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Commemorating William Augustus Muhlenberg, 1796-1877

A Sermon for Founders’ Day 2024 at Saint James School

“Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto it.”
— Matthew 6:33

Good evening! I am delighted to be here. I thank Father Dunnan and Father Montgomery for inviting me to share Founders’ Day with you. I hope you feel now, or will soon feel, as I feel, when I drive through those gates into Saint James. I feel deep love. I feel it because my son is an alumnus of Saint James and had a great, formative experience here. I feel it because I have known your headmaster for a great many years now. I have known the last several headmasters, in fact, and I have known all the Saint James Chaplains going back perhaps 30 years now.

But I also feel great love for Saint James because the school stands for something in which I believe passionately. What is that? Saint James School stands for a certain kind of education that is quite rare in the world today: Saint James intends every day to educate the whole person to excellence. Not just the brain, not just the body, but the whole person is educated here: the soul and the inner person, the moral side of us, the emotions and the imagination, are educated here.

You know all about this. You know that your daily duty here is to get your homework completed and spend three hours on the playing field and get to chapel on time and learn lines and notes for the musical and hurry over to the Refectory for responsibilities this week. Saint James sets out every day to educate all of who you are. A Saint James education is not about forming one part of you but all parts of you.

Each of you is, in other words, getting a complete education here at Fountain Rock. That is the objective. Such an education is also called “the liberal education” because becoming strong in every aspect of our human nature gives us a deep sort of liberty, makes us — free.

This way to educate young men and young women may be quite rare in the United States today, but it is in fact the perennial philosophy of education. For at least 2,500 years, the best educators running the best schools have understood that the end or first purpose of education is Virtue, with the capital V. When I said a moment ago that Saint James wants to educate the whole person to excellence, I was saying that Saint James is aiming for Virtue with the capital V.

In the West, this perennial philosophy of education goes back to at least the time of the Greek philosopher Socrates, but you’ll find the same commitment to Virtue in other cultures and among other people around the world. The greatest educators took it for granted that, if you aim for Virtue, then all the other benefits of education will be yours also. Aristotle called these more mundane perks of education “natural goods,” and he was sure they too come to the student if he or she is aiming for Virtue. Among these natural goods are skills and practical knowledge and competencies and effectiveness in the workaday world, but seek the First Thing first.

According to his protégé Plato, Socrates got into an important debate with a group of teachers called the Sophists, from which we get our word sophisticated. (This is a cautionary tale!) The argument was about the meaning of Virtue. The Sophists were very popular teachers who taught students a particular skill and called it virtue. Skill and proficiency in a particular art suffices in order to be “virtuous.” The Sophists were not so interested in educating the whole person to excellence. They made their living instilling one skill with cash value. Examples of this single-mindedness are learning public speaking skills, or how to do woodcarving, or how to make metal coins, or how to calculate sums quickly, or how to play the lyre and sing. I think you’ll agree that each of these particular skills is valuable, and of course Socrates valued them also. But the Sophists called these skills “virtue” and saw no value in aiming higher. These popular educators assumed that a “virtuous person” is no more than this practical expertise. This approach to education appears very “practical,” don’t you think? Well — maybe it’s not so practical after all.

Socrates smelled a rat in the Sophists’ philosophy. He knew right off the bat that these teachers were aiming much too low and taking money for it. In any case, Socrates protested, bona fide Virtue cannot be reduced to being good at one thing. There is something more, something higher, for which we must aim. In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates exclaims to a Sophist: “I have asked for Virtue, and you have given me a swarm of virtues.” Always aiming higher and digging deeper, Socrates defined Virtue as skill or proficiency in being human as such. Virtue is something like well-roundedness but goes much deeper than that. The complete person, the person made in the image of God and is all a human being can be: this is a person who possesses Virtue.

Virtue with the capital V is, then, general human excellence.

To hit this target defined by Socrates requires a certain type of school specially designed to develop Virtue in the students. Such an education is involved and requires a lot of time. There is likewise much emphasis upon the school community in such a philosophy of education. Plenty of time, lots of room, a long school day: These traits describe a community and in fact a family. This is why the greatest educators in our Western tradition would have no difficulty understanding the old African proverb that “It takes a whole village to educate one child.”

