Keeping the Faith in Christian Higher Education

A History of Roanoke College

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Robert D. Benne
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     302 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Concerns that American colleges and universities may secularize stretch as far back as many of their founders, the publication of George M. Marsden’s 1994 The Soul of the American University (Oxford University Press) brought not only that possibility, but that reality front and center for many contemporary administrators. Marsden chronicled the reasons leading institutions—as old as Harvard and Yale and as young as the University of Chicago and Stanford—relegated religion to quiet corners of their campuses. In response, administrators at institutions such as Baylor unleashed strategic plans designed to not only advance the academic quality of their universities, but also tighten the theological fabric that gave those standards their particular shape and definition. 

In an attempt to assess those efforts, Robert Benne, an ethicist from Roanoke College, published Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001). As the primary title echoes, Benne contended that academic excellence and religious dedication were, by their nature, not at odds with one another. In addition, he argued that a diverse array of patterns exist by which they can reinforce one another. 

Although Roanoke College was not one of the six institutions that Benne considered in that book, he turned his attention closer to home and did so in a book-length project entitled Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education: A History of Roanoke College (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017). While a compelling read by a noted scholar, Benne’s methodological focus on Roanoke’s presidents left me wondering exactly what Roanoke offers—as the primary title suggests—other Christian college and university administrators wrestling with questions concerning the souls of their institutions. 

Benne defines an understanding of that soul that could prove applicable to a wide variety of colleges and universities as “the discernable spirit (or Geist) of the school ... expressed in a combination of its religious vision and ethos” (xv). For Roanoke in particular, that soul took the form of a Christian republicanism that, according to its founding president David Bittle, strove “by all possible means to imbue the educated popular mind with the conservative and saving power of true religion” (23). 

Benne then frames his story around the various ways in which Bittle’s successors reflected that spirit. Each of the ten chapters focuses—in chronological order—on the qualities that defined those individuals, the vision they had for Roanoke, and the extent to which that vision was woven into the fabric of the institution. Drawing on the historiographical example offered by Robert Bellah in his article, “The American Civil Religion” (Daedalus, Winter 1967), Benne focuses on the inaugural addresses of Roanoke’s presidents, believing those manuscripts embodied “what they were committed to as presidents; what they thought the college was committed to; and what they could contribute to that mission” (xvii).

From those aspirations, Benne then examines the way each president sought to cultivate the colleges’s soul expressed in keeping with a Lutheran iteration of Christian republicanism. From the beginning, Bittle established Roanoke as a “Christian republicanism that would bring together personal morality and social well-being” (4).

Benne thus measures the efforts of successive Roanoke presidents by their ability to come to terms with how that spirit would animate the campus. For example, John Morehead—president from 1903-1920 and the focus of chapter 3—fares rather well. In particular, “the Christian republicanism ... is powerfully clear. And the formation of Christian character is central” (58-59). Benne notes that Morehead “retreat[ed] from the full-blooded Trinitarian thinking of Bittle” (59). However, Benne also contends “it could be argued that no Roanoke president before or after [Morehead] achieved such an impact”—a “massive” impact on church and society (51). 

In contrast, other presidents fare rather poorly. As an example, Benne argues in chapter 5 that during Sherman Oberly’s tenure as president (1949-1963), “Christian republican themes were still present, but in a diminished and muted way” (100). In particular, “[t]his weakening of the college’s sense of mission—and hiring faculty according to it—became an ingredient in the later marginalization of the college’s Christian heritage” (101). 

Benne provides his readers with an engaging and nuanced account of the spirit of Roanoke College but, for at least two reasons, his methodological focus on presidents left me wondering about how far Roanoke’s story applies to other Christian colleges and universities. 

First, while Benne mentionsed other actors such as chief academic affairs officers and a number of faculty members, his primary focus on the presidents consistently implies that they were the most powerful actors on their campuses. Regardless of their influence, these other administrators reside in the shadows of the narrative. 

Second, it is likely that not all presidents were equal in influence; yet, the way Benne structures his chapters leaves readers with exactly that impression. For instance, Benne dedicates a chapter to the president who served 29 years and a chapter to the president who served three years. In the same manner as the additional actors, some presidencies deserve more consideration while some, arguably, deserve less. 

For these reasons, I found it difficult to draw parallels between Roanoke’s story and the stories of other Christian institutions of higher education. This in no way diminishes Benne’s book as worthy of consideration. What the reader takes away from it may just be limited to Roanoke and/or to Lutheran higher education.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd Ream is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University and Senior Fellow with the Lumen Research Institute.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Benne is Jordan Trexler professor emeritus at Roanoke College and founder of the Benne Center for Religion and Society. His other books include Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics and Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions.


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