In a sermon to the class of 1864, Williams College President Mark Hopkins addressed the intimate and inevitable relationship between character and destiny, “Settle it therefore, I pray you, my hearers, once and forever, that as your character is, so will your destiny be.”
Within the academy, this basic prescription for earthly happiness, says Lewis M. Andrews, reigned supreme for almost three centuries, from Harvard’s founding in 1636 until the early twentieth century.
The typical centerpiece of the moral curriculum was a seminar, taught by the college president, that took up most of the senior year for undergraduate students and was designed to show them how to apply their newly acquired knowledge within a Christian context. University presidents of all denominations focused on the importance of good character and the dangers of vice and immorality.
Problems that are now thought of, at least to some extent, as mental health conditions — depression, discouragement, fear, loneliness, self-doubt, addiction, anxiety — were viewed in large part as consequences of the moral character of the students. Pursuing vengeance will depress us; a willingness to tell white lies leaves us anxious; manipulating others makes us lonely; and guilt can only be assuaged through some form of amends or atonement. Conversely, the college presidents taught their students that the proper application of moral and spiritual principles would enable them to build character and lead emotionally fulfilled and happy lives. While these principles were consistent with Christian theology, and their teaching often drew from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, or the parables of Jesus, they were reinforced with similar observations by classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plotinus.
But students learned also that even though adherence to moral principles leads to real happiness, the immediate pleasures or advantages that come from compromising one’s values can blind us to how such actions often leave us miserable and unhappy in the end. Everybody is tempted to believe that some things are so worth having that unethical choices are justified to achieve them. By an act of great self-deception, the perceived gains overshadow the real losses.
Andrews explains how these university presidents were pioneers of what we would now call mental health care, and why the history of spiritually based therapy is largely unknown:
. . . the image of Christian college presidents as a sophisticated group contributing to human progress simply does not fit with the common interpretation of American intellectual history as a triumph of secularism over narrow-minded religious prejudice.