In some ways, isn’t this a matter of common sense? It’s all about a good aim and hitting targets. Imagine the longbow archer. He sees the target way off in the distance. To test his mettle in the tournament of life, the archer must hit a target set up far away. The skilled archer knows that he cannot hit the target unless he aims very high. If he aims low, the arrow will never get anywhere near the distant target. And as he bends his bow, does he not know that he must concentrate, not on the whole target frame, but on the bull’s eye? At a hundred or two hundred yards, the archer cannot see the target too clearly, yet he knows he must fix his mind’s eye on the bull’s eye. That bull’s eye is exactly what the worthy archer is aiming for: If he perchance misses the bull’s eye, well — he knows he’ll hit the target anyway. For this he knows he’ll get a prize. In any case, he knows he must aim high if he would stay alive in the tournament of archers.

Now there are many good schools in the world aiming for virtue as the Sophists defined it. Such schools graduate impressively skilled students year after year. They can read, write, and do math exceptionally well. But this is just the beginning of a sound education. The great schools are aiming higher. The first purpose of a great school is Virtue with the capital V. This proposition is verified in history. It is assumed in a great school that, if you aim above “academic excellence,” if you aim for Virtue, then you will achieve both Virtue and a general academic excellence: Because the entire scholastic community seeks first what matters the most, the student body generally will also gain the more mundane benefits of education along the way. This principle is as important in the history of education as the principle of lift was to the history of aviation.

Let me quickly say something very important. There are at least two kinds of human knowledge, and thus two kinds of knowing. On the one hand, rational knowing (ratio) gives us rational knowledge. One plus one equals two is an example of rational knowledge. To know that it is 70 miles to Baltimore is rational knowledge. To see how Shakespeare makes his drama through dialogue is rational knowledge. But there is another kind of knowledge and another type of knowing. This is non-rational knowing, or supra-rational knowing; such knowing gives us the knowledge of things not easily known by the reason (or rational faculty). This supra-rational knowing giving us another kind of knowledge is called the understanding, our English word for the Latin intellectum.

Now look what we have done: We have made a distinction between reason and intellect. The intellect or understanding gives us knowledge of immaterial realities, of ideas, of spiritual and moral things, and of eternal values. When I apprehend true beauty in that Shakespeare play or in a geometric function, that’s my understanding at work. When I apprehend a mysterious truth in a Stanford hymn tune or a Byrd motet, it is my understanding that gives me this experience, not my reason particularly. And it goes without saying that God is above reason but may be apprehended somewhat in the understanding. Mystical knowing is closer to the understanding than to the reason.

Thus sound knowledge comes by the two ways, Ratio and Intellectum, by reason and understanding: You and I apprehend realities by both means. Reason and understanding work closely together, but do mark it that it is the understanding — not the reason — that first apprehends eternal values such as goodness, truth, beauty, and unity. A school dedicated to the high-aim philosophy will guarantee that every student is exposed to both kinds of knowledge and “exercising” both kinds of knowing. This is getting a bit technical just before your supper! Suffice it to say that Saint James School is dedicated to both kinds of learning and to acquiring both kinds of knowledge.

May I be bold? For about a hundred years now, most schools in the North Atlantic world have concentrated on the rational sort of knowledge and greatly limited what knowledge students gain from the deeper faculty called the understanding. A great school pursues both kinds of knowledge all the time, every day, and in myriad ways.

Now let me finish this sermon. I’m getting hungry too. It was the great genius of William Augustus Muhlenberg, whom we commemorate today, that he figured out a way to “marry” the perennial philosophy of education and the Christian religion. The title of his first book was The Application of Christianity to Education (1828). That small book marks the beginning of a movement in education that saw the creation of some of the best schools in American history. The booklet is filled with “quotable quotes” such as:

The mind must not be furnished at the expense of the heart.

There can be no such thing as Christianity in the abstract.

Some great minds are slow in developing;
the acorn gives little promise of the oak.

The great weakness in American education is the preoccupation with method,
when we all know that the secret is the living spirit of the teacher.

Religion should never be held to account for inferior scholarship.

Let’s pause on this last choice maxim. “Religion should never be held to account for inferior scholarship.” The Muhlenberg-type school is not by any means a religious seminary. Religion and religious faith are of course mixed into the daily life of the school, and beautifully so, but the Muhlenbergian educators never forgot that they were doing school and not church. Everything was carefully conceived and a proper balance between the sacred and the secular was achieved. The old idea of “little by little” is something Muhlenberg and his disciples in education assiduously applied to their schools. Religion is not acquired in big doses once a week but “little by little” all the week long. This is what we call today “developmentally appropriate.”

While his two succeeding schools on Long Island combined Christian principles with the classical pursuit of Virtue, from the get-go Muhlenberg did realize that he had a problem to solve. For as you know, a key doctrine of Christianity is that you and I are disabled deep down and we cannot attain Virtue as we defined it a moment ago. This weakness the church calls “sin.” It goes deep! St. Paul appreciated this problem very well, when he wrote to some new believers in Rome that as much as he tried to do the right thing and be what he knows God wants him to be, he was falling short every time. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15). I sure know what Paul is talking about.

But Muhlenberg took another central Christian teaching to heart: that there is one Man who attained the Virtue the human race desires. Christ is Virtuous and thus Christ is our Virtue.

If Christ is our Virtue; if we would hope to attain to this Virtue, or let us say participate in the Virtue of Christ, then it is obvious that you and I must in some manner or other have Christ in us, and we must also somehow be “in him.” How in the world can this happen? The answer is that, if you and I want it to happen, and if we ask God to make this relationship with Christ happen, then God can and will make it happen for each of us. God’s means to make us part of Christ is called God’s grace.

This doctrine of grace is thus another of Muhlenberg’s applications of Christian doctrine to education. Grace is a word that denotes God’s help. “By grace you were saved, through faith in Christ Jesus,” wrote St. Paul. God’s help or grace is of course undeserved and comes when we least expect it, but this grace is absolutely essential if you and I would have any little part of the Virtue of Christ. There’s an old maxim, “Grace perfects nature.” I’m sure Muhlenberg knew the maxim, because it is associated with the greatest Christian thinker of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas. “Grace perfects nature.”

Our human nature, impressive as it may be in some ways, is yet too weak to achieve what we rightly desire — what we know in our hearts is our target. Hence our creator has arranged that you and I really can and do become by grace a part or members of Christ. The first reading we heard tonight from the fourth chapter of Ephesians is about the body mystical of Christ and its members.

What does a school have to do with the body mystical of Christ and its members? This leads me to a crucial fourth aspect of Muhlenberg’s philosophy of education. Seventy years before John Dewey wrote of the principle in such books as The School and Society (1899) and Democracy and Education (1916), Muhlenberg realized the radical importance of the school community and that the school community is itself educative. This is so obvious that it is easy to miss the point. We get at this idea when we say sometimes that students in a school learn much “by osmosis.”

Muhlenberg realized that the school is the church in the church’s scholastic or teaching mode. And if the school is “a little image of the Church” (H.P. Liddon), then the school is in fact the Body scholastic (if you will). Look at how very high standards can be set for each student in such a scholastic Body, and this for the simple reason that God’s grace or help is mediated in Christ to and by each member of the school community.

Grace happens in the body scholastic just as in the body mystical. Grace is happening right now in this chapel. Here we are, the whole school gathered for evensong. None of us can know how this awesome mystery works; you won’t see with your eyes how the person on your left or the person on your right is mediating God’s grace to you. The reason doesn’t get it, but the understanding knows! We are talking about the mysteries of faith, are we not? In an infinitesimal number of ways, God is “working on” each one of us every day, all the time. More importantly, God is working in you. The idea is expressed in a prayer you use often here at Saint James:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Proper 19, BCP)

In 1828, Muhlenberg set out to create the best school in the world. He had carefully studied schools in Europe, England, and America. He did not want to do things the way they had always been done. To make his beau ideal reality, he knew that he had to either give up the 2,500-year-old perennial philosophy of education, which dared to aim for Virtue but never hit the target, or he had to create something totally new, or he had to figure out a way to combine Christian principles and the classical, perennial tradition. He did not see why he had to give up the perennial philosophy altogether. He was educated under the principles of this philosophy and did well by it. He also assumed that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and all the best pagan philosophers and moralists saw pretty clearly what is the purpose, at least, of education: the development of Virtue. The only problem — a major one — is what we’ve already noticed: Human nature is just too weakened by the power of sin to hit the target. Therefore, Muhlenberg’s two successive schools on Long Island were commended to the God of grace.

