Perspectives on Knox History

July 22, 2009

Hope Cemetery

Filed under: Uncategorized — Scott @ 10:10 am

Many people do not find cemeteries appealing and would not consider casually visiting one, but from a historical perspective, a trip to the cemetery can be a rewarding experience. Cemeteries such as Galesburg’s Hope Cemetery, burial site of many of the city’s early settlers and other prominent citizens, are persisting monuments to a community’s past and offer an opportunity to reflect on the lives of the individuals interned there.

The first time I visited Hope Cemetery I was in the process of writing an essay on human perception of space and time for a class dealing with religious thought. I felt inclined to visit Hope Cemetery for inspiration because I believed — due to previous experiences — that cemeteries were one place where our normal perceptions of those dimensions were altered. Personally, cemeteries have always produced a surreal sense of connection with the past; I have often felt like I was particularly pensive when walking through cemeteries, imagining the lives of those interned there. Without prior knowledge of these individuals my ruminations were overwhelmingly imaginative, but after I began to study the lives of those buried there out of simple curiosity, it became a historical exercise.

Subsequent trips to Hope Cemetery have inspired me to learn even more about those who are buried there — and there is a lot to research. As I have mentioned, Hope Cemetery is the resting place of many of the town and college’s founders, as well as generations of other prominent Galesburg citizens. George Washington Gale is buried there, along with founder Sylvanus Ferris; Chauncy Colton, who was principal in attracting the railroad to Galesburg; Founder Nehemiah West and his daughter, Mary Allen West, early educator and temperance advocate; Knox College’s first president, Hiram Kellogg; just to name a few. For me, visiting Hope Cemetery with the knowledge of the history it represents is a profound experience.

I would suggest that anyone with an interest in Galesburg’s history tour Hope Cemetery, prefacing their visit by brushing up on their local history. The books I mentioned in my second post about engaging primary sources are a good start, and will provide you with the information you need to make the most out of your visit. Again, it may seem odd to some to casually visit your local cemetery, but one only has to look at the popularity of Chicago’s Graceland cemetery or the many Civil War battlefields to understand the utility of such a trip. Finally, on a side thought, primary and secondary teachers might consider Hope Cemetery for a field trip; I think it would be productive for young students to learn the history of their community in such a way.

July 15, 2009

The Research Process and the Scope of the Knox History Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — Scott @ 10:02 am

In the previous article, I discussed the historian’s obligation towards objectivity and accounting for different perspectives when interpreting sources. In this article, I will talk more generally about the scope of my research for this project. Organizing one’s research and writing can be one of the more difficult aspects of studying history. For many topics, there is a wide availability of information, and the question becomes, “Where do I start?”

Historical scholarship first requires reading the historiography, or body of literature, on a particular topic. In terms of my study of Knox College’s history, this includes four primary texts — which I’ve referred to as the ‘cannon’ of literature on Knox College. They are: Hermann Muelder’s Fighters for Freedom and Missionaries and Muckrakers, Earnest Calkins’s They Broke the Prairie, and Martha Webster Farnham’s Seventy-Five Significant Years. These books are a roadmap for the scholar interested in researching Knox’s history, providing a comprehensive history of the college’s first 100 years.

The information gathered in these books will inform the scholar of possible subtopics that may need further study. For the first part of this project, I chose to focus on three events in the college’s first  three decades that I believed were significant and warranted further coverage: the college’s origins, religious sectarianism, and women’s education at Knox. The topics of Abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, have been covered extensively by scholars who have dedicated their professional careers to studying them and therefore I did not feel it was appropriate for me to attempt a recapitulation here, but rather to refer the readership to the excellent sources already available.

Through the first stage of the project, I have gained an appreciation of the expansive archival information available on the history of the college. I have come upon a number of topics I would like to go into more detail about, but as mentioned, I’ve had to choose those which I believed were most significant, or had received less coverage in the past. As the project continues, I expect organizing my research will become more and more difficult as the available sources multiply. From these sources, there will be more and more stories to tell, and more decisions to be made.

July 8, 2009

Religious Sectarianism and Interpreting Primary Sources

Filed under: Uncategorized — Scott @ 10:02 am

Given Knox’s current secular nature, it seems difficult to imagine any significant religious influence in the college’s affairs. However, there was a time when religion played a predominant role in the college’s administration. Knox College was founded with the Christian mission of preparing young men and women to promote the gospel, and judging by the careers of the inaugural class of 1844 — which graduated four ministers out of a total of nine students — the early college was an embodiment of this aim.

