Religion on the campus, from the Great Awakening to the “interfaith awakening”

It’s common knowledge that Princeton University was founded by proponents of the great revival movement, often called the “Great Awakening,” that swept the American colonies about 1725. The word “revival” refers to the quickening of the human heart to hear and receive the Gospel in a decisive way. Usually understood as the revitalization of an old faith grown stale and lax, “revival” came to be synonymous with an emotional, personal, and immediate recommitment to God in Christ. As you may imagine, the intensity of this movement had its supporters and detractors. The desire to provide for the training of clergy who would be shaped by revivalism led to the establishment of the College of New Jersey in 1746, and the rest is history.

Well, almost. It is often forgotten that Princeton was shaped once again by the second “Great Awakening,” which began at Cane Ridge in Kentucky in 1801 and touched most parts of the growing nation by 1820, continuing to flare and smolder well into the midcentury. And that is not the end of the story: I believe we are witnessing the beginnings of yet another national awakening on our college campuses — one that is not simply Christian but that has to do with religion more generally. Students across the country are taking an interest in religion, but in such a way as to embrace the diversity of religious expression and the possibility of serious dialogue and cooperation across religious lines. I call this movement the “interfaith awakening.”

My main thesis is that all these revivals have made a significant impact on Princeton, with consequences that cannot be understood apart from their revivalist beginnings. The Great Awakening’s focus on election — the idea that each individual has been specially chosen and predestined by God — is the root of Princeton’s commitment to political equality, academic freedom, and scientific research. The Second Awakening’s focus on holiness committed Princeton to the value and necessity of community service as a moral obligation. The interfaith awakening promises to revitalize Princeton’s historic predilection for community in the form of a new passion for universal fellowship.

What can we say about Princeton’s roots in the Great Awakening? I have noted that the chief focus of this revival was renewed attention to the meaning of election. The preaching of philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, father of the Great Awakening and third president of the College of New Jersey, was typical in this regard. He sought to bring those who had been chosen by God for salvation to a lively and overwhelming appreciation of God’s unmerited love for them, so that they would truly give themselves over to God’s service and order their lives accordingly. Edwards’ aim was to bring about a total submission to God’s will. But we often forget that this submission went hand in hand with the emergence of a robust individualism. To belong completely and utterly to God, and to know oneself to have been chosen by God, and irrevocably so, is to be in a position of complete freedom vis-à-vis other human beings. For Edwards, every elect believer was an authoritative witness to the glory of God, and no human authority — not even that of the church leadership — could stand between him and the salvation procured for him.

We can trace a direct line from Edwards’ teaching to the political activity of his successor, John Witherspoon, sixth president of the College of New Jersey. Witherspoon represented the conservative wing of the Scottish enlightenment, which is to say his devotion to free enquiry went along with a classic Calvinist belief in the sovereignty of God and God’s providential control of human history. Witherspoon’s convictions turned him into a revolutionary. His firm belief in individual destiny and total liberty of conscience are to be thanked for the fact that he was the only clergyman in the colonies to sign the Declaration of Independence. Already Princeton was emerging as an institution for which academic and political freedom go together, and in which no contradiction was assumed between wide-ranging scientific enquiry and religious faith.

Before moving ahead into the 19th century, one more observation about Princeton’s inheritance from the Great Awakening needs to be made. The preachers of revival never emphasized election without insisting on the role of the community in the individual believer’s life. It would be a mistake to view Edwards as an individualist without at the same time acknowledging that he was a communitarian. To be “born again” through personal submission to God’s election was to enter into a covenant community, and the exercise of individual freedom in isolation from such a community was unthinkable. The same held true for Witherspoon. Transposed into an academic key, this meant that the unfettered pursuit of truth, and the right and obligation to submit all truth claims to the scrutiny of public debate, assumed a community bound together by a common commitment to the sovereignty of truth.

