St. Johnís College

Just when the weather is giving hints of the summer to come, ‘Jonnies” and ‘Middies’ lock their competitive spirits in the annual croquet match. These Annapolis colleges have their pasts woven through American history yet St. John’s College, the elder of the two, lives in the long shadow cast by the United States Naval Academy.

Saint John’s shares some remarkable past with the Naval Academy but the struggle to establish its unique place in the academic world has been 311 years in the making.

As local traffic winds around the campus, the signage at two entrances proclaim:

St. John’s College , formally King William’s School,

Founded 1696.

Originally King William’s was a prep-type school. The initial focus was a colony ‘free’ school that was to free young minds to a liberal education. It was a ‘feeder’ to the divinity college at William and Mary. The thrust throughout the 18 th century was to create a charter for a college in Maryland. In 1784 the charter was granted and signed by Governor William Paca and the King William’s was absorbed into the new St. John’s. The name was a nod to St. John the Evangelist a favorite of local Masons.

The charter required that this college provide an education without regard for the religious background of the student. The charter was a collaborative meeting of the minds of three of the most influential religious men of the era: William Smith, a founder of America’s Episcopal Church; John Carroll, Jesuit educator; and Patrick Allison, ordained spokesman for at least three religious sects.

Four acres and Governor Bladen’s ‘Folly’ were granted to this fledgling college. Renamed McDowell Hall, for it’s first president John McDowell, it is among one of the oldest continuously used collegiate buildings in the United States.

The focus has changed dramatically throughout the years because it has always been chasing the financing and students necessary to be viable. Initially it was Maryland financed and because McDowell was a lawyer, it produced law-makers, governors and judges. Francis Scott Key, who was a distinguished local lawyer, graduated from St. John’s.

When state funding was withdrawn in 1805 the college’s initial success was diminished. There was a major resurgence in the 1830’s with the appointment of a new president, Hector Humphries. He was able to increase the student population and faculty as well as construction of major buildings on campus.

The boom was halted when Annapolis became the crossroad for the Civil War. Enrollment dropped with students enlisting on both sides and the Union Army charged the college to become a station for receiving prisoners. The Naval Academy was able to relocate to Newport for the duration but as a private institution, St. John’s had to acquiesce.

The college reopened in 1866 and once again reevaluated its position. The administration determined that a course of rigid disciplines as well as military training would guide its future. But the next twenty years brought dismal results.

The new president in 1886 was an Englishman, Thomas Fell. He raised money as well as expanding construction of new buildings and curriculum. He even entertained making it a prep school for the Naval Academy. The U.S. Department of War recognized St. John’s as a leading military college in 1906.

After WWI, St. John’s refocused and dropped all military instruction. The Depression challenged the future of the college and by 1937 the directors determined the future would be the visions of Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan. These educators saw the great value in a great books course of study to include a unified, all-required curriculum. This unique plan meant there would be no departments or majors.

The exceptional nature of the college was now nationally appealing and this blueprint became the college it is today.

Richard Weigle, the thirty year president appointed in 1949, admitted women (1951), grew the campus (Mellon Hall, FSK Auditorium) and expanded the college (Santa Fe NM 1964).

Each campus has its own administration (President, Dean) but the distinctive course study is identical and gives students the luxury of moving between the campuses.

The road was long and difficult but this one of a kind college still lives by its original motto from King William’s School:

“I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance”

Yes it does and good croquet players as well!


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