Timothy Larsen: Old Faithful

A Wheaton College professor, alumnus and parent reflects on his love for and sense of responsibility toward the institution.

Wheaton College was a wonder to me when I first arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1985.

As an American, a Protestant and an evangelical, I had three strikes against me when it came to knowing and valuing enduring institutions. I had hitherto been educated at a small Christian school that had been founded just two years before I began to attend. And the church I joined as a teenager might not have had even a two-year head start on me.

I had assumed that such newness was wholly advantageous: youth was a guarantor of vitality and relevance. We told ourselves that we were gloriously free from the dead weight of tradition.

Moreover, the seemingly natural way of things that I had unwittingly taken for granted was that institutions rose and fell with one generation -- often literally, with one animating personality.

To take just one particularly dramatic example of this American Protestant evangelical pattern, there were fewer than 30 years between when Robert Schuller opened the Crystal Cathedral and when it went into bankruptcy and had to be sold off. I have items of clothing that have lasted longer than that.

And it’s just rubbing it in to call such a church a “cathedral.” There was a time when a cathedral took more than three generations to build, and then would last as the setting for a worshipping Christian community for half a millennium and counting. It is fitting that the Roman Catholic Church has now bought the Crystal Cathedral, as it knows something about how to foster institutions that endure over time.

So, in its own modest way, does Wheaton College. As it was founded in 1860, it is admittedly still quite a youngster in Catholic terms. But in American-evangelical-Protestant years -- like the concept of dog years -- it is venerable indeed.

There are tremendous advantages to a long institutional history. For example, while many conservative evangelical institutions of higher education that sprang up in the 20th century took an oppositional stance to some of the findings of modern science, Wheaton had a scientific commitment and culture that predated the rise of fundamentalism and served as much-needed perspective and ballast.

Likewise, Wheaton avoided the restrictions on women adopted by many younger institutions. Indeed, before the dawn of the 20th century, Wheaton had become one of the first institutions of higher education in America to have a completely coeducational curriculum. Its female students were going on to serve as ordained ministers already in the 19th century. Moreover, the first Bible professor the college ever hired -- long before fears of feminism started to loom large for some evangelicals -- was a woman.

Wheaton has a way of instilling a love for the place in its alumni. When I was a student, we used to sing a school song that included the words “Wheaton, dear old Wheaton, live forever!”

As a professor who is also an alumnus, I have a keen sense of having been given a sacred trust.

At lunch one day in the faculty dining room, I listened as a group of young assistant professors pontificated on all the ways that they would like to blow the place up and remake it to reflect the latest whimsical fashions in higher education and their disciplines. All that seemed to matter to them was how fun this would be and how advantageous it would be for their life and work during the next five years or so to ride a trendy wave until it crashed.

In exasperation, I blurted out more forcefully than I intended, “Don’t you realize that you have a duty to help preserve the best of Wheaton for future generations to enjoy?” My flash of emotion was a conversation stifler, but it was clear by their stunned responses that they had hitherto discerned no such duty.

Have you ever had the experience of being so taken by a miniseries or a television show that you are flooded with pleasant emotions just by hearing the first few bars of its theme music? Good old institutions have that kind of cumulative power and resonance. Simply to glimpse an old building on campus is to evoke exciting ideas, times, achievements, individuals and movements from across the generations.

Wheaton’s central historic building -- what is often called “Old Main” on many campuses -- is Blanchard Hall. In the early years of the college, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, as well as a rare place where African-Americans could and did earn bachelor’s degrees side by side with their white brothers and sisters in Christ.

When students become engaged, they climb up its bell tower and ring out their joyful news, and as they do, they can think of other couples that met at Wheaton and celebrated their love by ringing that same bell: Billy and Ruth Graham, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Margaret and Kenneth Landon, Lisa and Todd Beamer, and so on.

Samuel Schuman, chancellor emeritus of the University of Minnesota, Morris, once wrote a book on small colleges in America, which he called “Old Main.” He interviewed me when he was researching a new, companion project on religious colleges. Wheaton was included, along with other Christian institutions of higher education such as Calvin College and Baylor University. I told him he should call the new book “Old Faithful.”

My testy question to my young, trend-seeking colleagues was not just a thought experiment. Every year, the incoming freshman class at Wheaton includes students from families whose members have attended the college for as many as seven generations.

And this year, of all years, it is not merely a theoretical discussion for me, as our oldest child is coming to Wheaton as a freshman. She will be roommates with the daughter of a friend of mine from our time together as Wheaton undergraduates.

I am both proud of the rich heritage that our daughter will inherit and vigilant to preserve and nurture an institution worthy of the people I love most, together with their precious descendants. To adapt Proverbs 13:22, wise people build an institution in such a way that it will still be a valuable resource for their children’s children.