What is the soul of the American University? Marsden updates his answer in The Soul of the American University revisited

By Kenneth Nehrbass

Wesleyans were famous for organizing themselves into small groups to ask, “How is it with your soul?” The question needed to be asked regularly, because our souls are prone to wander. Therefore, it’s appropriate that Marsden’s (2021) new book The soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant  to Postsecular brings up the question again about the state of the “soul” of American Universities.[1] Since Marsden’s (1994) original framing of the question, other authors have picked up on the theme of the “soul” of the university, essentially asking, “What posture do American universities have toward religion?” The answer depends on the type of institution, and also on the particular era in American history.  Below I will describe the various answers to this question, but first I will mention what Marsden noted was unique about American universities.

What is distinctly American about American Universities? 

Marsden (2021) contends that, in contrast to the universities of Europe, American universities were the only ones to be historically shaped by “low-Protestantism” (i.e., denominations which emphasized evangelism over sacraments). These movements (e.g., Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians) had the following notably American characteristics:

  • traditionless-ness
  • pragmatism
  • competitiveness
  • dependence on the market
  • resorting to advertising
  • emphasis on freedom
  • scientific spirit
  • equating Christianity with democracy and service to the nation

Because the American universities were established by the early American Protestant denominations, the features above were emblematic of the posture that American universities took toward religion. For example, the intensely American love of freedom led to a high regard for “academic freedom,” where pursuit of truth was more important than denominational loyalty. 

While this pragmatism and dependence on the market has allowed American universities to remain resilient amidst drastic cultural change, the traditionless-ness can disrupt the Christian roots of these schools.

1636-1850: The university serves the Church- truth and scripture cohere

Marsden (1994, 1998, 2021) has argued that for the first 200 years of American Protestantism, there was no cognitive dissonance between the university and the Christian faith: Christian thinkers understood that God’s specific attributes are communicated to us uniquely in Scripture, but secular learning (whether from antiquity or modernity) points to general aspects of “God’s truth” (because God created “nature”).  While there were explicit courses on theology, the Christian worldview was woven throughout the rest of the curriculum as well. In fact, in this era, the professors, administrators and trustees of America’s universities were almost exclusively clergymen. This may be common knowledge regarding the early days of Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth (all Congregationalist), the University of Pennsylvania (Quaker),  Princeton (Presbyterian), and Brown (Baptist); but Marsden also shows that many early state schools, including the University of California, were established in part by clergy to propagate Christian morality and the Christian worldview.

                In these days, “non-sectarianism” was the risqué but magnanimous gesture of welcoming students, faculty and administrators from other Protestant denominations like Methodists and Baptists, and few conceived of welcoming Jewish people, Catholics, agnostics,  or practitioners of other religions. This was the age of Christendom, when (Protestant) Christian values and faith commitments were assumed to be the common currency.  Even Jefferson’s University of Virginia was to be non-sectarian only in that it butted against Presbyterian hegemony—the university still took a posture of acceptance of the Christian worldivew, and of Christian practices and morals.

1850- 1950: Religion is private; the university pursues truth apart from the church

Modernism made Christianity seem less plausible (remember, this was the age of Darwinian evolution). Many American scholars were studying in Germany, where they learned liberal interpretations of scripture. This “critical” hermeneutic taught them that the miracles did not really happen; so while faith may be useful for teaching morality, doctrine did not belong in the university. Marsden (2021) gives numerous examples where the universities that were early bastions of American Protestantism began to relegate faith as a private matter: It was no longer appropriate to ask professors about their religious commitments. Many schools adopted the stance that professors should not overtly contradict the religious roots, even if they did not personally hold those beliefs.

In fact, Marsden shows, by the 1920s the theme of Academic freedom was a highly developed (American) ideal: Universities were put under increased scrutiny if they fired faculty for diverging from the creeds upon which they universities were established. Marsden relates the birth of the American Association of University Professors, showing that one of its early aims was to keep track of academic freedom. They published names of universities that were beholden to doctrinal statements, in contrast to those that allowed professors to speak truth, even if it contradicted a denominational creed.

1950 to present: Postsecular

 Yet by 1950, the notion that university was about the pursuit of truth was far too positivistic for postmodern sensibilities. It may even seem bizarre to try to locate the “soul” of the American university in a postmodern age. Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard college, lamented in Excellence without a soul (2007) that the university is more about career training than the life of the mind.

Marsden’s (2021) revised edition notes  that the American universities are increasingly under financial pressures, which compete for the “soul.” And while Marsden does recognize that evangelical universities have enjoyed great success (even in a post-secular age), his return to the question about   the “soul” of American universities maintains almost exclusive focus on non- evangelical schools. He has left it to other researchers to examine the “Soul of the American Evangelical College.”

What is the Soul of American Evangelical Colleges?

In response to Marsden’s (1994) history of the soul of American universities, Benne’s (2001) book, Quality with Soul: How six premier Colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions, provides a counter narrative: Christianity is alive and well in renown Protestant and Catholic universities. Benne’s survey of the “soul” at Calvin, Wheaton, Notre Dame, Baylor, St. Olaf and Valparaiso University found evidence of Christian conviction in the following areas:  

  • the hiring practices (denominational schools are intentionally recruiting faculty who share the same denominational heritage or convictions)
  • the chapel life
  • the community life standards
  • the Bible requirements (at Wheaton and Calvin) and theology requirements (at the other four schools) as part of the general ed curriculum

Although Benne’s book lacks qualitative or quantitative research methods, he has built a strong (and encouraging) case that the Christian campus is alive and well even in an age of secularism. 

However, does Benne’s evidence of the “soul” indicate that students and faculty are integrating faith and learning? True, faculty at these institutions may be champions of Christ; and the chapels may bring students close to Jesus, but what is happening in the nursing class, the calculus class, or the history class? It’s one thing to “add on” faith to the academy—but integration requires much more intentionality (the CBU theme from 2017-18). And what evidence would you gather to demonstrate such integration? Perhaps that’s something for Benne’s sequel.

Below, we’d love to hear your comments: What gives a “soul” to a Christian university?

Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Lewis, H (2007). Excellence without a soul: Does Liberal education have a future. PublicAffaris

Marsden, G. (1994). The soul of the American University: From Protestant establishment to  Established nonbelief. Oxford.

Marsden, G. (1998). The outrageous idea of Christian Scholarship. Oxford.

Marsden, G. (2021). The soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant  to  Postsecular. Oxford.

[1] Note this is a revision of his 1994 book  The soul of the American University: From Protestant establishment to  Established nonbelief.

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