Project Canterbury

Life of the Reverend James de Koven, D. D.,
Sometime Warden of Racine College.

by William C. Pope, M.A.

New York: James Pott & Company, 1899.

IV. Racine College.

RACINE COLLEGE was founded in 1852, under the auspices of the Diocese of Wisconsin. The first president was the Rev. Roswell Park, D. D., a graduate of West Point and Union College, and for some time a professor in the University of Pennsylvania. Until Mr. de Koven became Warden, students were allowed to select their own places of public worship. Thirty students went with Mr. de Koven to Racine, the last of Nashotah's postulants graduating in 1871.

In 1863 the first set of Statutes was passed by the trustees, indicating the ideal they had in view. The first was: "Racine College shall be a Christian home for the training of the youth committed to its care in Christian virtue and sound learning."

While Mr. de Koven yielded a cheerful obedience to the Trustees, he found in the administration of the College an environment completely dominated by his own individuality. It was a par excellence Church Institution. The Prayer Book system was literally carried out, Daily Evening Prayer being choral. A Kenyon professor was reported to have said, he would like to see his institution like Racine except its religion. Mr. de Koven's comment on the remark was that it would be like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out.

Sunday was a delightful day. Did ever college chapel have such preaching? The writer was accustomed, when the sermon began, to bow his head and close his eyes and surrender himself to the ecstasy produced by the preacher. Of his preaching Dr. Dix has said: "Who can convey an idea to one who never saw or heard him, of the effect produced by that impassioned manner and that wonderful voice, which, now ringing like a clarion, and anon sinking to the lowest, gentlest tones, thrilled the soul and sounded depths within men which perhaps in their case may never be touched by mortal speech?"

On each Sunday afternoon he told a chapter of a story which began the first Sunday of the term and ended the last. He thought his stories did more good than his sermons. One of them, "The Dorchester Polytechnic Academy" was published. In the evening was "The Warden's Reception," attended by the professors and ladies and students. Although he once gave privately as a reason for not going to a party that he was not proficient in small talk, yet in congenial society he was a social lion. The following letter addressed to a wax doll, a little girl named after him, gives an idea of his humor:


"RACINE, WIS., Jan. 5, 1876.


I am glad to hear of your birth, and that you are named after me, and that you are of wax. You could be made of better stuff for a minister. You will look sweet; this will please the young: you cannot talk too much; this will please the old. You can wink at things you will have to do. You will eat little, you will need but small pay. When you are bruised, you can be put on a shelf without a word, and a doll, new, fresh, and with red cheeks will take your place. If you have to be a martyr by fire, you will melt easy and save pain to those who put you in; but if you do good to even one little girl like C. your life will be worth a great deal. So good-bye, from your affectionate friend, J. DE K."


Dr. Ashley describes the Warden as endowed with more winning and beautiful gifts and graces than any man with whom he had ever been intimate. With such a centre of attraction, the Warden's Reception completed a day in which holiness and happiness were combined to make an ideal Sunday.

In 1867, the new chapel was built, and therein the daily service was chorally rendered by a vested choir of thirty-two students, this being at the time the only vested choir west of the Alleghany Mountains.

The staff of College professors was augmented by the presence of some very distinguished educators among Church Clergymen. The Rev. Dr. Falk of encyclopedic attainments; the Rev. Dr. Elmendorf, the theologian and scholar; the Rev. Dr. Dean, a favorite pupil of Dr. Anthon, and who was afterward the first to fill the Alumni Lectureship on Christian Evidences in the General Theological Seminary; the Rev. Dr. Hinsdale, afterward the President of Hobart College, and others of equal fame and ability. All of these men were attracted to Racine College by the lofty ideals and character of Dr. de Koven, and readily relinquished more remunerative positions elsewhere that they might consecrate themselves to the cause of Christian education under the auspices of the Church as illustrated by the methods in vogue at Racine College.

So great had the reputation of the institution grown to be, that students were attracted thither from New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, St. Paul, and intermediate places. It is to be noted also that there was a continual coming and going as visitors, of a large number of distinguished Bishops, priests and laymen, many of whom journeyed miles out of their way to see with their own eyes the work and the man of whom they had heard so much and so favorably. They were not confined to one type of Churchmanship, but included men as widely apart as the Evangelical Bishop Lee of Iowa, Quintard, of Tennessee, and Cummins, the assistant Bishop of Kentucky. All earnest souls were irresistibly attracted thither as to a magnet.

