They kicked Christ out of college. In a tragic twist of irony, the very institutions of higher education established by the Church – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, to name a few – systematically excised Christian tenets from their curricula and their purpose, rendering the schools unrecognizable to their founders. The secularization of America’s colleges and universities resulted from decades of sociopolitical changes, and few escaped the transformation.
Setting for Secularization
In his book, Quality with Soul, Robert Benne examines this phenomenon, summarizing the disconnection between religion and the academy. “All [the schools] have gradually moved through several phases: first, making education nonsectarian by identifying with a general, generic Christianity; then by an appeal to spiritual and moral ideals of a vaguely religious or patriotic cast; and finally, by the exclusion of specifically Christian religious values and practices in the name of allegedly universal intellectual, moral, and democratic qualities.”1 To varying degrees, higher education traded in its principles in the quest for a foothold in the secular marketplace. Studying this phenomenon with the advantageous perspective inherent to hindsight, Christian scholars can pinpoint events and trends that led to the derailing, and track the progress of those struggling to reclaim their religious ties.
Benne is not alone in his quest to uncover the ways and means by which higher education lost touch with its roots. Throughout the past decade, several notable authors joined the investigation as well, all pondering and exploring the transformation. In his preface to The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life, Christian Smith contends that the shift was not solely the inevitable result of modernization, but rather, the deliberate goal of two conflicting factions vying for society’s ear . . . and mind. He points to some of America’s most prominent research universities that were endowed by affluent capitalist benefactors such as Johns Hopkins, Ezra Cornell, John D. Rockefeller, and Leland Stanford, among others. These barons sought to standardize American higher education and promote advanced scientific research. Preserving the religious underpinnings of the institutions received little thought or consideration. In fact, deliberate undermining of the Church’s hold prevailed. In some cases, big corporate money actually came with explicitly anti-religious mandates. In 1905, for example, Andrew Carnegie gave $10 million to establish a professors’ pension fund. Carnegie put Henry Smith Pritchett in charge of the project, the secularized son of a Methodist preacher, of whom it was said that “his ‘faith’ was science.” Pritchett’s rules governing access to funds stated that all denominational colleges and universities were categorically excluded from the plan; only schools with no formal ties to religious denominations could participate. Pritchett argued that denominational influences on colleges made for unsound education, encouraged the existence of too many small schools, were institutionally inefficient, and compromised the public good. In response, 15 colleges immediately severed their ties with their religious denominations in order to get a share of the Carnegie money – including Wesleyan, Dickinson, Swarthmore, Brown, Bowdoin, Rutgers, Rochester, and Occidental.2 This division included the systematic replacement of faculties grounded in denominational doctrine with professors more focused on issues relevant to moneyed magnates. Faint traces of Christianity were relegated to the nebulous area of personal beliefs, and pietism separated faith from academia into two spheres with little to no common ground. Christianity lost footing in the academic arena. “Secular learning [has] no sparring partner because its Christian counterpart has no intellectual punch.”3 Competition from these emerging universities caused Christian schools to relinquish a few tenets here and there, hoping to appeal to a greater pool of potential students. The chapel requirement became a first casualty. Without this formal worship and learning, little else remained to keep the faith alive. Though some institutions followed the road to secularization willingly, many walked toward the inevitable doom gradually. Faculties became “integrated,” a mix of believers and non-believers, until schools became nearly indistinguishable from one another. This movement toward inclusion for the sake of marketability signaled the beginning of the end.
