Letters to the Editor: Wesleyan’s 19th-Century Impact

I’m writing humbly to ask that you correct the lead statement in the President’s Letter for the Spring 2022 Wesleyan University Magazine. Specifically, I believe that the characterization of Wesleyan as a “small, parochial school that aimed to train ministers” decisively and dramatically undercuts the school’s and the denomination’s place in the political, educational, and formational realities of 19thcentury America. In reality “(t)here is much to be proud of, much to build upon” from Wesleyan’s founding to the present. Wesleyan led the way in and enabled 19thcentury Methodism’s launch of universities to equip its clergy and empower its laity—Boston, Northwestern, Southern California, Syracuse, Denver, Emory, Duke, SMU,  Ohio Wesleyan, and American—plus many, many fine colleges.

A reread of my fraternity brother David Potts’s [’60] book, Wesleyan University, 1831-1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England, ought to yield a very different judgment about college and church than in that President’s Letter. Indeed, in my own scholarship, Methodism and Wesleyan loom large in American history and—check my 25 books on Methodism and denominationalism—David Potts actually understates Wesleyan’s importance nationally.

By mid-century, Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination and played decisive roles on various fronts in the events leading up to the Civil War, in the war efforts by both men and women, and in Reconstruction. Until the very late 19th century, Wesleyan was Methodism’s national university, its Oxford or Cambridge. Its graduates helped the church commit to founding an impressive array of colleges, named above. The college list is immense.

Why the efforts by Methodists? Because with very few exceptions state schools functioned as Presbyterian/Congregational institutions as did their own schools. Both state and other denominational schools sought to woo Methodist enrollees into their camp. (For vivid depiction of the threat, see the case the schools’ president made for Wesleyan in his publications (The Works of Stephen Olin, 2: 242-45, 249, 251). By contrast, opening their universities, colleges, and schools to others—other Protestants to be sure—Wesleyan’s founders and counterparts offered educational resources and instruction that served the common good.

To be sure, Wesleyan equipped the denominational leadership, but they, in turn, played important roles in shaping and encouraging their membership in the urban and small-town churches that Methodism spread across the continent. Far more influential than clergy today, Wesleyan grads headed the church’s publishing empire which produced a huge array of books, periodicals, and weeklies. Methodism’s Christian Advocate (1826–) gained the widest readership of any serial in 19th-century America. That weekly—filled with news religious, societal, and general, and staffed by Wesleyan and its educational offspring—kept readers across the continent up to date on matters of national interest and importance. The Methodist Review (1818–), of which I am now editor, served a readership typified by Wesleyan’s graduates.

So, on behalf of others in my class who entered when Wesleyan still required chapel attendance (including my Jewish roommate), I’d urge you to reclaim memories of our school’s efforts from the start to be “first-rate,” to staff itself with faculty who wrote and taught, and to empower its students to lead our society and nation on various fronts.


Russell E. Richey ’63
Durham, North Carolina