A Blessed Heritage
Among the many great contributions that American civilization has received from the Christian faith is its system of higher education. That statement might seem startling in a day when the most prominent universities—whether state-supported institutions or private—are largely secular institutions where the Christian faith is peripheral at best. But the first great schools of this country were all religious schools, and the American university system is almost entirely a creation of its churches. The old Protestant establishment that once dominated these universities has given way, but the heritage of church-related higher education remains.
Under the theme of “A Blessed Heritage,” three essays considering the contributions of American church-related higher education were presented to the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference held at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 13–15, 2006. With the support of the Lilly Fellows Programs in Humanities and the Arts, the editors are pleased to publish these essays in this issue. A fourth essay, contributed by Jill Peláez Baumgaertner and first presented to the Lilly Fellows Program Administrators Workshop held at Xavier on October 12–13, is also included.
The nearly endless variety of American Christian higher education cannot be captured in any short collection like this; however, our authors have made a fine effort to offer us as much as possible. From these pieces, we learn about the contributions of Anabaptists, Catholics, Methodists, Evangelicals, and many other Christian traditions, and we learn that these contributions have come in various forms.
In an essay by Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, the authors argue that the “pluralistic” nature of American Christianity contributes an opportunity for different branches of the faith to learn from one another in ways that allow each to be more faithful to its own Chritian calling. Baumgaertner’s essay examines the efforts of one Christian school, namely Wheaton College, to maintain its unique Christian identity, and how, because of these efforts, it has a unique intellectual perspective to contribute to a largely secular American academy.
In essays by C. Walker Gollar and David J. O’Brien, we find a Christian contribution distinguished more by social and political engagement with the broader culture. Gollar chronicles the contributions of five Midwestern Christian schools to the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. O’Brien focuses on the period after the Second Vatican Council, when Catholic educators worked to cultivate a generation of young Catholics who were well prepared for leadership roles in their communities.
A common thread among all four essays is that contributions move in both directions. As each tradition has given, it has received. At times, American religious freedoms and tolerance have allowed these traditions and their schools to thrive. At the same time, the very openness of American culture has complicated their efforts to maintain a particular vision of identity and mission. And on occasion, especially for the young abolitionists we meet in Gollar’s essay, American culture presents an overt threat to some forms of Christianity and to Christian schools. These essays show us how several religious traditions and their schools have sought out their own places within the American landscape, and how they have been transformed in the process of doing so.
Finally, these essays demonstrate that faculty and administration of church-related colleges and universities remain committed to various forms of engagement with the church, the nation, and the world. Their contributions are truly a blessed heritage, and it is a blessing that will continue.