He's kind of a big deal
There is hardly a more recognizable name at Ohio State main campus than William Oxley Thompson.
The main library bears his name while his likeness towers over OSU’s central lawn, the Oval. Thompson was a university president, both at Miami University (Ohio) and then at The Ohio State University. What is less known today is that Thompson was an ordained Christian minister, serving as a Presbyterian pastor.
Based upon reflections of the biography of William Oxley Thompson written by James E. Pollard[i], this article seeks to explain how Thompson inspires the type of presence our Christian institute seeks to have on campus, demonstrating how a tolerant and wise Christian voice might seek the good of the university.
“It remains to be proved why a student may consult Plato and not Paul; why Confucius and not Jesus.”
"The University is not called upon to support religion. On the other hand it has no call to discourage it."
Thompson came to Ohio State in 1899 after a term of presidency at Miami University, serving as university president at The Ohio State University until 1925. Thompson’s name is recognizable around campus at Ohio State today for good reason. Ohio State was a rather small and struggling university when Thompson first arrived; by the time of his retirement at the age of 70 after 26 years, the university student enrollment had grown by nearly ten-fold.[ii] Under his leadership OSU built the iconic Ohio Stadium for its budding football program, and the university joined the Western Conference that would soon become the Big Ten Conference[iii]. Thompson worked with Ohio’s politicians and lawmakers to invest in the university, that it might become the flagship public university in the state long before it had such a status. One might wonder where OSU would be today without Thompson’s leadership at a foundational season in the life of the university.
Thompson served as an ordained Christian minister at various churches from Iowa to Colorado prior to transitioning his work to the academic setting. Thompson’s primary influence during his seminary studies was well-known Presbyterian theologian and apologist B.B. Warfield; long after his studies were complete Thompson expressed his affection for his mentor.[iv] It could be argued that Thompson inherited from Warfield a view of both the Bible’s essential trustworthiness and its lack of necessary conflict with scientific theory and research.[v]
Throughout his tenure as university president Thompson maintained his ordination as a Christian minister, holding short-term posts preaching in local Columbus churches. Thompson was greatly esteemed in his Presbyterian denomination, sometimes speaking to church leaders at large denominational gatherings. In such settings Dr. Thompson is recorded as saying:
The Gospel of Reconciliation recognizes the destructive power of sin and the spiritual death resulting from it. It recognizes the hopelessness of every effort to treat it with indifference or neglect… the fact that the glorious Gospel has lighted the world and spread its beneficence on every hand renders it relatively easy for men to assume that because the rain falls alike upon the just and the unjust – the difference between sin and righteousness is thoroughly eliminated.[vi]
When speaking to a group of seminarians Thompson argued it is imperative they believe that “the Gospel is the one thing needful for both civilization and the individual.”[vii] In another such setting where he reflected on his own seminary education Thompson said,
As I attempted to recall the most important features of that experience, there stood out in clearest form the abiding impression of the supremacy of the words of the great commission as the marching orders for us in the work of the kingdom. No theme supplanted that of the importance of evangelizing the whole world… the sense of obligation and of duty was upon me.[viii]
In William Oxley Thompson one finds a university president that believed in the spiritual reality of human sin, the supreme importance of the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and the duty and privilege of the Christian Church to spread this news to the whole world.
It should be noted that the Christian tradition has valued academics since antiquity. Many of the most distinguished universities in the West today were founded by various Christian denominations. Being that Thompson stood in the Reformed tradition, one might wonder if John Calvin’s value of academics (once inspiring the founding of what is today the University of Geneva[ix]) may have contributed to Thompson’s zeal for the advancement of public universities like Miami and Ohio State.
Thompson believed that the state had a duty to make a significant contribution to the education of its citizens. The complexity of modern life required the advancement of the public university education. Yet, Thompson never saw the public university and its free inquiry as something in opposition to religion, but he believed that state universities and religious institutions both benefited society. Thompson at one point noted, “A state university supported by the people has brought to young men and women at great cost the opportunities of an education… the college graduate cannot serve his college better or pay his obligation sooner than by a devoted service to the cause of humanity.”[x] In as much as college graduates were using their education to serve humankind, Thompson desired that Ohio State as a public university would flourish; his religious convictions would seem to have only affirmed this desire.
Thompson did not try to make Ohio State a Christian institution, as he supported the separation of church and state.[xi] One faculty member had noted: “he never allowed his theological views to interfere with academic freedom and we had some faculty people who if not atheists were very free thinkers.”[xii] Upon his death a group of faculty wrote jointly: “He had a great tolerance... during his administration no member of the instructing staff was ever removed or demoted or his promotion prevented, because of anything he taught. The Ohio State University enjoyed under him complete freedom of teaching.”[xiii] Thompson was a man of religious conviction yet he supported academic freedom, one might argue because of his religious convictions.
Though he upheld the separation of church and state, Thompson took issue with academic ideologies that pushed religion out of university life entirely. He was sensitive to an anti-Christian bias in the academy.[xiv] During his tenure as president of Miami University, he once taught a class on evidences for the Christian faith.[xv] Thompson noted:
The mistake is too frequently made by assuming that the complete function of education has been exercised when education in science, or history, or agriculture, or engineering, or law has been reasonably well completed… the mistake, however, is to overlook the importance of religious and social activities as an essential equipment for efficient living in modern society… the University is not called upon to support religion. On the other hand it has no call to discourage it… The University, therefore, has nothing but welcome and gratitude for the generous services rendered by all the religious and social agencies on the campus who seek to improve religious conditions, moral standards, and social life among the students.[xvi]
A supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, Dr. Thompson sought to make the Ohio State campus a more welcoming environment for an increased female enrollment.[xvii] The group of faculty referenced above concluded: “In sum, then, Dr. Thompson was a wise, tolerant, loving and sympathetic administrator, the friend of all his colleagues on the staff.”[xix]
The thompson Institute
William Oxley Thompson represents well the character and conviction our Christian institute seeks to embody at The Ohio State University. We want to help the university to flourish. We desire not to force our point of view upon others nor to suppress alternative views, but to have a seat at the table of the academy, humbly giving voice to Christian perspectives where that voice might be rarely heard. Our hope is that those with whom we might disagree would find us to be reasonable and respectful, and might ultimately find wisdom in the Christian faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
[i] James E. Pollard. William Oxley Thompson: Evangel of Education. (Columbus: The Ohio State University, 1955).
[ii] Pollard. Thompson. 161.
[iii] Pollard. Thompson. 91.
[iv] Pollard. Thompson. 15.
[v] Denis Alexander. Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century. (Oxford: Lion, 2001), 201.
[vi] Pollard. Thompson. 235.
[vii] Pollard. Thompson. 63.
[viii] Pollard. Thompson. 64.
[ix] Arthur F. Holmes. Building the Christian Academy. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 64.
[x] Pollard. Thompson. 72.
[xi] Pollard. Thompson. 88.
[xii] Pollard. Thompson. 116.
[xiii] Pollard. Thompson. 284.
[xiv] Pollard. Thompson. 39.
[xv] Pollard. Thompson. 44.
[xvi] Pollard. Thompson. 151.
[xvii] Pollard. Thompson. 58.
[xviii] Pollard. Thompson. 284.