In the 21st century evangelical mind, the student radicalism of America’s colleges and universities tends to evoke images like Berkeley tree sitters, Occupy Harvard, and even the Kent State Massacre. However, while American undergrads have long been catalysts for emerging social movements, college campuses have also served as nurseries of revival in America’s two Great Awakenings. In fact, colleges were crucial hotbeds for spiritual awakening in American history. Long before the 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy which forced many conservative schools to retreat from the broader, secular culture, many colleges in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were actually the vanguard of Christian intellectualism and piety.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the newly founded Amherst College in 1823, he called the school “an infant Hercules,” where the students “write and study in a sort of fury, which, I think, promises a harvest of attainments.” Established in 1821 in response to the Unitarian threat at Harvard, Amherst was a rural, Congregationalist college that nevertheless encouraged deep, critical thinking on a number of subjects. They were, as Nathaniel Hawthorne called them, “country graduates,” “rough, brown-featured, schoolmaster-looking, half bumpkin, half-scholarly figures, in black ill-cut broadcloth – their manners quite spoilt by what little of the gentleman there was in them.” In 1830, when the “Great Revival” blew through Massachusetts, the faculty at Amherst tried to spark their own revival by forming “concerts of prayer” modeled after that of Jonathan Edwards (1744). When a young Henry Ward Beecher attended one of these meetings, he recalled a professor confessing, “My friends, I am so overwhelmed by the consciousness of God’s presence in this room that I cannot speak a word.” During this time, revivalist Charles Grandison Finney would have an extraordinary impression upon the young Beecher.
Henry’s father, Lyman Beecher, was a well-known preacher in the Boston area who had been equally influenced by revival during his own college years. Lyman was a junior when Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards’s grandson, became the ninth president of Yale. In the first several years of Dwight’s presidency, a student revival broke out on campus that stoked the spiritual fires of the Second Great Awakening. Under the same Edwardsean model, groups of students gathered to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon their school and their fledgling nation. As a result, by 1802, a third of the student body had professed conversion and 58 students joined the college church. Even professors confessed a newfound devotion to Jesus Christ. Dozens and dozens of students would eventually enter pastoral ministry as a vocation, as a result of the revival. Although some scholars have challenged Dwight’s influence in the movement, Yale’s position as a locus of awakening is indubitable. Calling it a “glorious reformation,” one Yale student later commented of the revival, “The whole college was shaken. It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of the students would press into the kingdom.”
The precedent for student revivals at Yale in the Second Great Awakening was actually set during the first. When the arch-evangelist George Whitefield stormed through New England during his famous preaching tours, his affection lay with Yale far more than Harvard, whose students and faculty Whitefield accused of impiety in his Journal. On the other hand, at Yale, revival touched the deepest recesses of student life. The hyper-emotionalist itinerant revivalist James Davenport was so influential upon the student body that a young David Brainerd, whose labors would be famously recorded by Jonathan Edwards in Life of David Brainerd (1749), was expelled from school for openly questioning the salvation of tutors and professors in the mold of Davenport and others like Gilbert Tennent. The division between faculty and students at Yale was the tense background to Jonathan Edwards’s famous 1741 commencement address, which would later be published as The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, a work promoting the authenticity of the revival but warning against its excesses.
After the fundamentalist retreat, contemporary evangelicalism has since recovered a degree of intellectual revival with the Neo-Evangelical movement in men such as Carl F. H. Henry and their theological descendants like R. Albert Mohler Jr. However, colleges and universities as centers of spiritual awakening is an idea still largely lost to the annals of history, due to the liberalizing trend in American education. However, for centuries, in the American Protestant mind, Christian intellectualism and personal piety were not mutually exclusive in higher learning. As a result, America’s colleges were often fertile seedbeds for revival, not simply among students, but in the nation at large. In order to recover such a rich spiritual legacy, Christian administrators, faculty, and academics must be convinced of the Christian intellectual project as were so many of their Puritan forbears, wherein a renewal of both the mind and heart are aimed at the conversion of souls, not just the pursuit of a degree. Perhaps, in order to experience a third Great Awakening, America’s colleges must once again become “an infant Hercules.”