If there were websites that allowed students to review boarding schools, I imagine that most of you would have a few complaints to air. It may be that a few of these slip out from time to time when you are calling, or texting, or face booking a friend back home who hasn’t had the fortune of ending up in this exotic place called Saint James. When I taught here, I was always very careful not to look over the shoulders of my charges who flocked to the computers after study hall was over, but I had some idea what was being said: can you believe they give two hours of homework in this place? You can’t imagine what they serve in that dining hall. I’ve never lived this far from a decent mall in my life!
Last week, I happened upon a letter written by a boarding school student to his father nearly two hundred years ago, and believe me, next to him your life here is a walk in the park. Young Henry describes rations of black bread, mattresses stuffed with wheat chaff, all the boys washing once a week at a long horse trough, with never enough soap to go around. The headmaster, Henry said, inspected all the letters, so he had to slip this one to a friend of his father’s at church. When the lights were out, in the dormitory, it was every man for himself. He begged his father to let him come home for Christmas, if God permitted him to live so long. He closed the secret missive with these words: “I assure you we are used more like Bears than Christians and believe me, my dear Father, I would rather be obliged to work all my life time than remain here another year.”
Now, this does sound a bit like a third former’s email to his overprotective mother the second closed weekend of the year, so I was little suspicious. But as I read more, it turned out things were pretty much as bad as Henry had said. The letter and others like it were circulated in the British presses, there were a few lawsuits and Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickelby. Gradually polite society came to reckon with the fact that it just wouldn’t do to use little boys “more like Bears than Christians.”
William Augustus Muhlenberg, for whose life we thank God today, set out create a school as much unlike Henry’s as possible. In 1826, just four years after Henry’s letter, he took charge of the Church Institute, a high school attached to the parish he was called to serve at College Point, in Queens, New York. The combination of church and school was common then, and nearly all schools included religious instruction. Indeed, much of the brutality was justified on religious grounds, the assumption being that unruly passions needed to be beaten into submission, and that because children lacked fully developed consciences, they were by no means to be trusted.
Muhlenberg believed otherwise, placing emphasis on the dignity of the child and his authentic capacity for spiritual insight. Children were created in God’s Image, he believed. God was already at work in them, and if teachers learned to trust them, they would flourish. Children could reason, he urged, and wise teachers would form their characters through persuasion, stirring them up, as the author of Hebrews says, to love and good works. Muhlenberg taught his teachers to befriend the boys, and he ensured good food and time for exercise, and almost never used the switch.
Common wisdom then held that children were best instructed in the faith through long sermons of moral advice or emotional manipulation that would lead them to seek the Savior from fear of hell. But Muhlenberg appealed to his students’ appreciation for beauty and trusted in the power of the liturgy instead. His school’s altar was decorated with candles and flowers, and the students kept the cycle of church feasts and fasts together.
Many of Muhlenberg’s boys would go on to serve God as priests. One among them was John Barrett Kerfoot, who first knew Muhlenberg as his Sunday School teacher. Kerfoot would eventually be sent here by Muhlenberg, to found a new school on the same model, continuing the best of what he had learned about treating boys like Christians instead of bears.
This is your legacy, a school which is rare these days as it was then, and for some of the same reasons. Here you are served by teachers and priests, who care for your spiritual and moral development. Here, in a bit of welcome isolation from the outside world, you keep and fasts of the church in a religious life that aspires to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Here, there is trust that God is at work in you, drawing you to Himself, and that as you come to love Him and one another, you will realize your true potential, doing the good work He has prepared for you.