Text: Jack Neely’s commencement address to the MC Class of 2019

Text: Jack Neely’s commencement address to the MC Class of 2019

Jack Neely, a historian, journalist, author and lecturer, delivered the commencement address to the Maryville College Class of 2019 on May 4. Here is the full text of his address, titled “Maryville College at 200: An American Rarity.”

When people visit this place, they often say "what a beautiful college." But what makes it different from all other colleges isn't just the buildings and the trees. It has stories.

A good college should tell its stories. A college's reputation is its history, and its history is what makes it distinct from all others. You would never mistake Stanford for Yale, or Princeton for MIT. Or Maryville for any other college in the world. 

History is what makes a college distinctive.

If you were to list the most prestigious, the most competitive colleges in America, the list might begin with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, those of the Ivy League. What defines the Ivy League? It's not a club another college can join, if it just gets good enough. The Ivy League is strictly composed of the oldest colleges in America, specifically those founded before 1776. If a list of the oldest colleges in America is still, after all these years, the list of the best colleges in America, that's not just a weird coincidence. History counts.

The best colleges have distinctive stories, and Maryville College, one of the oldest colleges in the South, has one of the most distinctive stories I know.  Maryville undermines some of the tropes of American history, the stereotypes about the South, or Appalachia, or faith-based education, which people think they know.

Maryville College, whose students included blacks, Native Americans, Latin Americans and Asians even in the 19th century, is an exception to many rules, and such a vigorous exception that it undermines the rules themselves, and American history as we thought we knew it.

Maryville College's distinctive story begins with a distinctive teacher. His name was Isaac Anderson.  Isaac Anderson was during the Revolutionary War, in Rockbridge County, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Rockbridge is named for the stony Natural Bridge, that's still a beautiful and astonishing natural feature, a tourist attraction today, just off I-81. Two centuries ago it was familiar to politicians traveling by carriage from East Tennessee to Washington. When a Tennessee congressman got to the Natural Bridge, he knew he was more than halfway to the capital.

When Anderson was born there, Rockbridge was already a modest educational center, with a college called Liberty Hall. It was a center of frontier Presbyterianism. It's interesting that it was also about the only part of Virginia with significant anti-slavery sentiment, even at that early time.

We don't know a great deal about his childhood, but we do know that for several years of it, he had a neighbor who was studying at Liberty Hall, another Presbyterian not quite 20 years older than Anderson, named Samuel Carrick.

You may be aware that as Maryville celebrates its bicentennial this year, there's another college on the other side of the river that's celebrating its 225th, its bicenquasquigenary. (A bicentennial is a bigger deal.)

Maryville College and the University of Tennessee may not seem to have much in common. One is a small faith-based college. One is a very large, secular public university. But there's an interesting coincidence in their story.

 They were both founded by Presbyterian ministers who had lived for years in Rockbridge County, Va., 325 miles northeast of here, and who had studied at Liberty Hall.

Their times at Liberty Hall probably did not overlap, but one of Isaac Anderson's classmates at Liberty Hall in the 1790s was an older man, a Revolutionary War veteran. He was named John Chavis, and he was like no other college student in America at the time, because he was African-American. John Chavis is sometimes described as the first black man to get a college degree. He became a Presbyterian minister and, remarkably, a noted educator in North Carolina.

(Today, Liberty Hall is better known as Washington and Lee University. Robert E. Lee was president of the college for five years after the war, and he is buried on the campus. That fact is better known to Americans abroad than its early progressive era that produced remarkable students like John Chavis and Isaac Anderson.)

Anderson brought his family down the valley to East Tennessee. He first settled in Knox County, not Blount County, because the need seemed greater. In 1801, Knoxville was the new state's capital, and had an informal church organization, thanks to Samuel Carrick's efforts, but was notorious for its irreligion. Despite our assumptions of our forefathers as god-fearing people, the first Knoxvillians didn't prioritize building a church. After 25 years, Knoxvillians had gotten together to build a courthouse, a jail, a small college, a publishing house, and a dance hall, and about seven taverns, but no church.

By that time, though, Maryville already had New Providence, a solid brick church with a very healthy congregation, even by modern standards. Anderson at first chose the place with the greatest need.

Anderson worked and studied with Samuel Carrick, who had started a college he called Blount College, named for Gov. William Blount, who was one of the first trustees. Carrick was the president of the college, and its only professor.

Anderson did something similar, out in the country, when he founded the Union Academy, better known as "Mr. Anderson's Log College," in northeastern Knox County, in 1802.

