Readin', Writin', and Religion

How the idea of Kenyon grew from sminary to full-fledged college

I t may come as a surprise, even to some alumni of Kenyon, that Philander Chase did not originally intend to found a college. "He built the dam, he rang the bell, he spanked the naughty freshmen well . . . .": so goes the well-loved College song. But when Chase sailed to England in 1823, his wish was to raise funds for a small divinity school, to prepare ministers for the nascent Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Chase was convinced that the Episcopal Church in the West was withering away due to a lack of clergy. There was no organized missionary effort, nor funds for supporting such work. It was difficult to attract ministers from the eastern states, which had more of life's amenities to offer, as well as established parishes ready to pay a salary. If Ohioans went east for their clerical training, they might well decide not to return to the rugged, uncertain life of a frontier minister. Ohio needed to train her own clergy from among the people of her own soil.

After Chase's return from England, where his campaign had opened many purses, a bare-bones constitution for "The Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Ohio" was written up. It was quickly approved at a convention of the diocese, before a location was chosen. That question needed careful consideration, and during the year of 1825 numerous proposals were put forth. Meanwhile, Chase's plans grew, day by day.

The bishop was beginning to see that a much larger purpose could be served. The Ohio legislature had just passed laws to promote the growth of schools, and qualified teachers were badly needed. Chase expected from the outset that, given the state of education in Ohio, many clerical candidates would not have sufficient background to start their theological studies; his original idea included a grammar-school teacher in addition to a couple of professors of sacred learning. Provision for some general academic training was already in his plan, and the idea of educating schoolmasters had much to recommend it. These teachers could spread over Ohio and train future clerical candidates along with the general population. Theological students would pay no tuition, but tuition could be charged to other students, who would thereby contribute to the professors' pay. There was also a shortge of lawyers and doctors on the frontier, and those professions required the same college background the clerical candidates would require. A full-fledged college, open to students of any faith--or no faith--who wanted an education, would mean more tuition income and economies of scale that would surely be advantageous for the divinity school. By the end of 1825, Chase's plans for his theological seminary included a preparatory school, a liberal-arts college, and a theological department: three stepping stones. A student could progress through the three departments as he was able, and he could leave the institution at any point.

In Chase's time, "seminary" was not generally understood to mean a divinity school, which is probably its widest meaning today. Divinity schools were a new idea; Episcopal priests had traditionally trained privately, under the tutelage of an established minister. The term seminary most often referred to a private academy for young women, but it might also be applied to almost any kind of educational institution; it was vague enough to allow some leeway. The noun presented no difficulty; that adjective was another matter.

Chase recognized that he had a problem of semantics. Students who weren't Episcopalians, and who didn't want clerical training, might not want diplomas emblazoned with "The Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Ohio" for reasons other than the name's unwieldiness. The bishop finessed the semantic trouble by procuring an act of the Ohio legislature proclaiming that the professors of the theological seminary were to be considered the faculty of a college as well--and when they awarded a "college" degree, it would be in the name of Kenyon College. It was by this legislation, of January 1826, that Chase first put a name to the middle stepping stone.

Now he had a more serious problem: the members of the diocesan convention did not think they had approved an institution of such scope. To many, it looked far too ambitious, even if, as Chase hoped, the wider scope would open new avenues of financial support. He had to convince the diocese that this plan would be good for the Church, as well as the state.

To Chase's mind, the new design had major implications for where the institution should be built. An urban setting would be acceptable, were clerical candidates the only students, for they would be mature enough to resist the city's temptations and vices. But the bishop felt strongly that it was unfair to put youths in such an environment. It had been, in all his years of teaching, that which he most regretted, "that there were not . . . some way invented, or some power reserved, by which the temptation might be suppressed, and thus the crime prevented." Chase agonized over this problem, until the perfect solution occurred to him: "Put your seminary on your own domain; be owners of the soil on which you dwell, and let the tenure of every lease and deed depend on the expressed condition that nothing detrimental to the morals and studies of youth be allowed on the premises."

The bishop felt sure God had spoken to him. A rural location would mean not only a healthy environment but also one where the institution could raise crops and cattle to feed its students. It would make possible an education of "unexampled cheapness." Students would come in droves! How could the diocese resist such a glorious cause?

Those who worried that adding a college to the plan was too ambitious now saw, in Chase's intention to build it all in the middle of nowhere, the dream of a reckless visionary. To build "from the stump," with no lumber mills, stone quarries, or even laborers in sight, was madness. Some of Chase's detractors claimed that he was deviating from the goal that the English benefactors thought they were supporting. Certainly, he hadn't spoken of a liberal-arts college as part of the plan when he was raising funds in England. But it would have been an easy matter for him to construct a convincing argument in support of building up an educated laity, which would add strength to the Episcopal Church in Ohio. As for educting students who did not have an Episcopal background, they would be potential converts. Chase himself had converted from another denomination when, as a young man at Dartmouth College, he first encountered the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He could well feel optimistic about the appeal the Church might have for those who, as yet, knew nothing about it. The bishop was not worried about his support in England.

But Chase recognized that he must work slowly and deliberately to reassure his diocese in Ohio and win its support. He managed to negotiate a much-reduced price for eight thousand acres of land in Knox County by convincing the land's owner of the worthiness of his cause. The bishop thought the Church could resell one-half of the acreage immediately, to recoup most, perhaps all, of its investment, thereby securing funds for the buildings. The remaining four thousand acres had all the raw materials that would be needed--timber and stone for buildings, fertile land for crops, and a river to provide power for a mill. Chase intended to deal personally with all the difficulties of the wilderness location, and, "if those who will have to encounter these difficulties do not complain, others, it might reasonably be supposed, would be silent." Though two trustees of the seminary resigned over the issue, the bishop's careful plotting and planning at last won the day. Thus, as we know, Philander Chase built the dam, dug the well, and worked a small miracle in the Ohio woods.

At first, most of the Ohioans who came to study in Gambier ended up in the preparatory school, just as Chase had predicted. Rare was the young man who could pass the required examinations in arithmetic, geography, Greek, and Latin to gain entrance to the college; rarer still was he who was qualified to begin theological studies. "The day of having a supply of ministers to keep our Churches alive is put far from us," he wrote to Lord Kenyon. "O that God would stir up the hearts of a few well-educated young men to present themselves for his all-important work, to supply present want!" To establish even a tiny student body in the college and theology departments, Chase had to bring young men from the east, even from England. The first class to graduate from Kenyon College in 1829 numbered six; four were relatives of the bishop.

Chase believed the isolated location was perfect for the younger students who flocked to the new institution. But he apparently did not foresee that the Church's command over every detail of life in Gambier would cause some chafing among the faculty. Henry Caswall, an Englishman who came as a theological student in 1828, described the situation in his classic work America and the American Church. The bishop was president, rector, general agent, treasurer, even postmaster. Moreover, as steward of the refectory, "he could and did say when, where, and what both the professors and students should eat." Chase and the professors "resembled the captain and officers of a solitary ship at sea. . . . little irritations were aggravated, while the chances of collision were greatly multiplied, by the manifold relations in which the bishop stood to every individual connected with the institution." It was not surprising to Caswall that serious trouble had developed by 1831; rather, it seemed quite possible "that both discretion and forbearance must have been employed to avert a rupture at a still earlier period."

By the autumn of 1831, the faculty was very unhappy, and there were other problems as well. The institution was in debt: the excess land had not found the necessary ready buyers. Chase had made an enemy of a certain Rev. West, who then accused the bishop of fiscal mismanagement. Some members of the diocese felt that Chase was giving too much attention to the college, at the expense of the theological department.

Philander Chase was under attack from all sides. He tried to rally support, first from the faculty, then from the members of the diocesan convention, which met that fall. When he realized that both bodies were determined to put limits on his authority as president of the seminary, he resigned--from all his posts.

Though Chase always insisted that everything he did in Gambier was for the benefit of the theological department, there's little doubt that his heart resided, more and more, in the college. Had he ridden out the storm of 1831, perhaps he would, in due course, have built separate quarters for the theological department. As it happened, this development fell to his successor, Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, who raised funds for Bexley Hall. The old, unwieldy name was forgotten, and Kenyon College emerged as Chase's most lasting contribution.

The sad ending to his Ohio days did not cure Chase of bricks-and-mortar dreams. In 1835, he was again consecrated as a bishop--this time for the newly formed Diocese of Illinois, a young state in which he found much the same situation as that which had existed in Ohio nearly twenty years before. Once again, Chase went to England to seek funds, but this time he was careful to put an appropriate name to the institution he intended to build. It would be called Jubilee College; no misunderstanding or semantic awkwardness would hold him back.

In the 1820s, Episcopalians in Ohio had worried and fussed about Chase's burgeoning plans, but over time they realized that, all along, something had been lacking. By the 1860s, the absence of parochial schools for girls was "telling fearfully upon the growth of the Church," and the Diocese of Ohio formed a committee to study the problem. Had Chase lived to hear that news, perhaps he would have allowed himself just a bit of a smile. For in the charter of Jubilee College we find these words:

The said institution shall consist, first, of a theological department; secondly, the college proper; thirdly, a classical preparatory school; and fourthly, a female seminary . . .

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