Rev. Dr. Edmund Burke Fairfield was a pastor, educator, politician, theologian, diplomat, and world traveler. He was also the first principal of the Indiana Normal School.
The Rev. Dr. Fairfield was born April 21, 1821, in Parkersburg, (West) Virginia, to the Rev. Micaiah and Hannah Wynn Fairfield. While he was still a boy, the Fairfields moved to Troy, Ohio, where he grew up. He attended Denison University and Marietta College before enrolling at Oberlin College. He received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1842, and Oberlin Seminary granted him a B.D. in 1845.
As a student in the Oberlin Seminary, Fairfield was exposed to the institution’s strong emphasis on ethics and sanctification, which stressed man’s capability of reaching his highest objectives as an individual and of building a nearly perfect society on earth. He also followed the teachings of Rev. Charles G. Finney, the great proponent of revivalistic theology. Fairfield’s emphasis on enthusiastic preaching, the lack of which in Indiana bothered him, seems to have developed from his experiences at Oberlin. Oberlin’s sympathy with abolition may have provided the stimulus for Fairfield’s anti-slavery views since his mother’s lineage was Virginian. Following his graduation, he moved to Canterbury, New Hampshire, where he appears to have been ordained in both the Free Will Baptist and Congregational Churches and seems to have served both congregations. At Canterbury he served as minister and teacher, remaining from 1845-47. Soon he moved on to accept a charge in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Then he entered higher education, accepting the presidency of the Free Baptist College, Spring Arbor, Michigan in 1848, which was relocated and renamed Hillsdale College in 1853. During his 21-year tenure, Rev. Dr. Fairfield took the struggling institution and built it into a small, but respected liberal arts college. The student enrollment grew from less than 50 to over 500 during his presidency, and he also actively raised money for the college and its endowment.
It appears that he combined public appearances on behalf of the temperance movement with his fundraising efforts on behalf of Hillsdale in western New York in the fall of the early 1850s. During this period, he entered politics in Michigan and helped found the Republican Party there. From 1857 to 1859, he served in the Michigan Senate. His first speech, “Slavery in the Territories,” attacked the extension of slavery, and it was printed for wide distribution. In 1858, he won the election for Lieutenant Governor of Michigan and served one term. Following the completion of his term in 1861, he devoted his attention to administering Hillsdale College, teaching, traveling, and lecturing. When he left the presidency of Hillsdale College in 1869, he accepted the pastorate of the First Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio, where he remained from 1870 until April 1875.
At its March 10, 1875 meeting, the Board of Trustees of Indiana Normal School (now IUP) chose Rev. Dr. Fairfield as the institution’s first principal (president) at a salary of $2,250 per year, later raised to $4,000. He came to Indiana with a national reputation as clergyman, educator, and lecturer, but how he came to be selected is unknown. His previous activities in the building of Hillsdale College, in the temperance cause, and in the church certainly made him an appealing candidate. His high salary and perquisites say a lot about the ambitions and plans for the normal school held by John Sutton and his colleagues.
Prior to moving to Indiana, Fairfield paid a visit to the town, during which he presented one of his most famous lectures, “Tent Life in Palestine.” The lecture was given on the evening of March 24, 1875, and it drew a large crowd in the courtroom of the newly opened Indiana County Courthouse. Admission was 25 cents per ticket, the proceeds being a benefit for the soon-to-open normal school. The local press gave enthusiastic coverage to the event. The Indiana Democrat reported, “if this lecture is a fair sample of his learning and ability, he is the right man in the right place. He is a pleasing off hand speaker and possessed of great descriptive powers.” The lecture was partially drawn from Rev. Fairfield’s personal observations, for he had toured Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey as part of an extended trip to Europe and the Near East from July 1863 to June 1864.
