Amanda Perkins | 18
As a Bowdoin College student on a spring Sunday afternoon in 1805, rather than spending the afternoon holed up in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library or returning after a weekend’s adventures with the Outing Club, you would have fled into the east room of Massachusetts Hall with the handful of other young men studying at this brand-new institution. Not many people filled the room. Everyone’s minds were full of the weekend’s studies of Horace, Webber’s Mathematics, and Locke. Up to the front of the room walked a man, a bit round in the face and the belly, but with a certain authority. You would know him as President McKeen, the heart and soul of this infant school on which your parents took a risk in sending you to complete your studies in the Maine woods. Tonight, like every Sunday night, President McKeen would give a Biblical sermon to the assembly of Bowdoin College members, which was his practice for remediating the lack of theologically sound preaching in the Town of Brunswick (Coffin 8).
McKeen gave sermons with the same impressive character with which he conducted himself in the classroom and as administrator. He always “exhibited a thorough comprehension of his subject and was felicitous in gathering illustrations from actual life” and he “never mistook men for angels” (Hatch 24). He gave clear messages taken from scriptural study, and spoke to his audience with sensitivity to their spiritual condition. As McKeen began to preach that Sunday, he read from the Revelation to John:
“Behold, I come quickly; hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” (Revelation 3:11 KJV)
“We have here the duty of Christians pointed out,” explained McKeen. “Hold fast, or persevere” (McKeen 129).
President Joseph McKeen had more than his share of reasons to preach perseverance. When he received the unsolicited call from the Bowdoin College overseers to become the unformed institution’s new president, McKeen was comfortably situated as a widely-acclaimed pastor of a Massachusetts church. It was a risk for him to accept the Bowdoin presidency, and he expressed as much in his negotiations for his pay. He knew it would take all his energies and skill to do the job justice, so he was firm in making provision for his family. In his initial response to the Trustees and overseers of the college, McKeen revealed that “the importance of setting out right, and of establishing early principals, laws, and customs, as will be conducive to its future prosperity, has appeared so great, that my mind has often shrunk from the undertaking” (McKeen 12). He knew that to misstep would be to lead the burgeoning college into academic, political, and spiritual decay. “The individual who could by his own exertions could ensure success must have talents far above my pretensions” (McKeen 12).
As a man of God first and foremost, however, McKeen’s worries extended far beyond his own ability to fill the presidency with success. The turn of the nineteenth century was a spiritually calamitous time in New England. The impact of Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, led by the teaching of legendary preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, was waning, and as American men settled into their post-Revolutionary War lives, they brought home vice learned from their days in the battlefields. Professor Smyth of Bowdoin College remembers that “sinners, if they attended the sanctuary, in very many of our parishes could sit Sabbath after Sabbath and hear nothing which touched the conscience” (Smyth 6).
In the midst of this spiritual decline, Joseph McKeen was called to be president of the college for explicitly Christian reasons, and accepted for the same. When soliciting McKeen’s interest in the Bowdoin position, the overseers commissioned their member Reverend Elijah Kellogg, a longtime friend of McKeen, to appeal to him on their behalf. Rev. Kellogg exhorted his friend that “at this day of trouble and blasphemy such a light as yours is essential in a seminary of learning.” (Hatch 11). The founders of the college wanted a man of faith to lead the new school into its first formative years. Likewise, this was McKeen’s intention from the onset. In his inaugural address as president, McKeen implored his new Bowdoin family “to unite in fervent supplications to the great Father of light, knowledge, and all good, that his blessing may descend upon this seminary; that it may eminently contribute to the advancement of useful knowledge, the religion of Jesus Christ, the best interests of man, and the glory of God” (McKeen 21). President McKeen envisioned a Bowdoin that was Christian in character if not in institution, and educated men to be godly.
This, however, was not the Bowdoin at which McKeen arrived when he opened the college in 1802. In Professor Smyth’s reflective Discourses on the Religious History of Bowdoin College, he admitted that “religion was connected with the College only in the person of President M’Keen. He was Christian, courteous, accessible, venerable, and universally beloved; but what could this avail, when, in each college room, there was a side-board sparkling with wines and stronger stimulants” (Smyth 8). In fact, in the years of McKeen’s presidency, not a single Bowdoin student was a professing believer in Jesus Christ (Smyth 8). This was a fact regularly brought to the attention of President McKeen when week after week he attended to the discipline of his students. Some of the punishments applied to rowdy and unprincipled college students may seem excessive to the common sensibility of today’s college student, but nevertheless they were certainly indicative of the low commitment among Bowdoin’s first students to apply the teachings of the Bible to their own lives. Imagine the discouragement of the man who uprooted his whole family and personal career to come and guide this promising new school in the light of Christ, when year after year not a student was found to carry on the Gospel in his future career, let alone his current life. President McKeen was a man who knew and needed perseverance.
