New Light–Old Light controversy - American Education
A bitter ecclesiastical dispute among Protestant clergymen in the 18th-century American colonies that led eventually to the creation of large numbers of new educational institutions. The controversy centered around the question of salvation. Old Light clerics insisted that salvation lay in study, education and good works, while the upstart New Lights claimed it depended on a fearful, emotional discovery of the terrors of hell and God’s powers. New Light salvation lay in a soul-shattering “conversion” and dedication of one’s soul to the service of God.
The controversy erupted in the 1720s and 1730s with the arrival in the colonies of Dutch, Irish and German preachers, whose Protestantism had sprung from an evangelism based on the premise of man born burdened with original sin that required an unburdening and a conversion produced by rediscovery of God. Old Light Congregationalists and Presbyterians, who had dominated religious life in the colonies for the previous century, had a different perspective. Although they had originally arrived in the colonies in full religious rebellion against the Anglican concept of predestination, after a century of life in the colonies they had established their own, new class system. Although more egalitarian than the traditional English system based on noble birth, it nevertheless quickly distinguished between the successful and unsuccessful, wealthy and poor, the landed and unlanded, the high-born and low, the educated and illiterate. The church, in turn, distinguished between those who supported it financially and those who did not, and the former clearly had a far greater chance of salvation than the latter.
When the evangelistic New Light preachers arrived in the colonies offering salvation to those with no hope for salvation in established Old Light churches, public charges of heresy were heard throughout the land. The net result, however, was an explosion in the number of New Light churches in the colonies, with only a slight decline in membership in Old Light churches—primarily because the colonial population was growing fast enough to accommodate the increase in the total number of churches. Because every church served as the basis of secular as well as religious education of parishioners’ children, thousands of children whose parents could not afford fees in Old Light church schools could now learn to read, write and calculate, as well as discover God and salvation in free, New Light churches. Though no less fanatic in their religious beliefs than Old Light ministers, the New Light preachers’ concept of egalitarianism captured the minds of a majority of colonials, discrediting the concept of predestination and laying the psycho-sociological groundwork for the revolution that followed against the English king, the English church and England’s other institutions.
In addition to new grammar schools, New Light Protestants also founded academies and colleges to train New Light ministers to lead the war against Satan. Indeed, at least four dozen new academies and five colleges (four of them still standing) emerged from the New Light– Old Light controversies between 1727 and 1783. The first and only college not to survive was LOG COLLEGE, founded in Pennsylvania by the Presbyterian New Light preacher William Tennant. Subsequently, New Light Presbyterians founded the College of New Jersey (now PRINCETON UNIVERSITY) in 1746, while New Light Baptists founded the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University) in 1756. In 1769, the New Light Congregationalist minister Eleazar Wheelock founded Dartmouth College, while a New Light faction of the Dutch Reformed Church founded Queen’s College (now Rutgers) in 1766, to counter King’s College (now COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY), which Old Light Dutch Reformed pastors and Anglicans had established in New York City a decade earlier.