The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, by James Tunstead Burtchaell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1998.) (To order or to get further information from Amazon, click here).


Reviewed by Coty Pinckney


Why have so many colleges and universities abandoned their Christian roots? Is the process of disengagement similar across denominations? Is this disengagement inevitable?

In The Dying of the Light, Catholic scholar James Burtchaell addresses these questions through seventeen case studies of American colleges and universities.  At the time of founding, each of these institutions served a Christian constituency, and publicly proclaimed that religious objectives were vitally important to its mission; each one over time has become more secular in orientation, with many abandoning all ties. In lively prose and with biting wit, Burtchaell chronicles this sometimes rapid, sometimes lengthy process, clearly drawing out the surprisingly common elements in the different stories.

The book consists of eight chapters, one for each of the seven groups of colleges he considers (Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, and Evangelical), and a concluding synthesis. Each chapter provides a brief introduction to the denomination’s engagement in higher education, followed by two or three case studies and some reflections on the denomination’s experience. The depth of the case studies varies widely, depending upon the documentation available and the complexity of the story: Dartmouth (56 pages), Beloit (35), Lafayette (54), my alma mater Davidson (51), Millsaps (21), Ohio Wesleyan (31), Wake Forest (48), Virginia Union (16), Linfield (12), Gettysburg (38), St Olaf (17), Concordia (15), Boston College (71), New Rochelle (35), St Mary’s of California (35), Azusa Pacific (36), and Dordt (28). The numerate reader will quickly conclude that this is a lengthy book, “of a size usually reserved for major wars,” as the author notes. Rather than plowing through from beginning to end, he recommends reading it in an unusual way: read the case studies of the schools most familiar to you, then the synthesis chapter; use that synthesis to spark your interest in other case studies.

Many readers will begin this book expecting a story something like this: Founders set up Christian institutions, where there was a vital link between faith and intellectual investigation. Colleges and denominations worked closely together to their mutual benefit. Over time the colleges accepted the secular academy’s definition of excellence, and abandoned their Christian roots. The churches were left like a deserted spouse.

Burtchaell argues that the stories are all much more complex than this, and that elements of that view are simply wrong. Many of the initial links between church and college were for convenience only – the church was necessary for existence, providing both revenue and students. Education was not Christian in most cases, but classical, patterned after Greek ideals of learning and virtue. There was little or no academic study of the Christian faith, “no respectable Bible study.” Religion on campus was at times vital and active in personal lives, but there was little or no link between personal religion and academic coursework. Often, religion was seen as important on these campuses primarily because of its impact on behavior, not because it presented unique and valued insights into the intellectual activities.

In this atmosphere, when other sources of financing and students became available, colleges systematically but carefully moved away from their religious roots. Carnegie money for professors’ retirement is available only to “non-sectarian” institutions, so a number of colleges show that they comply; there is a vague possibility that government grants may be limited to institutions not connected with a particular denomination, so governance is changed; graduate programs without any Christian component or requirement make money, so they are added; students from outside the denomination are necessary for existence, so they are welcomed; when these students complain about chapel, it first becomes non-religious and then is eliminated. One of the central stories here is that institutions, even those founded for a specific religious purpose, very quickly come to see continued existence as their primary goal; if religious affiliation is perceived to raise the probability of failure, then goodbye religious affiliation.

The faculty play a key role in secularization in most institutions. The author contends that even at the beginning, most faculty members did not have sufficient grounding in theology, philosophy, and history to see how faith could inform intellectual inquiry. Instead, the faculty served initially as role models of men of personal faith, often leading religious services on campus. Some institutions required agreement to a confessional statement of all faculty. But as professors began to specialize and identify themselves more as professional academics than Christian teachers, as they began to move from institution to institution during a career, faculty as a whole lost interest in their religious role, turning their responsibilities over to the administration. The administration, in turn, often turned these roles over to “religious functionaries,” sidelining religion from all of the important parts of the institution, relegating it to at best a minor role on campus. In consequence, confessional statements for faculty generally were ignored, then watered down, then dropped altogether. So when in 1996 Davidson removed the final requirement of religious affiliation on its faculty – that members of the religion department must be Christians – “several current members said they had not been aware of the requirement when they were hired.” (232)

One of the surprises in these stories is that the churches most often did nothing at all to stop the process of secularization. In no case did a denomination use its authority to ensure that its colleges live up to their religious commitments. Sometimes an orthodox president, trustee, or local pastor would take a stand, trying to stop the process, but often these attempts backfired – either by creating tension that the next president resolved through a fuzzy redefining of the college’s religious mission, “saying much and affirming little” (825), (inevitably leading to further secularization), or by taking such an obviously anti-intellectual position that those who might have supported a true Christian retrenchment find themselves in the other camp.

