January 17, 2007

"deep reverence... toward his Quaker ancestry"

My local paper celebrates Ezra Cornell's 200th birthday today, reflecting on the founder of Cornell University. Cornell University sometimes appears in lists of Quaker colleges, though it has always been unaffiliated.

Ezra Cornell grew up Quaker, but was disowned for something he did in the town I live in, as Wikipedia relates:

Ezra Cornell was a birthright Quaker, but was later disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the faith to a "world's woman," a Methodist by the name of Mary Ann Wood. Ezra and Mary Ann were married March 19, 1831, in Dryden, New York.

On February 24, 1832, Ezra Cornell wrote the following response to his expulsion from The Society of Friends due to his marriage to Mary Ann Wood: "I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair and that my happyness or misery in this life depended on the choice…"

The Ithaca Journal reprints an article on the founding of the University from 1956, in which Cornell reflects on his options after enduring abuse from the New York State Legislature:

"I can never forget the quiet dignity with which Mr. Cornell took this abuse. Mrs. Cornell sat at his right, I at his left. In one of the worst tirades against him, he turned to me and said quietly, and without the slightest anger or excitement: 'If I could think of any other way in which half a million of dollars would do as much good to the State, I would give the legislature no more trouble.' Shortly afterward, when the invective was again especially bitter, he turned to me and said: 'I am not sure but that it would be a good thing for me to give the half a million to old Harvard College in Massachusetts, to educate the descendants of the men who hanged my forefathers.'

'There was more than his usual quaint humor in this — there was that deep reverence which he always bore toward his Quaker ancestry, and which seemed to have become part of him.'

Cornell's work to create an unaffiliated university - and avoid donating to the heirs of those who hung William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra in Boston - created opposition from those who found the notion of a university without explicit ties to a religious body appalling. As another 1956 article put it:

With [Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White], Quaker and humanist, evolved the university's radical support of co-education, and its principle of freedom from domination by "persons of any one religion or of no religion" (which earned the university the charge of "godlessness" in sectarian pulpits and journals of the day).

The Journal cites a letter from Cornell to a friendly Presbyterian minister that tells of the conflicts:

I am glad that you find much to please you in the plan of Cornell University as studied from the Register. I believe you are the first Presbyterian minister who has not consigned us to purgatory for our infidelity. I should be glad to know if you can show a "clean bill of health" from the church authorities, or perchance you may be sliding down the same declivity to perdition that we are. I should be sorry to see the whole family of Cornells on the broad road to ruin. I had hoped at least we might clutch your skirts for salvation.

It's unfortunate that the Quakers disowned Cornell at the time of his marriage, but at least from what I see here, he seems not to have disowned Quakers.