Lessons from Saint James School

William Augustus Muhlenberg

By W.L. Prehn

Saint James School in St. James, Maryland, is celebrating its 175th anniversary. It is a model Episcopal boarding school operating at full capacity. Though this school, located 65 minutes from Washington, has been thriving for quite some time now, I think it fair to say that many are unfamiliar with its history and current work. The place caught my attention in the late 1990s when a trusted friend told me enthusiastically, “This is the school we’ve all been looking for.” Since this is a large claim — we have so many good schools — I took notice. The Rev. Stuart Dunnan is in his 26th year as headmaster and is still a relatively young man. What is yet to come at Saint James could be noteworthy.

Saint James School is historic for at least two reasons. First, Saint James is simply one of our oldest schools. Of our historic boarding schools still in operation, only the Episcopal High School in Alexandria (1839) is older. We who care about faith-based education of the Episcopal variety celebrate such a milestone.

Second, Saint James was the mother lode for much subsequent prospecting in Episcopal education. Not just one or two schools were modeled on Saint James. Personnel from Saint James either founded or participated in the foundational years of St. Paul’s Concord (1856), Racine College in Wisconsin (1858), the Shattuck and St. Mary’s Schools in Minnesota (1858 and 1859), and St. Mark’s Southborough (1865). Saint James was modeled on St. Paul’s College and Grammar School (1836), the mature iteration on Long Island of the scholastic vision of William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877).

John Barrett Kerfoot (1816-81) painstakingly modeled Saint James on the first St. Paul’s. The founders of St. Timothy’s Catonsville (1845), St. Mary’s in New York (1865), Groton (1884), St. George’s (1896), St. Andrew’s Sewanee (1904), Kent (1905), and many other Episcopal schools across the nation admired Muhlenberg, Kerfoot, Henry and Joseph Howland Coit, and their protégés as the pioneers of a new and most successful kind of institution called the Church school. Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870) admired what Muhlenberg and his circle of school-makers established. She was especially close to William Rollinson Whittingham (1805-79), Bishop of Maryland, who was close to Muhlenberg and Kerfoot and one of the Founders of Saint James. (In her 1819 Plan for Improving Female Education, Willard alone intuited that it was going to be very difficult to realize the great educational vision on private funding alone.)

All of us recognize that there are many different kinds of Church schools in the world today. We are likewise aware that anything in this world changes and evolves. Nothing stays the same. But since Saint James still pursues the ideals of the specifically Muhlenberg-type Church school to a remarkable degree, we want to know the features of this model. The late James McLachlan enumerates the principles of Muhlenberg and his disciples in American Boarding Schools: A Historical Study (1970). We owe it to McLachlan for discovering both the originality of Muhlenberg’s school model on Long Island and the fact that the schools in this tradition were by no means American copies of British models. Muhlenberg and his acolytes studied schools all over the world; hence, they did not despise good and workable ideas they found in the English public schools. But the Muhlenberg-type school was a new thing in the world.

The overarching concern of Muhlenberg, Kerfoot, and others was thoroughly to apply the gospel to education. If the gospel is true, its truths must be integrated into the daily life of a school. This application must be effected with great care and discretion, and Muhlenberg insisted that “religion should never be held to account for inferior scholarship.” Thus these schools were actually scholastic brotherhoods. Since it was assumed that the school is the Church in the Church’s scholastic work, the strong Christian commitment was neither overwhelming, artificial, nor sanctimonious.

Muhlenberg likewise longed deeply for a social catholicity in his schools that was less and less achieved in the typical Episcopal school (until quite recently). In their day, the schools were considered progressive. While they took it for granted that the deepest and most useful learning is gained through classical studies, and they were utterly convinced of the “moral benefits of exact scholarship” (B.F. Westcott), the Muhlenbergians brought the old subjects alive by showing their relevance to the whole of life. They added modern literature, modern languages, and science to the curriculum. The carefully selected teachers made the recitation room an experience to enjoy. By every extant account of their daily life, we know the schools featured something not known in those times: close and caring relationships between teacher and student. The whole brotherhood gathered for daily chapel, where their common and individual concerns were shared with the fellowship. The food was good. Discipline was humane and corporal punishment rare. The emphasis upon physical culture in fact antedated the enthusiasm for “games” in English schools. (Competitive rowing began at St. Paul’s, College Point, in the 1830s and not at St. Paul’s, Concord.)