This assumption runs deep at Princeton and at any institution of higher learning worth its salt. The fierce argumentation and critical stance that lie at the heart of the academic enterprise rest on a still more fundamental covenant of fellowship and goodwill, which in turn rests on the profoundly religious conviction that the ultimate truth is koinonia(community) not polemos (competition), to borrow the language of Plato’s Socrates. I sometimes fear that this conviction is beginning to fade among us. The only antidote is the daily practice of genuine respect — dare I say love — in all our interactions with one another, however fraught with disagreement. It will take the concerted effort of people of good will, both those who believe in God and those who do not, to preserve and reinvigorate a culture of covenant at Princeton. (By “culture of covenant” I mean living by a common agreement and promise to value one another as indispensable parts of a single community.)

Now let’s move to the 19th century and the Second Awakening. This movement echoed the Great Awakening, but with a new stress on personal holiness, owing largely to Methodism and its insistence that ordinary people were capable of true spiritual perfection in this life. To this was added the millennial hope that an age of conversion and authentic witness would hasten the second coming of Christ. All in all, the Second Awakening invented what we usually mean by evangelism in this country: going to the unchurched and persuading them to commit themselves to Christ. But this awakening introduced the notion of social justice into the American religious scene. The vision of a New Jerusalem rising in the West spurred countless preachers and their hearers to identify social ills and try to wipe them out. In this religious climate abolition, temperance, universal public education, and prison reform were incubated and born.

It was against this background that a group of students at the College of New Jersey founded the Philadelphian Society on Christmas Eve, 1824. The aim of this society was to promote personal holiness lived out in service to others. These students displayed little interest in election: The call was to recognize the obligation to help others and seize the opportunity to do so. The society was decidedly ecumenical in its approach, and laid the groundwork for the rich array of student organizations and chaplaincies working together under the auspices of the Office of Religious Life.

The practical achievements of the Philadelphian Society over a century of activity were astounding. The Princeton YMCA, the Princeton-Blairstown Camp, the Student Volunteer Society, Princeton-in-Asia, and Murray-Dodge Hall itself all were established and nurtured by the Philadelphians. Since every Princeton undergraduate eventually was counted as a member of the society unless he opted out, this organization, working through generations of students and alumni, functioned effectively as the spiritual arm of the college, the purveyor of financial aid to disadvantaged students, and the social safety net for students who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.

So what happened to the Philadelphian Society? As the story usually is told, the society became too religious. The trenches of the First World War caused many Princeton students and alumni to question their faith. Others found themselves plunged into a profound encounter with God that they longed to share with others. Faced with an increasingly secular Princeton University, these new and recharged believers sought to sharpen the edges of the old Philadelphian Society, and to make it a powerful engine for conversion and recommitment within the University community.

Into this mix came Frank Buchman, a charismatic evangelist who coupled his revival-style preaching missions with a well-thought-through infrastructure of one-on-one counseling and training in discipleship, with an emphasis on self-examination, public confession, and daily prayer. Buchman’s insistence on total commitment raised eyebrows among Princeton administrators, interested then, as now, in encouraging a broad range of interests in the student body. But when The New York Times carried a story in the mid-1920s about Princeton undergraduates publicly confessing their sexual sins, all hell broke loose. President John Grier Hibben 1882 banned Buchman from speaking on campus, and the Philadelphian Society, which had invited him, began a process of self-dissolution that culminated in 1930. By that point the new chapel had been finished and dedicated, and the first dean of the chapel, the Rev. Robert Russell Wicks, established the Student-Faculty Association in the society’s stead. That was succeeded in 1946 by the Student Christian Association, which became, in turn, the Student Volunteers Council — which is alive and well today in Murray-Dodge.

As far as it goes, the standard account is true. The Philadelphian Society foundered when it abandoned its historic breadth and commitment to service for a narrow focus on a particular and totalistic spiritual path. But I think the University was to blame as well. To a large extent, the society ran up against a brand of secularism for which it was no match. I don’t mean scientific secularism, with its opposition to religion on academic grounds. Nor do I mean secularism under the guise of civil religion. Genuine faith had long since learned to coexist in Princeton with these perennial foes — the one overtly hostile, the other overtly genial. In a time of rapid demographic shifts, social change, and political uncertainty, the University, under the hand of President Hibben, sought to enlist religiosity as an instrument of social cohesion and cultural stability. It is no accident that Hibben enlisted Ralph Adams Cram to build a new chapel in the gothic style.

