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The College “Y”: Student Religion in the Era of Secularization

David P. Setran
Published by Palgrace Macmillan in 2008

Returning after an extended absence to a once-familiar place, be it a college campus, a church, or an organization, a person may be surprised by the contrast between what is recalled through the mind’s eye of what was, and what is apparent through physical eyes of what is. The natural and reactionary question “how did this happen?” is not merely one of chronology, but one of wondering at the unknown trail of altered purpose and identity that connects days gone by with contemporary reality.

So it has been for the scholarly Christian community gazing back across a century and a half of what may be called the secularization story in higher education, piecing together an intellectual family tree with a mix of amazement and embarrassment for the sometimes bold claims and heady rhetoric of college presidents, pastors, faculty members, and avowedly Christian intellectuals. Familiar narrators such as George Marsden1, Julie Reuben2, JamesBurtchaell3, John Roberts and James Turner4, and others capably describe the emergence and impact of the scientific method, religious pluralism, academic freedom, German intellectualism, and faculty professionalization (among many other factors) in a rapidly changing Progressive era of discovery, conflict, expansion, and cultural transformation.

Now, David Setran joins the reconstruction effort with his book The College Y: Student Religion in an Age of Secularism. Since the exploration of so-called Christian disengagement from higher education to date contains only passing consideration of the role of students as purposeful actors, Setran’s text represents a vital piece to this story, however broadly he tells it.

It is unfortunate that The Young Men’s Christian Association, or “Y”, is now most present in the national consciousness through affordable fitness facilities, after school programs, and sports stadiums reverberating with the organization’s undesired anthem. It was not always so. At one point this national collegiate youth movement claimed some 60% of the male college-going population in its membership. Today, its concrete monikers adorn only a few aging campus structures. The “how did this happen?” question begs to be asked.

The collegiate Y movement emerged as an autonomous expression of student evangelistic fervor at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan in 1858 completely unbeknownst to one another and without the sanctioning of the International YMCA. In fact, it would be some 12 years until the governing YMCA body would embrace the existence of the student movement that had co-opted its name and spread quickly to other campuses in the eastern United States. Setran traces the lighted fuse of religious revivalism, just as in the 1880s, Y promoter Luther Wishard followed the rails to nascent colleges across the country, and like the Johnny Appleseed of evangelical youth movements, instigated college students to form associations of their own.

Setran’s account of the story of the nationalization of a Christian student Y movement, beyond its fascinating chronology of meetings, summer conferences, publications, and demographics, is of a mobilized movement adjusting its methods and even its identity perpetually in response to a fluid cultural, theological, and intellectual higher education environment. Yet the repercussions of this student movement, balanced on a historical precipice of evangelical redefinition and cultural upheaval, go much further than its own transformation. In fact, Setran places the Y in the role of unwitting accomplice as American Protestantism is disenfranchised from much of higher education.

A vignette drawn from Setran’s account of the Y illustrates the accumulated action and reaction of a movement seeking, and often struggling between cultural relevance and theological faithfulness. As the Y student associations solidified into a national phenomenon through increasing coordination and communication in the final decade of the 1800s, two nearly simultaneous strategic decisions altered not only the course of the Y student associations, but the position of religion in higher education. General Secretary for the Student Y (and future Nobel Prize winner) John Mott desired to make the association indispensible to the function of higher education locally and nationally at the turn of the 20th century. Striving toward relevance in an era of college expansionism, the Y’s recognized that student needs of college socialization and moral direction were not being met. Y services for freshman flourished, including meeting students at trains, employment bureaus, opening receptions, and eventually, the construction of impressive Y buildings to house all these efforts simultaneously. With a modicum of national coordination achieved, college leaders, chafing at accusations that the moral duties of faculty were neglected in favor of professional pursuits, pointed to the Y as the protector of student religion.

