Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Harvard and the Baptists

As a way of getting at the fascinating larger history of Christians and “higher education,” I have been thinking of writing some posts on “Baptists and Higher Education,” precisely because my dissenting tradition has had such a love/hate relationship with college or university education throughout our 400 year history.  On the one hand, many first generation, 17th C. Baptist leaders were highly educated: John Smyth (1570-1612) was a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.  Thomas Helwys (c. 1575-1616), a member of the minor gentry, had been a lawyer (barrister) trained at Gray’s Inn, one of the traditional 4 “Inns of Court” where London barristers lodged, trained, and practiced.  Roger Williams (1603-1683) graduated from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.  Dr. John Clarke (1609-1676), who had studied theology, languages, and medicine before journeying to America (and who often earned a living as a medical doctor), may have studied at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

But as dissenters from church establishments in both England and Colonial America, Baptists found themselves barred from most colleges and universities which had religious tests for admission.  (It was not until the 20th C. that British Baptists could attend Oxford!)  Our emphasis on leadership by laity and our concern more for a converted and spiritually vibrant ministry than an educated and intellectual ministry made a virtue of a necessity.  Since so many university trained theologians ridiculed and persecuted Baptists, Baptists quickly developed (especially in America) a widespread suspicion of education.

But Baptist anti-intellectualism is only half the story. We also began building colleges, universities, and seminaries almost as soon as we legally and financially could do so–beginning with Bristol Baptist College in the U.K. in 1679!  I will explore the successes and failures of the schools Baptists have built in later posts. I want to start first with Baptist relations to prominent institutions of postsecondary education founded by others.

Nowhere is that relationship more complex and fascinating than with America’s oldest institution of higher learning, Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.  Harvard College (the undergraduate core of the university) was founded in 1636, established by the General Court of the Massachussetts Bay Colony.  It’s founding was intimately connected to the Puritan/Congregationalist established church of the Colony, although never formerly affiliated with any particular religious denomination. Yet there is no doubt that the Puritans had the education of ministers in mind as a major purpose in Harvard’s founding.  In the words of the General Court of Massachussetts Bay Colony:

After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.

In 1640, Harvard College hired its first president, Henry Dunster (1612-1659 ), a Puritan clergyman fresh off the boat from England. Dunster was another Cambridge alumnus and modeled Harvard on his Cambridge experience. He wrote the original rules for admission to Harvard, designed its philosophy of education (emphasizing the classics with ministerial students receiving extra education in biblical languages and Reformed theology), and hired its first faculty, with Dunster himself teaching the biblical languages.  But by 1651, Dunster had become convinced of Baptist principles, especially believers’ baptism.  After the Boston authorities jailed Dr. John Clarke of Rhode Island and whipped layman Obadiah Holmes (1744-1832) for “unlicensed open air preaching,” Dunster openly declared his principles and refused to have his infant son baptized.

Naturally, this led to his termination as President of Harvard and Dunster spent the rest of his life pastoring a small independent congregation of mixed Congregational Puritans and Baptists–though it is uncertain whether or not Dunster himself was ever baptized as an adult.  And, with his ouster, Baptists were kept out of Harvard for the near term.

But that was not the end of the story by any means. As other colonial colleges (all church-related) sprang up, Harvard established the Hollis Chair of Divinity in 1721/22, the oldest endowed divinity chair in the U.S.  It was named for Thomas Hollis, an English Separatist who had just come to Baptist views. In giving the initial funding for the professorship, Hollis only asked that “if a qualified Baptist apply, he be given due consideration.” The Harvard trustees must have thought that Baptists were unqualified for a very long time because the current occupant of the Hollis Chair, Harvey G. Cox, Jr. (1929- ), an ordained American Baptist minister, is the first Baptist to be Hollis Professor of Divinity. (At that, Cox who has taught at Harvard since 1965, only became Hollis Professor in 2001, although for a long time before that he held another endowed chair, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity!)

