Throughout Vassar’s history, student organizations have reflected students’ concerns as they have changed with the times. The college’s opening in 1865 coincided with a shift of direction for the missionary movement in America, which had focused in the first two-thirds of the 19th century on the westward expansion of the several denominations. The conclusion of the Civil War, resolving national uncertainties to a considerable degree, helped direct missionary efforts towards work among “natives” in Asian and African countries. Thus, one of Vassar’s first student organizations, the Missionary Society, was formed in 1867 for the “the study of missionary labor in different countries.” The primary source for this study was correspondence with Christian missionaries in the foreign field and a monthly periodical, The Church Missionary Intelligencer.
A somewhat bemused Sarah Glazier, class of 1868, wrote to her family in Hartford about the new organization: “Today we had the first regular meeting of a ‘missionary society,’ which is to meet once a month—I’d tell you the ‘object,’ if the preamble wasn’t nearly half a rod long which describes the ‘aims, ends, and motives,’ and if I commenced I shouldn’t like to be cut short.”
Cut short itself, the Missionary Society changed its name after its fifth meeting. In June of 1867 the group officially became known as the Vassar College Society for Religious Inquiry. The idea of an organization by this name had been advanced in his later years by the patriot (and deist) Thomas Paine (1731–1809), although it is unlikely that Paine’s concept was a model for the largely Christian societies, similarly named, that had pre-existed Vassar’s at the University of Vermont (by 1826), Washington College (PA, 1833), the University at Lewisburg (later, Bucknell, PA, 1847), Hanover College (IN, 1848), and Jefferson College (PA, 1853). No evidence has been found in the Vassar archives of any communication among these groups, and despite their sharing the same name, it’s impossible to determine if the groups shared specific common goals.
Vassar’s Society for Religious Inquiry aimed to “foster the missionary spirit among its members and their fellow students, by keeping them informed with regard to the progress of Christianity in the world.” The Society received letters from foreign and domestic missionaries that were read out loud at meetings, multi-lingual religious literature “printed by foreign missionaries for distribution among the natives,” and cultural artifacts that were added to the group’s cabinet of curiosities. The society corresponded with missionaries in Turkey, India, Southern Africa, and China.
Although their focus was the evangelical progress of Christianity throughout the world, the society’s members also used their access to foreign missionaries as a way to learn about distant cultures. The society’s secretary would send money collected by the group to missionaries in return for items from the field. Justus Doolittle (1824–1880), an American Board missionary working in Foo Chow, China, wrote to the Society on December 26, 1870, “I should be happy to send from time to time some pictures, charms, etc. for the cabinet. Though I’m afraid that there are few things here that are interesting. Though some things are funny if you understand them.”
On February 28, 1871 Doolittle sent “pictures from Tien-Tsui, and a pair of chopsticks that the common people use.” Another missionary stationed in China, Mrs. M. O. Andrews, wrote to the students in 1872 asking for their prayers and then describing the difficulties of her work in China. She lived as one of five foreigners in the entire city of Tung Cho and the only natives she and her family had converted to Christianity were servants living in their house, people dependent on the Andrewses for livelihood. She went on to describe her own effort, “My main work is for the women and girls of the city. I have no school but I teach those who live in the household and in homes when they permit it. Whether there will be more people by the time this reaches you is doubtful. Sometimes people come see us on their own. Since the Tientsin Massacre the people have been very much more shy of us than they were before. All through the winter I have hardly had an invitation… There is so much that is dark and discouraging about the work here that we have need of a cheerful hopeful spirit, a strong faith, a warm love for Jesus and for souls… But yet with all the sadness it is a blessed work and nothing would tempt me to leave it. Pray much for us who work in the darkness. Pray for the little church and for the poor women of Tung Cho. I believe they have brighter days coming for I believe your prayers will hasten them.”
In 1872, The Society for Religious Inquiry’s interests expanded beyond the study of foreign missionary work when Laura Ross, a student from the Hampton Institute in Virginia, wrote to Vassar’s President John H. Raymond, who passed the letter on to the Society. The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, founded in 1868 by the Civil War Union general, Samuel Armstrong (1839–1893), was a pioneering effort in the education of African-Americans, and Ross described her life after having been born a slave in Wytheville, VA, on April 4, 1857. She wrote about her desire to learn and become a teacher but also about her difficulty in paying the amount required for board at Hampton (four to six dollars). As a result, each year the society donated a sum of money to the Hampton Institute and eventually to another educational landmark, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Letters arrived over the next several years from African American students, thanking Vassar students for helping them pay for their educations.
In Dec. 1874 the secretary of the society received a letter from Robert Kelsen, a student at the Hampton Institute:
Miss Jeannie Price,
As you have gone so far as to assist me in my schooling I guess you would be glad to receive a letter from me. I take the present opportunity of writing to you, to give you some account of my life and other occurrences. I return you many thanks for your kindness towards me.
I was born in Farmville, Va. 1857. My father and mother were slaves. But as I was quite small I did not know much about slavery then, but have learned more since. I had the opportunity of attending a school near my home in 1869. But had to stop in 1870 to assist my father in working in a tobacco factory as there was no other business of much importance going on in the town where I lived. I had the opportunity of entering this school Oct. 6th 1873. April 1874 I had to go home on account of my father being sick. During the six months which I stayed here I was much pleased with the school. I devoted my time to my studies and was quite successful to be promoted to the middle class. I staid home during the summer and assisted my father in his feeble condition as much as I could. He gradually recovered and I went to stay in Petersburg Va. Sept. 1874. before I been there long I met with the opportunity of returning to school again, And learned by my teacher (Miss E H Brewer) that you were the friend who had so kindly consented to help me this term.