People often say to me how remarkable it is that an edifice of such religious power could have been produced by Princeton when it was so staunchly secularist. My hunch, however, is that the chapel was more a cultural emblem than a religious one. If the aim had been to reclaim the revivalist past, a very different worship space would have been erected. Instead, Hibben reached back to the Middle Ages, as churches and colleges had done since the mid-19th century, to invoke a spirit of organic unity and common life that could hold Princeton together in a splintering time. To some extent, Hibben was trying to reassert the notion of a covenant community. The gothic glory of Cram’s chapel provided a way to do this without committing the University to a theistic agenda. “Gothic” meant “Western civilization,” not religious passion. It’s no wonder, then, that Hibben reacted so strongly against Buchman and the Philadelphian Society. Ironically, Cram’s chapel is so consistently Christocentric in its design and in its detail that it has resisted all attempts to render it anything but a monument to a catholic-leaning Christian orthodoxy.

In any case, the Philadelphian Society lives on in spirit. Its direct heir, the Student Volunteers Council, continues to operate with great vigor out of its headquarters in Murray-Dodge, connecting hundreds of students every week with service opportunities in Trenton, Princeton, and Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, its relation to the Office of Religious Life is ambivalent. I’ve observed that SVC feels strongly connected to Murray-Dodge, but is fearful of being too publicly associated with Religious Life. The usual explanation is that a connection with this office might put off non-religious students. But that never made sense to me, since we are widely known as being available to everybody without exception. The University does not expect us, nor has it ever expected us, to promote religion in the student body. The institutional expectation has been, rather, that we might contain and circumscribe religious life by giving it a well-defined niche in the wider University community. If I am right, there is a sense in which the Office of Religious Life arose as an instrument of University control. This is borne out by the Buchman episode and the consequent creation of the chapel deanship. It is the old perception of the chapel office as the instrument of the Philadelphian Society’s demise, and not its connection with religion, that has caused SVC — the direct descendant of the Philadelphian Society — to regard the Office of Religious Life with suspicion. What the student leadership of SVC has resisted all along is not religion, but University control.

This discussion brings us to the present day and to the religious revival that we are now witnessing. This time we are not talking just about Protestant Christianity. We are dealing with religion across the board. More importantly, this interest goes hand in hand with a passion for interfaith engagement and understanding. Two years ago this office hosted “Coming Together,” a conference for interfaith groups from more than 30 colleges across the nation. This event, which has become an annual event hosted on other campuses, is proof that we are walking on new, sacred ground. A significant number of college students want to connect with other students of faith or uncertain faith — no matter what the faith may be!

Does this movement bear any relation to the original revival that gave birth to Princeton? I think it does. It has its origins in tolerance — tolerance for the roommate who prays in the dorm room toward Mecca during the day; tolerance for the Hindu student who burns incense to the elephant-headed Ganesh; tolerance for the Christian roommate who is trying to fast and be relatively quiet on Good Friday. But the interfaith revival is also about engagement. And this takes us right back to the roots of this institution, which was founded to promote the possibility of an education grounded in ecstasy. Ecstasy literally means being transported outside of oneself. To engage one another in our difference is indeed to be transported outside of ourselves, so that we experience the world from a new perspective, having cast our own narrow self-interest to the side. This is precisely what the preachers of the Great Awakening hoped to awaken in their audience, although they would not have dreamed that such an enlargement of perspective could have or should have been effected through interfaith encounter. Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that Jonathan Edwards, thoroughly blown away and transfigured by the vision of God he so earnestly yearned for, rejoices to look down on the interfaith engagement that is happening today. 

Thomas Breidenthal left his position as dean of religious life in January after being elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave in November.