In the early 19th C., Congregationalists (the successors to American Puritans) divided with many of them becoming Unitarians. The appointment of a Unitarian to the Hollis Chair in 1805 set off a firestorm and led more orthodox Congregationalists to form America’s first freestanding theological seminary, Andover School of Theology. Harvard had “gone Unitarian” and the founding of Harvard Divinity School in 1816, although formaly proposed as a “non-sectarian” or ecumenical divinity school, was dominated by Unitarians for the next century.  Obviously, few Baptists would have found studying at Harvard attractive in those days–and by then we had been creating our own universities (beginning with the College of Rhode Island, later re-named Brown University, in 1764) and seminaries (beginning with Newton Theological Institution, now part of Andover-Newton Theological School, in 1825).

But there were exceptions. Rev. Jeremiah Condy and Rev.  Edward Upham, Baptist pastors in Colonial New England, managed to graduate from Harvard–probably by not going public with their religious convictions until after graduation. 

Richard Fuller (1804-1836), a major Baptist pastor and denominational leader in South Carolina (and, infamously, a major defender of slavery) earned a B.A. from Harvard College in 1824, graduating near the top of his class, despite having to leave for health reasons in his junior year. 

William Williams (1821-1877), a Southern Baptist who became one of the four founding professors of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, had originally thought to become a lawyer. After graduating from the University of Georgia (B.A., 1840), he earned his law degree at Harvard (LL.B., 1847).  He was later ordained and went into ministry and education without further formal education.

Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895), a Northern (American) Baptist pastor, editor, hymnwriter, missionary statesman, and educator, earned a B.A. at Harvard College, but, because of the Unitarian dominance of the time, went to Andover Theological Seminary for his B.D. 

Crawford Howell Toy(1836-1919) was the most brilliant scholar Baptists in the South produced in the 19th C.  Educated at the University of Virginia (A.B., 1856) (the first “secular” university in the United States, “Mr. Jefferson’s school” attracted many Baptists in the South because it neither had religious tests for admission, nor mandatory theology classes from non-Baptist scholars giving a party line) and the University of Berlin (1836-1838) Toy taught Hebrew and Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (first in Greenville, SC then moved to Louisville, KY) from 1869 to 1879. But Toy was forced to resign because he had introduced “higher criticism” from Germany into his classroom teaching. So, in 1880 Toy became Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at Harvard, where he taught in the Divinity School and the College and virtually created the Graduate Department of Near Eastern Studies.  Toy tried to stay a Baptist while at Harvard, initially joining Old Cambridge Baptist Church, but his acceptance of Darwinian evolution and of German critical views of Scripture was too radical for even Northern Baptists of his day and so (much to the dismay of the Dean of Harvard Divinity School who was trying for an ecumenical faculty!), Toy eventually became a Unitarian–which Southern Baptist conservatives have used ever since to claim that they were right to fire him.  (The Unitarians, on the other hand, found him “conservative” and “overly evangelical!”) Toy was a brilliant scholar and at his death, his list of publications ran on for 20 pages!

It was not until the 20th C. that Harvard began having a more fruitful relationship with Baptists.  Many times during the long ministry of that icon of Baptist liberalism, Harry Emerson Fosdick(1878-1969), Harvard tried to lure him to their campus, either as Senior Minister of the Memorial Church on campus or as a professor in the Divinity School. Fosdick always declined, preferring to teach at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary, and to remain with Riverside Church–but Fosdick did repeatedly give lecture series at Harvard and often preached in the Harvard chapel (which was mandatory until after WWII).

Some prominent African-American Baptists have graduated from Harvard over the years.  Mordecai Johnson (1890-1976) earned a B.A. at Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) in 1911 before joining its faculty. He commuted in the summers to the University of Chicago (then a Baptist-related school) to earn a second B.A. (Sociology, 1913). He attempted to attend seminary at the oldest Baptist seminary in the U.S., Newton Theological Institution (now part of Andover-Newton Theological School), but was denied because of his race. So, he enrolled in the home of the Social Gospel, Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) and earned a B.D. in 1916. He earned an M.A. in Theology from Harvard Divinity School in 1922 before becoming president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Harvard awarded Johnson an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1923. Others followed in Johnson’s footsteps.

Gordon Blaine Hancock(1884-1970) was one of the most educated and influential African-American Baptists of his day. A.B., 1911, B.D., 1912, Benedict College; A.B., 1919, Colgate University; B.D., 1920, Colgate Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School); M.A., 1921, Harvard University.

