The Crisis of 1857 at Shimer College was the first major power struggle in the young school's history.

Scholarly work on this crisis thus far has been almost entirely limited to Doris Malkmus' 2003 article on Shimer's founding in the Journal of Illinois History, which however deals with this crisis only in part.


Like most such struggles, the crisis of 1857 had complex roots. These included:

  • agitation for the construction of a Union School -- this was a widespread trend throughout the Old Northwest, as the old one-room-schoolhouse districts were merged into graded schools, and typically resulted in the old "corporate voluntarist" seminaries, academies and high schools either failing or being absorbed into the public schools;
  • reaction to a Baptist revival held at least partially at the Seminary, in what many perceived to be a breach of the school's promise to be nonsectarian;
  • the unresolved contradiction between the Seminary charter (vesting control in a Board of Trustees) and the actual condition of the Seminary, which had been run since 1855 as a joint proprietorship by Wood & Gregory;
  • the emergence of a group of free-thinking students in the Lyceum who grew hostile to the principals' authority;
  • an existing antipathy between Presbyterian minister Calvin Gray on the one hand and Frances Wood, Cindarella Gregory and the First Baptist Church on the other, dating back to 1853; and
  • charges of sexual license against the unmarried Miss Wood.

Although such conflicts were widespread across the Old Northwest -- fault lines typically emerging between Republicans and town residents on the one hand and Democrats, private schools and rural farmers on the other -- the conflict in Mount Carroll appears to be rather unique (not least because both sides were equally ardent supporters of the Republican and abolitionist causes, and because the Seminary remained both independent and successful).


The initial and most intense phase of the crisis, lasting from approximately February to March 1857, combined accusations about the revival with the initial push for a Union School, which David Hilton Wheeler hoped would comprise a two-story building for the lower departments while using the Seminary for the higher department (thus saving considerably relative to the conventional three-story structure). This prompted first, an angry rebuttal in the Republican from Wood & Gregory, and then a call by them for a formal investigation of the charges, which took place in early April (although the investigation report was not published in the Republican for some months thereafter).

The subsequent phase, running from April to July, appears to have taken place largely in the pages of the Republican, with claims and counterclaims leveled chiefly by Calvin Gray on the anti-Seminary side and Nathaniel Halderman and Henry Shimer on the pro-Seminary side, with others joining in from time to time. In addition, during this period a separate select school was established at Calvin Gray's residence, taught initially by Miss Thompson and subsequently by none other than Sarah Randall.


When the dust cleared in late 1857, Calvin Gray had left his position as Presbyterian minister (he would be "without charge" for the subsequent decade), and David Wheeler had left to return to the professoriate in Iowa. The Union School was successfully formed as a legal entity, but would not actually have its own building until 1863; in the meantime, the "higher department" was housed in the basement of the Methodist church, while the lower departments continued to convene in the town's two existing schoolhouses.

The Seminary building had its first expansion in the fall of 1857, and in late December, Miss Wood married Henry Shimer. Nathaniel Halderman, formerly a Presbyterian, eventually joined the Baptist church. The Seminary would remain a nonsectarian but strongly Baptist-identified institution throughout the Seminary period, and when Mrs. Shimer looked for institutions that could take over the school after her departure, it was to Baptist institutions (including of course the University of Chicago) that she turned.

Provisional timelineEdit


In January, we can retrospectively identify some hints of the coming storm, but little is out in the open yet.

  • The religious aspect:
    • The January 9 Republican mentions the ongoing revival, noting that the Baptists have "secured the services of an eloquent divine from the southern part of the state" (Rev. Sidney Estee).
    • Rev. J.V. Allison's house (owned by John Rinewalt) burns down on January 16.
    • The minutes of the Philomathesian Society meeting for January 23 read tersely:
      In accordance with the request of Misses Wood & Gregory, the society without proceeding to business, voted to adjourn for one week.
      [In fact it would be more than a month before the next meeting.]
  • The Union School aspect:
    • The January 16 Republican has a lengthy piece by D.H. Wheeler on "The Public Schools of Mt. Carroll".
      I think it would be best, for many reasons that I have not time now to unfold, to have the highest of the three departments taught in the Mt. Carroll Seminary.


By early February, things are clearly getting very stirred up.

