Home > Amherst > History > A History of Amherst College (1894) > Table of Contents >
Chapter 14
from A History of Amherst College by William S. Tyler 1830

Religious History Continued --- Seven Revivals in the First Twelve Years of President Stearns' Administration --- In the Remaining Years Two --- In President Seelye's Two --- Change in the Form and Manner, Not in the Spirit --- Cause of the Change --- Remedy.

During the first twelve years of Dr. Stearns' presidency there were seven seasons of special religious interest, thus averaging more than one for every two years.  At no time during this period was there an interval of more than two years without such a season, and in one instance two successive years were thus blessed.

The years 1855, 1857, 1858, 1860, 1862, 1864, and 1866, have usually been reckoned as years of revival, although there was no very broad line of demarcation between some of these years and some of those that have not been so reckoned; for there was not one of these latter years in which there was not some quickening in the winter term, and I believe none in which there were not in the course of the year some hopeful conversions.

Of the revival in 1855, as of those a few years earlier, we have the testimony of a college president in the Levant who was a member of the senior class at that time.  We have space only for a few sentences:

"We had some noon class meetings which will never be forgotten by those who attended them, when we wept and prayed together until it seemed we were bound together by such cords of love and sympathy as unite saints and angels in heaven.  This may seem a strong expression.  It was exactly what we felt, and no one who has not been in a college revival can realize the truth of it.  There can be nothing like it out of college.

"The genuineness of this feeling was manifested when we came to the usually exciting class elections.  Our meeting was free from any exhibition of selfishness or party feeling.  Class Day lasted from eight o'clock one day until half-past six the next day.  It commenced with a social prayer meeting and closed at morning prayers when we all came into the chapel, and the president gave us his blessing.

"When we entered college, out of sixty-three in our class only twenty-two were Christians.  When we graduated, out of fifty-four, forty-eight were professors of religion.  In all there were twenty-four conversions in our class during our college course."

Several of the best scholars and leading men in the senior class, at the beginning of the year, were not only without hope in Christ, but opposed to evangelical and personal religion.  One of these excited great interest.  The writer of this history had repeated interviews with him, and followed up personal conversation with written appeals.  Never have I seen such bitterness of feeling, coupled with such acknowledged and utter wretchedness.  He cursed the day of his birth, and was almost ready to curse his best friends, the name, sacred in the history of missions, which he bore, the parents that gave him birth, and the God who made him for a life of sin and misery.  Like Saul of Tarsus, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the church.  But like Saul of Tarsus it was at length said of him---" Behold, he prayeth."  The next morning his whole appearance, as well as character and spirit, was changed.  From that time he labored to build up what he before sought to destroy.  Three years later this Saul of Tarsus was with us, an officer of college, a co-laborer in the revival of 1858---a very Paul the Apostle in the boldness, force of reasoning, and fervor of eloquence with which he prayed men to be reconciled to God.  And now he is one of the most able, earnest and useful among the pastors in our Congregational churches.

The revival of 1858 exceeded in power and interest any other in the period now under review, if not any other in the whole history of the college.  We have space only to record the results as they were given to the public by President Stearns not long after the event:

"Nearly three-quarters of our number were previously professors of religion, about twenty of them having taken their stand publicly on the side of Christ some months before.  Of the remainder between forty and fifty have been hopefully converted during the term, leaving less than twenty in the whole college undecided.  Of the senior class but three or four remain who have not commenced the Christian life; of the junior class, but one, and he an inquirer; of the sophomore class, four or five; of the freshmen, nine or ten.  The reformation of character and manners was not less remarkable than the renewal of hearts."

The year 1866 was a memorable year in the religious history of the college, exceeding even 1858 in the number of those who began a new Christian life, and hardly surpassed by it in the deep interest of the scenes and events of the revival, though differing much from that season in the apparently spontaneous beginning and quiet progress of the work.

Since 1866 revivals have been less frequent and less powerful in Amherst, as also in other colleges and churches, than they had been in the previous half-century.  But in the last spring term of the last year of his life, as we have already said in a previous chapter, the prayers of President Stearns were answered and his labors were blessed in what he considered, and we also felt to be, perhaps the greatest and best of all the revivals that had crowned his college work and one of the greatest and best in the whole history of the college.  On the last Sunday that he officiated, and at the last sacrament of the supper that he administered, he received to the communion the largest number of young men that he had ever admitted at one time to the college church, thus setting the seal to his testimony to the reality and worth of revivals of religion and bringing to a fitting close the work of a long, useful, and happy life.