Dr. de Koven's influence with his boys illustrated in the case of Charles Oakes who went from St. Paul, and while at Racine was confirmed. On leaving the College he went to the mines where he forgot his religion. He fell through the ice, and was brought home paralyzed in his lower extremities. For a long time, he manifested no signs of penitence, but finally expressed a desire to see Dr. de Koven. He came, and when he and the sick man met, they clasped one another in each other's arms, with so strong and long embrace, that it was thought the young man would die, then and there. Dr. de Koven remained several days and administered to him the Holy Communion. On Sunday, as the Doctor was preaching at the Church of the Good Shepherd, the young man passed away in peace.

In 1875, the Bishops of Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Western Michigan, Illinois and Fond du Lac adopted Racine College as the collegiate Institution of their respective dioceses, and determined, with the help of God, to make it a Church University for the West and Northwest. The Statutes of the College give the Bishops the Presidency of the Board of Trustees, according to their Seniority; the nomination of the Warden; a veto power in the regulations in regard to the worship of the Collegiate Church; and visitorial power.

In 1878 the Law Faculty consisted of eleven members.

At Faculty meeting, where personal cases of students were canvassed, Dr. de Koven manifested a careful and solicitous interest, always striving to keep the due proportion between allowance for individual shortcoming and the general collegiate tone. On Commencement day, becomingly invested in the academic purple, and presiding with an unequaled blending of sober dignity and genial humor, he pronounced in his singularly clear and resonant tones the Latin formula, conferring upon the expectant candidates the Bachelors' degree. No spectator ever felt that it was mere ritual, for there was an undercurrent of earnest reality, pervading his whole bearing, which produced a corresponding conviction on every auditor.

During the later years of his life, there was ever present to his mind the problem of making the College independent of himself. It was not only on account of his personal regard for the graduates, but also for the good of the College, that he kept in touch with the "old boys," in making them always welcome, in keeping their various pursuits and localities in mind, and cultivating in them persistently and successfully a feeling of loving regard for the work of which they had been a part. He never felt that he was either to see or know the last of one of his boys when he left the College. Rather did that day seal and sign a new and more binding covenant for the future. This feature of the Doctor's régime it was that has endeared him, more than aught else to those who survive of Racine Graduates, and which causes his memory to grow every brighter as they grow older.

On Reunion Day, 1877, he preached on "Twenty-five years of the work of Racine College." Referring to the lack of endowments, he said:

"I hope I shall not be thought satirical, if I say that the members of our Church are prevented from giving the large gifts which one hears of elsewhere by the fact that it costs more to support the average Episcopalian, and to keep him and his in that 'station of life unto which it has pleased God to call him,' than it has done any other kind of Christian since the time when the Divine Master declared 'that the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.' Perhaps I may add that, owing it may be to the generally comfortable tone which prevails, the sort of well-to-do, refined, cultivated, worldly Christianity, nothing which does not reflect the average tone of thought, feeling, doctrine, and idea that is prevalent, can expect to be aided by what liberality there is. Anything beyond this can only look for an amiable toleration, with the permission to succeed if it be able to do so, and may be most thankful if it can avoid actual misrepresentation, and that species of persecution which is popular in an age tolerant of everything excepting the Faith."

In after years Dr. Holland thus spoke of Dr. de Koven and his College:

"More than sixteen years ago, a candidate for Holy Orders, sitting almost in reach of his arm, I heard an unknown man from an 'out-west diocese' speak 'adjudicated' words that have been speaking ever since. No one who heard that speech will ever forget it--the courage of it, the earnestness of it, the thrill of its power which changed the thought of a General Convention that was about to legislate life out of the American Church and mummify it into secthood. The speech began an epoch; it was the breath of a new being; in it the American Church came to the consciousness of her true self, of her identity with the one Church of all ages, the Church of the Living God Who did not die with the Apostles, not with King James, nor with Bishop White, but is still alive to quicken, to develop, and so keep ever fair His Body. No spiritual movement within this generation has been so swift, mighty, prophetic of great things, as that which in de Koven then stood for the first time firmly on its feet and dared the world to stop its progress. And de Koven meant Racine; the college was his larger personality; he lived in it and for it; and by it he expected to live on when his body slept in the sacred ground which has taken a holier sanctity from his dust. . . . Racine still holds by de Koven's idea that Religion is the supreme attitude of the intellect, and that this attitude is the most intelligent in the Catholic faith. She knows no abstract Christianity, no metaphysical Christ. To her Christianity means the Church, and the Church means the undismembered, unmutilated Body of Christ, wherein He exists among men as their Saviour, saving their whole manhood, sense and spirit, individual and society, by manners, by laws, by letters, by philosophy, by art--all working sacramentally together, and together incorporated into one Christian polity and one Christian worship. Racine is established, has a post with traditions that form a notable part of the history of the American Church. In commerce, in law, in university chairs, and in chairs of state, her sons celebrate her by their deeds."

At his death Dr. de Koven left to the college $38,600, and his library valued at $6,000, to which his sister, Mrs. Casey, added his furniture and pictures.

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