I am trying to do the best I can because I feel that it is here we are to be made men and women, who can assist in educating our race, and doing other good which is needed in our country.
Temperance is much needed in the South. In some cases I have known men to labor all week and when Saturday night comes which is the day for settling they owe the most of their earnings for intoxicating drinks. These families suffer from its affects, I have seen this in the town where I lived, and often thought what a happy world this would be, had intoxicating liquors never been heard of.
I hope you will answer my letter.
The Society for Religious Inquiry continued to receive letters, make donations, invite missionaries to their monthly meetings and to add to their cabinet of curiosities until 1885. The group gradually became more focused on the work of missionaries within the United States after an address on February 8, 1879, by Augusta Rice Hovey, the secretary of the Women’s Foreign Mission Board. The wife of the president of the Newton (MA) Theological Institute, Dr. Alvah Hovey, “Mrs. Dr. Hovey” spoke on “Mission Work at Home.” From this period, the cabinet of curiosities includes photographs of such American Evangelists as Dwight L. Moody, a photo of The Five Points Mission in New York City, and five letters from New York City missions.
In 1880, members became involved with philanthropic work in the Poughkeepsie area. As interest in this type of work grew, less and less attention went to the study of missionaries around the world, and in 1885 the Society for Religious Inquiry was transformed into a member organization of the Young Women’s Christian Association, an organization, founded in 1858 as the Ladies Christian Association and dedicated to improving conditions for female students, teachers and factory workers. Renamed in 1872, the YWCA would become, in the decade after the Vassar students joined it, the pioneer advocate for the rights of African American and Native American women and then, in 1894, an international organization for women.
A thoughtful overview of the society’s history contributed at the time of the college’s 50th anniversary by Theodosia Jessup ’15 to The Vassar Miscellany’s “Fiftieth Anniversary Number” was the first review of the origins and evolution of the Society for Religious Inquiry. Jessup noted “two interesting developments,— a widening of the ‘study of missionary labor’ to include the study of the work of home philanthropies and charitable associations, and a gradual realization that the religious organization of a college community should be inspirational as well as devotional, with active individual work as one of its main features.”
The society’s diverse and changing interests and activities live also in the letters addressed to its members as well as in what remains of the group’s cabinet of curiosities. But in retrospect what it may have meant to its members remains unclear. Two of its members, Alice Dinsmoor and Abby Farwell Ferry—both members of the Class of 1872—offered somewhat different accounts of its origin in an exchange of letters at the Class’s 50th reunion, in1922.
Dinsmoor, the daughter of a lawyer and legislator from Sterling, Illinois, who taught for over 30 years at Miss Round’s School in Brooklyn, attributed the founding of the society to Vassar’s first Lady Principal: “Hannah Lyman instigated some of us girls to do this. She has a mother who was a missionary in India (I think) who died of cholera and she was very desirous of having some faculty that would keep in touch with missions and she suggested this very comprehensive name… The Society for Religious Inquiry.” And Ferry, the daughter of John Villiers Farwell—proprietor of Chicago’s leading dry goods company, and a devout Methodist—and the first secretary of the Society for Religious Inquiry, recalled a more vigorous need on the students’ part: “The Society we petitioned for was not founded. You and Miss Brewer and I and some others felt the lack of stronger religious movement in the college; the sentiment which would work for girls who were not Christians. We thought if we were more organized we could be more active than we were for souls right around us.”
More recent commentaries have added texture to the life and times of the society. Historian and educator Stephen Clement in his doctoral dissertation, “Aspects of Student Religion at Vassar College, 1861–1914,” explores the developmental aspect of the group, asserting that “mission study may have been an outlet for fantasy [in Vassar’s] otherwise rigidly controlled atmosphere; these organizations…provided an escape from faculty supervision and an opportunity for self direction.” In The Victorian Homefront historian Louise Stevenson notes that while Maria Mitchell was leading several skeptical faculty, known as “the Rads,” in gentle resistance to a heavily religious program in the early years, students who might have found religious services insufficient for other reasons ”founded organizations to satisfy their religious needs and curiosity….” In her summary, Stevenson hints that just such a complexity might even have been sensed at the time. “Student religious clubs also proliferated. The first one, founded in 1867, was the Society for Religious Inquiry, where the college’s evangelically minded students found a home and which more worldly students called the Society for Pious Conundrum.”
Daniel H. Bays, The Foreign Missionary Movement in the 19th and early 20th Centuries
Stephen M. Clement, “Aspects of Student Religion at Vassar College, 1861–1914, diss. Harvard School of Education, 1977
Louise L. Stevenson, The Victorian Homefront (New York, 1991)
“The Christian Association,” The Vassar Miscellany: Vassar 1865–1915, from the Undergraduate Point of View, Poughkeepsie, NY,1915
“Home Notes” The Vassar Miscellany, Poughkeepsie, NY, February, 1878
Society for Religious Inquiry collection, Vassar College Special Collections
CJ, VM 2009