Student Riots

We were up in Canada last week and the student riots in Montreal are bigger news there than they are here. Hundreds of university students are making a huge fuss in Quebec which turned violent, all because tuition (which is currently about half of what it is in the U.S.) has gone up.

This sort of demonstration is irritating partly because they are making a mess, partly because they are taking up all the headlines, and largely because they are wrong. Having someone charge you more for an optional service is no reason to hurt other people or destroy their property.

But I have to say, these riots brought to mind the ones that took place in Princeton, a few decades after the American Revolution. Like other student riots, they damaged property, injured a few people, and scared the school’s professors and trustees. But they were not about money. They were about theology.

In 1807, after years of unrest, minor disturbances and the burning of Nassau Hall in 1802, the students of Princeton revolted en masse, tormented their professors, left an assembly, “shouting and yelling,” where college president Samuel Smith was rebuking them, attempted to set fire to the college at least twice, erected barricades around the building, drove back the local militia that was sent out to put down their rebellion and even exploded “a large bomb” on campus.

The students had strong reasons for their dangerously antagonistic behaviour. Some historians argue that the cause of the 1807 rebellion was a result of draconian punishments for minor rule infractions, a lack of physical exercise during the winter and the “reckless spirit” of “French skepticism.” While punishments for rule infractions might have contributed to unrest, it is unlikely that a lack of physical exercise would lead students to make and explode a bomb. Primary sources testify to other reasons for revolt. The chief one was Smith’s attempt to indoctrinate students with his Common Sense philosophy.

Princeton’s students came largely from southern, Presbyterian backgrounds, though some hailed from Congregationalist homes and churches. These young men were ideologically conservative and, though they generally supported the Revolution, only a generation away, their backgrounds and the records they left prove them to be more Christian than Smith was, as they resented his unceasing attempts to meld religion and “science” together. Accusations of the students embracing “French skepticism” are unfounded. Three years before the 1807 rebellion, students had complained about Smith’s moral relativism and Arminianism. Even in the eighteen sixties when John Witherspoon arrived at the college, a student expressed his doubts as to the man’s ability, describing him as one of “the worst vermin under Heaven.”

As Witherspoon’s successor, Smith later “pushed consistently to increase the time available for natural and moral philosophy” and the two men’s reputations fell among the students, who expressed awareness that their studies were no longer traditional and theological, but “literary”. One student who dropped out of Princeton because of Smith’s academic agenda also complained that the president treated the students as intellectually immature, giving them abridgements to read instead of primary sources.

Students also saw that leaders in the college celebrated republican values more than Christian ones, giving students reason to disrespect their moral and religious authority. Certainly, “confinement occasioned by the winter” and other circumstances contributed to the unrest, but ideology was the chief reason. “Not how students lived,” writes Mark Noll, “but what they believed was at center stage when the clash occurred.” When it occurred, the clash was forceful and effective.

Steven Novak writes that the parents of rebellious students, “like the trustees, thought Smith too rationalistic and not evangelical enough.” One father wrote to his disgruntled son, “‘I have no doubt but Smith is a man possessing uncommonly strong passions, which for want of Vital Religion are indulged to dangerous excess…be silent on his Tyrannical whims.’” This parent had no doubts as to the president’s nominalism.

Smith’s “flirtatious correspondence” with a married woman also caused “minor scandal” among the conservative trustees and the parents who were aware of it. Smith’s actions were clearly an outworking of his rejection of traditional Christian morality and embrace of reasoning. John Blair, a relative of Smith and a man involved with the College but disgusted with Smith’s nominalism, is reported to have said to his face, “‘Brother Sam, you don’t preach Christ and Him crucified, but Sam Smith and him dignified.’” This accusation’s legitimacy is borne out in the documents which Smith, his students and their parents left behind.

Though parents and trustees supported the students in their resistance to heretical and certainly unbiblical teachings, they believed that the way in which the students showed their resistance was not called for. Some wrote that the that punishments Smith meted out to offenders were not as firm as they should be, given the radical nature of the protests. By 1809, however, the trustees had “abolished Smith’s ‘irregular studies’” to prevent more unrest and further censure from the Presbyterian church, which was threatening to abandon Princeton and establish a new seminary if the trustees did not deal with Smith.

The events leading up to the student rebellion but especially the revolt itself discredited Smith’s leadership and showed the inadequacy of his teaching. One of Witherspoon and Smith’s goals in bringing a Christian Enlightenment to Princeton was to educate and train the students’ minds, believing that “if training were neglected, they would foment disorder in every sphere of life.” Any president who lets an increasingly tense situation evolve into full fledged revolt risks his reputation as an academic leader. When the students have such reasons as the Princeton students did for their behaviour and when the revolt demonstrates the failure of the president’s educational philosophy, the revolt signs the end of the college leader’s respectability and tenure, as it did with Smith.

Novak writes that “By this time, according to one historian, ‘disciplinary problems…appear to have added force to the growing suspicion that Smith’s intellectual and theological ideas were not reliable.’ His days were clearly numbered.” Unable to force his personal views on the student body and unable to modify them to appease parents and trustees, Smith was dismissed a few years after the 1807 rebellion and replaced by a man who better suited the college and its students. The riots ceased.

A riot is never a moral response to concerns, even ones that are biblical. In comparing the Montreal students with the Princeton ones, the differences are remarkable. The ones in Montreal are destroying unrelated private property, while the ones in Princeton focused their attacks on the college, the source of their concerns. The one in Princeton had a genuine, moral issue with the teaching and life of the college president, while the ones in Montreal just want someone else to fund their education. Both riots were wrong: the one in Montreal is baseless, but the one in Princeton was even worse.

The students in Montreal are simply living out the individualistic, socialized, postmodern ideology which they have been taught since birth. The Princeton students were “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26). They responded to Smith’s sin with their own sin. Their concern was biblically legitimate; their response ungodly.

So often I see myself respond to situations like an early 19th century Princeton student – freaking out about a legitimate concern. Sinning in response to sin. And often, my frustration is directed at another or others who have little or no exposure to biblical Christianity and are sinning in ignorance. Sure, it’s a step forward from sinning in response to someone else’s legitimate actions. But it is not imitating Christ, who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23). We need grace to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).

Works Referenced

Calhoun, David B. Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, vol. I. Edinburgh:
Banner of Truth, 1994.

Edwards, Jonathan. “Logic” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. I.
London: Billing and Sons, Ltd., 1834. Republished Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979.

Mills, W. Jay, ed. Glimpses of Colonial Society and the Life at Princeton College,
. Philadelphia: J. Lippincott Co., 1903. Republished Detroit: Grand River Books, 1971.

Noll, Mark. Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian
Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith
. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1989.

Novak, Steven J. The Rights of Youth: American Colleges and Student Revolt,
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Osgood, Charles G. Lights in Nassau Hall: A Book of the Bicentennial, Princeton,
. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. New York: Buccaneer Books, Inc., 1976.

Wallace, George R. Princeton Sketches: The Story of Nassau Hall. New York: G.
P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893.

Witherspoon, John. The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon. Thomas Miller,
ed. Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.