Muhlenberg’s hope was that Christ Jesus, the perfect man, would serve as not only the model of school ideals but the end and the means of the fellowship’s pursuit of Virtue (in the Christian sense of the word). If you and I would be Virtuous, we must have Christ, and Christ must have us. The scholastic brotherhoods Muhlenberg created on Long Island were definitely grace-full communities. Others noticed something exceptional about Muhlenberg’s “school sons.” They were growing into young men of noteworthy character, and these graduates were achieving a very high level academically as well. They easily gained admission to the most selective colleges. You know that these students were aiming much higher than academic excellence, yet in the process they were exemplary scholars of sound knowledge and impressive skills. Go figure! Does the high aim somehow make the mind more capacious and powerful? I think maybe so.

One poster boy for this educational program was a strapping Philadelphian named James Lloyd Breck (1818-1876). By all accounts, Breck was average in terms of intellectual power, but after five years in Dr. Muhlenberg’s school family, he slowly but surely developed into an astonishing young man who became a most effective adult. Breck matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania as a third-year student and graduated magna cum laude in classics in just two years. From Penn he went to New York City, where he distinguished himself once again in preparation for the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. In the chapel of St. Paul’s School on Long Island, Muhlenberg “commissioned” Breck for the work of a missionary educator on the American frontier.

Deeply impressed by the story of the sixth-century St. Columba (Colmcille) and his companions, who founded a scholastic brotherhood on the Isle of Iona, just off the coast of Scotland, Breck founded three colleges, three seminaries, five boarding schools, a dozen parochial schools, and perhaps a score of parish churches in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. When Breck died in 1876, people from coast to coast mourned him. One bishop in New York, who knew Breck well, wrote in a church magazine that this virtuous man struck him as the closest thing America had ever produced to Sir Galahad of the Arthurian lore. What he meant was that Breck was faithful, pure, gallant, brave, and virtuous. Throughout his distinguished and exemplary life, James Lloyd Breck constantly gave God and his old “school father,” Dr. Muhlenberg, the credit.

Now the Bishop of Maryland of course wanted Muhlenberg to come to Maryland and start a school just like the one that spawned the likes of James Lloyd Breck! Muhlenberg was flattered but said he could not come to Maryland. Instead, he sent his right-hand man. This was John Barrett Kerfoot (1816-81), who came to Maryland in 1841 and, with Muhlenberg, William R. Whittingham, and Theodore Lyman (rector of St. John’s, Hagerstown) planned what became the College and Grammar School of St. James’s. The school began classes in October 1842. The rest is history well known to you.

What I wish to impress on all of you tonight is that you are being educated in the time-honored way. You are part of the great tradition. The end of education here at Saint James is Virtue in the Christian sense of the word. How do we hit that luminous target? God gives the grace mediated in Christ to and by each of you. The highest standards may be set because within the body scholastic is found the grace by which very high standards may be achieved. We all know that we fall short of the target rather often, but “the striving is as important as the arriving,” as someone once put it; but to be members of a scholastic fellowship with a target such as ours — well, this alone is a great privilege and a blessing.

I love the metaphor Dante used in the first Canto of the Paradiso. The poet compares us human beings to arrows God has carefully made, fletched, and sharpened: God then strings his bow, notches the arrow, pulls the bow, and sends the arrow to the target, which is heaven. And that great saying of C.S. Lewis is likewise relevant to what’s been said this evening: “Aim for Heaven, and you get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and you get neither” (Mere Christianity, 1942).

High standards and hard work in the helping community: this motto sums up the daily routine of the Muhlenberg-type church school. I do know this is hard to appreciate on most days. I realize that you have a lot on your minds this very evening. But I also know that off in the distance you can at times gain a glimpse, at least, of the target: I know that on your best days you can just see it in your mind’s eye — envision the bull’s eye on the target of Virtue — and you can feel yourself hitting it with God’s help.

Keep aiming high. Don’t lose heart. Believe in the Lord and be confident about the ideals of your Alma Mater. They are worthy! Believe every morning when you rise that God will provide you with the requisite grace to string your bow, to bend it, to aim high, and to let fly the arrow.

I hope each one of you is proud that Saint James is your school. I promise you — it is one of the rare and fine school experiences that can be had in America today. Here at Fountain Rock, you are being tried and tested in every aspect of your human nature. Every part of who you are is being challenged and nurtured, that each might become virtuous. Be glad for this! No merely sophistical education is valued here at Fountain Rock! No — you are aiming higher than that. You are pursuing the real thing. What a blessing it is to be a member of a scholastic fellowship aiming for this target. When I go away from this beautiful place tomorrow, I will pray that, when you return to these hallowed grounds years from now, you will love to know that you have come home.

Good evening and God bless you.



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