In the first year of the new century, the words “Elmhurst College” first appeared on the cover of the Jahrbuch. The rest of the catalog remained in German, and outlined a resolutely European, not-very-collegiate curriculum. The catalog’s split personality reflected a divide in the institution’s self-definition that defined its increasingly conflicted course through the first decades of the 20th century.
By 1900, Elmhurst was a German-language secondary school that displayed many of the social attributes of an American college. In this development, once again, students led the way. In 1901 they organized a Student Athletic Association; the basketball team played not only local high schools but also Wheaton College and DePaul and Loyola universities. The soccer team won a state intercollegiate championship. Students established Greek-letter fraternities and issued a “college” yearbook. Most radically, William Denman writes, “young turks within the fold advocated a departure from total-German usage” and “called for the academic upgrading of the institution to ‘standard college’ status.”
The most conspicuous of the “young turks” were two brothers from Lincoln, Illinois, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr. While remarkably bright, the Niebuhrs were in most respects archetypal Elmhurst students of the day: products of a farm town, the sons of an immigrant Evangelical pastor and his wife, they aspired to careers in teaching and the ministry. Both were destined for brilliant careers as theologians and public intellectuals. Reinhold arrived at Elmhurst first, taking the train from Lincoln on September 2, 1907; Richard followed a year later. It is not too much to say that over the next two decades, the Niebuhrs—first Reinhold, then Richard—shaped, indeed transformed, the history of the place.
As a student, dissatisfied with the quality of some of his teachers, Reinhold took action. “His Latin teacher was so poor that in his last year, at the age of seventeen, Reinhold led a movement to have both him and an English professor dismissed,” Niebuhr’s biographer, Richard Wightman Fox, writes. Young Niebuhr “mobilized a hard core of students for the protest, then enlisted his father, who made inquiries at higher levels. The teachers were dismissed that spring.”
As alumni, both Niebuhrs proceeded directly to the Synod’s Eden Theological Seminary, in Missouri, without stopping to earn the bachelor’s degree. It was the prescribed model of professional preparation for the German Evangelical ministry, and it was increasingly out of step with the prevailing practices of Protestant America. At Eden, the brothers worked to establish The Keryx (Greek for “Herald”), a literary journal with a political agenda. According to Reinhold (who served as editor), The Keryx was founded to “arouse interest in Evangelical schools and, through this interest, to work for higher standards.” Its proximate goal was to begin the “agitation for a real college at Elmhurst.”
The agitation accelerated after both brothers graduated from Eden and enrolled at Yale Divinity School. Reinhold “felt miserably prepared,” Fox writes. “He struggled with both the content of the courses and the English language .… He felt cheated out of a college education.” In 1914 Reinhold wrote Samuel Press, an Elmhurst alumnus and Eden professor: “I have bluffed my way through pretty well by industrious reading, but I feel all the time like a mongrel among thoroughbreds.” The following year he told readers of The Keryx that his Elmhurst and Eden preparation had left him “naked of those garments without which a man is considered a barbarian in the academical world.” Upon Niebuhr’s instigation, The Keryx sponsored a symposium entitled “An Estimation of Our Educational System.” In the words of Melitta J. Cutright, a recent historian of Elmhurst College, the brothers had “opened a full-scale attack on the program at the Proseminary.”
At the Proseminary, the head of the resistance was the school’s longtime leader, Daniel Irion. “He was a man with black, staring eyes who by his very appearance commanded respect,” Robert Stanger remembered. “Yet he was not an autocrat. Behind that rigid exterior was a friendly heart.” During his record 24-year tenure at the top, Irion was variously called “Inspektor” and “Director.” At heart he was a Continental head-master, and absolutely devoted to the role. Beginning with a ritual introduction at Old Main, he kept in almost daily contact with each student. He addressed them in German only. He preferred a set classical curriculum with no electives, and a loyal faculty of generalists, not specialists. Students called him “the Old Man.” By the time the Niebuhrs came along, he was a man out of his time.
The Niebuhr forces had youth and history and the better academic argument on their side; but it was a confluence of practical factors that sealed their ultimate triumph. First, the Great War put an end to Elmhurst’s well-intentioned efforts to forge a third way between parochial isolation from American culture and outright embrace of it. In 1917, the catalog was published for the first time in English; within a decade of the defeat of the Fatherland, only a fraction of Elmhurst students spoke any German at all. Second, by 1917, high school seminaries had become something of an anomaly in Protestant America. The Proseminary still attracted students in substantial numbers, but in practical terms, that only made matters worse—since the school charged its aspiring ministers no tuition, it lost money on every new student, and became a massive drain on the church’s resources.
Third, the rapid development of public secondary education meant that nearly every hamlet in America had a serviceable high school. As The Keryx noted in 1914, “Every boy in our land can, if he will, receive a high school education today close to his home .… Elmhurst need no longer impart high-school education, any more than grade instruction.” Culture had come to the wilderness. Finally, Elmhurst’s rigid adherence to classicism prevented the curriculum from readily accommodating new knowledge—which was proliferating, especially in the hard and social sciences. In an essay written in 1967, on the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation, a student of the era, John Kaney, summarized the situation well. “The world was changing fast, and change at Elmhurst was overdue.”
In the summer of 1917, the General Conference of the Evangelical Synod, meeting at Pittsburgh, voted to upgrade the Proseminary to junior college status within two years, as the first step toward an ambitious plan to create a modern, vastly reformed institution, a “standard A.B. college.” In the summer of 1919, Daniel Irion retired as director. His successor, Herman J. Schick, held the title president.
“The church had been goaded—and educated—into restructuring the conception of its mission in higher education,” William Denman wrote. “After much soul-searching and debate, it had rejected the sufficiency of secondary school training as an adequate preparation for theological and other professional training, and had returned to the dream of its founders, bringing it to life.”