Ironically, the desire for a strong campus presence led the Y leadership to re-examine the state of the flock gathered thus far. Setran notes that Mott was displeased with surveys that suggested 27,000 of 80,000 men in colleges were affiliated with the YMCA. Mott remarked of this: “Should there be nearly as many Christians outside the YMCA as within”(63)? Fixated on expanding the reach of the Y, Mott placed increased emphasis on attracting to membership the “representative man,” popular individuals of social renown who would, in turn, attract others to the organization. In that age of collegiate enthusiasm when school spirit was at a potent high, gaining the loyalty of an institution’s best and brightest magnetized Y associations, drawing in increasing numbers.

Not content to be an organization of Christian students, Mott’s crusade for the campus Ys to become the student organization came with a dual price. First, achieving the endorsement of college presidents as the de facto moral guide for students released concerns for the students’ spiritual wellbeing from the institution and placed it on the student Y association. The historical timing could not have been more critical: concurrently, Comtean positivism and enthusiasm for the scientific method as panacea for nearly all problems, academic and social, was gradually replacing grounding assumptions of supernatural injunction. Biblical scholarship, still a concern of academics, was transformed into a query of historical archeology and literature, divorced from concerns of personal piety and salvation. Thus, the choreography of secularization shifted the burden for student moral and spiritual care to the extra-curriculum in the form of the Y, and divested those departments concerned with Biblical study of a responsibility for communicating the redemptive work of Christ long intertwined with scriptural exegesis.

Although this was a task the Y embraced, the simultaneous push to claim the social as well as spiritual center of higher education drew the association away from its previous unflinching evangelistic position and toward a more conciliatory stance in keeping with the increased popularity of its social platform. This change of focus also came with a price. Setran quotes one student as having stated: “I have noticed that our religious association has always been controlled by a type that seems to me to gravitate there by selection. The athletic fellows (members of the Association) are anything but religious” (104). Through the first decade of the twentieth century, many Y student leaders were cognizant of this danger. However, the price tag of becoming “indispensible” to campus life would be the erosion of the association’s prior evangelistic focus, ironically, after the movement effectively had released academia from its moral and spiritual responsibility for students.

Astute readers may sense a picture painted with broad strokes. Although this review is brief in its treatment, Setran’s own telling of the Y Association’s complex story leans heavily on an aerial view of history told primarily from the seat of organizational power. From the perspective of Wishard, Mott, Porter, and the other men at the helm, Setran’s description feels frequently as though these men and the decision-makers around them dictated to the student associations, en masse, to shift theological and strategic focus as the times seemed suitable. Setran’s occasional use of examples from Princeton, Harvard, Illinois, and other high-profile university associations does add local color, but these references are engaged most often to reflect practices of the Y that fit with the plans or motivations of the national Y leadership, and not as examples of Y association independence. As Setran does acknowledge on occasion, this was a movement of independent, albeit confederated associations – a fact noted in a way that implies that this, too, was a stroke of strategic vision and not a simple reality of independently controlled, student-run organizations. Certainly, Wishard, Mott, and others played an important role in the development of Y associations, but it is more likely that their actions provided supportive coordination and not directive legislation, in the same way that the Y may have facilitated, but did not cause secularization.

Setran’s history of the campus Y and its place in the secularization story is a vital and fascinating read. However, it is hampered by the same problem of generalizing particularities for the sake of a grand narrative that afflicts all totalizing histories. In Setran’s version ofthe “how did this happen?” response, the reader would do well to keep in mind the agency of the students themselves in initiating and propelling the movement through the local color of each unique association chapter.

Cite this article
Nathan F. Alleman, “The College “Y”: Student Religion in the Era of Secularization”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 157-159


  1. J. M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  2. J. A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Mo-rality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  3. 5J. T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their ChristianChurches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
  4. J. H. Roberts and J. Turner, The Sacred and the Secular University (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,2000).

Nathan F. Alleman

Baylor University
Nathan F. Alleman is Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Baylor University.