The Centennial History of Tufts College, 1952

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Liberalism Through the Decades

Liberalism Through the Decades


During this active period there was, however, a growing discontent with the state of higher education. A new enlightenment had been responsible in New England for the rise of various liberal churches and for the


religiously heterodox transcendentalist movement of Emerson and his associates. Science, especially hardheaded applied science, was exerting a new power in the world. The rigid Calvinism of the time was shaking.

In this feverish, active, and forward-looking industrial and yet religiously alert period education alone seemed to present too static a picture. Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Amherst, Middlebury, and most of the other existing institutions were rigidly Calvinistic or definitely affiliated with one of the then very conservative Protestant churches. Presidential offices and memberships on the governing board of these colleges were typically held by ministers and tight-lipped theologians who viewed the new liberalizing movements of the day with misgiving and even alarm. Long, compulsory, daily chapel exercises were the rule in all colleges. Proselyting for the denominational faith of the college was a standard practice. Any student who entered a college without having already become a member of the church controling it was from the first subject to strong pressure. In such environments boys who had been reared in homes of the new religious liberalism were often brought back to old-fashioned orthodoxy. An old letter tells us that they returned home to bewail the fact that their own parents were eternally damned.

As a result of these conditions, men and women of liberal religious tendencies were anxious to provide a strong college which did not have about it what they had come to consider the shackling chains of reactionary thought.

Harvard, alone among the institutions of higher learning in New England, had already been won by the forces of religious liberalism. A few years before the founding of Tufts, Harvard had essentially become a Unitarian college. But to many cautious, middle-of-


the-road religious liberals of the time, and
especially to the members of the free but not radical Universalist Church, Harvard had already gone too far in its opposition to orthodoxy.

Because of a reactionary spirit on the one

hand and what seemed to be an extreme radicalism on the other in existing colleges, many liberal individuals were deeply disturbed. This was especially true of the members of the Universalist Church, which was the most rapidly growing denomination of the time. The 150,000 members of this church in New England had long felt that a different sort of college must be established. An earnest group of men and women in this denomination and in other related churches therefore decided to found a new and truly liberal college, one that would be fully non-sectarian but not anti-religious. Above all they dreamed of a college of high academic distinction in which toleration and real religious freedom would be established from the first.