompanying argument that one’s position is correct and worth following. When the Apologia’s annual Logos Lecture featured the topic “Morality: What’s God Got to Do With It?” it was hard not to imagine at least some underlying hope that they could change the minds of those whose response to the title was “nothing.” EWS and the Apologia may not directly try to convert people, but they would probably see themselves as failures if they did not make the population at large more open and sympathetic to their positions.  

While avoiding proselytization in any form may be impossible, though, EWS and the Apologia have been more successful in their avoidance of any controversial political or doctrinal topics.

“We’re not oriented around controversy,” says Fairbrothers. Major issues like abortion and gay marriage already get enough press and arouse fiery passions, and bringing them up would likely divert from the intended purpose of both organizations and potentially alienate their intended audiences. He believes that the fundamental combination of faith, reason, and vocation creates a common language to reach out to people, and that this can be done without inflaming passions that arise from religion’s role in society.

In terms of interaction with the College, while Apologia is a student organization, both EWS and the Waterman Institute are independent and exist alongside the college rather than within it. However, they do not see themselves in opposition to the school and believe that they can directly benefit the College by leading more alumni to engage with it. Fairbrothers emphasized that EWS has been able to bring back alumni who have up until now been alienated from the school. Although the College takes pride in its high giving rate and general school spirit, it must be acknowledged that some graduates regret their Dartmouth experience and do not associate with the school at all following graduation. These are some of the people that EWS has been able to reach out to. Fairbrothers related the story of one alumnus who had thrown out the alumni magazine as soon as he got it for 30 years, but now has reengaged with the College thanks to his involvement in EWS.

Although the combined activities of EWS and the Apologia have expanded significantly in recent years, they are also not resting on their laurels. According to Editor-in-Chief emeritus Charles Clark ’11, if the volume of quality contributions to the Apologia keeps rising, it may expand to publishing a third issue every year. Meanwhile, EWS is soliciting ideas from students for new faith-based initiatives on campus, offering guidance and funding to help out those who come up with new ideas.

Whether EWS, the Waterman Institute, or the Apologia will succeed in changing the perception of religion and sustaining a surge of faith-based activity in this small corner of the world remains to be seen. With the prevailing currents of society still moving against them, it is a tall order to fulfill. However, they have thus far risen admirably to the challenge, with an intellectual discipline and level of fervor that should make any member of the Dartmouth community proud. If reason and faith are to remain in opposition, it will mark a failure on our part, not on theirs.