Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

The Question of Religion

Early colleges were established for the purpose of educating future members of the clergy and government, so it stands to reason that religion has always been strongly linked to American higher education.  According to Christopher Lucas, “Far and away the most active founders of colleges throughout the first half of the nineteenth century were various religious denominations… In every state, churches were at work establishing what purported to be genuine colleges of higher learning."  The explosion of college foundings in the nineteenth century, driven by the desire of each denomination to have its own institution(s), meant that there was a higher supply than demand for colleges and many went out of business shortly after opening.  

Lehigh was founded with no official religious affiliation, which not to say that religion had no effect on or place at Lehigh.  It could be argued that differences in religion was one of Packer's main reasons for starting his own school, instead of donating to an existing one.  Packer intended for the President of the Board of Trustees to be held by the bishop of the Episcopalian church.  In addition, students in the early years were required to go to church services before classes each day and the strict rules governing student life were informed by a religious code of conduct, perhaps reflective of Packer’s own pious personality.  Although Lehigh was not under the control of the Episcopalian Church officially, it was still very much connected.  When Lehigh University came to financial troubles in the 1890s and sought funding from Pennsylvania, the state denied it due to its religious affiliation. It was only after the bishop was removed from the President’s spot that Lehigh was able to secure funding and continue operating.  While Lehigh did not answer to the church, it was still very much tied to it, as typical of nineteenth-century colleges.

From a 21st century perspective, it seems like religion and a scientifically-oriented school like Lehigh would be at odds with each other.  However, it should be noted that religion and science were not as antagonistic as they are today.  In fact, they were considered complimentary at the time and often encouraged each other.  As Frederick Rudolph explains, “The religious orientation of the American colleges provided a climate in which pioneer science could be effectively nurtured, for it was not really necessary for the orthodox to capture or constrain science.  The early scientists on the whole were men of religious conviction who could pursue their studies of the natural world without involving their deeply held belief in the supernatural… Science, therefore, gained entry into the American college not as a course of vocational study, but as the handmaiden of religion.” (226)  Furthermore, in his discourse on the history of Lehigh, Bishop Stevens echoes John William Draper's sentiment and asks, "Take away the science which is necessary... and what would you have left? The world would be rolled backward a thousand years, and the rude arts of the savage with his rude life and rude mind, would take the place of the refinement and skill, and wonders, and sciences of this nineteenth century." For a man who endorsed both scientific advancement and religious fulfillment, Packer's school is a prime example of how the two came together in the nineteenth century.


This page has paths: