Universities were founded because early Americans earnestly believed that American society should be governed by evangelical Christian people. They believed that American industry should be run by evangelical Christian entrepreneurs. They believed that American culture should be created by evangelical Christians. The desire to assure that America would be ruled by an evangelical elite was no doubt the primary reason that American universities were founded from 1636-1800.
The marriage of spiritual maturity and elite education is a potent combination and to a large degree assured the success of the American experiment. Its divorce may presage its demise.
Evangelicals became uncomfortable with the secular university as early as 1800. As modern science influenced the university, Christian evangelicalism maintained peace with it, believing that all truth was Godâ€™s truth. In fact, Christian evangelicalism wed the Gospel to science. Evangelicals sought to maintain a commonsense epistemology that easily accommodated scientific advances (George Marsden, The Soul of the American University. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994). In a congenial, almost filial spirit, the colleges endorsed a broader, more moralistic, less sectarian Christianity. However, as science abandoned theism for naturalism, evangelicals grew uneasy. Eventually, by the 1880s, religionâ€“including evangelicalismâ€“was on the fringinges of the American university. Eventually Christian evangelicalism was to be off the university radar screen altogether.
Universities now professed a vague commitment to a liberal, ethical Christianity which invited skepticism and indifference. Religious commitment was perceived as psychological phenomenon, and moved to the fringes of university life. In fact, religious commitment was perceived as a voluntary activity, an aberration rather than an expressed purpose of the institution. Christianity was taught along with other religious expressions in religious departments. Christian ministry was relegated to insignificant graduate schools or dropped altogether.
By the 1920s the university was not even loosely a Christian institution. Religion in the university and in public life was to be relegated to the private experience. So-called â€œacademic freedomâ€ became a sacrosanct concept and precluded anything that smacked of religiosityâ€“especially old time religion that evangelicals so enthusiastically embraced. Religion was represented on campus in sanitary denominational ministries and token chapel ministries (that were hardly more than counseling centers). The separation has been so thorough that when the New York Timesâ€™ reporter Ari Goldman spent a year at Harvard Divinity School he was pleased to find, after all, God at Harvard! (Ari L. Goldman, The Search for God at Harvard. NY: Random House, 1991).
At the same time, with growing persecution, evangelicals abandoned the secular university and founded their own universities. This whole process accelerated after the Scopes Trial in the 1920s.