In 1878, the second year of President Seelye's administration, the records of the college church show the admission of twenty-seven members by profession at one communion, and of three members at each of three subsequent communions.  Four years later, in 1882, there was a season of especial religious interest, which he thus gratefully acknowledges in his annual report to the trustees:

"We have had many blessings during the year, the chief of which has been a deep and pervasive religious revival during the winter term, whose power has been seen with only blessed results through the year.  Without any undue excitement and without any interruption to our college work, the whole college has been evidently lifted thereby to a higher plane of both moral and religious action."

It appears from the records of the church that sixteen persons were admitted to its membership as the immediate result of this revival, and nearly as many more at other communions in the course of the year.  In none of his subsequent reports does President Seelye speak of anything that he calls a revival, and as it has already been said that revivals were less frequent in the last half of President Stearns' administration, so we must acknowledge that they were less frequent and less powerful under the administration of President Seelye.  There were times of refreshing and rejoicing every year in connection with the day of prayer for colleges.  The church was revived and strengthened, and additions were made from time to time to its members as well as its strength.  But there were not such seasons of universal thoughtfulness and seriousness, of anxiety and deep conviction of sin on the part of the irreligious, of earnest and importunate prayer among Christians, of numerous conversions and great rejoicings as are technically called revivals.  And a corresponding change had taken place also in the churches.  The time was when, in our Congregational and Presbyterian churches, it was expected that the children and youth in Christian families would grow up out of the church and without personal religion.  And when they came into the church it would be only after a long period of deep distress and conviction of sin, followed by marvellous light and peace and joy.  Such angular and spasmodic conversions, as they have been sometimes called, would, of course, cause wonder and joy in the congregation, and spreading through the community would bring large numbers into the church, until they came to be regarded as the chief if not the indispensable means of its growth and prosperity.  Indeed, there were times when conversions that were not attended by such feeling and excitement were looked on with suspicion as hardly genuine.  These views have gradually changed and at length passed away.  Under the influence of Christian nurture and training the children of Christian parents are now expected to grow up as Christians, to enter the church in early youth or childhood, and it is deemed a matter of little moment whether they know the time when they began the Christian life.  Of course, in such churches with such views revivals have greatly changed their character, or ceased to exist.  In Christian families the very materials are wanting for such revivals, for those spasmodic conversions do not occur, and there will be revivals only in the etymological and strictly proper sense of the word, as a renewal and quickening or a development and manifestation of the Christian life in the church, together with the bringing in of those who have never been in the fold of Christ or, as prodigal sons, have wandered away from it.  Such a change as we have imperfectly described has gradually come over our Christian colleges.  In the earlier years of the history of Amherst, such young men as Bela B. Edwards, Alexander McClure, Henry Lyman, Edward P. Humphrey, Jonathan Brace, Ebenezer Burgess, Asa S. Fiske, Charles Hartwell, etc., came to college from Christian families but without hope in Christ, without personal piety, some of them bitterly hostile to evangelical and experimental religion, and continued so until almost the close of their college course.  And when in their senior year it was announced that, perhaps after prolonged darkness and distress or violent opposition, they had been converted and come out positive and strong on the Lord's side, of course it produced a prodigious impression, and large numbers followed in their footsteps.  But the same men coming to college in these days would in all probability have come as members of the church, and although their influence would have been great for good, they could not have been the means of so powerful an impression, and the very materials for such a revival would be wanting.

A large proportion of those who come to Amherst from Christian families in these days come as members of Christian churches.  Indeed, there has been slow and gradual increase in the percentage of church members at their entrance, almost from the beginning.  The percentage of church members in the class of '86 at their entrance was 54; in the class of '87 it was 50; in the class of '88 it was 68; in the class of '89 it was 67.  This large percentage of church members at their entrance, together with an increasing number of students who come from families that are not religious as the college grows older and larger, is probably the principal cause of the change which we have noted in regard to revivals.

It is a change of form and manner rather than of principle and spirit.  Then there was more of excitement and intensity of feeling; now there is more of Christian work and associated action.  Then revivals and conversions were more matters of observation and remark; now they excite less attention, wonder and admiration; while there is perhaps more consistency, steadfastness and perseverance, certainly there never was a time when the whole college, the trustees, the faculty, and the great body of the students were more decidedly and positively Christian in their faith and practice; strong in faith, rich in good works, steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as they know that their labor is not in vain in the Lord.

There are other causes at work, which are unfavorable to revivals, such as the growth of the college, the increasing number of the faculty and the students, the number and variety of elective studies, which make the faculty and students no longer the unit they once were in their instruction and their moral and religious influence, the weakening to some extent, though by no means so much as in the larger universities, of the tie which unites classmates to each other and once made it easy to propagate religious interest through classes---all these are adverse circumstances.

