A New Moral Vision

Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917

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Andrea L. Turpin
American Institutions and Society
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , October
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andrea Turpin’s debut work, A New Moral Vision, demonstrates how changing gender ideals, religious beliefs, and moral visions—communicated by American institutions of higher education—impacted conceptions of the ideal American society between 1837-1917. The purpose of the book is to remind historians that higher education has played a significant role in shaping American politics and reform movements over the course of the antebellum period, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era (6).

            Turpin achieves connecting the three major themes of gender, religion, and moral visions by first bringing the reader’s attention to the role of higher education on American civic life. Turpin connects women’s admittance into higher education with the pertinent questions that animated the public sphere in the period between antebellum America and World War I. The most vital questions included: what does it mean to be American, who should participate in civic life, and to what extent? (11). Colleges and universities joined this conversation by consistently redefining their identity and mission in light of the insights which emerged from these questions. Central to a college’s or university’s collective sense of self is its moral message, or how it proposes to serve its students, and how its graduates will then influence society. Turpin powerfully articulates that these moral messages have real effects on students’ personal development and civic participation (34). Thus, Turpin justifies examining American higher education through the lens of changing gender ideals and the theological shift from Protestant evangelicalism to Protestant modernism.

Turpin’s conclusion that it was theological “liberals” that emphasized specific gender roles rather than theological “conservatives” is more compelling due to the terminology she establishes at the beginning of the volume (19). Turpin incorporates the concept of relational spirituality to describe the beliefs and actions of both modernist and evangelical Protestantism. The vertical aspect of spirituality refers to one’s relationship with God while the horizontal aspect of spirituality refers to ethical relations with others. These categories help to reveal how an emphasis on vertical spirituality sometimes overrode cultural assumptions about gender roles. These categories also help to reveal how an emphasis on horizontal spirituality reinforced cultural assumptions about gender roles in determining proper ethics (17). This terminology enables the contemporary reader to distinguish between the theological concerns and commitments of the college and university from the historical implications of those commitments. This terminology also releases these historical characters from any revisionist history that risks pushing an agenda and demonstrates the charity and empathy in which Turpin approaches these two distinct theological groups.

Oberlin College served as Turpin’s most compelling example of a coeducation institution that emphasized vertical spirituality. Oberlin’s emphasis on global evangelism overrode any message it had of gender specificity. Therefore, Oberlin College challenged the traditional gender roles of the surrounding culture without necessarily intending to. In its initial conception of co-education, educators at Oberlin encouraged women’s education and their civic participation for pragmatic and religious reasons. They did so not so much from the belief that women were obliged to enter occupations where they were traditionally left out, but from the conviction that men and women had the responsibility to spread the Christian gospel by whatever means available (87).

Turpin’s analysis of Princeton’s reaction to these changes in higher education provides the clearest example of a university which emphasized horizontal spirituality and produced a more gendered approach to student moral formation. Princeton’s coordinate women’s college— Evelyn College—portrayed its primary moral contribution as forming female students in the feminine graces (112). While Princeton administrators believed that advanced liberal arts education was not useful only to men, Evelyn College was never intentioned to be an exact copy of Princeton, differing only in the sex of the students. Evelyn’s curriculum was developed to train women as wives and mothers to the nation’s leaders and elites (124). Administrators and educators cared to focus more on horizontal spirituality, thus religion at Princeton and Evelyn functioned to reinforce gendered social roles (127).

Another contribution that Turpin makes to the discussion on American higher education was the nuance of the “feminization” narrative of twentieth century Protestantism. Her examination of women’s admittance to co-educational, coordinate, and independent women colleges and universities serves as further evidence that American Protestantism was not feminized in the literal sense (29). Turpin convincingly shows that the early nineteenth century expansion of women’s higher education did not fit neatly with the alleged “feminized” approach to Christianity. The evangelical focus on vertical spirituality resulted in “equalizing” American Protestantism, opening more roles to more people. It was not the case that religious authority was transferred to women. Later when women’s higher education was more established, the potential threat of feminization was answered with an equal and opposite force of masculinization. As Protestant modernism became more prominent in colleges and universities, educators became less concerned with Christian doctrine and leaned more into horizontal spirituality, thus facilitating specific gender roles to establish an efficient ethic for society (30).

Any book project is hemmed in by its limitations. However, Turpin humbly admits that her study did not allow for the discussion of race due to the nature of the institutions included. The institutions examined were overwhelmingly white and Protestant (7). Yet, the study does open up opportunity for further discussion and research into how major factors—religion, race, class, and gender—simultaneously interacted with American moral visions in the landscape of higher education.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Dannemiller is a graduate candidate for the MA in Modern American Christianity at Abilene Christian University.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrea L. Turpin is Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University.



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