When Carrick and Anderson got together, whether to study scripture or swap old stories about Liberty Hall, they probably looked like Laurel and Hardy. Anderson was described, as a young man, as lean, even "emaciated." Carrick was a hearty fellow, "inclined to corpulency." However, Carrick was the one who died suddenly, at age 49. When he died, he left his nomadic congregation in disarray. His little college closed altogether. Then came the New Madrid earthquakes, and then the War of 1812. It was not until 1816 that Presbyterians built a chapel in Knoxville. Once they did, they found they did not get along.

One extraordinary issue of the day was Hopkinsianism, a new American doctrine that was at once strict and progressive. It discouraged contemplation of an afterlife; doing God's will should be reward enough. And it was strongly associated with the idea that all God's children were equal, and that slavery was wrong. Anderson represented that faction.

Only two years after First Presbyterian had built its first chapel, there was a Second Presbyterian Church. Isaac Anderson was its founding pastor. In his time, Second Presbyterian was in downtown Knoxville at the corner of Market and Clinch, where Home Federal Bank is now, near Market Square. It's still a thriving congregation, on Kingston Pike overlooking the river, and as you may know, maintains a strong relationship with Maryville College.

It's remarkable that such a durable church and such a durable college, 20 miles apart, were founded by the same fellow at about the same time. He did a lot of horseback riding in those days; there were no bridges across the river, but he got to know the ferryman very well.

When Anderson opened Maryville College, it was the area's only college.

UT's forerunner had closed in 1809, upon Carrick's untimely death, and had not reopened before Isaac Anderson's experiment. In 1819, Carrick's attempt to open a college in Knoxville was considered a failure. It would be re-founded the following year.

A good historically minded attorney could make the case that if we consider continuity of service, Maryville College is about a year older than UT.

In any case, Isaac Anderson outlived his old colleague Samuel Carrick by almost 50 years, long enough to put his personal stamp on the college in the foothills, which became known as a bastion of intellectual discipline and progressive thought, tolerance and even diversity in a time and place when those attributes are presumed to be scarce. 

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It shouldn't be surprising that a number of remarkable people, all of them mavericks in one way or another, exceptions to the American norm, had Maryville College in their curriculum vitae.  Maryville College has alumni to be proud of, including a U.S. congressman, a U.S. attorney, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, several authors, actors, athletes, and quite a few singers.

You know the story of Kin Takahashi. I love to tell Vol fans that the guy who introduced football to East Tennessee, long before it was played anywhere near the Hill, was a Japanese student at Maryville College. Takahashi came here with his friend Sen Katayama in the 1880s. Both wanted to improve their world. One founded the Japanese Communist Party. The other founded the tradition of East Tennessee football.

I'll leave it to you to decide which one had the greater influence.

While doing some unrelated research just recently, I ran across the story of John Casper Branner, who attended Maryville College just after the Civil War, when Maryville was a tumbledown house downtown, became an international geologist and academic. He was on the founding faculty of Stanford University, and became that California college's second president. Branner Hall at Stanford is named for him.

In the 1930s and '40s, two nationally prominent men, Supreme Court Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge and Aubrey Williams, the civil-rights activist and outspoken director of the National Youth Administration, liked to have lunch together in Washington, where they both worked. They were both Maryville alumni, and enjoyed reminiscing about their days on this campus, around 1910.

One of my favorite Maryville alums was here when Isaac Anderson was still teaching. According to the scant biographical information we have about Charles Todd, he was a onetime seminarian at Maryville College, later a teacher here. In 1832, he published a book called Woodville set in an unnamed mountainous area with beautiful forests and rivers--it's believed to be set at Montvale Springs--with excursions as far away as Detroit, London, and Greece. It's a strange book, in style is somewhere between Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe, but in publishing it Todd became the first novelist in the history of Tennessee. Whether it's a great story or not, it has some great paragraphs.

In his introduction, he modestly tells us he is "cheered with the animating hope that it's a harbinger of better things."

His story goes dark after that, as he apparently fled an attempted-murder charge. I sense there's much more to learn about Charles Todd. But at bottom, he was another Maryville maverick.

Few American colleges have made it to the two-century mark, and it means something. There's a lot more to know about Maryville College and its history. And a lot more history to make. Members of the bicentennial class of 2019 will do extraordinary things in Maryville’s third century and become part of the history of one of America’s most extraordinary colleges.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2019 semester is 1,148.