On June 25, 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, in its 24th year, passed into history. It merged with the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches, an august body that traced its history back to the New England Congregationalists, who had founded Harvard in 1636. The newly merged expression of Christianity in America displayed a distinctly progressive spirit. In the best Protestant tradition, it encouraged questioning. It held that the search for God’s truth is ongoing, expressed a zeal for ecumenical partnerships, and took as its motto the great prayer of Jesus Christ, “that they may all be one.” It began with some 800,000 adherents, and was called the United Church of Christ.
Thus Elmhurst became one of an eventual 29 colleges and universities “related to the United Church of Christ.” The precise terminology was significant: the institutions were not church-owned or even church-sponsored but rather church-related, like adult kin. The Congregational colleges had a venerable tradition of substantial independence and limited support from the church. Now Elmhurst adopted the tradition as its own.
The 14 years between the creation of the United Church of Christ and the centennial of the College in 1971 form a compelling two-part era, filled with advancement and embroilment. Under two presidents, Robert Stanger and Donald Kleckner, the College built five major buildings. Enrollment doubled. The academic budget tripled. Student financial aid quadrupled. Admission standards increased—first gradually, then dramatically. Between 1965 and 1968, the average SAT score of entering freshmen rose by more than 30 points.
Meanwhile, social change was seismic, at Elmhurst as elsewhere. In 1957, freshmen still wore beanies. The Women’s Union Circus was a popular campus affair. It was joined the following year by Bachelors’ Holiday, “a week during which coeds carry boys’ books and invite boys out.” By 1971, the campus had well-established chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (on the left) and Young Americans for Freedom (on the right). Stokely Carmichael came; William F. Buckley Jr. followed. Students fasted to support famine relief in Africa, and set aside Thursdays at noon for peace vigils.
Robert Christian Stanger led the College through the kinder, gentler years of the bifurcated era. As Elmhurst’s ninth president from 1957 to 1965, he served the institution as a rare and useful figure, a hero of transition.
Stanger’s Elmhurst roots ran deep. He was born on the campus in 1900. His father, Christian Stanger, taught music and romance languages from 1896 to 1946, the longest tenure in the faculty’s history. The son emerged from the Proseminary in 1918, studied at Yale and the University of Chicago, then taught for a time at Elmhurst. In 1933, he succeeded Reinhold Niebuhr as pastor of an Evangelical and Reformed church in Detroit. He was uniquely qualified to move the College beyond its parochial boundaries—gently yet decisively. “His heart was in Elmhurst,” Stanger’s friend, Dr. Rudolf Schade, recalled. “He understood the College, respected its achievements through the years. But he was not blindly committed to yesteryear.”
The ninth president’s measured approach to progress can be discerned in the way he went about expanding the campus. He engaged a Chicago architect to develop an ambitious new campus plan. Tellingly, the architect was Benjamin Franklin Olson, who had created the original plan for Richard Niebuhr back in 1926. Under Stanger, Olson continued his long, uninterrupted run of campus projects. He designed a new student residence (called Niebuhr Hall), a new College Union, and the last great dream of Stanger’s predecessor, Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel.
President Stanger had his own bright ideas for the chapel. “He envisioned a place of dignity for religious services—but he wanted more,” Dr. Schade recalled. Thus the design included not only a prayer chapel and an auditorium for assembly and worship, but also classrooms and faculty offices for disciplines such as English. “Its structure would dominate the campus,” said Dr. Schade. “It would be a symbol of the educational philosophy to which the College had committed itself. Education and faith were interdependent—were united.”