Hillsdale College has always been a Christian institution — not merely a liberal arts college with mostly Christian professors and students — according to its articles of association.
In the past, misconceptions have occasionally arisen as to whether Hillsdale is officially a Christian institution or if it is merely a school that adheres to a Judeo-Christian standard in its academics. But although the school did break denominational ties with the Freewill Baptists at the turn of the 20th century, the college board of trustees never intended to break ties with Christianity altogether, Provost David Whalen said.
“Religious culture in particular shall be conserved by the College,” Article VI of the Articles of Association, found on the college website, states. “And by the selection of instructors and other practicable expedients, it shall be a conspicuous aim to teach by precept and example the essentials of the Christian faith and religion.”
The college amended Article VI in 1907 to end affiliation with any specific Christian sect, in part because the college did not want to require its president and trustees to be Freewill Baptists, college historian Arlan Gilbert wrote in “The Permanent Things.”
But non-sectarian does not equal non-Christian.
“They went out of their way to reaffirm this is still a Christian institution; it is to remain a Christian institution,” Whalen said. “So much so that they went out of their way to revise the articles of association to essentially read, ‘This is a Christian college.’”
According to Whalen, any perplexity and confusion about Hillsdale’s Christianity usually stems from the fact that the college is not a denominational church school.
“We do not have a faith statement we make people sign,” he said. “Another one of the founding purposes of the college has to do with gratitude for civil and religious liberty, so it’d be odd if we required people to sign a religious statement.”
Despite the clarity of Hillsdale’s charter, confusion exists. According to Professor of English Michael Jordan, in both 2008 and 2011, he felt compelled to write letters to the editor in the Collegian in response to student misunderstandings about the college’s Christian ties. On the second occasion, students’ resentment about the addition of the Religion 105 option to the core curriculum had prompted him and Associate Professor of Philosophy Nathan Schlueter to co-author a response.
In their letter, they emphasized that neither the college nor the course intended to proselytize but that the college was justified in adding theology to the core.
“The student goes so far as to say that Hillsdale College is not ‘a Christian school,’” Schlueter and Jordan’s letter reads. “We believe the remark reflects a misunderstanding of the college and its mission…A Christian college that does not teach theology is not realizing its identity or fulfilling its mission.”
Whalen also said that after the core was revised there were several complaints about religion being forced on students.
“Those complaints were dealt with very easily,” he said. “There’s a difference between religion and the study of theology. Someone could be a complete atheist and still know who St. Augustine was and what St. Augustine thought about things.”
Nevertheless, misconceptions such as those addressed by Schlueter and Jordan do crop up from time to time. According to Whalen, mistakes about the college’s identity do not stem from a conscious effort to downplay the college’s Christianity in advertisements or official publications.
“The perception that it’s being downplayed is actively being corrected,” Whalen said. “In our newer promotional materials, you’ll find that our Christianity and our faith is pointed out more directly.”
Sophomore Nathan Steinmeyer, a Messianic Jewish student with self-professed unorthodox Christian beliefs, said he was unaware as a prospective student that the college recognizes itself as a Christian institution.
“I personally would have appreciated it if they had a much clearer mission statement that stated this is a Christian institution,” he said. “Instead, we’ve just got the ‘Judeo-Christian heritage,’ which is a little harder to understand. I had assumed that it was much more of the heritage that it taught and not so much the culture that it had. So I did have that ‘Oh wow’ moment.”
Non-Christian Brady Belew ’15 also said he didn’t understand the college’s religious stance during his time here.
“The school needs to either drop the religious base or change its marketing plan,” he said in an email. “The school I was sold was vastly different than the school I received.”
Whalen said using the more general phrase “Judeo-Christian heritage” likely stems from the college founders’ attempt to emphasize that the school accepts students regardless of religion.
“Whether people are Christian or not, if they’re people of good will and will work with us, then they’re welcome here,” Whalen said.
Non-Christian Evan Brune ‘15 said the welcoming attitude worked for him. Although he never adopted the Christian faith during his four years at the college, he also never resented Hillsdale’s Christian stance.
“I knew about Hillsdale’s Judeo-Christian focus,” Brune said. “That was one of the reasons why I came, despite not being a lifelong Christian. I wanted to gain a new perspective that I had never fully known before.”
But Kelsey Drapkin ’15, former president of Hillsdale’s Jewish society, Chavarah, said that during her time at the college, not everyone welcomed her Jewish faith. She mentioned numerous attempts to convert Jewish students on campus.
She said, however, the positive aspects of being a Jew at Hillsdale definitely outweighed the negative.
“I like to think when Jews attend Hillsdale, we’re there to put the ‘Judeo’ back in ‘Judeo-Christian,’” she said. “Curiosity of Christian students about their religious origins led to beautiful discussions both in and out of the classroom.”
According to Brune, Hillsdale’s religious leanings shouldn’t deter non-Christians from attending the college.
“There’s much more that Hillsdale has to offer beyond Christian teachings,” he said. “At the same time, I think Hillsdale should encourage non-Christians to attend. Not in an effort at conversion, but because it’s important to learn how to interface with others not of your faith.”
But according to Steinmeyer, Hillsdale’s strongest expressions of its Christianity, such as the soon-to-be-built chapel, may bar non-Christian students from attending.
“When I was looking at colleges, whenever I saw a college that marketed itself as a Christian college or a religious institution of any sort, I stopped looking,” he said. “I was looking for an education, not a sermon. I think the chapel will cause certain students who are looking at Hillsdale to stop.”
According to Dean of Men Aaron Petersen, being open about his faith isn’t an active part of his work on campus, despite the fact that he works at a Christian institution. He sees it as his role to welcome students of any religion or creed.
“For me, it can be a great advantage to bring faith and the spiritual life into many of the conversations that will happen in my office — when it’s effective and helpful,” he said. “There are times when it’s just not prudent or effective to have faith and spirituality a part of the conversation, and that’s fine too.”
Even college Chaplain Peter Beckwith, specifically hired as an Anglican minister, doesn’t feel his official Christian role prevents him from serving students of any faith.
“I function like I did in the Navy, and in the Navy you provide for your own, but you also facilitate for others, and you care for everybody,” he said. “Four years ago, the Jewish society Chavarah was formed, and I was pleased to assist them to do that. I don’t think it’s appropriate that I try to get other people to think like I do.”
“Regardless of the religious creed of any student here, we want them to feel at home,” he said. “Truly at home.”