- - Sunday, March 17, 2024

Wherever Christianity has spread throughout the globe, educational institutions have quickly followed, first for the purpose of literacy and ability to read the Bible, but also for the expanding of the mind for the understanding of God’s creation and development of productive and happy lives. It was no different with the waves of settlers arriving in North America in the 1600’s who quickly established universities, many of which persist to this day, for the education of their own people as well as Native Americans and future immigrants.

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It is well known that Harvard was established for such a purpose in 1636 as the New Englanders’ main effort to bequeath a literate ministry to the church. The Rules and Precepts observed by Harvard from its founding show the overtly Christian aim of the institution. One of the rules reads:

“Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to 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. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him Prov. 2, 3.”

Columbia University’s founding a hundred years later in 1754 is quite similar in its intention with the original royal charter stating that the school’s president was always to be in communion with the Church of England and members of the university were to participate in Christian services, “morning and evening, forever.”

Harvard was closely tied to the Congregationalists, and Columbia to the Anglicans, but even schools founded without a close association to a particular denomination still had grand Christian purposes. Ezra Cornell, at his university’s inaugural address in 1868 said that he desired to begin an institution to furnish better means for the culture of all men of all aims, and especially he stated, “It shall be our aim, and our constant effort to make true Christian men, without dwarfing or paring them down to fit the narrow gauge of any sect [denomination].

Across the country, a second example can be seen in the efforts of Leland and Jane Stanford, who founded Stanford University in 1885. In The Founding Grant, November 11, 1885, the Stanfords assigned 18 duties to the Board of Trustees. The 14th reads: “the Trustees … shall have power, and it shall be their duty … to prohibit sectarian [denominational] instruction, but to have taught in the University the immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man.”

In a letter to the Trustees accompanying The Founding Grant, the Stanfords wrote: “the object is not alone to give the student a technical education, fitting him for a successful business life, but it is also to instill into his mind an appreciation of the blessings of this Government, a reverence for its institutions, and a love of God and humanity, to the end that he may go forth and by precept and example spread the great truths by the light of which his fellow men will be elevated and taught how to obtain happiness in this world, and in the life eternal.”

The founding of these universities is not exceptional; most universities that were founded in the country’s first several hundred years were devotedly Christian in their orientation.

For those watching the news the last few months and years, it’s apparent that these schools are no longer Christian and they are quickly losing public trust. So, what happened?

For almost all, it was a gradual process where denominational affiliations were dropped and the requirements for student admission and faculty were continually broadened. Faculty would join the schools mostly aligned with the schools’ faith and vision, but when they drifted, administrators didn’t have the skills, heart, nor even at times the authority to take corrective action. Often, the more devout Boards of Trustees would wake up one day and take notice that the university faculty were no longer with them. Student admissions were expanded to include other sects and religions entirely, other races, and women.

One may argue whether this loss of religion serves the national interest, or whether the institutions should honor the intentions of their founders. But we are left today with the paradox that the vast majority of students at these universities are unaware of the Christian message that led to their founding (and the spread of education worldwide).

They may choose or choose not to embrace that message as their own, however, given the extraordinary good the Christian message has meant for education in America, students should at least know the foundational elements of the most popular religion in America and world history. They should know that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to forgive the sins of all who will repent of their sins, put their faith in Him and follow Him. Also, that the Holy Spirit will indwell His followers, giving them the strength to live a moral life full of meaning and purpose. This should be taught by those who believe and live the message, and not academics who have simply studied the movement. Moreover, many believe that understanding the Christian message will bring great benefit to the current student populations who wrestle with meaninglessness and mental health issues at a greater level than any time in the nation’s history.

May there be a movement to “save” these institutions by reintroducing them to the understandings of God and the world that led to their founding and made them great centers of learning.

Matt Bennett is founder of Christian Union, a nonprofit organization whose mission it is to develop Christian leaders to transform culture. On March 17, the organization launches CU Rise, an 8-week evangelism campaign taking place on the campuses of all 8 Ivy League schools plus Stanford University. 

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