Presbyterians and Education

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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PRESBYTERIANS have ever been the earnest advocates and patrons of general learning. The influence of their religious system, when in practical operation, inevitably tends to this result. The academy of John Calvin, established at Geneva, to which so many of the youth of Europe resorted, is well known to fame. One of the first things that the Church of Scotland did when its privileges were restored by the Prince of Orange, King William III., was, through its General Assembly, to make ample provision for the education of the people. Schools of different grades were established in every parish throughout the kingdom, which were so far supported by public funds as to render education possible to the poorest in the community.

As in Geneva and in Scotland, so wherever Presbyterianism has been planted, it has invariably shown a similar love for learning. The first emigrants to this country were no exception. Many schoolmasters accompanied them to America, and at an early period each Presbyterian settlement made suitable provision for its schools. Even among their servants it was a rare thing to find one that could not at least read God’s word.

A higher education than could be acquired in the ordinary schools of the country, also, early engaged the attention of the colonists. The synod of the Carolinas enjoined upon all its presbyteries “to establish within their respective bounds one or more grammar-schools, except where such schools are already established.” And thus, through the influence of an educated ministry, a large number of classical schools and academies were speedily organized, which acquired a wide and deserved reputation. In these many of the youth of the country received an education which fitted them for after-usefulness in the liberal professions of law and medicine, while their main purpose was to raise up and qualify ministers for the rapidly increasing congregations. As instructors of the rising generation the Presbyterian clergy exerted an immense influence for good upon society, then in a formation-state, and subsequently their example fostered a zeal for education in other denominations, and led them also to found schools and colleges.

In this connection some of the more important of these classical schools deserve special notice, as the efforts and sacrifices necessary to sustain them will show how devoted the ministers and members of the Presbyterian Church were to the cause of liberal education.

The first literary institution of the kind was established in 1728 by the Rev. William Tennent, and was known in after-years as the LOG COLLEGE —a name derisively given to the school by its enemies. The building was composed of logs, was about twenty feet square, and was situated in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, twenty miles north of Philadelphia, and “about a mile from that part of Neshaminy Creek where the Presbyterian church has long stood.” Though the edifice was wanting in architectural grace and beauty, it vindicated its right to the title of a college, for it was a truly noble institution, and proved a fountain of rich blessing to the Presbyterian Church.

Its founder was a native of Ireland, a graduate of Trinity College and an accomplished scholar, “to whom Latin was as familiar as his mother-tongue, and who was an honor to the Church of his adoption.” When received by the synod as a member, he delivered an elegant Latin oration before that body. He was also said to be a proficient in the other ancient languages, and to have the power to inspire his pupils with a love for learning.

His motive for founding the school was to provide a pious and educated ministry for the Church, which he saw must ultimately be furnished from within her own bounds. Hitherto the most of her ministers had received their education in the University of Glasgow, some in Ireland and others at New England colleges. As yet no college had been established in any of the Middle States, where young men looking forward to the ministry could obtain a proper education, and they had been obliged to resort either to Scotland or New England to study—an expense which at that time few were able to incur. This was a condition of things very unfavorable for the growth and prosperity of the Church, and one which Mr. Tennent determined to remedy so far as he could. To this work he devoted the remainder of his life; and in addition to the classics, he instructed his pupils in theology, and sent forth a large number of men into the gospel ministry who were eminent alike for piety and learning. “To him,” says Webster, “above all others, is owing the prosperity and enlargement of the Presbyterian Church. He had the rare gift of attracting to him youth of worth and genius, imbuing them with his healthful spirit, and sending them forth sound in the faith, blameless in life, burning with zeal, and unsurpassed as instructive, impressive and successful preachers.” Similar testimony is borne by Dr. Archibald Alexander to the influence of this honored teacher: “To him the Presbyterian Church is more indebted than to any other individual for the evangelical spirit that pervaded its early ministry.” His three sons, the Revs. Samuel and John Blair, William Robinson and Charles Beatty, and Dr. Samuel Finley, not to mention others of his pupils, are a sufficient justification of any eulogy that has been pronounced upon this school.

Soon after the division of the original synod of the Presbyterian Church, in 1741, measures were adopted to establish a classical and scientific institution which would be under the supervision of the synod of Philadelphia. For years the Old Side party had been dissatisfied with the Log College, and the rupture of ecclesiastical relations served to separate still more widely the former friends and supporters of the college, and to make it more necessary that another school should be started. After much discussion and consultation among those who favored the enterprise, a public meeting was held in 1743, when it was resolved to found an institution, under the direction of the synod, to which all persons who pleased might send their children, to be instructed, without charge, in the languages, philosophy and divinity.

An academy of the kind having been already established at New London, Pennsylvania, by the Rev. Francis Alison, the synod adopted it, and appointed a board of trustees to manage it. Mr. Alison was retained as principal, and had charge of it until his removal to Philadelphia, in 1752, to take the direction of an academy in that city, which in 1755 was merged into the University of Philadelphia.

With the reputation of being the foremost scholar at that time in the country, and a man of “unquestionable ability,” as his pupil Bishop White testifies, he was admirably qualified to instruct the youth who in large numbers repaired to his institution. While it did not aspire to the name and dignity of a college, the school was justly celebrated and widely useful, and was “a powerful auxiliary to the cause of theological education.” It not only furnished the early Presbyterian churches of this country with many distinguished pastors, but the State with many of its ablest civilians. Among the pupils of this school were the secretary of the Continental Congress and three of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Rev. Alexander McDowell succeeded Mr. Alison as principal of the New London school, which, after a long and useful career, was subsequently removed to Newark, Delaware, and has been since known as Delaware College.

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