Fight for Survival
Not all colleges fell victim to this secularization – at least not completely. Some retain various aspects of their founding roots – some in practice, some in name only. Benne’s book highlights six colleges and universities that continue to incorporate Christianity to some degree. Others, such as Baylor University in Texas, are trying to reclaim their Christian heritage. Baylor’s current president, Robert Sloan, pushes a plan to make the Southern Baptist school a world-class research university, while revamping the curricula to reflect a biblical worldview. His vision for 2012 stirred heated debate and found a forum in World magazine this past February. The attempt to “re-Christianize” the university met with considerable resistance. A minority of faculty members and the former president actively work to keep Baylor from being recognizably Christian, believing the shift would cause the school to lose credibility in the secular academic world. Sloan has already brought some notable Christian scholars on board to begin the movement toward a fully Christian university. World writer, Gene Edward Veith states, “The church desperately needs a research university with Ph.D. programs, so that talented Christians can pursue education at the highest level, without wasting time with the obstacles put before them by the anti-Christian academic establishment. But the academic world itself – bogged down in pseudo-knowledge such as porn studies, politically correct but bogus ‘reconstructions’ of history, and an overarching relativism that makes learning all but impossible – could use a Christian university. Without some foundation for truth, the educational enterprise cannot last for long”.4
Amidst 105 years of societal upheavals and the lure of an easier path, Azusa Pacific University withstood scoffers and financial hardships. Steadfast to the century-old motto God First, the university blends obedience to God’s call with unswerving actualization of transformational scholarship, life-giving community, and selfless service, becoming one of the nation’s premier institutes of higher learning without compromise. “Throughout the history of Azusa Pacific University, there have been key decision points where faithful men and women chose the path of Christian orthodoxy,” said President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “Our Board of Trustees, administrators, faculty, and staff have stood on the side of sound biblical truth as the foundation of classroom instruction, community living, and vocational preparation. We owe a deep debt to our Wesleyan tradition that considers right living important along with right belief.” These tenets contribute to the character of Azusa Pacific University graduates who rank among the world’s finest, engaging in educational and cultural exchange as Fulbright Scholars, among other prestigious academic endeavors. This year, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program selected two APU alumni (joining league with the two alumni honored last year) from among 4,500 applicants vying for travel and study abroad grants. With his scholarship, Daniel Cotoi ’03 moved to Romania for 10 months to study philosopher Lucien Blaga, a key figure in Romanian philosophy and culture. Caleb Kim ’04 used his grant to teach English in Korea for 13 months in preparation for teaching English as a foreign language throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. APU faculty members earn their share of accolades as well while championing God-honoring excellence in their professional pursuits. That means continually expanding into areas of scholarship most pertinent to the world today, engaging in important, high-level research, and keeping Christ at the center of every course, every program, and every vision. Most recently, Don Isaak, Ph.D., chair of and professor in the Department of Math and Physics, received a nearly $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through his research lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The grant provides for research in geophysics of a mineral called pyroxene, which is found in large amounts within the earth 100 to 400 kilometers deep, promoting further understanding of the earth’s interior, and benefitting the study of earthquakes. The grant money supplies equipment, as well as travel for Isaak to Japan, where he and several of his APU students will work with and learn from Japanese researchers. “Our primary goal is to study how seismic waves travel through different types of pyroxenes at different temperatures,” said Isaak. “Since most earthquakes occur in the upper 400 kilometers of the earth, the more we know about the composition of this layer, the better equipped we will be to understand earthquakes.” Because of his research, Isaak serves as the principle investigator at UCLA for the research of pyroxene. While faculty and students continue to garner national recognition, so too do the very programs they comprise. Last fall, Azusa Pacific University’s School of Nursing introduced its Ph.D. in Nursing Program, becoming the only evangelical, Christian university west of the Mississippi to offer this degree. “This program evolved in response to the severe nursing shortage in both the clinical and academic sectors,” said Marianne Hattar, RN, FAAN, DNSc, professor and chair of the Ph.D. Program. “With the development and successful accreditation of this program, Azusa Pacific University achieves a significant milestone by becoming a Ph.D.-granting Christian, academic institution.” “The recognition by WASC (WSCUC) to allow APU to offer its first Ph.D. in Nursing marks a significant turning point in APU’s academic history,” said Michael M. Whyte, Ph.D., APU provost. “Accreditation officials singled out the university’s doctoral leadership, its innovative curriculum, and its phenomenal faculty. APU is now positioned to provide transformational scholarship to thousands of students on all academic levels.” What began as a fledgling training school for Christian workers in a private living room, now claims the 20th place among the 2005 edition of America’s Best Colleges according to U.S.News & World Report, stands as one of the Best in the West according to The Princeton Review, and offers more than 50 areas of undergraduate study, 21 master’s degrees, and 6 doctorates, with no signs of slowing. Benne explains that for a college or university to accurately call itself Christian, three components of the Christian tradition must be publicly relevant: its vision, its ethos, and the Christian persons who bear that vision and ethos.5 Living proof of the successful integration of faith and learning, APU enmeshes Christianity into all aspects of the educational experience, rather than relegate it to a few individual classes or outreach efforts. “Our motto, God First was adopted in the early part of the 20th century to reflect the desire and commitment that this institution remains spiritually alive and vitally Christian,” said Wallace. “An early publication stated that ‘it is the foremost thought of our every activity, the principle lesson of every class, and the utmost desire of every soul.’ This foundational proclamation continues to be central to sustaining APU’s identity, mission, and purpose.” For this university, intentionally maintaining allegiance to Christian tenets and remaining obedient to its founding purpose created in more than a long-standing religious school, it produced a premier Christian university – a worthy contender in a ring of serious secular research institutions.
 Benne, Robert. Quality with Soul. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2001.
 Smith, Christian. “Who Paid for Secularization?”, Christianity Today.
 Veith, Gene Edward. “Baptist Brawl,” World. February 4, 2004.
Posted: September 1, 2005