The earliest dated documents copied into the Seminary stock book related to the crisis emerge during this month. The first is from February 3, a letter from James Fargusson to Wood & Gregory:

  • In Short is the Mt. Carroll Seminary, as at present tempered & conducted, that liberal, practical, efficient institution that community had hoped & had reason to believe it would be? Is it such an institution of learning as is at present demanded in this place? Or had we as a community better let it Drop in Despair & unite our efforts in favor of a Grand Union School where all the advantages of a high school may be had together with the benefits of the public monies without the taint of Religious Sectarianism? These & kindred questions are daily being asked by one Citizen of another & freely discussed & not as Cassius spoke treason to Brutus in a hushed breath & in a by place, but openly & in public places.
  • In the February 6th issue of the Republican, there is a "Union school" article & an announcement of a meeting at the courthouse the following day. The article makes glancing mention of the Seminary: "We have had the advantage of a good Seminary in our midst."
  • Writing later in the year, Nathaniel Halderman described the Union School meeting in relation to the Seminary as follows:
    . At this tide of affairs, a party who had become disaffected towards the Seminary, called a public meeting for the purpose of carrying into effect some plan for starting a "Union School." The intent of the originators of this scheme was to crush the Seminary, although this idea was not designed to be made public. By means of petty artifice in concealing it, and exhibiting a false view of the thing, some well-meaning persons were persuaded at first to regard this movement favorably. But when the time appointed for the meeting, came, one who had shared the confidence of this designing clique (but who had not been thoroughly drilled to keep silence on the main object of their proceedings) arose and unwittingly exposed their designs. Here then the whole matter was out, and this was all that was necessary to ensure the downfall of the plot. The feelings of chagrin and disappointment felt by the originators of this "Union School" movement in having their base designs frustrated, was another fruitful source of mischief towards the Seminary.
  • 1857-02-13: Report of Union School meeting outcomes. Also, a long angry letter from W & G regarding the various aspersions on their leadership, accompanied by a statement of support from John Wilson et al.
  • 1857-02-27: Announcement of Union School meeting

(There is no extant issue of the Republican from the week of the 20th.)

  • 1857-02-14: Patrick Gregg letter to W&G
    To say that I deeply regret & deplore the course which my daughter has been permitted or solicited to pursue at your Institution would be but a very feeble expression of my feelings on the subject. To say, that I disapprove of it, gives a very inadequate idea of that disapproval. I trust that the opportunity afforded to my children (& with my full & cordial approbation) at home by attendance on Sabbath School, for religious instruction, will exculpate me from the charge of hostility to religion or its institutions, & I believe, a reference to my letters to the Ladies Principals of the Mt. C. Institute would not detract from my claims as an advocate of religious instruction, calm, deliberate, instruction, but not such as is attempted to be conveyed during the frenzied excitement of what is called a religious revival. In it I have no abiding faith, & while willing to accord to others honesty of purpose, in entertaining different views, I must be permitted as a Parent having the deepest interest in my children's welfare to protest against their participation in it & also against their taking upon themselves, at so tender an age, the Monitorship of their Parents.
  • 1857-02-25: W&G response to Patrick Gregg
    It is true there is and has been for several weeks a deep religious interest among the Students in our Institution. We gave them the privilege of attended evening service (always accompanying them ourselves) where they had the opportunity of hearing the subject of religion calmly & unimpassionedly canvassed. Mary, like all others of our number who have professed piety, has been an unexcited listener—an unimpassioned actor—ever step taken has been done cooly, calmly & without "solicitation" from any one.

Seminary backer John Rinewalt, in Philadelphia on business, had learned of the developments by mid-month. On the 16th, he wrote letters to J.V. Allison and to Wood & Gregory, exhorting them to stand firm; he followed up with a second letter to W&G on the 19th.