Most famously, while Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968 )was pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophical theology at nearby Boston University, he took extra courses in contemporary philosophy at Harvard as a special student. 

Beginning in the 1930s and excelerating after World War II more Baptists began to earn theological degrees (or advanced degrees in related fields) at Harvard. Not all of these were from the more liberal end of the Baptist theological spectrum.  American conservative evangelicals, including conservative Baptists, began to hunger for the kind of academic credentialing that Harvard could give.  Among the conservative Baptist theological leaders who found their way to Harvard were the following influential figures:

  • Edward J. Carnell (1919-1967), B.A. (philosophy), Wheaton College; Th. B., Th.M., Westminster Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University(Philosophy; dissertation on Søren Kierkegaard); Th.D., Harvard Divinity School (dissertation on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr). During the ’50s and ’60s, Carnell was one of the most promising theologians and philosophical apologists for the post-war generation of evangelicals. He served for a time as the first residing president of Fuller Theological Seminary. His promise was cut short. Although colleagues didn’t know it, Carnell was suffering from depression and committed suicide.
  • George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982) was a Baptist pastor (Northern Baptist Convention, now called the American Baptist Churches, USA) and New Testament scholar. B.Th., Gordon College; B.D., Gordon Divinity School (now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); Ph.D., Harvard University Graduate School of Religion (Biblical and Patristic Greek). Ladd taught at Fuller and tried to bring evangelical biblical studies into conversation with mainstream scholarship, especially the post-war “Biblical Theology Movement.”
  • Paul King Jewett(d.1991), Ph.D., Harvard Divinity School, taught Systematic Theology at Fuller almost from its founding in 1947. Became a theological advocate for the ordination of women–a very controversial position for evangelicals in 1975.  Died before he could finish his multi-volume systematic theology.
  • David M. Scholer, a former colleague of mine, is Professor of New Testament and formerly Associate Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary.  An ordained American Baptist and self-confessedly recovering from a strict fundamentalist backgound, he is an expert on Gnosticism, the social aspects of early Christianity, and a strong advocate for women in ministry.  B.A., M.A., Wheaton College; B.D., Gordon Divinity School; Th.D., Harvard Divinity School.
  • Timothy George, church historian, conservative theologian, and founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, a conservative ecumenical seminary attached to the somewhat more centrist and definitely more Baptist, Samford University (Birmingham, AL) is an ordained Southern Baptist minister who pastored churches in his native Tennessee, in Massachussetts, and Alabama. He is a prolific author engaged in dialogue with Roman Catholics and is a leader of those Southern Baptists who want a more prominent place for historic Calvinism. (He also used to call himself a pacifist and co-edit The Baptist Peacemakerin the ’80s, but he has been silent about peace commitments since aligning himself with the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC. Since he was a former professor, this has been a sore point with me.) A.B., University of Tennessee at Chatanooga; M.Div., Th.D., Harvard Divinity School (Church history; dissertation on the Puritan leader John Robinson). 
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (who previously taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the mother-seminary of the SBC) was part of a generation of Baptist scholars that earned 2 research doctorates: 1 in a Baptist institution for credibility with the “folks back home,” and a second at a major non-Baptist institution for credibility with the wider realm of academic scholarship.  B.A., 1945, Baylor University; B.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1948; Th.M., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1949; Th.D., SWBTS, 1954; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1966.

But not all the Baptists that went to Harvard were conservative evangelicals. 

