The Spiritual History of the University of Wisconsin: New Research from Upper House

Susan Smetzer-Anderson February 24, 2023

Join us on Wednesday, March 1, for a 4:30 PM reception and 5:00 PM program Celebrating the Spiritual History of UW-Madison. We will enjoy a brief presentation, view a new video, and share access to an audio campus tour and historical essay about the school’s 175-year history with religion. Reservations are encouraged to assure we have enough food for all guests. Please join us!

When Upper House was awarded a grant from the John Templeton Foundation in 2020 for the Higher Pursuits Project (HPP)—an endeavor to engage the history, ideals, and values that shape the contemporary university—Dan Hummel took on the task of researching the University of Wisconsin’s religious history. What he found is that “the story of religion at UW is not linear. You can’t tell a straight story, or a story that features purely good and bad actors, or a story about a strict sacred-secular divide.” In other words, the story of the 175-year-old institution’s relationship with religion is complicated and has some surprising twists and turns. 


Dan is a historian and Director of University Engagement at Upper House. Out of his archival research and interviews with emeritus professors, along with collaborative work on a walking tour with Jon Dahl (a campus minister) and Scott Wilson (a videographer), emerged three interesting products: an essay documenting UW’s relationship with organized religion over time, a video highlighting leaders whose faith influenced their work, and a walking tour (with audio) of UW’s old campus. All of these will be presented at Upper House’s Celebration of UW’s Spiritual History (Wednesday, March 1, 4:30 – 6:30 PM). 


Among the findings that people might find surprising: early university leaders such as John Bascom had religious training and spent part of their lives as ministers. Largely Protestant in their personal faith, the leaders established policies to enable churches to erect buildings immediately adjacent to the campus, and many denominations responded to the invitation. UW’s leaders essentially pursued a “nonsectarian” ideal—enshrined in Wisconsin’s state constitution—along with policies that attempted to answer (and counter) citizens’ concerns that the university was an atheistic, godless institution. Even as they pursued their mission as ambassadors of a public (tax-funded) institution, these same men would publicly acknowledge faith convictions and, often, attend church and teach Sunday school classes. 


Another influence at play in the university’s relationship with religion was its designation as a land-grant university, which occurred following President Lincoln’s signing of the 1862Morrill Act. The land-grant designation expanded the university’s mission to include training of young people in the “agriculture and mechanic arts.” The new emphasis on applied science led to some de-emphasis of more classical learning and questions of meaning, including the areas of the university curriculum that included religion. The very structure of the university in this way shaped the type of conversations that happened in classrooms. 


These and other fascinating details became clear as Dan looked through boxes of records. He also observed that this research was going to help fill a void, because “there’s been so much written on New England schools and their religious underpinnings. But there is less written about public universities.” His recently published essay, “The University of Wisconsin and the Ideal of Nonsectarianism: Organized Religion at a Flagship University, 1848-2023” is a helpful contribution to the historical record. (He will present on it at our March 1 celebration.) 


The findings also reveal ways that UW’s well-known progressive tradition is tied to professors with faith connections. For example, nationally influential economists Richard Ely and John R. Commons (at the turn of the century) were both men of religious faith. They promoted progressive labor policies and reforms, such as trust busting, and spoke into the development of legislation and regulations. At the same time, these men also promoted eugenics and proposed policies to limit immigration from countries considered inferior to Anglo- and German-Americans. At the time, the ranking of races in this way was considered scientifically valid and widely discussed among scholars, even as these ideas are now rejected. 


Yet, one of the university’s most enduring ideals resonates with common good themes found in the Bible — The Wisconsin Idea, articulated in 1904 by Charles Van Hise. As university President, Van Hise publicly stated he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state. Speaking about the Wisconsin Idea in 1913, he mused that its “purpose is the Wisconsin reply to the man who said to Jesus nearly 2000 years ago, ‘Who is my neighbor?  


To learn more about the university’s leaders and the religious dynamics on campus over time, we invite you to attend our March 1 Celebration of the Spiritual History of UW-Madison. We will also post on our website all the resources presented at that event. Quite simply, while it is impossible to sum up this valuable research in 750 words, the resulting impression is clear: faith in God has moved people in this institution since its founding, and it continues to move people and affect the institution today.