As dedicated as the college may have been to its religious goal, slight differences between the college’s two religious denominations, Congregationalist and Presbyterian, created a rift that nearly tore the school apart. Often, religious schools are sectarian — that is, they identify with a particular denomination. Knox, as the founders understood it, was to be administered to by the Presbyterians. The Congregationalists did not wholly agree, however, and by the close of the college’s first decade of existence an open debate between the college’s Congregationalists and Presbyterians had emerged. The debate would manifest itself as a personal struggle between the college’s founder and Presbyterian, George Washington Gale, and its second president, the Congregationalist Jonathan Blanchard.

The story of this “Schism,” as it is commonly referred to, is difficult to tell. First, it requires relaying a relatively large amount of local and national religious history, as well as explaining the various backgrounds of the many individuals involved.  Obtaining these explanations requires examining what historians call primary sources; in this case, diaries, letters, and minutes from Galesburg’s churches and the college’s Board of Trustees, specifically, provide the bulk of the material available for research. What makes interpreting Knox College’s religious schism even more difficult for the historian, though, is the opposing perspectives of those involved. When two groups or individuals are in conflict, judging the accuracy and partiality of either account can be difficult. Based on their perspective, individuals may exaggerate events, or downplay them, put a ’spin’ on them, or even omit important information.

Religious conflict, especially, challenges impartiality. For the Congregationalists and Presbyterians living through the schism, justifying and advancing their beliefs in the face of their critics was paramount, as evidenced in the meetings, letters, and documents they produced. The “schism” does not have much significance currently, but to relate the tension and animosity that can accompany religious conflict — and which was present in the struggle between Knox College’s Congregationalists and Presbyterians — one needs only look at current religious conflicts. Debates over homosexuals in the ministry have caused strife in the American Episcopalian Church, and there are many other analogous examples. One can also think of many more severe religious conflicts that have resulted in violence, and evidence the extreme passion which can accompany deeply held religious beliefs.

This said, the historian’s role is that of an impartial observer: consolidating the different accounts to tell the larger story while aiming to give credence to both perspectives. This can be a delicate balancing act. Everyone, including the individual analyzing the documents, is subjective; we all have our biases, no matter how hard we may try not to. Minimizing them to give an accurate and fair picture of past events is a primary component of any historian’s job.

Take a look at the corresponding article and judge for yourself whether I fulfill my aim of an impartial observer. It is brief, and ideally the article would be longer, but I am limited by available space. For more information regarding the schism, and a more detailed look at the surrounding circumstances, I strongly suggest you first read Earnest Elmo Calkins’s They Broke the Prairie, and then Hermann Muelder’s Fighters for Freedom. Calkin’s account is a detailed recapitulation of events, and Muelder’s book provides a thorough interpretation of the surrounding circumstances. In conjunction, the two books will give the reader a complete analysis of the religious sectarianism that plagued the college in the first decades of its existence.


July 1, 2009

Welcome to the Knox College History Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — Scott @ 9:56 am

My name is Grant Forssberg, and I am a Knox Post-Baccalaureate Fellow for the 2009-2010 academic year.  During this time, I will be working with members of the Office of Web and New Media Services and the college’s history department to redesign the Knox history page. A component of the larger Web site redesign project, the college’s history page is in the process of being expanded and revamped in an effort to make it more dynamic and engaging. The end goal is to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of Knox’s rich history, including some topics that may have been previously neglected.

Over the coming months, I will be researching and writing articles, as well as compiling a detailed historical timeline; both of which will be featured on the college’s history page.  The timeline will thread together events, people, and places, while the articles analyze particular events with a greater focus than a timeline normally allows. The work will be done chronologically in parts, each one covering different periods of the college’s history. The first part, completed this summer, covers the origins of the college from a decade before its founding, through to the beginning of the Civil War — or the years 1825 to 1861. It will feature four articles: one describing the origins of the college and tracing George Washington Gale’s vision for a manual labor college in the West, an article on the early religious sectarianism within the college and the town, an article outlining women’s education at Knox College, and another article covering the infamous Lincoln-Douglas debate at Knox in the fall of 1858.

As the year progresses, more pieces of the timeline will be added along with corresponding articles. The project will be constantly evolving and subject to reader feedback. A project of this magnitude requires far more research than can hope to be accomplished in a fraction of the time I have been allotted. One of my aims is to go off the ‘beaten path’ and include stories that may not be featured elsewhere, or may have received less attention. During the process I will be providing you with updates about the progress of my research and writing: what topics I’m focusing on, how I am approaching them, etc. It is my sincere hope that you will continue to stop by to view recent developments, and that you will share your feelings about the direction of the project.