  • Charles W. Gilkey (1882-1968 ), Baptist pastor, advocate of the Social Gospel, and first Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, earned 2 degrees at Harvard. A.B., 1903, M.A., 1904, Harvard University; B.D., 1908, Union Theological Seminary (NY).  Additional graduate study done at the Universities of Berlin and Marburg, 1908-1909; United Free College, Glasgow, 1909-1910; New College, Edinburgh and Oxford University, 1909-1910. Ordained in 1910 by Hyde Park Baptist Church, Chicago, which Gilkey served for several years before becoming Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel and Professor of Preaching at Chicago.
  • Walter M. Horton (1895-1966)was a major “Neo-orthodox” theologian who spent most of his career at Oberlin College Graduate School of Religion. A.B., Harvard College, 1917; Ordained Baptist minister, 1919; B.D., 1920, S.T.M., 1925, Union Theological Seminary (NY); M.A., 1920, Ph.D., 1926, Columbia University. Additional study at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), the University of Strasbourg, and the University of Marburg.
  • Henlee H. Barnette(1911-2006 ), Christian ethicist and Social Gospel advocate, earned a 2nd doctorate (Th.D.) at Harvard under the Baptist-turned-Unitarian James Luther Adams(1901-1994). 
  • Langdon G. Gilkey (1919-2004), son of Charles Gilkey (above), also began at Harvard. He had lost his faith as a young man and only rediscovered it through hearing Reinhold Niebuhr guest preach in Harvard’s chapel. After university he went to China to teach and was imprisoned by the Japanese for the duration of WWII. After repatriation, he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary to study with Niebuhr and became a major theologian of culture for the 2nd half of the 20th C.  A.B. (philosophy, magna cum laude), Harvard, 1939; B.D., Union Theological Seminary (NY), 1951; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1954.
  •  My own mentor, Glen H. Stassen, now Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s School of International Relations and Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School, 1969-1972.
  • Greg Moberly, Professor of Old Testament at Andover-Newton Theological School (Newton Centre, MA), was raised as a Southern Baptist, but is an ordained American Baptist minister.  A published author and a major participant  in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  B.A., Cambellsville College; M.Div., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Th.M., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Harvard University.
  • Benjamin Valentin, Professor of Theology of Culture (and Director of the Orlando Costas Latino/a Studies Program) at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary (Newton Centre, MA) is a major contemporary voice in Latino/a liberation theology.  A lay member in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is an active member of Leon de Juda/Lion of Judah, an American Baptist congregation.  B.A., College of Rochelle; M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Drew University.

In 1959, Samuel H. Miller (1900-1968 ) became the first Baptist to become the Dean of Harvard Divinity School (and the only one to date). Miller was an American Baptist who initially enrolled in the Massachussetts Institute of Technology as an engineering major (1917-1918). Perceiving a call to the ministry he transferred to Colgate University (then a Baptist school) to earn his B.Th. in 1923. After serving several pastorates, Miller earned an M.A. (philosophy) from Harvard University in 1950. He was Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Andover-Newton from 1951-1958 and a Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School from 1954-1958, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology from 1958-1959 and Dean of the Divinity School from 1959 to 1968. In 1961, he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga and he was subsequently awarded many honorary doctorates. During his tenure as Dean, Miller successfully reconnected Harvard Divinity School to the lives of the mainline churches (a project undergoing renewal today).

Currently, Harvard Divinity School has 3 Baptists on the faculty. (By contrast, there is only one Unitarian at HDS–we’ve come a long way, baby. ) :

Charles G. Adams, B. A., University of Michigan, B.D., Harvard Divinity School), Senior Pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Detroit, 1969-2007 joined HDS in 2007 for a 5 year term as the first Nickerson Professor of the Practice of Ethics and Ministry.

Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister in the Harvard Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals for both the University and the Divinity School, is currently one of the most famous (and controversial) Baptist ministers in the country.  An African-American Baptist, after earning his A.B. at Bates College and his S.T.B. at Harvard Divinity School, served two pastorates before teaching and becoming campus chaplain at the famed Tuskeegee Institute (now Tuskeegee University) before coming to Harvard. At first Gomes was known as a conservative Black Baptist, an expert on the Puritans and classical music who, a registered Republican, officiated at the swearing in ceremony of President George H.W. Bush (1988). But when gay and lesbian students at HDS in the ’90s requested to use the Memorial Church for weddings, Gomes stunned the world by “coming out” as gay (though celibate) before championing the students’ request.  (He immediately became persona non grataamong high ranking Republicans!) Gomes, one of the nation’s outstanding preachers, has worked to help laity understand the Bible by “translating” the work of biblical scholarship to popular audiences. His works include The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1999); The Good Life: Truths that Last in Time of Need (2001); Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living(2003); and The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News(2007).  An honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, where the Gomes Lectureship is established in his name, Gomes is the recipient of 23 honorary degrees and other awards. He has become outspoken against the Iraq war and occupation, American torture, and the intolerance of the Religious Right.

