Anglican vs Evangelical Education in the 19th Century

In August 1879 the Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, William Mercer Green, addressed the gathered trustees of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Sewanee, then only two decades old, nonetheless had become a leading institution of higher learning in the South. Although the university owed its charter to the famed fighting bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, it was more properly the brainchild of James Hervey Otey. [1]

Otey hailed from a gentrified Virginia family. He received his education at home from tutors and then matriculated at the University of North Carolina. Otey influenced Green and other southern Episcopalians and preceded the latter as a missionary bishop in Mississippi. Otey, Green, and Polk remained painfully aware that the Episcopal Church was increasingly overshadowed socially by the growing Evangelical movements of the era. By the 1830s, the second generation of Evangelicals—Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Methodists—achieved a measure of respectability their revivalist predecessors could only envy. The success of Evangelical laypeople fed the respectability of popular Evangelical ministers who drew sizable numbers of congregants through dynamic preaching. This symbiotic relationship eventually, argued Nathan Hatch, sapped the revivalist fervor and what he called the populism of southern Evangelicals. A new class of self-consciously elite Evangelicals directed their efforts at building colleges, but their churches never again experienced the degree or type of sociological growth they enjoyed during the first four decades of the Nineteenth Century.[2]

Episcopalians remained circumspect about Evangelical religiosity. The less-institutional nature of Evangelical religion did not, they noted, create the type of educational milieu that educated young Episcopalians in their faith. Evangelical colleges were seen as insufficient. When Episcopalians passed “from under the parental eye” in preparatory schools they did not have “institution fairly within our reach” where confirmed Episcopalians could be “kept under the influence of those Christian principles” and churchly instruction “to which we pledged them in baptism, which we have accepted and hold as of the essence of Christ’s religion, which we would transmit in their vigor to them and through them, unmarred, to our latest posterity.” Evangelical education was not appropriate for southern Episcopalians. The most tolerable institution for most southern Episcopalians to send their children too remained the College of New Jersey in Princeton, but that was far away and clouded by being in a free state. What was needed was truly churchly education, safely overseen by the hierarchy of the Protestant Episcopal Church and not given to the populist dispositions of Evangelical religion.[3]

Otey in particular believed that the Evangelical South had not created a true religious society or churchly religious practice. Bishop Green noted that Otey “saw that religious culture was the great want of the people of the South-West.” Otey was convinced that knowledge “of the Church in its Catechisms and Creeds, and its lifegiving sacraments, should be taught side by side with the usual branches of both an elementary and a higher education.”  It was Otey who first called “the attention of our South-Western Churchmen to the necessity of establishing such a University as this.” [4]

The efforts of Green and Otey and the founding of Sewanee represent an opportunity to rethink scholarship that privileges and over-prioritizes democratization and liberalization as hallmarks of Protestant education in the Early Republic. Sewanee was not illiberal, but it was fundamentally traditional in a time and place where Nathan Hatch argued culture, religious culture included, mounted a frontal assault on tradition, mediating elites, and institutions. [5]

[1] George R. Fairbanks, History of the University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee (Jacksonville, FL: H. & W.B. Drew Co., 1905), 1.

[2] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1989), 195.

[3] Fairbanks, History of the University of the South, 12-13.

[4]William Mercer Green, Address Delivered Before the Board of Trustees, August 4, 1879 (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1879), 12.

[5] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 182.


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