What is a rainbow?
David Hoeveler Nine colleges existed in the British colonies of North America when the thirteen declared their independence from Great Britain in Of the nine, only the College of Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania, had nonsectarian origins. Anglican William and Mary, founded inalone represented the southern colonies.
All were established by Christians with religious intentions the exception, Philadelphia, came quickly under Anglican and Presbyterian dominationand all were Protestant. All led their students though a curriculum heavily concentrated in the ancient languages and history, with philosophy, science, and rhetoric also prominent.
Closer inspection, however, finds that the colleges reflected the diversity within American colonial religion and the factional politics it produced. Six of these institutions had Calvinist beginnings.
Harvard was the school of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, operating within a decade of their arrival to New England in But by the end of the century Harvard had come under liberal religious influence, much of it Anglican, and, to the great disaffection of the orthodox Mathers and others, had selected John Leverett as president in By that time, in Connecticut, a party from the orthodox group had established Yale, located first in Saybrook, in But little was certain in the early collegiate history of this country.
In a shocked New England learned that a group of Yale people, led by Samuel Johnson, had announced its intention to seek ordination in the hated Church of England.
Establishing Princeton was the achievement of Calvinist Presbyterians. The College of New Jersey was the first to come from the religious movement known as the Great Awakening. That movement, in fact, served as a kind of political fault-line for all the colonial colleges.
Harvard and Yale had both given the awakeners a rude reception, so now they sought a college of their own.
Earlier, news of the new Presbyterian school at Princeton had spurred the New York legislature, with New York City and powerful Anglicans in the lead, to look for a college establishment of their own. They did so when the socially influential Trinity Church bequeathed land to the new school.
The Awakening would eventually yield four colonial colleges. That superficial identity, however, belies an intense and ongoing religious politics.
Many of the awakeners in New England became Baptists, having concluded, as did Isaac Backus, for example, that infant baptism had no scriptural foundations. The antipaedobaptists founded new churches, all the while facing discriminatory laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Baptists secured their collegiate foothold with the establishment of Rhode Island College.
Separatist Congregationalists, who recognized no ecclesiastical establishment and looked back to the alleged purity of the independent churches in early New England, founded Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The early institutional histories reflect the connections between college and state.
The colleges owed their legal standing to their respective colonial governments or to the British Crown, which granted them their charters. Those connections surfaced more than occasionally in the early records of these schools.
Thus the Massachusetts General Court in approved a new charter with a residency law designed to remove Increase Mather from the Harvard presidency. At William and Mary, James Blair, president of that college for no less than fifty years, established a record of hardball politics in Williamsburg that led to the removal of three Virginia governors.
At Princeton, Presbyterians had to use their influence against a reluctant Anglican governor to secure their charter. At Yale, President Thomas Clap, determined to resist the incursions of the Awakeners in New Haven, went to the Connecticut legislature to get a law passed against itinerant ministers; some of them had recently captured the interest of Yale students.
At the College of Philadelphia, Anglican provost William Smith effected a record of political intervention and intrigue unmatched by any of his collegiate peers.
He never shied from taking on the Quaker oligarchy, repeatedly allying himself with the proprietary party in the complicated mix of Pennsylvania politics. Smith paid a price for his exploits. The Quakers put him in prison! A happier political alliance prevailed in the founding of Dartmouth. That story revolved around the unlikely match between the anti-establishment leader Eleazar Wheelock and the pinnacle of the New Hampshire political dynasty, the Anglican governor John Wentworth.
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