Perspectives on Knox History

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.


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