There are two causes, which, although they are good and useful in themselves, tend to impair the feeling of personal responsibility which the faculty of Amherst College used to feel for the religious character of the students.  The.faculty used to have charge of the Thursday evening meeting and of the special meetings on other evenings in times of revival.  But this responsibility is now divided between a few of the professors and the Christian students, especially the members of the Young Men's Christian Association.  Moreover, a large proportion of the faculty used to take their turn in preaching in the college pulpit.  This duty is now devolved on the pastor or associate pastor and the distinguished preachers from abroad, who are invited to occupy the pulpit from time to time.  Of course, there are great advantages in both these arrangements.  But they have also their incidental dangers and temptations, especially to shirk responsibility for the religious education of the students.

There are other temptations and dangers for which we cannot shake off the responsibility.  The grand central doctrines of Christianity, the law and the gospel, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, atonement and redemption, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the great salvation are not preached now in church and college with the simplicity, pungency, and power which made them so potent in the revivals in the first half of the present century, and which still make them powerful in the hands of such evangelists as Mr. Mills and Mr. Moody.  The applications of Christianity to society, government, and the common affairs of this life have never been urged from the pulpit with so much clearness and force as they now are, and organizations are multiplied for carrying the gospel to the masses of the poor, sinning and suffering in our own land and to the perishing millions of heathendom.  And this is well.  We are proud of our Beecher and our Parkhurst and our more recent and less famous graduates who are the pastors of institutional churches, who preach the gospel to the poor, who live the gospel in the vilest and most wretched parts of our great cities, as Christ came into our sinful and miserable world to seek and to save that which was lost.  We admire their patriotism and charity and philanthropy.  We honor their self-sacrifice and moral courage and martyr spirit and heroic deeds which speak louder than words.  But are we not in danger of forgetting that all men are lost, that this is a lost world, that there is another world of righteous and eternal retribution, that organizations are only machines which cannot save souls, and that men must be converted, sanctified, and saved as individuals, not as communities or nations?  Is there not still greater danger that the pressure of business and pleasure on the churches and of study and amusement in the colleges will drive out sober thought and serious attention to personal religion.  In those times of great and blessed revivals, there was one term set apart and consecrated especially to the religious interest of the colleges.  The winter term, in itself peculiarly adapted to such use, was the appointed season for the day of prayer for colleges, and was widely, we might say generally, devoted to that service, both in the colleges and the churches, and that was the season in which almost all those glorious revivals occurred which so gladdened the hearts of Christian parents and strengthened the hands of ministers and missionaries through the land and the world.  But now foot-ball has taken possession of the first term, and base-ball of the third term, and the junior promenade and the like social pleasures, and concerts and lecture courses, are encroaching on the second term, and no time is left for special attention to that which is the chief concern of individual students and the vital interest of the whole college.  Must this be so?  Ought it to be so?  We freely admit that we cannot expect just such revivals as were the joy and strength of the college in its first half-century.  But why may we not have a portion at least of the winter term as a longer day of prayer, like a more spiritual and better Lent, consecrated and set apart, not to cease from study, but from ordinary recreations and amusements, to stop and think on higher and better themes, to pray and labor for those things which it chiefly concerns us to know and to do, to give to spiritual truths and eternal realities the place and weight to which in their nature they are manifestly entitled?

According to our last general catalogue (in 1892-93), there were 3,428 alumni of Amherst, of whom 1,164 have been ordained clergymen and 120 foreign missionaries.  These statistics show that more than one-third of the entire number of Amherst graduates have been ordained clergymen.  The percentage of ministers, however, during the fifty years included in this history (1840 to 1889 inclusive), has been gradually diminishing.  In the first quarter century of that period (1840 to 1864), it was 32 per cent; in the second quarter (1866 to 1889 inclusive), it was 17 per cent; and in the last five years of that period (1885 to 1889), about 15 per cent of graduates and non-graduates entered the ministry.

This was to be expected in a college which was founded expressly for the education of ministers, but which has grown to dimensions altogether exceeding the highest expectations of the founders.  In one point of view, of course, it is to be regretted; in another, it is a matter of rejoicing.  We cannot but regret that more of our graduates do not become ministers; we cannot but rejoice that so many of them are Christian laymen, workers for Christ in business, in the professions, in all the common walks of life.  Would God, they were all either the one or the other, and in our day we can hardly tell for which the demand is the more imperative.

Doubtless the Master would say:  "These ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone."  Must we always go from one extreme to another?  Why may we not be more like the primitive church, into which large numbers were gathered on a single day, and yet the Lord continued to add to them daily of such as were being saved?  But while we thus recognize the fact that there are diversities of operations but the same Spirit, we need above all a deep feeling of our entire dependence on that Spirit for his regenerating, sanctifying, and saving power and presence.  "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth."


Next section...

Back to the table of contents of A History of Amherst College...

Page last updated: 16 August 1999
©1998-2000, Richard J. Yanco