We named this blog “The Consecrated Eminence” partly as a self-conscious salute to the high-flown rhetoric of the 19th century, the kind of flowery language that many of us here in the Archives & Special Collections have a fondness for. Of course it sounds bombastic and stuffy to modern ears – but, as I hope our posts over the past two years have shown, we’re not! In any case, when we started the blog, we said that the earliest appearance we could find of the phrase “the consecrated eminence” was in the first issue of the College’s earliest student publication, The Sprite, dated May 1831. In this inaugural issue, the editors appeal to its readers (the Amherst student body) to support this new venture:
Our habitations, moreover, are small and we are but a weak people; we therefore apply for aid to you, inhabitants of the “consecrated eminence”; on you rest all our hopes and expectations…. (p. 2)
But those quotation marks clearly suggest that it is a reference to an even earlier source. As it happens, I believe I’ve found that source. I know our readers have been waiting breathlessly for any news on this issue, so without further ado, here it is.
This is the inaugural address of Amherst’s second president, Heman Humphrey, delivered on October 15, 1823. I always have the same thought about all 19th century speeches unfurled by windy ecclesiastical orators: I hope the weather was cool that day and refreshments were plentiful behind the last row, because this was not a brisk 15-minute speech. Probably closer to two hours, the first hour of which was devoted to disquisitions on Biblical evidences of salvation and providence.
To be sure, Humphrey was speaking at a momentous time in the College’s history, as even he and his audience members surely sensed. Amherst College was barely two years old, but its ranks were growing, its name gaining renown; and though it was still a few more years before it would receive the official sanction of a state Charter, Amherst had much to be excited and optimistic about. You can understand how fervent Christians could not fail to think of their mission as blessed by the Almighty, and the grounds on which they stood, from a vantage point overlooking the town, as some almost holy place. And so, on the very last page of his speech — almost inevitably, it seems to us — that beautiful/puffy phrase appears: “consecrated eminence.” Humphrey closes with a vision of a pleasant future in which Amherst College students will have learned great things and gone on to do even greater things for the glory of God and for the spreading of the Gospel:
As we cast our eyes down the long track of time, from this consecrated eminence, how many bright and interesting visions croud [sic] upon our view….
Humphrey seems to have been rather fond of this expression, because he uses it again four years later in a letter accepting an invitation to become pastor of the College church. In it he expresses his prayer that “great additions may be made to [the church] from every successive class of such as shall be saved, and that it may shine brighter and brighter upon this consecrated eminence from generation to generation.”
Colleges, at least American colleges, like to imagine themselves as seated on a hill. And, in fact, many college really are situated on high ground with commanding views. (I myself attended two such institutions with absolutely breathtaking hilltop settings: Hamilton and Cornell.)
Amherst’s reference to itself as “The College on the Hill” is undeniably disingenuous: its actual physical setting, I would say, is not so much “on a hill” as “above a trough.” But it’s a pretty setting all the same, with especially nice views to the south (Holyoke Range) and the west (Hadley farmland and the expanse of the Connecticut River Valley). And the “college on the hill” line — maybe that can be readily forgiven as aspirational rhetoric, a reference to a place set apart (just a bit) from the world, where young people congregate for a time to learn, to think and to prepare their engagement with the greater world — surely not “all downhill from there”…