Ironically, in the process of freeing themselves from church authorities who had interfered hardly at all in the running of the institutions, the colleges subjected themselves to much more interference from governments and accrediting agencies: “Colleges that for fifty years have refused to disclose to their patronal presbyteries how many Presbyterians they enroll are faithfully reporting to the federal government how many students of Samoan extraction they enroll” (834).

The evolution of the meaning of “non-sectarian” mirrors the overall secularization. Originally intended to mean that the institution would not take sides in disputes among, say, the Baptists, it transmogrified over time into “non-denominational,” then “non-Christian”, then “non-religious.” Today any absolute truth-claim might be labeled “sectarian.”

Burtchaell throughout offers his commentary on the process of disengagement, cutting through the fuzzy, duplicitous rhetoric used so often to hide what is really going on: On Dartmouth: “It requires stamina to study this cascade of discourse about religion, because its inclination toward elegant and earnest inanity . . .” (51). Davidson offers “a relatively pure example of the poker-faced artifice we behold in more helter-skelter form in other narratives” (232). On a Davidson committee report in the sixties arguing that despite disregard for the organized church, religious life on campus was “wondrously authentic” because of the prominence of community service: “this report . . . [was] one of the purest manifestations of works righteousness since it had been anathematized by the sixteenth-century Reformers” (219). He also offers humorous and sharp one-liners that keep the reader’s attention: “Deism, the religious equivalent of safe sex” (842).

When the author uses his wit to lambaste the hypocritical college officials who change the description of their institutions depending upon the audience in front of them, many Christian readers might be tempted to offer a hearty, “Amen!” There will be more disagreement with his contentions that the pietism associated with the Great Awakenings so exalted affect over intellect that the disengagement between intellectual and religious inquiry was virtually inevitable (was it not Jonathan Edwards, the leading light of the first Great Awakening, who struck the biblical balance between intellect and emotion in Religious Affections?) and that Baptist attempts at higher education have failed in part because of “clandestine tradition,” excessive individualism, and simplistic exegesis that combine to make it difficult to create “an intellectual field of Scripture-animated discourse that enlivens and integrates their minds’ work” (438).

What are the lessons for those who see a vital need for truly Christian colleges and universities, which critique the culture and the academy from a biblical perspective? The author chooses not to enumerate these lessons, stating in his last two sentences:

The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored, and so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better. (851)

The story of Linfield College of the American Baptists shows that the common strategy of holding faculty, president, and trustees to a confession of faith, along with legally binding agreements on campus activities, is insufficient. In 1921, seeing the drift of many institutions away from their Christian roots, President Leonard Riley identified “careful selection of trustees and of faculty” as key: teachers were to “know Jesus Christ and to do His will;” their theological views were to be scrutinized carefully (428). This sounds rather like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under Al Mohler.  Furthermore, the original grant of land for the school stipulates “title would revert to the local school district if alcohol were ever sold or served there” (425). Today, the college “does not ask and does not know” the religious affiliation of its faculty, the President is Methodist, Catholics outnumber Baptists among the students two to one, and the chaplain states the campus community is “largely unchurched.” What about the legally-binding ban on alcohol? Since 1987 the college has hosted the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Burtchaell remains upbeat about the desirability and possibility of genuinely Christian higher education. Acknowledging that higher learning, like wealth and power, present a powerful temptation to abandon faith, he nevertheless states “this book is written in the belief that the ambition to unite ‘knowledge and piety’ is a wholesome and hopeful and  stubborn one” (851). Yet it is clear that the success of such endeavors will require continued, daily diligence, continued daily dependence upon the power of God, and a true integration of faith and learning – an integration so rarely achieved in the last few centuries.

Burtchaell’s book – scholarly, opinionated, detailed, and compelling – should be mandatory reading for all engaged in the life of the mind and the life of faith, particularly those who serve as teachers, administrators, trustees, students, or parents of students at Christian colleges and universities.


Coty Pinckney  February 2000