And so he preached on May 12, 1805:
“Christians have believed the testimony that God has given us of Jesus Christ his Son; they have received the truth in the love of it, they have submitted to Christ’s yoke, and in a dependence on his grace have resolved to Christ’s yoke, and in a dependence on his grace have resolved to purify their hearts and to keep all his commandments, whatever temptations may fall in their way to seduce them. But it is not sufficient to have begun well; after setting out in a Christian course they may expect many discouragements and may be severely tempted to turn back, to yield to the force of their own corruptions and to the fashion of the world which, like a current, resists their progress and would persuade them that it is an impracticable thing to live as the gospel teaches them.”
The perseverance McKeen preached is more than a grin-and-bear-it, keep-on-keeping-on mantra. This perseverance is the “hold fast” imperative given by Jesus Christ himself to the new and suffering churches through his Revelation to John. The early Church in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus faced serious persecution. When John wrote the Revelation during the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian, Christian churches faced pressure as local officials sought power in connection with the imperial cult, demanding state-worship to promote their own positions (Beale 3). Persecution and Christian struggle was such a core piece of early Church conversation and identity, that John introduced himself in this letter as a “brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV). This perseverance, this holding fast, this patient endurance featured centrally in Jesus’s words to the seven churches, not just in the letter to the church in Philadelphia from which McKeen preaches his sermon. Some like the churches at Ephesus and Pergamum were praised for the patient endurance they had already displayed in the face of persecution and trials (Revelation 2:3, 13). Others such as the churches at Thyatira and Philadelphia needed an encouragement to hold fast in the face of current or approaching hardship (Revelation 2:25, 3:11). If this imperative to persevere rested exclusively on a “just keep trying” sentiment, it would surely crack under the weight of the real human pain and suffering these churches experienced.
Revelation perseverance comes with substance, cost, hope, and a deadline. “Hold fast” is no generic cry to continually march on through life’s disasters just for the sake of living another day. Holding fast, as McKeen preached in his sermon, is to determine to see and live in the world the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches in the face of a million reasons both internal and external to give up faith. It is a perseverance specific to and entirely dependent on living life in relationship with Jesus. This was the substance of President McKeen’s commitment to serving Bowdoin College: that he knew it was the will of the God to whom he had offered his own life in faith, and that he knew that same God would use his human inefficiencies for the Lord’s success and glory at Bowdoin College. This call to patient endurance is not ignorant of the real taxation of life’s hardships, however. Revelation is wrought with suffering. Men and women of God, let alone the nonbeliever, face all kinds of death, war, and trial. While most people take one look at Revelation and think immediately of the end of the world, it doesn’t take much mental stretching to personally identify with the suffering described in Revelation. John declares “if anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain” (Revelation 13:10a). Now real captivities and real swords are by no means out of the question in our world today, but today we might widen our field of vision to include such things as violence, racism, and terrorism that bear witness to the hardships faced by Christ’s people. God is not ignorant to this pain. In fact, Revelation makes very clear that not only does he know about it, but he is in control over it. And yet, in the midst of this declaration, John reminds “here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10b). This kind of peaceful, patient endurance is costly. Priest and theologian Tish Harrison Warren writes in her Liturgy of the Ordinary, “Christ’s peace is never a cheap peace. It is never a peace that skims the surface…It is not a peace that plays nicey-nice, denies hurt, or avoids conflict. It is never a peace that is insincere or ignores justice. It’s a peace that is honest and hard-won, that speaks truth and seeks justice, that costs something, and that takes time. It is a peace that offers reconciliation.” (Warren 86). The peace President McKeen found in his own quest to hold fast at Bowdoin knew this cost, and he was willing to pay it.
The hardest requirement in a call to perseverance however is not the cost paid, but the question of the length of time during which suffering and the evils of the world must be endured. The problem of evil is the problem of time. Elisabeth Elliot, beloved New England missionary, was well acquainted with the trials of waiting in her personal life. She learned in her life that “waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question…It is easy to talk oneself into a decision that has no permanence—easier sometimes than to wait patiently.” (Elliot 61-62). Her own testimony echoed the cry of the slain saints in Revelation: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). Perseverance is not necessary if the suffering is not prolonged; that would simply require a measure of momentary stamina. Revelation perseverance demands a much gutsier hope that lasts through time and trial.
