By Ruth Nourse
Published November 1, 1989
When Harvard University was founded in 1636, the school was expressly chartered to train pastors and teachers of the Christian faith. From the earliest days of the colonies and until well after the Civil War, American education was preeminently Christian. Beginning in the early 1800s, there was a growing influence of Unitarian interpretations of biblical truth on education that was foreign to all that had gone before in America. VERITAS (Truth) was and is Harvard’s motto. In 1869, the University administration reversed the motto’s meaning and in the revolution that followed the school became an enemy of the Church that founded it.
In the late 1850s, young Charles William Eliot, as a member of the Harvard faculty, demonstrated remarkable administrative talent. Innovations he suggested brought a wide range of improvement in school life. After the Civil War, Eliot found some changes afoot at Harvard. In 1866, the alumni had already elected Ralph Waldo Emerson; the response now was to add Eliot to Harvard’s board of overseers. After Eliot’s election to the board, the liberal majority voted to elect a new president. The nomination of Eliot brought firm opposition from conservatives; but liberals, including Emerson, held out for him on succeeding ballots until he was confirmed.
Few Bostonians seemed aware of the prospect of change encapsulated in Eliot’s inauguration at Harvard in 1869. Others knew what Eliot stood for and heralded the revolution with exultation. Van Wyck Brooks, a leading literary critic, gives this view of innovations at Harvard: “Charles William Eliot had turned Harvard over like a flapjack.”
Full significance of the “flapjack turning” at Harvard is best understood in the light of the early history of the oldest school of higher learning in America. In 1636, just six years after Boston was founded, a college was authorized by the General Court of Massachusetts. While the project was in the planning stage there arrived from England a young graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, John Harvard, a Congregational minister, along with his bride of 10 months. The young minister’s story is not often a part of contemporary histories of Harvard University. His simple dedication to the cause of Christ seems somehow out of sync these days with the great University that bears his name.
For one hundred years the Congregational Church controlled the school. Small though its beginnings may seem, the little college had no rival in America for 60 years. As the pride and joy of the colonies, Harvard College fulfilled the purpose for which it was founded. Changes did not happen overnight and there were legitimate reasons for them. What is remarkable is that in the midst of justifiable reform, the school was removed from control of the Congregational Church and placed at the disposal of forces hostile to the Christian faith.
Emerson’s Influence At Harvard
Ralph Waldo Emerson had muttered into his journal for 30 years or more about new laws, new religion, a new race, and other things equally enigmatic. Emerson’s defection from the Christian faith provided a hinge upon which to turn an entire nation. Preaching and lecturing as occasion arose and pocketbook demanded, he spoke in terms that could only be called spiritual:
“If there be one lesson more than another which should pierce (the scholar’s) ear, it is, The world is nothing, the man is all: in yourself is the law of all nature … in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason: it is for you to know all; it is for you to dare all. A nation of men for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”
The Concord philosopher was invited by students to address the senior class of the Divinity school. Emerson told students that Christ had come to teach that God was incarnate in man – all men. He suggested that what man has been unable to find in the Church may be found in the soul: “In the soul let redemption be sought.” The Boston Daily Advertiser carried an article deploring Emerson’s address because it rejected the revelation upon which Christianity is based and demonstrated the work of evil forces seeking to draw men from the Church. Emerson’s philosophy clearly struck at the roots of Christianity, denying both experience and tradition. The Divinity School Address resulted in his banishment from Harvard for almost 30 years.
In 1854, when a student opened his dormitory room for Emerson’s lecture on “Poetry,” an investigation was made to discover why the philosopher was on campus. Clearly Harvard administrators, after 14 years, still remembered the Divinity School address. A change of climate became evident at Commencement 1866, when Harvard awarded Emerson the LL.D. degree and the alumni elected him to the board of overseers. Harvard was ready to enter the new era.
At the time of Eliot’s inauguration, erosion of the old faith had been making way for change at Harvard for more than a generation. Until 1865, Harvard University had administrative ties with the State of Massachusetts. When these ties were cut, selection of the board of overseers fell into the hands of the school’s alumni. Some perceived the time had come for Emerson’s “American Scholar.” With president and governing board ready to work together, a new system was inaugurated at Harvard that required a new kind of educator and a new curriculum.
William Charles Eliot was not a radical. His response to religious formalism reveals perception and sensitivity rather than irreverence and skepticism. He noted that religious teaching and activity seemed to be associated with articles or buildings and felt such religious trappings led to idolatry. Eliot saw in the Church so much show and ritualism that was unrelated to real human problems, and so much pure dogmatism, that he seemed to conclude that there was no basis of truth in Christianity. His was a total rejection of the power of the Church. Christendom, as he saw it, was responsible for oppressing Jews, exploiting the masses, and limiting individual freedom. He envisioned and wrote about a “Religion of the Future”- for he admitted man’s need for spirituality, while rejecting the absolute authority of the Bible.
Under Eliot’s administration, campus and dormitory regulations were relaxed. The university would no longer take responsibility for moral training. Eliot shared Emerson’s faith in the ability of human beings to instinctively know what is good for them. They thought the doctrine of man’s inborn bent to evil had been disproved. They believed human nature to be basically good. Young people could achieve more, they believed, if set free to follow their stars. But the new methods and rules were not nearly as significant as the new courses of study and the new faculty brought on to teach them.
Eliot’s next step was to appoint new faculty. Eliot’s appointees included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Fiske and Charles S. Pierce, but perhaps most notable was Chauncey Wright. Wright was considered by Cambridge colleagues to be a master of the power of analytic intellect and is quoted as saying: “Behind the bare phenomenal facts there is nothing.” Wright advanced the theory of evolution and received Charles Darwin’s special commendation.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appears to have read Wright’s articles and made the centerpieces in The Divine Tragedy and Helen of Tyre Wright was almost certainly the poet’s model for Simon Magus the Seer. The inquiring and perceptive reader may wish to consider whether or not the poet had identified the source of Harvard’s new education.
In The Christus, published in 1871, Emerson’s philosophy is alluded to in Simon Magus’ words: “He who knows himself knows all things in himself.” Simon Magus’ incantation in the same poem strangely echoes the title of Wright’s article, “The Uses and Origin of the Arrangement of Leaves.” (“I take this orange bough with its five leaves, each equidistant on the upright stem…”) In Helen of Tyre, Longfellow seems to have sounded a warning against deception of a spiritually impoverished culture by a Simon Magus in academic garb. Furthermore, a link between Helen of Tyre and Wright’s article, “Evolution of Self- Consciousness,” is found in Longfellow’s notes.
Yet strangely, three volumes of Longfellow’s journals, letters and reminiscences edited and published by his brother, Samuel, include nothing to reveal the poets awareness of the great changes afoot at Harvard. This is indeed a puzzle because Longfellow was active until a few days before he died in 1882. It is to be wondered if the new courses and professors at Harvard may have received more attention than the poet’s published papers would lead us to believe. Samuel Longfellow was a Unitarian minister, and may conceivably have believed that suppression of his brother’s orthodoxy was the better part of loyalty. The Longfellow papers may some day prove a gold mine for modern research on this dimly lighted era of American history.
Was Longfellow really silent except for a few cryptic lines? Perhaps the mystery of his silence will one day be unravelled.
Next month, the profound implications of Harvard’s “flapjack turning” will be shown.
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