It began in the cold. On Wednesday, December 6, 1871, Carl Frederick Kranz, a minister and teacher recently arrived in the United States from his native Germany, stepped off a passenger train in Elmhurst, Illinois, accompanied by 14 students. Kranz was 32 years old; his charges, all boys, were about half his age. They were the sons of farmers and ministers from immigrant enclaves in various states, mostly in the Midwest. With their teacher, they shared membership in the German Evangelical Synod of North America.
The Synod was the American offspring of the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union, founded in 1817 by edict of Kaiser Friedrick William III. The new church brought together Lutheran and Reformed congregations in a single body. Both the German and American incarnations of the church were “Pietist” in spirit; they cared less about ritual and dogma than about inner devotion and its practical results. A practitioner’s basic goal was a faith that works in daily living.
Following the dictates of the church fathers, Kranz and company had pulled up stakes in Evansville, Indiana, where they had a school, and had made the 329-mile journey north to Elmhurst, where they encountered a sequence of homes, a dusting of snow, and little else. (The town of 300 had no grade school, high school, library, sidewalks, paved streets, police or fire protection. It did have the Hill Cottage Tavern, locally famous since 1843.) The group’s aim was to establish a new institution, the German Evangelical Proseminary at Elmhurst, “to maintain a culture in the wilderness, to provide an educated leadership for the developing communities, and to teach the liberal arts within the context of the Christian faith.”
“It had been the intention of the founding fathers to develop a college,” Robert C. Stanger, ’18, a future president of the fledgling institution, wrote on the occasion of its centennial. “But the urgent need of the pioneer communities for pastors and teachers dictated a program such as the Proseminary provided.”
From the start, the Proseminary attracted not only aspiring pastors and teachers but also young men seeking to prepare for careers in business or engineering, or for professions such as medicine and law. The program followed the classical model of the Gymnasium, a German-model academy or high school. The rigorous curriculum embraced Latin, Greek, mathematics, music, history, geography, German, and English. By 1878, when the school published its first Jahrbuch, or catalog, the curriculum had expanded to include a distinctly modern discipline, laboratory science. “It was the intent of the Proseminary program to minister to the ‘whole person,’ defined in the context of the German heritage as attending to his formal intellectual needs on the one hand and his spiritual needs on the other,” according to the educator William F. Denman, who served as dean of students at Elmhurst in the 1960s and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the school’s development. “All subjects were to be taught with moral purposes in mind.” It was, said Denman, “a balanced humanistic diet.”
Balanced, but heavy in German fare. All courses, including English, were taught in German. The textbooks were German imports. Students translated Latin and Greek into German, and conversed among themselves in the language of the Fatherland. The Kaiser’s birthday (along with Washington’s) was a school holiday. On Sundays, students assembled four-abreast and goose-stepped to church.
The idea was to foster a spirit of loyalty to two cultures. “Our language and customs are German and we are not minded ever to give them up,” wrote W. F. Binner, an Evangelical educator. “But we do not set them in opposition to what is American; rather we regard the German and the American elements as two that are destined to diffuse in every part and together produce a new characteristic.”
In part because the faculty was small and resources were limited, students from the start played a significant role in the school’s development. In 1872, when enrollment began to grow substantially, the original students built a primitive one-room “hut” to accommodate ten of the new arrivals. Students built the first athletic fields and tennis courts, organized the first musical groups, and established the first “library,” a tiny collection kept in the closet of a smokehouse.
Within eight years of the arrival of the Reverend Kranz and the founding fourteen students, the first permanent classroom building, the Hauptgebaude (Old Main), had risen on the campus, and enrollment had swelled more than seven-fold, to 103. “The Proseminary met a real need,” wrote Dr. Stanger. It grew, not because it was well financed, well promoted or even especially well managed, but because it so clearly offered young people a chance to prepare for lives of service and meaning. It had the strength of an ideal.