History Spotlight: Colby’s founding as a baptist college 204 years ago

On Feb. 27, Colby celebrated turning 204 years old. Colby College is the 12th oldest independent liberal arts college in the nation and was chartered in 1813 in order to provide a local source for educating Baptist ministers.

In early colonial towns, families and communities were centered around religion. Churches wished to train their own ministers without having to depend on England to educate and supply qualified professors. This is the origin for many colleges, including Harvard College, which was formed in 1636 for Congregationalists, and Brown University, created to educate Baptists in 1765. Baptists are separationists from the Roman Catholic Church and comprise a grouping of the Protestant religion. They strongly believe in absolute freedom and the use of missionary work to spread God’s message, however, their aggression was feared and persecuted by some churches.

Baptists traveled north from Rhode Island and Massachusetts and began constructing churches in Maine, which was then still a part of Massachusetts, seeking religious freedom in the wilderness. The first church was built in Kittery in 1682, but was swiftly shut down by the local magistrate. The next church was erected nearly a century later in Gorham, west of Portland, in 1768. As more Baptists gathered in Maine, there was a need for a place to educate ministers. Although Brown University was Baptist, it supplied few ministers for the Northern Baptist, who were more devout, independent, and differed somewhat theologically.

In 1807, Reverend Sylvanus Boardman of Livermore discussed with the Bowdoinham Baptist Association his concerns that a school in Maine was needed to train future clergy. The association agreed to petition Massachusetts for the land and charter to establish an institution of higher learning. With the legislative support from Representative Daniel Merrill, who was a Baptist, along with Bath merchant and democrat William King, the Maine Literary and Theological Institution was approved on February 27, 1813. This was the 33rd chartered college in the United States at the time.

The search began for a location for the College. Waterville, Farmington, and Bloomfield were all considered, and the search committee decided on Waterville. The Kennebec County raised over $4000 to secure a plot for the college along the Kennebec River. The original campus comprised of wood and brick buildings lined in a row and fronted with a park. Buildings were intended for preaching, teaching, dining, and sleeping. However, the construction process was slow and the College still needed staff.

In 1818, after the land for the College was attained, the trustees selected two Massachusetts ministers to be professors at the institution: Jeremiah Chaplin as professor of divinity and Ira Chase as professor of languages. They both denied the offer. However, after second consideration, Chaplin believed this was a divinely given opportunity and accepted the position. Thus in 1818 the Theological Department opened and in 1819, the Literary Department. Chaplin sailed from Boston to Augusta with his family and seven students, and then traveled by longboat to Waterville. Since no buildings were yet constructed, Chaplin taught classes in his rented house and he and his students helped cleared the land. While teaching, Chaplin also started Waterville’s First Baptist Church, although construction for the church would not begin for another eight years. Chaplin was not only the first professor at the College, but also the first President, garnering the role in 1822 and staying in the position until 1833.

By 1820, Maine had become its own state and granted the College the ability to administer degrees. Maine also ordered the College to amend its charter to ensure that no student would be denied admission or any other privileges based on interpretation of scriptures adopted by the institution. This act forced the College to become more secular, and without it, the College may have remained a small seminary in the woods for years afterward.

In 1821, the trustees sought a name change from the Maine Literary and Theological Institution to Waterville College. In the same year, Gibbon Williams became the first student from outside of the United States to enroll in the College. A year later, in August of 1822, George Boardman became the first student to graduate. Waterville College kept its name until 1867, when a $50,000 financial pledge was made by Gardner Colby. This pledge saved the College from tremendous financial strain near the end of the Civil War, and the College became Colby University. The name Colby College finally came in 1899 when President Butler felt that Colby’s future was as an undergraduate liberal arts institution and not as a larger university. The shifting of names shows the transition of the institution from highly religious to secular, and also reflects an important investment in the College. This shift can also be noted by the dropping of the Theological Department in 1828.

Although rooted in religious origins, Colby College has transformed dramatically over time, not only becoming a secular institution, but also a liberal arts college well-known throughout the nation.