But, as McKeen preached in his sermon, Jesus said, “I am coming soon.” This is the basis of such enduring hope. Revelation perseverance is a long-term discipline with a deadline. There is present cost and the drawn out agony of humans existing in time, but those who hold fast to the grace and Gospel of Jesus Christ are promised dwelling and participation in the final kingdom of God where “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The former things have passed away; a clean break, a deadline. Revelation perseverance is patient endurance with an end goal, and this was the vision gleaming in McKeen’s eyes, even as he stood preaching just two years to the day before he would meet that same end.
It is with this specific, weighty hope that McKeen evoked a call to patient endurance that spring afternoon in 1805. He knew the cost and the trial of time that his perseverance in the Christian faith would require. A very short while after McKeen preached this sermon, he would begin to feel the symptoms of the disease that would be the death of him, cutting short his presidency in 1807. He, like others before him, “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Hebrews 11:13). But he also knew the substance and the hope on which he stood as solid ground.
One of the most remarkable parts of Jesus’ Revelation to his Church through John is that in the midst of his call to long endurance, he gives present hope and comfort to his people. Revelation perseverance is not a desert journey toward the Apocalypse when Jesus will finally intervene; it bears his marks of grace and authority throughout human history and personal, daily lives to the end. Though President McKeen died before seeing the fruits of his sacrifice and commitment to Bowdoin College, a strong Christian faith found root among the early Bowdoin community. Five years after McKeen’s passing, the first professing evangelistic student transferred to Bowdoin from Middlebury College. This student, James Cargill, along with another professor, left a legacy of fostering the first Christian community at the college outside of McKeen’s chapel times. As Professor Smyth reflected back on the religious history of the college in 1858, he posited that “since the year in which James Cargill entered, no class passed through College without having, in its membership, some one who has pleaded with God in prayer for his classmates, and labored, with more or less earnestness for their conversion” (Smyth 14). The years after Cargill arrived at Bowdoin were remembered as the first season of Christian revival at Bowdoin College.
In some ways there is incredible irony in this story. Any Bowdoin student today could tell you that Bowdoin College is not a Christian university, nor is it guided by predominantly Christian goals and beliefs. Today, not only has the Christian community at Bowdoin been derecognized and exiled from the academic community, but this past spring 2017, Christians Middlebury College experienced similar conflicts. Does this mean that God was not faithful to heart of President McKeen’s service and its legacy in James Cargill and others? The call to “holding fast” is not a call to obvious success. “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain.” Revelation perseverance is a call to long obedience, long faith, and long hope in Jesus Christ, even in today’s apparent failures, because the success has already been won by him in his death and resurrection. Truly, God is a God of time, and that is at once a victory and a trial, a blessing and a puzzle.
To the non-believer reading this article, wondering why you’re even entertaining this journal in the first place: life is hard, time is short, and there is little solid ground around you. When is the last time you or a friend felt completely confident in your life for today and its direction for tomorrow? The college campus offers a cornucopia of platforms on which you may build your life. Will any of them promise an ultimate victory against every challenge you face that gives you a steady hope today? “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11 NIV).
To the believer looking around a broken campus in disbelief at these promises: “hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:11). What is your faith if not a solid ground to stand on in the test of time? This commitment to Jesus and the life of the Gospel was the spine on which Bowdoin was built in a time of spiritual discouragement, on which the persecuted early church put their faith in the face of death, and on which today, facing every trial of life, all may still find the strength to stand.
Beale, G.K. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eermands Publishing Co., 2015.
Elliot, Elisabeth. Passion and Purity. Grand Rapids: Revell, 2002.
Hatch, Louis Clinton. The History of Bowdoin College. Portland: Loring, Short & Harmon, 1927.
McKeen, Joseph. Sober Consent of the Heart: the Bowdoin College Chapel Messages of its First President. Compiled and edited by Robert B. Gregory. Damariscotta: Rocky Hill, 2011.
Smyth, Egbert Coffn. Three Discourses Upon the Religious History of Bowdoin College. Brunswick: J Griffn, 1858.
Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Amanda Perkins, Bowdoin Class of 2018. History and Environmental Studies. Boston MA.
Amanda’s preparations for the end of the world include more tea than is good for her and slowly stitching scenes of beauty.