Harvey G. Cox, Jr. (1929-) is, as mentioned the current Hollis Professor of Divinity. A.B., University of Pennsylvania; B.D., Yale Divinity School; Ph.D., Harvard University.  Cox, an American Baptist minister who was reared in the evangelicalism of Pennsylvania Baptists, became mistakenly linked with the “death of God” theologians in the 1960s.  He was Protestant chaplain at Temple University; Director of Religious Activities at Oberlin College; fraternal ecumenical worker in post-war Berlin; Professor at Andover-Newton Theological School. (Cox was unable to be present for his own installation at Andover-Newton because he had been arrested for civil disobedience as a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights movement!) He has been at Harvard since 1965, a theologian who has been most attentive to the intersection of theology and culture.  Influenced by Barth and Bonhoeffer (and, to a lesser degree, Tillich), Cox has been involved in the struggle for peace and human rights, liberation theology, interfaith dialogue (especially between Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslims) and has been one of the first “mainline liberal” Christians to take Pentecostalism seriously.  He has been a mentor to Baptist students and students from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds at HDS.

In 2001, Baylor University, the largest university started by Baptists which still retains significant Baptist connections, sent a delegation of faculty and students to Harvard Divinity School, beginning to forge relationships. Baylor, no longer connected to the now-fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Convention, is still self-consciously Christian and Baptist, but has become the first Baptist university to have a chair of Jewish studies! Harvard Divinity School, for its part has now established the MacDonald Chair in Evangelical Theology, opening up new possibilities for evangelical Christians, including Baptists.

And so, the story continues.  America’s oldest university was founded by Puritans–and Puritans are one parent in the Baptist genealogy (the other parent is Dutch Mennonites). It’s first President became a Baptist and had to leave and when Harvard was dominated by Unitarians, it was not a friendly place for Baptists, including most liberal Baptists.  But, more than most non-Baptist universities in America, Harvard has held a strange attraction to Baptists across the theological spectrum–and now those connections are stronger than ever before.

August 10, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, church history, education


  1. A very interesting genealogy of the Baptist presence at Harvard. It would be interesting to hear even more about Baptist educational theories, how they shaped later institutions, and what underlying theological assumptions informed and shaped them. With the theological convictions of “soul competency”, the emphasis on ecclesial autonomy and the priesthood of all believers, one has to presume that Baptist approaches to higher education are coherent; but one would also have to presume that there is an internal conflict given traditionally elitist assumptions about HIGHER education as well as the requisite material conditions that higher education presuposes both of which seem counter to Baptist culture. Looking forward to the next post on this!

    Comment by Christian Collins Winn | August 11, 2008

  2. Actually, Christian, all those tensions have plagued the institutions that Baptists built themselves. Initially, the largest hurdle was the “requisite material conditions” that higher education presupposes–such as the money to build the schools and to attend them. “Soul Competency,” a term coined by E. Y. Mullins and not as traditional a Baptist view as one may think, has been less of an obstacle than local churches with fundamentalist doctrines assuming that they may dictate what schools may teach. The anti-elitism (and outright anti-intellectualism) has been in tension with a hunger for acceptance and credibility before others–to be taken seriously and not dismissed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 12, 2008

  3. When you write that Chapel was mandatory at Harvard until WWII, do you mean that students were required to attend?

    I Canada there were three Baptist schools started in the 19th Century: Brandon College, McMaster University and Acadia University. All, curiously, were relatively strong in Economics. Any thoughts as to why Baptists may have been predisposed to Economics?

    Comment by H. Grant | October 1, 2008

  4. Yes, H. Grant, students at Harvard (and most other universities, public and private) were required to attend weekly chapels until after WWII. The requirement was resented–students with little religious interest often read newspapers or slept while chapel speakers struggled to get their attention.

    McMaster and Acadia are now secularized, but still have Baptist-related divinity colleges attached to them. What has happened to Brandon? I have no idea why Baptists would be particularly interested in economics as an academic strength. Curious.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2008

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: