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Chapter 13
from A History of Amherst College by William S. Tyler 1830

Religious History of Amherst --- Earlier Colleges and Universities, Founded from Religious Motives --- Decline of Religious Spirit --- Colleges for Education of Ministers --- Revivials at Amherst from 1823 to 1853.

Our readers are familiar with the fact that Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, all our older colleges and universities, were founded by religious men, from Christian motives, and largely for the education of ministers of the Gospel.  But in the latter part of the eighteenth century religion and morality suffered a sad decline.  After the American and French Revolutions, the dams and dikes seemed to be swept away, and irreligion, immorality, scepticism, and infidelity came in like a flood.  The colleges were of course deeply affected by the prevailing spirit of unbelief and impiety.  In Yale College, only eleven undergraduates are known to have been professors of religion in 1795; about four years later, the number was reduced to four or five, and at one communion only a single undergraduate was present.  A graduate of the class of 1783 remembered only three professors of religion in the class of 1782, and only three or four in several of the other classes.  In the darkest time, just at the close of the century, there was only about one church member to a class.  In Harvard College the facts were much the same.  And the state of things in the churches was no better.  A young man who belonged to the church in that day was a phenomenon---almost a miracle.

But in the nineteenth century a new era began in the religious history of churches and colleges---an era of revivals and conversions, of home and foreign missions, of active, earnest, and aggressive piety in ministers and Christians, of prayer for colleges, a great increase in the number of graduates from the older colleges entering the ministry and the work of missions, and the establishment, especially in the West, of new colleges, we might perhaps say a new species of Christian colleges, by the united and spontaneous efforts of evangelical Christians with more express reference to a general revival of religion and the conversion of the world.  Amherst was among the first of these colleges.  It was born of the spirit of revivals and missions.  It is not strange, therefore, that its religious history has been largely a history of revivals, and our readers will not think it strange if revivals constitute the principal theme of this chapter.  A few words, however, must first be said in regard to the origin of the College Church.

During the first four years, the college attended church with the people of the village in the old meeting-house, which then stood at the top of the hill over against the site of the present college building, very nearly on the spot where the Woods cabinet and Lawrence observatory are now situated.  It was in 1825, shortly after the grant of the charter, that the first measures were taken for the establishment of a separate college church.  The origin of this movement and the motives of the original members are thus stated in the church records:

"It having appeared to many of the pious friends of Amherst College that the existence of a church in that seminary would tend in a high degree to promote the great object which its founders and benefactors had chiefly in view, viz., to advance the kingdom of Christ the Redeemer, by training many pious youths for the gospel ministry; several of the students also having expressed their desire to be formed into a church specially connected with the college, and the officers of the college having signified their approbation of such measure, the subject of founding a church was laid before the trustees at their special meeting in April, 1825, by the president.  The trustees, therefore, passed the following resolutions, viz.:  That Rev. Heman Humphrey, D. D., Rev. Joshua Crosby, and Rev. James Taylor be a committee to consider the expediency of establishing a college church in this institution, and to proceed to form one if they should deem it expedient.

"The above-named committee assembled at Amherst, on the seventh of March, 1826, and after deliberation on the subject referred to their wisdom and discretion, they resolved themselves into an ecclesiastical council.

"The council then voted to proceed to form a church on the principles of the Congregational platform, of such persons desiring it as should upon examination be judged by them to be entitled to the privileges of church membership, and should be able heartily to assent to the following articles of faith and covenant."

Then follow the creed and covenant, which are in substance the same with those of Orthodox Congregational churches generally in New England at that time.

Thirty-one persons, all students, and members of each of the four classes, were then "examined by the council, and having publicly assented to the preceding articles and covenant, after an appropriate address by Dr. Humphrey, were solemnly constituted the Church of Christ in Amherst College.  The Church was then commended in prayer to the covenanted blessings of the one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

The style of the church is worthy of notice.  Although founded upon the principles of the Congregational platform, it has never assumed any denominational name, but has always been styled "The Church of Christ in Amherst College."  The form for admission of members to the church was so changed under the presidency and pastorate of Dr. Stearns, that members have since been received on their assent to the Apostles' creed and acceptance of the doctrines of Christianity as generally held by our Congregational churches.  The covenant remains unchanged to this day, and Dr. Burroughs introduced the practice of receiving into covenant and fellowship with the college church students who wished to commune with us without being dismissed from their churches at home.  Many have thus entered into covenant with the church, on the basis of letters of recommendation, without dismission, from Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and other churches, not excepting in a few instances even the Catholic Church.  This practice brought them into more intimate and responsible relations to one another and the members of the college church, and made our communion Sabbaths seasons of wider and deeper interest.

The church remained almost a year without a pastor, Dr. Humphrey acting meanwhile as permanent moderator.  In February, 1827, after careful consideration and conference with the trustees by committees, the church, with the full approval of the trustees and the faculty, resolved that it was expedient to complete its organization by the election and installation of a pastor, and by a unanimous vote they chose Dr. Humphrey their first pastor.  The installation took place on the 24th of February, 1827, in connection with the dedication of the new college chapel.

The first revival occurred in the spring term of 1823, about a year and a half after the opening of the college.  The whole year and a half preceding had been a gradual preparation for it.  The religious students spent whole days in fasting and prayer.  The annual concert of prayer for colleges was held for the first time in February, 1823.  This was observed in the college and was a day of deep and solemn interest.  President Moore's address to the students on this occasion was peculiarly appropriate and happy.  His appeal to those who thought religion unmanly and prayer degrading was like a nail "driven by the master of assemblies."  "Was Daniel ever more noble than when he prayed in defiance of King Darius' threats?  The pious students were among the most important instruments in carrying forward the work."  "They held early morning prayer meetings, and would sometimes, even in study hours, go into each others' rooms and spend a few moments in prayer.  At no time in the day perhaps could a person go into an entry or pass into the fourth story without hearing the voice of prayer from some room."

Prayer meetings were held at nine o'clock in the evening in each entry, also at other times and in other places.  Inquiry meetings were held by the officers of the college.  At the result of the revival twenty-three conversions were counted, leaving only thirteen without a personal faith and hope in Christ.  Among the converts in this first revival were, in the senior class, Rev. David O. Allen, the first missionary among the Amherst graduates, and Theophilus Packard, the first president, and for many years, of the Amherst Alumni Association, and in the junior class Rev. Bela B. Edwards, the distinguished professor of biblical literature in Andover Theological Seminary, and Rev. Austin Richards, D. D., who received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Dartmouth and was for thirty years pastor of the church in Nashua, N. H.  Besides the conversion of the larger part of the unconverted, nearly one-quarter of all the members of the college, the influence extended to those who were not reckoned as converts.  Thus Edward Jones, the colored student of the class of 1826, who was counted among the unconverted at the close of the revival, soon after his graduation went out as a missionary to Sierra Leone and became one of the leading educators of that African state.  A powerful revival existed in the Academy and the village church, whether as effect or cause I do not know; probably it was in part both effect and cause of the religious interest in the Collegiate Institution.

The next revival, the first under the presidency and pastorate of Dr. Humphrey, was in 1827, of which we take the following brief narrative from a communication to the Christian public, under date of May 15, 1827, by the president himself:

"A year ago the church was partially revived, and a little cloud seemed for a few days to be hovering over the seminary, but it soon disappeared.  This year, the last Thursday of February, was observed in the usual manner as a day of fasting and prayer for the outpouring of God's Spirit upon colleges.  The following week our new chapel was dedicated, and a pastor was set over our infant church.  Both these occasions were marked with uncommon interest and solemnity.  At length there was a shaking among the dry bones.  The impenitent began to be serious, to be alarmed, to ask, 'What shall we do to be saved?' and then to rejoice in hope.  By the 20th of April, five or six in the freshman class appeared to have a new song put into their mouths, and from that time the work advanced with surprising rapidity and power.  Convictions were in general short, and, in many cases, extremely pungent.  Of the thirty in college who perhaps gave some evidence of faith and repentance and who are beginning to cherish hope, twenty at least are supposed to have experienced relief in the space of a single week.  'It is the Lord's doings and marvellous in our eyes.'  As this gracious visitation seemed to demand a public acknowledgment to the great Head of the Church, before we separated at the close of the term, a religious service was appointed as the last exercise, and a very appropriate and impressive discourse was delivered in the chapel by the Rev. Dr. Woodbridge, of Hadley."

The following extract from a letter of Rev. A. Tobey, D. D., of the class of '28, will show the light in which this revival was viewed by the students:

"The whole college was so influenced, that through the first of the year it had an entirely different aspect.  Our class, then juniors, was essentially changed in character.  Two who had been decidedly sceptical, Kidder and Winn, became decided and earnest Christians.  Humphrey, the president's oldest son, had been altogether irreligious, wild and negligent of all study, except in the rhetorical department and general literature.  He became, for the rest of his course, correct in his conduct, serious and earnest as a Christian, diligent and faithful as a student.  The change as to interest in religious things was also marked in other cases, such as Fuller, Hunt, Lothrop, and Spotswood.  Among those who joined the church as the fruit of this revival were some of the foremost men of the class.

"Of the class before us (1827), I suppose McClure, was the most remarkable instance of conversion.  I mean publicly the most remarkable.  Perhaps the conversion of Timothy Dwight, really the first scholar in his class, may have been as interesting to those who knew him well.  In the class after us (1829), the most marked and externally wonderful change was in Henry Lyman, who was afterward the martyr missionary, with Munson, killed by the Battahs of Sumatra.  Lyman had been one of the worst, of the boldest in wickedness, apparently defying the authority of God; but when he came under the pressure of God's truth and spirit, he became as ardent and bold for Christ as he had before been in opposition to all good."

A very full and interesting narrative of this revival forms the principal part of one of the chapters in Prof. Jacob Abbott's "Corner-Stone."

The next year, viz., during the latter part of the spring term of 1828, another season of revival was enjoyed, "highly interesting (in the language of the church record, which is in the handwriting of Professor Fiske), although not so rapid or powerful as that of 1827.  But the Holy Spirit manifestly descended, and it was supposed that about fourteen members of college experienced his regenerating influences."

[View from the college library.]The revival of 1831 occurred in the spring, like all those which preceded it, but it began earlier in the term than those of 1827 and 1828.  The concert of prayer for colleges, the last Thursday of February, prepared the way for it.  The sudden sickness and death of a member of the senior class produced a deep and solemn impression.  The seriousness began in that class and among its leading members, not a few of whom were then without hope in Christ.  Deeply convinced of the vanity of the highest worldly good and of the folly and criminality of an irreligious life, these leading men, one after another, renounced the world and consecrated themselves to the service of their Redeemer.  Thus the influence spread silently and gradually through and from the senior class, by a law as natural as that by which water runs down hill, and flowed through the college.  At the communion in May, seven, and at that in August, nineteen, members of the college, twenty-six in all, were gathered into the college church as the fruits of this rich harvest season.  How many joined other churches I do not know, but, according to my best recollection, between thirty and forty were reckoned as converts.  The village church was blessed at the same time with a revival of great power and interest.

In the five years beginning with 1827 and ending with 1831 there were three revivals.  Three years now succeeded without what is technically called a revival, although more than once during the interval the church was revived, and during each of the three years there were occasional conversions and additions to the church by confession at almost every communion.  At length, in 1835, when no class remaining in college had witnessed one of these favored seasons, the institution was again blessed by a copious outpouring of the Spirit, which was gratefully acknowledged, as was usual in those days, in the records of the faculty and of the church, and as the result of which thirteen were added to the church before the close of the term, among whom were Clinton Clark, valedictorian of the class of '35, afterward tutor; William A. Peabody, salutatorian of the same class, afterward professor; John Humphrey, George P. Smith, Alexander H. Bullock, and Daniel W. Poor.

There were revivals also in the spring term of 1839 and in the summer of 1842, this last being the only one in the whole history of the college which occurred in any other than the spring term.

In his farewell address, which is largely taken up with the religious history of the college, President Humphrey says:  "Amherst College has been blessed with seven special revivals of religion.  No class has ever yet graduated without passing through at least one season of spiritual refreshing.  All these revivals might be called general, as they changed the whole face of things throughout the college."  And in this connection he gratefully acknowledges his obligation to the professors, all of whom, with a single exception, were preachers, for preaching in rotation with himself on the Sabbath and in the stated evening lectures.  "The faculty," he says, "have always felt it to be no less their duty than their privilege to attend the stated evening lectures, and after its close they have made it their practice to retire immediately to one of their rooms and spend an hour together in prayer and consultation upon the religious state and interests of the college.

Less than a year after Dr. Hitchcock's accession to the presidency, during his first winter term, there was an interesting revival, which brought into the College Church many members of the two lower classes, and a few from the junior class; nearly all the senior class were already Christians.  Among the additions to the church we cannot but notice the names of William C. Dickinson, Charles Vinal Spear, John W. Belcher, William S. Clark, Samuel Fisk, Francis S. Howe, Thomas Morong, Henry J. Patrick, and Charles H. Hartwell.  And among the means which were employed, besides plain and pointed preaching on the Sabbath and at the Thursday evening lecture, there were special services, usually preaching on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday evenings; and in this preaching Professor Fiske is remembered as preaching with overwhelming power, and the more remembered, because it was his last work, as the entry in the church records of this addition is the last of the kind, and indeed, with a single exception, the last of any kind that is preserved in the handwriting of that honored and lamented professor.  It should be added, that President Hitchcock opened his own house on Monday evenings for a meeting, partly for inquiry and partly of conference on questions of practical piety and personal religion, to which all students were invited, which first filled the study and at length crowded the large double parlors, and which had a great influence on the origin and progress of the religious interest.

In the winter and spring of 1850, there was another general revival, in which there were over thirty "hopeful conversions" among the students, and which made no small addition to the numbers and the strength of the church.  Including some from the families of the faculty, there were thirty-three persons who together presented themselves at the altar, almost filling the broad aisle of the chapel, all in the bloom of youth, and who now for the first time dedicated themselves by their voluntary consecration to the service of their Maker, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The year 1853 is reckoned among our seasons of spiritual harvest, although the religious interest was not so deep or so general, nor the ingathering so abundant as in some other revivals.

And lest the emphasis which we have given to these seasons of revival should be misinterpreted, it should be here remarked that the records of the church show that there were at this period additions to the church by confession every year and at almost every communion.  Thus at the communion in April, 1849, just about a year before the great revival of 1850, eight persons among the leading scholars and men of influence in their respective classes, three of them since distinguished educators in New England, made a public profession of their faith in Christ.  At the communion next preceding, in February, 1849, one person, then a member of the sophomore class, stood up alone and avouched the Lord to be his God thenceforth and forever.  And these sentences from a letter written in September, 1870, from the shores of the Mediterranean, show what most impressed this young man on entering college and what kind of influences brought him from a wilderness of error and unbelief into the fold of Christ:  "First impressions are lasting.  And my first impression of Amherst College has never left me.  We (H. and myself) had come from Ohio by the way of Lake Erie and the Canal, and seen not a little of rough and profane society on the way.  What we witnessed on entering the college was such a contrast to all this and indeed to all we had been accustomed to in our own previous observation and experience, that it seemed as if we had passed into another world.  The solemn, cheerful, and intellectual air of the president and professors at morning and evening prayers, and the religious tone, not of voice but of heart and life, in the majority of the students led me into a new train of thought, gave me new views, and made me ere long a new man."

The freshman who was thus led to be a believer in Christ, the sophomore who thus stood up alone to declare himself on the Lord's side, is now the president of the Syrian College in Beirut, who is leading on the combined assault of learning and the religion of Christ Jesus against Mohammedanism in its strongholds.  In the same letter he adds his testimony also to the power and genuineness of revivals in Amherst College.  "These revivals," he says, "stamped upon my mind the conviction that Amherst College believed in the reality of the religion of Christ.  There was no diminution of the usual amount of study; hence the excitement---for there was great excitement---was rational, the heart and the intellect moved on together.  Twenty years have proven that those who then embraced the truth were sincere; for they are found many of them to-day, in various parts of the world, spending their maturer years in preaching Christ."

 

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