Essay by Martha Neubert
Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare
Photos courtesy of NMH archives, Pictures Now/Alamy, Glenn Minshall
HISTORY IS TRICKY, MEMORY EVEN MORE SO. Retrofitting origin stories to serve the present is the messiest of all. Yet there is a kind of collective remembering that holds those of us connected to the Northfield, Mount Hermon, and Northfield Mount Hermon schools. Even if we exclude the pandemic or the economic, sociopolitical, and climate upheaval of the past three years, not one of us lives in the times in which we were born. Across schools, generations, and eras, every student — from the first alumnae in the Northfield Seminary Class of 1884 to the first coed Class of 1972 to this year’s Class of 2022 — has in common, at the very least, a set of formative experiences during adolescent years spent here.
*common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole
On the ancestral homelands of Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and Abenaki tribes, whose members remain connected with the region today.
Here: Where John Winthrop — who was elected the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony six months before crossing the Atlantic with some 700 fellow English immigrants — proclaimed that the region and its capital city would be, in its anticipated exceptionality, looked on by all “as a city upon a hill.”
Here: Along the fertile banks of the Connecticut River in the heart of Puritan New England, where religious, economic, and territorial aims drove 150 years of regional warfare.
Here: Where, in nearby Northampton, Jonathan Edwards delivered “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one of the fire-and-brimstone sermons that launched the Great Awakening religious revival in the mid-1700s.
Here: Where, after the passage of the first Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, local safe houses offered inconspicuous, protective shelter to African Americans fleeing the racial terror of the South well into the 1850s.
Here: Where Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the oldest of the Seven Sisters, was established — along with Smith College — to offer equal educational opportunities for women excluded from the then male-only Ivy League colleges.
Here: In western Massachusetts, where Daniel Shays led a farmers’ rebellion to oppose state taxation; where Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. Du Bois were born and came of age; where John Brown intensified abolitionist efforts; where Emily Dickinson wrote poem after brilliant poem in isolation; and where the Industrial Revolution dictated the long-term economic calculus of the nearby farmsteads, mill towns, and hill towns.
Here: Where Christian evangelist, theologian, educator, husband, and father Dwight Lyman Moody founded a school for girls in Northfield and, two years later, a school for boys in Gill.
Moody often shared — for example, during his remarks at the 1880 dedication of East Hall — that having stopped his formal schooling at fifth grade, “my lack of education was of great disadvantage to me; I shall suffer from it as long as I live.” This piece of his identity, combined with his reverent call to evangelistic ministry and outreach, led to the founding of Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies. The student admission application stated that the purpose of the school was to give “educational opportunities to girls of ability and character who [could not] afford more expensive schools.”
Here: Where, after Moody talked with friends — “a number of [whom] gave money for the school” — Mount Hermon School for Boys opened in 1881, welcoming William Tonkin from Cornwall, England, as its first student. The school letterhead read: “To help young men of very limited means to get an education such as would have done me good when I was their age.” For a long time, Moody had envisioned building schools where poor children could be educated; in choosing Isaiah 27:3 as the school’s motto, Moody sought to ensure a participatory, living, breathing institution: “I the Lord do keep it. I will water it every moment lest any hurt it. I will keep it night and day.”
We cannot begin to imagine the constellation of pressures Moody must have been facing, particularly as one of the world’s most celebrated preachers at the time. His friend, Henry Drummond, insisted that Moody would have become one of the wealthiest men in the United States had he remained in the business world. While Moody’s unyielding faith instead guided his work forward here, building Northfield and Mount Hermon was not an assured endeavor. In an era of business tycoons, industrialization, urban expansion, and the concretization of American capitalism, it is clear: Even in this distinct corner of New England, Moody’s vision was a risk. Though not articulated as such at the time, by providing a Christian education to young people otherwise denied the privilege, Moody’s initial — and, frankly, radical — commitment to access produced an unintentionally diverse student body in the first several decades, which, albeit with varying consistency and care, evolved into a lasting component of the school’s identity.
This is not to suggest that this institution hasn’t changed in significant ways over the past 143 years. Nor have all our community members experienced Northfield, Mount Hermon, and Northfield Mount Hermon schools in the same ways across time. But the story of this place is all of ours. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work has always been the very bones of living well together in this community. Being as intentional as possible in our accounting of the multiplicity of people and stories within the context of this place is a powerful reminder: Here, we have long been an influential kind of different.
In the summer of 1880, Moody instructed Northfield Seminary Principal Harriet Tuttle to find a dozen “Indian girls who might succeed at the school, and to enroll them at [his] own expense.” Tuttle found 16 girls, including Lydia Emma Keys, who graduated with Northfield’s first class in 1884. Keys was a member of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma Territory. In an era when graduation rates at the school were well under 10%, Keys’ successful graduation is even more noteworthy. By 1905, Northfield had 417 students, 21 from foreign countries; Mount Hermon had 732 students, 117 from abroad. By 1900, over 40 Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students had enrolled at Mount Hermon, including Chan Loon Teung, Class of 1892, who spoke at Mount Hermon’s first Commencement and who became the first Chinese graduate of Harvard University.
The earliest classes also welcomed Thomas Nelson Baker Sr., who was born enslaved in Virginia. Having learned to read early, breaking laws punishable by death, Baker was able to start attending school at age 12, just seven years after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally abolished chattel slavery. In his mid-20s, Baker was one of only two Black students at Mount Hermon at the time. It is a meaningful exercise to imagine how he — a man whose existence, early life, and family structure had been legally defined in property and production terms — might have absorbed the fact that mandatory, unpaid manual labor (workjob) was required for the self and for the greater good at his new school.
