Columnists > Voices

The Harvard affair

A colonial-era controversy offers lessons on the road to secularism

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2:19).

Well, not to complain, but that ex post facto proof seems about as helpful in the moment of testing as the one God gave poor Moses when the man was desperate for assurance about his mission to Pharaoh: "I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12).

Still, I am content to be edified, even two and a half centuries after the deed, that what happened at Harvard in 1740 is a lesson for us, to discern, in our own day, who has God's favor. "For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (1 Corinthians 11:19).

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What side I would have taken at the time I cannot say. I'm quite sure that if you had forced an allegiance from me as little as five years ago, I would have lined up with the Reverend Charles Chauncey of the First Baptist Church and the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew of Old West Church in Boston. I like to think that now I would lock arms with George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. But perhaps I flatter myself.

By the vagaries of linguistic evolution, the word enthusiastic has not the incendiary meaning nowadays that it had when flung at the itinerant preacher Whitefield visiting the Cambridge campus, and at Edwards of the backwaters of Northampton, Mass. The fact that it got so much play in treatises against the two revivalists is tribute to a cultural vogue that is best unveiled in their own words for you to read between the lines:

Joining Reverend Chauncey in denouncing Edwards, Whitefield, and "the Awakenings," Mayhew concurs: "The candle of the Lord, which was lighted up when the inspiration of the Almighty gave him understanding, was not extinguished by the original apostasy, but has been kept burning ever since. . . . God has given us abilities to judge even of ourselves what is right, . . . and those who in any way discourage freedom of inquiry and judgment in religious matters, so far forth as they are guilty of this encroachment on natural rights of mankind, set up their own authority against that of Almighty God, are enemies of truth and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (italics mine).

It is only clear in the centuries' hindsight and fallout where all those fine God-words ended us up. Over time these florid embellishments would drop away-for that's all they already were-and all that would remain of the Cheshire Cat would be naked, steely worship of autonomous human reason. It was soon after Chauncey's and Mayhew's remarks that Harvard was very happy to bow out of religious discussions altogether and set about being an Enlightenment school. The Whitefield controversy was their last religious brouhaha. (I see it as similar to a spouse itching to bail out of a marriage and relieved to find pretext in his mate's convenient adultery.)

I derive two solemn cautions from l'affair Harvard. One is heightened alertness to the marks of a Christian institution that has fallen out of love with God and in love with the cultural idols of reason, respectability, and "the free winds of inquiry." "We want a king just like the other nations" (1 Samuel 8:5) is still the carnal heart's cry. Those who sided with Whitefield and Edwards referred to Harvard's, and later Yale's, transmogrification to secularism as "the Infidelity," and that is profoundly true.

The second caution is of the havoc wreaked on the Church of Christ when two sides in a dispute make no effort to appreciate the kernel of insight in the other side's position. It is passing strange that the decriers of religious "enthusiasm" should not have spent a penny's worth of ink commending the revival's reminder that true faith in God should be accompanied by . . . enthusiasm! What could be more appropriate-even more "reasonable"-than emotional response to Good News?

When those who name Christ don't have that, it's possible that they went out from us but did not belong to us.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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