Happy 162nd Birthday Hamline University!

Early Red Wing looking towards Barn Bluff; note Hamline University (on the left), Court House, & Central School. MNHS MG6.9 RW1 p7


On March 3, 1854, Minnesota’s Territorial Legislative Assembly approved An Act to Incorporate the Hamline University of Minnesota. Thus Hamline University was established as “an institution of learning for the education of youth of both sexes” – making it among the first dozen truly coeducational colleges in the United States.

Hamline was originally established under the auspices of the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the first half of the nineteenth century, progressive Methodists believed higher education for women and men was foundational to its evangelical mission and progressive social philosophy. Like the majority of Methodist Episcopal colleges and universities at this time, Hamline University practiced a nonsectarian admission policy and focused its curriculum on classical collegiate subjects in order to simultaneously evangelize unconverted scholars and prepare the converted for leadership in a secular world. To this end, its charter read: “No religious tenet shall be required of any person to entitle him or her to all the privileges of the institution; and no student shall be required to attend the religious worship of any particular denomination except as specified by the students, his parents or guardian.” In this way, educational institutions such as Hamline University furthered the Methodist evangelical-educational project by creating both new converts and a cadre of intelligent, justice-oriented persons who would find a home in a variety of life’s vocations.

While Hamline’s original location was ultimately set at Red Wing, several other sites had been considered, including a location at Jackson and Roberts Streets in what would later become St. Paul – but that location was lost due to the fact that Hamline’s founders were unable to raise the few hundred dollars that would secure the site. Fundraising was made more difficult by the fact that those not familiar with the territories in the New Northwest “could not be made to believe, at that time, that Minnesota would ever amount to anything as a home for civilized people – ‘too cold; too near the North Pole …’ – was the general opinion.”

Hamline University engaged the Methodist project of higher education focused on settlements along the emerging western frontier, where the need for colleges was great and class mobility was rapid. Reflecting on the denomination’s presence on the frontier, noted Methodist author Edward Eggleston observed that “Methodism was to the West all that Puritanism was to New England.” The new university was named in honor of Bishop Leonidas L. Hamline, who was a well-known champion of higher education and equal education for women and men. However, it is interesting to note that the university was chartered by the State of Minnesota before its founders learned of Bishop Hamline’s willingness to donate significant funds in support of the college. What is more, Bishop Hamline donated the funds without knowing the new Minnesota university would bear his name.

Hamline’s preparatory school was enrolled first; it opened in 1854 with a class of thirty-nine students – about half of whom were women. By 1857 some 220 students were enrolled, and a full coeducational college course was organized and students admitted. In 1859, Hamline University graduated its first college class, made up of two sisters: Elizabeth and Emily Sorin, who were daughters of one of the trustees. One year later, Hamline’s second graduating class was also made up of two women: the third-oldest Sorin sister Mary, and student Sara Louise Williams. From 1859 to 1869 – the year Hamline suspended operations as a result of the economic upheavals of the Civil War – Hamline graduated 22 baccalaureate students, 15 of whom were women. Four of those women also received the A.M. from Hamline—Elizabeth and Emily Sorin, Rebecca Morrow, and Helen Sutherland. Importantly, in the nineteenth century the A.M. degree was not awarded as a result of further coursework. A graduate applied for the degree after demonstrating to the University Trustees that they had put their education to good use and were a leading citizen.

In the fall of 1880, Hamline University reopened in its current St. Paul location, where it flourished. “Do right,” was the code of discipline, which when coupled with the philosophy of “quit your meanness,” molded youthful students into honorable men and women. By 1884, the most popular degree at Hamline for both women and men was the Ph.B., or Philosophiae Baccalaureus (Bachelor of Philosophy), a type of liberal arts degree. By 1893 Hamline had graduated a total of 90 baccalaureate students—54% of whom were women. The preparatory department closed in 1911 so the University could focus on higher education.

It is perhaps fitting to leave Hamline’s 162nd year by noting the words of Rev. Chauncey Hobart in his 1887 reminiscence:

“Thus we leave Hamline University – no longer known as the ‘old’ and the ‘new,’ but Hamline the victorious, Hamline the vigorous; Hamline, around which cluster the hopes and prayers and sympathies of Minnesota Methodism; Hamline, with fine accommodations and beautiful for situation; trusting that in all her future she may mold our sons and daughters so that of the students of Hamline it may be said, from generation to generation, her sons are, ‘as plants grown up in the youth,’ and her daughters are ‘as corner stones polished after the similitude of a palace,’ blessing and being blessed.”

Happy birthday Hamline University – here’s to many more.

Written by Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, CLA ’90

Hamline University Endowed Chair in the Humanities

Further reading:

Alumni Association of the College of Liberal Arts of Hamline University. History of the Hamline University of Minnesota when Located at Red Wing, Minnesota, from 1854 to 1869. (1907). 

Asher, Helen D. “A Frontier College of the Middle West: Hamline University 1854-1869.” Minnesota Historical Society (pdf download from MHS)

Bloomberg, Kristin Mapel, “Nineteenth-Century Methodists and Coeducation: The Case of Hamline University,” Methodist History, Oct. 2008. (pdf download from MHQ)

Bloomberg, et. al. 150 Lives that Make a Difference. (Hamline University Press, 2005)

Hobart, Chauncey, History of Methodism in Minnesota (Red Wing Printing Co, 1887)

Session Laws of the Territory of Minnesota: Passed by the Legislative Assembly at the Session Commencing Wednesday, January 4, 1854