Reporting on the 1887 graduation speeches of Mount Hermon’s first class, the Springfield Republican stated: “One of the most eloquent was Thomas N. Baker, a full-blooded Negro, who spoke of what he had learned at Mt. Hermon.” Baker went on to Yale University and became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy in the United States. In 1899 — at the height of Jim Crow racial violence that precipitated the Great Migration of 6 million Black Americans fleeing to cities outside the Deep South, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld segregation in the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and 10 years before the establishment of the NAACP — Baker wrote a letter to Mount Hermon Principal Henry Sawyer. Baker said, “As a school, Mt. Hermon is far ahead of all places that I know anything of in regards to the race question and I pray God that she may ever hold her position and send out men who will teach and practice her training.”
Who am I? What is my place? What does it mean to be human? How, then, shall I live? While asked in some form over many decades, these essential questions of the 9th-grade Humanities I curriculum (English and religious studies) have extended beyond the classroom to inform our community framework. Whether they are presenting a Senior Capstone project, competing in a championship game, leading an affinity group, collecting gallons of sap, gearing up for Rope Pull, participating in a six-word story contest, interviewing a visiting speaker, creating a project in the new fabrication lab, performing in a recital, learning a third language, offering a social justice workshop, taking photos for the yearbook, making playlists for a radio show, earning accolades at the World Debate Championships, or simply pausing to greet a friend or marvel at snowfall for the first time ever — current NMH students are engaged here. Here: where the house that D.L. built has shaped and been shaped by literally tens of thousands of stories and lives. Here: where students today, as so many alumni did, are coming of age in this participatory, living, breathing institution.
It is one thing to have a founder with vision. It is entirely another to have a founder whose vision challenged the status quo. Moody set in motion a paradigmatic shift in both who should have a seat at the boarding-school table and how their learning could be in service to a better world. At the 2022 Founder’s Day ceremony, Visual Arts Chair and keynote speaker Mona Seno reminded the NMH community that through his faith, works, and teachings, Moody talked about a kind of love that “is available to each of us; as he said, it is the privilege of every one of us to know, beyond a doubt, that our salvation is sure. Then we can work for others.” Students on campus today take up Moody’s charge — to work for others — in myriad ways, even amid the angst and joys of teenagehood during national and global crises. And their voices, convictions, and aspirations are strong.
On Founder’s Day, Augustine Boadi ’22 echoed some of the intersections of Moody’s 143-year-old legacy: “I’m so honored to be a part of this community, and to be a part of this mission, and I am more than grateful to have the opportunity to represent what Moody was all about: the good news….God bless Moody! When I graduate, I hope that people will say I gave more than I received. That’d make me really happy.”
Drawing inspiration from the 1970 BLACK LIGHT yearbook, members of the Black Student Union recently urged the campus community to work to better understand how everyone has a responsibility in fighting racial and other societal injustices. Ukrainian students hosted an information session to share their perspectives on the February 24 invasion of their country; the next day, Russian students posted a statement of solidarity that, in part, read: “Our hearts are torn apart because millions of civilians in Ukraine and Russia are being pulled into the horrors of war. [We] are unified in our condemnation of war, and we support the immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine. We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and with Russian civilians around the world campaigning for an end to the war.” And at a March all-school meeting in Memorial Chapel, Henry Perkins ’22 articulated our throughline while talking about living in collaborative community during challenging times:
TO WORK FOR
AMID THE ANGST
AND JOYS OF
GLOBAL CRISES.We sit on top of this Chapel Hill / Not merely by the strength of our individual skill / But because of those who sat in these very pews and their collective will.
To be unique in their visions of the world we share / Where the extent of our humanity,kindness, compassion doesn’t stop at merely me / But extends to a radical, collective, and inclusive “we.”
The question posed to us at NMH is “How, then, shall we live?” / The great blessing, for each of us, the yield we reap here, the lessons we learn here / Aren’t for our time in this place.
The hope is that they will shape us forever / Until the moment we ponder a new question, we will consider, “How, then, have we lived?”
Moody’s vision then and now is beyond noble: It is exceptional. As was true in 1879, delivering on the school’s mission today requires deep faith, extraordinary optimism, and a radical kind of love. Aspiring to uphold the central tenets of Moody’s legacy in a decidedly different world but unequivocally in service to a better one remains the why. In being of here, we find our throughline. Much of our school’s founding ethos remains in our current practices, with inclusivity principles shaping the core of our work. Given that the past several years have been widely described as divisive, disquieting, and disruptive, it should be easy to imagine how day-to-day life is affected by social turmoil here and beyond our campus. We aspire to connect with compassion across difference and live lives of balance as we take up big, essential questions that anchor our shared humanity. Ultimately, we seek to create the conditions of fellowship, inquiry, and possibility so that we can be a collective force for good as we educate the next generation of students. We — all of us in the NMH community — are inextricably tied to the profound intellectual, spiritual, and literal landscape born of Moody’s head, heart, and hands. Even with our wide and varied range of individual experiences, we are the throughline.
D.L. Moody was an imperfect man both precisely of and assuredly ahead of his time. The word of God and the pillars of Christianity were his compass and blueprint; evangelism, labor, and instruction his toolbox. He believed that living, praying, learning, working, and loving one another in this place could and would prepare young people to go forth as grounded, meaningful contributors. His students were vessels of communion, leadership, and service here and abroad — lamplighters, indeed. What happens here is transformative. And there is much to be done. As we continue to work toward more equitable, just, and sustainable societies, we consider Moody’s words in 1880: We, too, “hope, after all of us who are here today are dead and gone, this school may live, and be a blessing to the world.” May it be so. [NMH]
Martha Neubert joined the NMH faculty as a history teacher in 2005 and has served as dean of equity and social justice since 2016.