Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How now, Brown..... University?

Last week's County Road 518 jaunt brought me through Hopewell, a community justifiably proud of its roots. Not only was the town the home of Declaration of Independence signer John Hart, it boasts a lovely old Baptist meeting house and a number of other colonial-era buildings. I wasn't surprised to find a few historical markers in town, but I was thrown for a loop when I read the sign in front of an unadorned white colonial house. Apparently the building had once served as a Baptist parsonage and a school called the Hopewell Academy, from which today's Brown University developed.

So, wait: Brown, the Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island, actually started here in New Jersey? Well, it depends on what you mean by 'started.' The university's own website is a bit fuzzy on the school's origin, but other sources state that Brown, like most, if not all of the nine colonial colleges, was conceived by a Protestant sect to foster learning and to train men for the ministry. In this case, it was the Baptist church in Philadelphia that planted the seed, and Reverend James Manning was sent to lead the formation of the school.

Manning himself was a Jerseyman, born in Elizabethtown, raised in Piscataway and educated at the Presbyterian-run College of New Jersey. Before attending the precursor to Princeton University, he prepared for his religious studies at the Hopewell Academy, the first Baptist educational institution of its kind in America.

If the impetus for the founding of Brown came from Hopewell and Philadelphia, then why is the school located in Rhode Island? The answer is simple: the colony then known as Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations was home to the first Baptist church in America. The training ground for ministers would be located at the cradle of the faith. Congregationalist ministers were working to establish a school there, as well, so the two groups joined forces to develop what's known as Brown University.

Manning was the first president of the college, also serving as minister of the mother Baptist church in Rhode Island. Later, he was appointed to the Seventh Congress of the Confederation of States, the nation's legislative body before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Not bad for a Jersey guy, huh?

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