August 18, 2017

The Historical Developments of the Campus Ministry (2)

William J. Senn III

For Part One click here.

Student Religious Meetings and Societies in America

The Prayer for the Servants of God: Harvard University

In America, eighty-eight of the first one hundred colleges were organized to preach the gospel.[1] In 1636 the first of these, Harvard, was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Puritans who had the goal of training ministers of the gospel. The mission statement for the college was stated by John Harvard: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main ends of this life and studies; to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life.”[2] Sadly, like Oxford, Harvard began to let its “Orthodox Ox” cross back over “the ford.” In the years that followed, the university drifted from the vision of its founders and became intolerant to those who held to its puritanical roots. Consequently, students met in secret to exercise their spiritual muscles. The first record of an organized student religious meeting in America was dated January 10, 1723. It was called “The Private Meeting Instituted at Harvard College” and was attended by twenty-six students.

Revivals at Yale University and Princeton University

In 1701 Yale College was founded in New Haven, Connecticut, by Congregationalists. Fifteen years later, twelve-year-old Jonathan Edwards matriculated there. The young Edwards was saved to enjoy “sweet delight in God and divine things” just after his graduation at Yale and prior to his return to Yale in 1722 to pursue his master’s degree.[3] Edwards would be known as the man who fueled the Great Awakening with his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached in 1741.

After Edwards, the next leading American preacher of the Great Awakening was Gilbert Tennent. Gilbert’s father William, educated at Edinburgh University, pioneered for his children the little Log College, which was a twenty-foot-by-twenty-foot log building in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. All thirteen members of the college’s first class became the pioneers of Christian education in America. The founders of some fifty-one colleges were graduates of the Log College.[4] After the death of William Tennent Sr., the school was moved to New Jersey and was called the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University. In 1757, Jonathan Edwards would be one of Princeton’s presidents. John Witherspoon, another president of Princeton, stated his philosophy of education in these words: “Cursed be all learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ. Cursed be all learning that is not coincident with the cross of Christ. Cursed be all learning that is not subservient to the cross of Christ.”[5]

Revivals would continue at Yale, depending on its leadership. The leading revivals were under the leadership of Timothy Dwight, who challenged the students to be saved and surrendered to the will of God. In 1814 he advised the student body, “Christ is the only, the true, the living way of access to God. Give up yourselves to him, with a cordial confidence, and the great work of life is done.”[6] Revivals at Yale influenced men to indeed “Give themselves up to Christ.” Two of the men influenced by these revivals were Borden of Yale and Asahel Nettleton, who surrendered to the Lord during the revival at Yale in 1807 to 1808.

The Haystack Revival at Williams College

In 1806, five students at Williams College in Massachusetts were overtaken in a thunderstorm during their prayer meeting and sought shelter under a nearby haystack. While waiting out the storm, the five talked about the need of world evangelism and how someone needed to go into the world and preach the gospel. Suddenly, Samuel Mills came up with a “novel” idea: “Why should we not be the ones?” Luther Rice and the other three students agreed that this was a great idea. Rice would later be one of the key leaders for the Baptists in foreign missions, and Samuel Mills would eventually lead the Congregationalists to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, America’s first foreign mission board. Such campus groups as those at Williams College were formed to promote devotional life, theological thinking, evangelism, and missions. These student groups helped spawn organizations such as the YMCA and the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM). The SVM alone, conceived in 1886 at a conference led by D. L. Moody in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts, sent out approximately 4,500 missionaries between 1899 and 1914; in addition, the SVM has motivated approximately 20,000 North American students to become missionaries.

Adoniram Judson of Andover Theological College

The first answer to the prayer of the Williams College students was Adoniram Judson, the son of a Yale graduate. On December 12, 1808, at Andover Theological College, Judson “made a solemn dedication of himself to God.”[7] It was on this day that Judson gave his heart to the Lord, either in salvation or assurance of salvation. Regardless, he was now the Lord’s, and what mattered most to Judson was to do the Lord’s will. God’s will for the Andover graduate was to be America’s first missionary to a foreign field, the golden shore of Burma. Judson was not the only student at this time who surrendered his heart to God on the college campus to missions, nor would he be the last.

At Andover in 1811, a student organization was formed called the Andover Seminary Society of Enquiry, which was designed to challenge every divinity student with the possibility of foreign missionary service. There was a great moving of the Spirit of God for the students to look to the world’s fields which were “white already to harvest.”[8] “The flood-tide of missionary enthusiasm had reached the universities.”[9]

And indeed, since the days of the Reformation, nearly every major awakening or missionary movement can be traced to a college campus where professors and students were stirred by the Spirit of God. In addition, the historical development of campus ministries has influenced Bible translations in English and in other languages, the development of theological thinking including the roots of separatism, the vision for starting new Bible colleges, and the burden to evangelize the student body as well as the world.

The need today is for campus ministries to be based out of the local church, with campus ministers unceasingly being occupied with the primacy of preaching the Word of God and the preeminence of Christ and His righteousness. The need of the hour is to pray that “the Lord of the harvest … would send forth labourers”[10] to the campuses of America.


From 1984 to 2002 Dr. William J. Senn III was the pastor of University Baptist Church in Clemson, South Carolina, establishing Spurgeon Foundation Campus Ministries in 1986. Currently he serves as senior pastor at Tri-City Baptist Church in Westminster, Colorado, where he continues to be involved in campus ministries.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Tan, 157. []
  2. Ibid., 158. []
  3. Sidwell, 34. []
  4. Ibid., 41. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Tan, 158. []
  7. Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1989), 50. []
  8. John 4:35. []
  9. Piggin and Roxborogh, 43. []
  10. Matthew 9:38 []


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