by Timothy George, June 16, 2017
(Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama; general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture; and a fellow for the Center of Baptist Renewal.)
During seven years of graduate study at Harvard University, I frequently passed through Johnson Gate into Harvard Yard on my way to the Divinity School or Widener Library. On occasion, I would stop and read the historic words chiseled in stone on the gate, originally published in New England’s First Fruits in 1643:
After God had carried us safe to new England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.
The rejection of “an illiterate ministry” was an intentional counterpoint to the view held by radical spiritualists and other dissenters, who contended that inspiration, rather than education, was the way to prepare leaders of God’s flock. The love of learning and the desire for God were believed by many to be antithetical. Cotton Mather reported that when his famous grandfather, John Cotton, was a student at Cambridge in England, he worried that “if he became a godly man, t’would spoil him in being a learned one.”
The founders of Harvard, however, refused to accept this dichotomy. Aware that the Protestant Reformation had begun—long before Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses—as a movement of biblical and academic reform within the University of Wittenberg (a university founded in 1502 by princely and imperial but not papal authority), they were committed to the coinherence of Word and Spirit, intellect and piety, academic rigor and spiritual nurture. Although Harvard pioneers would not have embraced the Arminian theology of Charles Wesley, they surely would have cheered the notion expressed in his hymn for children:
Unite the pair so long disjoin’d,
Knowledge and vital Piety:
Learning and Holiness combined,
And Truth and Love, let all men see,
In those whom up to Thee we give,
Thine, wholly Thine, to die and live.
Founded in 1636, Harvard College, then often called a “seminary,” was duly concerned with the preparation of candidates for the pastoral office. But the first Harvard was not in fact a divinity school. Harvard was founded to educate merchants and magistrates, as well as ministers. Ministerial students took the same studium generale as everyone else. Upon graduation, they often remained around the college for several more years to read in the library or study with an experienced pastor in the area. Harvard Divinity School proper was organized only in 1816 in the wake of the Congregationalist-Unitarian disruption among the churches of New England. This followed the earlier establishment of the confessionally trinitarian Andover Theological Seminary in 1807, America’s oldest graduate school of theology.
From the beginning, however, Harvard College had an orthodox, Christological orientation. It was not sectarian in the narrow sense. Not only Congregationalists, but also Anglicans and Baptists, supported its cause. For example, the oldest endowed chair in America, the Hollis Professorship of Divinity, was funded by a wealthy Baptist merchant in London. As the College Laws of 1640 make clear, Harvard was meant to be an explicitly Christian community:
Let every student … consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. Seeing the Lord giveth wisdom, everyone shall seriously by prayer, in secret, seek wisdom of him.
This statement, found in a document titled “Rules And Precepts That Are To Be Observed In The College,” constitutes what today would be called a program of spiritual formation. “To lay Christ in the bottom” meant to cultivate a personal, Christ-centered devotion while at the same time exploring and investigating every discipline and field of human learning—including the quadrivium and trivium of the medieval scholastic curriculum, as well as the newer humanistic disciplines, such as history, textual criticism, and “natural science.” Central to this entire enterprise was the serious study of Scripture, with an emphasis on the mastery of Hebrew, as well as Greek and Latin, for the proper interpretation of the Bible.
Samuel Eliot Morison, the great historian of Harvard’s origins, has referred to the spiritual motivation at the headwaters of the school begun by New England’s merchant-colonists in 1636: “If not for the passionately sincere religion of the Puritans, there would have been no Harvard.” Indeed, what Perry Miller called “the Puritan mind” was integral not only to the formation of Harvard College but also to the many other academies, seminaries, and universities that found inspiration in the “first light” (George H. Williams) of America’s first college.
In 1996, Kelly Monroe Kullburg published Finding God at Harvard, a collection of compelling stories of Christian thinkers from all walks of life, many of whom have discovered the meaning of their lives, indeed of life itself, amid the byways and buildings around Harvard Yard. Questers of truth all, they have discovered the ultimate meaning of Veritas in the very One who claimed to be such himself. Among the volume’s contributors are distinguished philosophers, attorneys, diplomats, physicians, theologians, artists, and poets. Among such movers and shakers one is surprised to find the personal witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She addressed the 1982 Graduation Day exercises at Harvard College, just three years after she had received the Nobel Peace Prize for her service to the poorest of the poor. She spoke about faith and families, about loss and love, about suffering and joy. That day, she left the students with a prayer by Cardinal John Henry Newman:
Help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with your Spirit and light. … Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine. To shine so as to be a light to others. The light will be all from you, dear Jesus. None of it will be ours; it will be you, shining on others. Let us thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around us. AMEN