Religious Colleges Come (and Go) in Waves

  • Religion
  • 1842

A majority of America’s private colleges and universities were founded with a distinct religious affiliation and aim. Yale was created by Puritan clergymen. Harvard was named for a Christian minister. Baptists launched Colgate and the University of Chicago. Duke and Syracuse University grew out of Methodism. Princeton was a Presbyterian project. Georgetown was started by Jesuits. Many institutions of higher education like these, however, have now surrendered or lost their religious foundation. (Andrew Carnegie actually accelerated this by insisting that only secular institutions could participate in the important fund he set up to pay for pensions to professors, which became today’s TIAA-CREF company.)

Yet other colleges have maintained a coherent faith angle, keeping religious orientation as a countercultural centerpiece of their teaching, their wider mission, and their campus identity. Notre Dame has proclaimed a clear Catholic mission since its founding in 1842. Baylor University has clung to its Baptist heritage since its birth in 1845. Wheaton College in Illinois and Calvin College in Michigan have built strong orthodox Protestant identities over a century and a half. Brigham Young University, created in 1876, remains a citadel of Mormonism. Yeshiva University fills a similar role for orthodox Jews, dating back to 1886.

Universities with unabashed religious identities continue to be formed in the U.S. Some of them have grown rapidly into established educational institutions, thanks to powerful philanthropic backing. Oral Roberts (1963), Liberty (1971), and Ave Maria (1998) universities are examples in the last generation.

  • William Ringenberg, The Christian College (Baker, 2006)