What is plain in the history of Saint James and other schools in the Muhlenbergian tradition is that school leaders assumed that character is the end of education. If character is the aim, everything else falls into place. They proved this over and over again. The head of school must not only model the values and goals of the community to the students, but must lead the way with strength. Authority in the school was no small matter to Muhlenberg and the others. They saw the radical relationship not only between authority and saving faith but between authority and sound learning. Kerfoot fleshed the idea out in an 1843 article for a Baltimore journal. The pupil must trust and believe in the testimony of the master, who is authorized to teach the truth: The very initiation of learning requires what Kerfoot called “first faith.” In fact, the idea owes a good bit to Locke and not only to the New Testament.

In stressing character as the end of education, these Episcopal school-makers rediscovered something classical. It’s a simple but powerful principle adumbrated in Plato and Aristotle: For the best results in education, the daily routine must aim high — or let us say, aim deeply. The entire daily life must set out to educate the whole person to excellence, beginning with the inside of a student. In the curriculum and pedagogy, in the organization of the institution and of the daily and weekly schedules, every aspect of human nature was to be addressed, “exercised,” and matured. There is a whale of a difference between a school using a rich, challenging, and comprehensive course of study as the means to character and a school using “character education” as a means to “academic excellence.” The Muhlenbergians kept their priorities straight. They favored the first kind of school and got astonishing results with their method. Besides, students have an instinct that “character education” is humbug.

Another way to articulate the central principle of the Muhlenberg-type Church school is to say that to do its best work by each student a school must aim above academic achievement. When this high aim is fleshed out in the life of the school community, lo and behold, a more general academic excellence does develop in the end. Muhlenberg, Kerfoot, the Coit brothers, and all the others seem to have realized that superior intellectual power is given to a small percentage of the population, but their purpose and scope extended well beyond that elite group of youth. They took it for granted that a church school must have a superlative academic program (ne plus ultra), but they were horrified at the notion that a church school must be alone composed of students operating in the Top One Percent of national aptitude assessments. For them such a school would simply not be the Church at study.

Let me say a wee bit about the Church in the Church school. Although Muhlenberg distanced himself from the leaders of the Oxford Movement after 1845, when John Henry Newman converted to the Roman Catholic Church, it is patently clear that Muhlenberg was profoundly influenced for 20 years by the Tractarian strain of thought and in his idiosyncratic way he was an American exponent of the North Atlantic Church Revival. Most of his disciples were High Church if not Anglo-Catholic. One of the great features of the Church Revival was a rediscovery of the phenomenon of the Church, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of the Creed. The ideal of the Church as the body mystical of Christ inspired these educators. They associated sacramental grace with the pursuit of high standards in their schools. They believed that God’s divine help, grace, is mysteriously mediated in Christ to each member of the school. This is another, perhaps deeper, way to explain what the Muhlenbergians meant when they assumed that a church school is the Church in her scholastic function.

My question is simply this: Besides historic Saint James School in Maryland, what others of you working in Episcopal schools feel you are pursuing the ideals of the Muhlenbergian Church school?

While asking this question, let the reader know that I realize that Episcopal schools have come a long way in overcoming cultural baggage. I also want to be careful to state that Muhlenberg was a pragmatist: He sensed that he had created something rather new in education but the sources show that he gave his disciples complete liberty to develop the Beau Ideal in their ways in their regions and local situations. In the spirit of Muhlenberg and Kerfoot, Father Dunnan of Saint James has to my mind done a remarkable job of translating that Beau Ideal into a wonderfully fitting 21st-century reality.

The Rev. W.L. Prehn is interim headmaster of St. John’s Parish Day School, Ellicott City, Maryland, and earned a PhD in the history of American education from the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from The Commons, the weblog of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.


Online Archives