  • To Wood & Gregory, Feb. 16:
    Let me then intreat you not to be moved an iota from your straightforward duty. Let not the fear of "Union Schools" give you one moment thought. This is the work of envy & of the Devil. It is a Scarecrow, & only intended as such. This dear Union people we have in Carroll remind me very much of the Devil's Wool Speculation. He was so anxious for wool that the first animal he met he began to shear, & the result was more cry than wool. So it is precisely with this Union School project. The conflicting elements that would be engaged in it would not get the house cellar high before there would be a tearing out of each others eyes, & a perfect confusion of tongues. Let me say here, & I say it in Gratitude to God, that there is no power in Carroll that can injure you. All the good people of the place & God Himself are with you. This I know is so true, there may be some professedly Good & Pious souls that have an appearant regard for your Institution that would like to persuade you to halt & take the back track, but remember Lot's wife. I would say to all such, as the Saviour did to the wicked one, "Get thee behind me Satan."
  • To Rev. Allison, Feb. 16:
    See the teachers & encourage them to pay no attention to any thing said or done, but to go on in the discharge of their duty, both as to God & their School, & my life for it, after this foul vapor has passed away, which will soon be the case, they will be more highly appreciated than ever. Gold after passing through the fire, I am told, looks brighter than ever. Just so it will be with these teachers.
  • To Wood & Gregory, Feb. 19:
    When Bro. Bell heard of the meeting, the persecutions against you, & the Sad Calamity that befell our Dear Bro Allison, he said "God was managing this work." His servants must sometime be turned out to humble them, the Institutions that done most to honor His holy name, must be attacked, & God's people slandered shamefully. This was needful at times to pave the way for the Gospel chariot to roll on. He does not feel moved about any of these things. He says God suffers these things to take place for wise purposes & then overrules all for Good. He says Bro Allison will be none the worse off for this Calamity. You will be obliged to enlarge your Seminary to accomodate your future applications for receiving scholars & God's people, as a General thing, will be the better by being "Blacked Balled", by the Devil, as it will put them more on their guard. This Dear Bro hopes you will let all these slanders pass as the idle wind, & give yourself no thought about them. He says if you go to work among "black kettles" you may get your fingers soiled.
    As his views so fully harmonize with my own I felt free to give them.
  • To J.V. Allison, Feb. 27:
    Stand by the Seminary, Let the venom of Hell boil up. Stand by our Dear Sisters & not a hair of their devoted heads shall be hurt. I wish I were at home & yet I am glad I am not. I think God is moving in this matter. If I were there I would strike just as sure as I live, whether heads or ears flew off or not. Stand by our dear sisters. If needs be & we are forced into it we can make a Baptist Institution of it & honorably support it. Let there be no flinching.


In the Republican:

  • 1857-03-06: report of Union School meeting, Hallett et al., to meet again 3/14; Union School article
  • 1857-03-13: delay of school mtg; Meth & Bapt revivals still underway
  • 1857-03-20: article re upcoming Seminary examination
  • 1857-03-27: reprint of Freeport Journal piece praising Seminary


  • April 3: The Republican carries an advertisement for a school to open at Rev. Gray's house on Monday, April 6.
  • April 6: (Former) trustees meet to investigate charges
  • April 13-15: Public examinations & Lyceum exercises
  • April 17: Short writeup of examination in Republican
  • April 24: Full examiners' report in Republican
  • April 29: Letter by Gray to W&G, demanding to know whether they considered Methodist & Presbyterian faiths orthodox


  • 1857-05-08: Gray's accusation
  • 1857-05-15: "The School Law"
  • 1857-05-22: responses by Halderman & Shimer
  • 1857-05-29: very lengthy response by Gray; extensive discussion of School Law


  • 1857-06-05: letters from faculty, Halderman, & H. Shimer
  • 1857-06-12: letter from Gray: "I have a painful acknowledgment to make"
  • 1857-06-19: S. Randall to take over Miss Thompson's place at Presbyterian School; responses from Halderman, Shimer; "A Card" of many citizens in defense of Rev. Gray
  • 1857-06-26: "The Presbyterian Division" on slavery; editor's note re Halderman's response to the card


  • 1857-07-03 replies from Nathaniel Halderman, "Many Citizens" in defense of seminary
  • 1857-07-10: response from Gray

1857-07-17: response from Halderman; reprint of Investigative committee report

  • On July 25, Calvin Gray wrote to his superior in the AHMS:
    It seems to have been my lot to become involved in a controversy with Baptists, relative to a neutral Ladies Boarding School. They had proselyted & were making it a powerful engine to pull down others & build up themselves. During the past winter, pushed on by a fanatical evangelist, they greatly overdone the thing. I have thought it a favorable time, & an imperative duty to expose the trickery in plundering an institution & foisting upon the people, their peculiarities. As might be expected, it has drawn me out, in the pulpit & in the press. It will probably result in a state of things that will make it better for another to take my place after the struggle is through.


  • 1857-08-07: The panic of 1857 is beginning to be felt: "Work stopped" (on RR)
    • In the same issue: "What we Want" (a number of things, including a railroad and a Union School)
  • 1857-08-28: announcement of fall term opening 9/3; Rev. P. Lawrence to teach languages; ad for same


  • 1857-09-04: Wheeler's departure for Cornell College; note of Seminary addition under construction


  • 1857-10-16: Union school report (higher dept to be in Methodist basement); Calvin gray's house now vacant, rooms for rent
  • 1857-10-30: "lower hall of the new addition to the seminary is almost ready for occupation"
  • 1857-10-31:
    I have to report to you the close of my labors as employed by you. I believe in my last the conclusion was intimated that it is not best that I should occupy this field any longer. You easily anticipate that it would not be pleasant for delicate for me to attempt the particulars what a change is best. My feelings have undoubtedly led in great part to this necessity.


  • 1857-11-13: Union school update: now in session

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