The Christian University: Historical Development 

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This website deals with issues relating to the nature and purpose of Christian institutions of higher learning. We will not make a strict distinction between colleges and universities, and we will include material from both Catholic and Protestant institutions and thinkers. The emphasis is on United States schools, although there will be some discussion of international aspects. While recognizing Cardinal Newman's[1] ideal that a student should receive a liberal education before embarking on professional studies, we will assume here the reality of most students that go to college after high school with the hope of receiving training towards a career, while at the same time improving their general culture and perhaps being exposed to some larger issues. It is precisely in these "larger issues" that church-related universities can provide the greatest value. These "ultimate" questions are outlined by Father Carl Burlage:

To be able to make certain basic, absolute and genuinely intellectual commitments about the ultimate truth of things: specifically about his own nature as a human person, about the goals and values which must ultimately determine his life and his attitudes toward it, about the nature of the world and the social order, and especially about the God who is (or is not) the one source who gives meaning and intelligibility and purpose to all of reality.[2]

Perhaps "commitments" is too strong of a word for this stage in life. A more realistic hope would be to initiate the student in his or her life-long grappling with these issues. The problem is that at a secular university, the student may never even be exposed to these questions.


The type of institution that we are dealing with originated during the Middle Ages. After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, education in the West was mostly sponsored by the Christian Church. During the early twelfth century some of the schools at the cathedrals of major cities began to distinguish themselves based on the reputation of their masters, and they attracted students from all of Europe. Two of these schools, at Paris and Bologna, grew to the point where some formal organization became necessary, and this was in the form of a charter awarded by the pope.  All medieval schools provided "undergraduate" education in the arts. Some also provided advanced training in theology, law or medicine. Universities continued the same pattern after the Reformation, although in Protestant countries charters were awarded by kings or princes instead of the pope, but affiliation with the national church was maintained.

The New World and Secularization

Universities were established in the New World colonies following the European patterns. In Latin America they were affiliated with the Catholic Church, and often staffed by missionary religious orders. In the English colonies, colleges were controlled by the predominant Protestant church of each colony, but since there was often a mixture of churches, there was an attempt to maintain some independence, or what was called "non-sectarianism." In both North and South America, there was some identification of the colonial powers with their official churches and their sponsored schools. As a result of this, the independence conflicts caused some movement toward secularization in both continents.

In the United States, after independence and especially after the extensive immigration during the nineteenth century, the formula of public colleges controlled by the predominant denomination of the state became inoperable. At first, the schools continued to be Christian, but emphasizing "non-sectarianism." This looser connection lacked the sense of identity and support provided by a particular church.[3] The desire to become full universities with professional training programs provided a pressure to grow by appealing to a wider student public. The need for scientific laboratory equipment also provided additional economic pressure.


Facing these challenges, Catholic and Protestant schools took different paths. Catholic institutions had the support of religious orders that owned and ran most of them. This allowed a number of the larger colleges to make the transition to university level while maintaining their religious character. Most of the major Protestant universities such as Princeton and Duke gradually minimized their religious identification, but a number of smaller colleges resurged with a clearly Christian focus. The size of these schools limits their career training choices, but many of their faculty members conduct rigorous research, and they have contributed significantly to the reflection on Christian higher education. A small number of  Protestant universities, such as Baylor and Pepperdine, also made the transition to major universities while retaining an explicitly Christian identity.[4]  

International Developments

Many universities were also secularized in Europe and Latin American during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Other interesting approaches have also been followed.  In some countries like Germany some public universities, such as Tubingen, have distinct but officially supported faculties of Protestant and Catholic Theology. In England and some former English colonies, the tradition of universities with multiple colleges established at Oxford and Cambridge makes it possible to have Protestant, Catholic, and secular colleges under a university umbrella.

[1] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964).

[2] Carl J. Burlage, S.J., "The Teaching of Philosophy" in Christian Wisdom and Christian Formation, J. Barry McGannon, S.J. et al, editors (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 182.

[3] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 15-16.

[4] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2006), 34, 183-185, 218.