- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
When this only son died of diphtheria at the age of eight, however, the effect upon Henry Durant was cataclysmic. During the boy’s illness the father had vowed that he “would henceforth live for God” whether or not his child recovered. There is no way of knowing how he would have interpreted that promise if the story had ended happily, but upon the child’s death Durant immediately renounced his career and abruptly resigned from the bar. He then burned all the books, pictures, and objects of art that he considered unsuitable for a servant of the Lord, even throwing some of his most carefully nurtured plants on the pyre. It was a massive bonfire, and it smoldered for days.
These outlandish gestures did nothing to enhance Durant’s already strained social relationships, and there seems to have been collective relief when the couple moved away to New York. There Henry Durant attended to business and the Bible, apparently having convinced himself that commerce was more acceptable in the sight of God than the law. During the i86o’s he did spectacularly well in the manufacture of engines and other war matériel for the Union army. Every one of his evenings was now spent poring over Scripture, and he was soon devoting all of his spare time to evangelism, speaking at prayer meetings and religious revivals up and down the eastern seaboard. The hypnotic presence that had made him such a power in the courtroom worked equally well in church, and he became something of a star, drawing large and emotional crowds wherever he spoke. He was personally credited with hundreds of conversions. Strong men wept, and women swooned at these gatherings; and news of them quickly reached Massachusetts. There his former legal colleagues discussed his radical change of heart and direction with great skepticism. (It should, of course, be remembered that proper Bostonians “have” their religion the way they are said to “have” their hats, and faith is not considered something to be suddenly acquired in middle age.) There were also those who called him a war profiteer, but Durant seems to have persuaded himself that though “law and the gospel” were “diametrically opposed,” business and the gospel were perfectly compatible.
Though the Durants continued to spend their summers on their suburban Boston property, they found that they had even more time to themselves than before. The narrow society that couldn’t quite absorb a freethinking criminal lawyer found a hellfireand-brimstone entrepreneur no more to its liking. In solitude Henry Durant wandered over the hillside property that he had bought for his dead son and began to consider memorials suitable for “God’s work.” Though Durant was sure that God would approve a strictly religious boys’ preparatory school, the New England woods were already heavily salted with those. Pauline Durant thought that a girls’ school might be less superfluous, but that alone seemed rather too modest. Durant then proceeded to plan an orphanage as well as two schools, foreseeing an entire holy community in which youngsters of all ages, both sexes, and all economic classes would be taught gospel according to evangelical methods. Eventually, however, the Durants narrowed the proposal down to a more manageable project, definitely deciding upon an institution for the higher education of girls—a still uncrowded field in which there was more than enough room for something startlinelv original.
Once Durant had made up his mind to establish a seminary to train women as teachers “upon sound Christian principles,” he moved quickly. Mary Lyon and Matthew Vassar had gotten off to a running start and Sophia Smith’s college was under way, but Henry Durant was determined that his institution would overtake the entire field. By 1870 Durant had appointed a board of trustees, acquired the official charter of incorporation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and set aside six hundred thousand dollars in liquid assets. He had also drafted his primary stipulation: It is required that every Trustee, teacher and officer shall be a member of an Evangelical Church, and that the study of the Holy Scripture shall be pursued by every student throughout the entire college course under the direction of the faculty.
A solid religious base was no novelty in New England colleges, and diligent attention to Scripture was taken for granted everywhere, but evangelism of the stand-up-and-confess kind was something else again. Durant’s blatant zeal was considered in rather poor taste, just as his pictures, his books, and his indecorous plants had been.
Dressed in his most conservative country tweeds, his white hair flowing in the wind, Durant set out each day to make sure that every brick in his college would be godly. He forbade loud talking, profanity, and fighting among his labor force and even went so far as to build a dormitory for them in which the rules were as strict as those in a theological seminary. Bricklayers and carpenters who couldn’t live like monks were discharged on the spot and fresh replacements sent out from the city. On the day the cornerstone was laid, Henry and Pauline presented each surprised workman with a Bible as a memento of the occasion. A last and specially inscribed Bible was sealed in a tin box, inserted into the cornerstone, and mortared over.