In May, Fairfield arrived in Indiana and took up residence in the recently completed John Sutton Hall. On May 17, the first term opened at Indiana Normal School. Over 200 students attended, including some of Fairfield’s children. His daughter May and his son Edward Minor were enrolled in the Classical Department of the College Preparatory Division. His other sons George D., John M. and Charles T. attended the Model School. May, the eldest child still at home, took courses in penmanship, drawing, natural philosophy, Latin, grammar, Greek, and American history during the 1875-76 terms.
Part of the initial staff was recruited by Rev. Fairfield. From Mansfield, Ohio, Fairfield brought Mr. and Mrs. Rowley, who served as steward and matron of the school respectively. Professor Hiram Collier, who taught chemistry and physics, came from the Pennsylvania College of Agriculture (no Pennsylvania State University), but before that he had served for several years on the faculty at Hillsdale.
Rev. Dr. Fairfield remained in Indiana only one year. During his tenure as principal, French was added to the curriculum. According to the local press, Fairfield taught Latin and Greek in addition to the subjects listed in the 1875 catalogue, Mental, Moral and Political Science and the Theory and Practice of Teaching. The first literary society was named for Rev. Dr. Fairfield, but at his request it was renamed the Erodelphian Literary Society. During the first year two faculty members, Miss Mary Bradley and Miss Ada Kershaw, were dismissed in mid-term. The Board of Trustees acted on complaints filed by the principal for himself and other members of the faculty. The charges accused Misses Bradley and Kershaw of “conduct unbecoming a teacher, in interfering with the harmony of a faculty and interfering with the success of the school.” Their appointment, for which they received two months’ salary, terminated in July 1875. The remainder of the Fairfield tenure appears to have gone smoothly until near the very end when a delayed state appropriation caused a budgetary crisis.
During their residence in Indiana the Fairfield family participated in community affairs. Mrs. Fairfield and their children, Mary, Emma, May, and George joined the Presbyterian Church in the fall of 1875. Because of his ordination Rev. Fairfield could not officially join the congregation, but he undoubtedly participated in its activities. In March 1875, Fairfield again lectured at the Court House; the subject this time was “Personal Observations of the Vienna Exposition in 1873.”
In March 1876, he announced his resignation to become the second chancellor of the University of Nebraska. In December 1875, he had explained his reasons for leaving to his friend, Congressman James Monroe of Ohio:
Now I will tell you frankly how the matter lies in my mind. I am here in Pennsylvania, and can stay, if I choose. At least so it looks. My salary is $4000, but neither Mrs. F. nor myself feel at home here. We are in the midst of little else but blue Presbyterianism. Pennsylvania is in mts. [mountains]. The West suits me better. But I wish simply to do the work assigned me by the master. It looks to us as though this might be it, in connection with Nebraska Uni. [University].
Fairfield served six years as chancellor of the University of Nebraska, following which he again traveled abroad, served as pastor to several Congregational Churches, and from 1889-1893 was U.S. Consul-general in Lyons, France. He returned to the United States and again returned to the ministry, retiring in 1900 to Oberlin, Ohio, where he continued to serve as a trustee of Oberlin College.
Although Rev. Dr. Fairfield possessed a “reputation as a political liberal and reformer,” he was a conservative in the field of education. Fairfield family tradition characterizes him as being stern and “a very strict disciplinarian,” and his philosophy bears this out.” In his inaugural address as Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Fairfield discussed his educational philosophy. The American university, he believed, existed “for the study of all science; for the most liberal learning, and the most generous culture possible.” The traditional liberal arts and sciences provided the core of a university education. According to Fairfield, “a young man, at the end of his university education… [should be able] to make something of himself, and to do something to lift up his country and his race to a higher plane of true living.” As was to be expected of one ordained by two churches, the chancellor believed strongly that Christian principles were basic to a university education. Despite his religious background and his strong religious convictions, Fairfield did not believe that theology should be taught in a public institution of higher education. Christian ethics and morals certainly belonged in public higher education, but denominational and sectarian religious views had no place there.
When the Board of Trustees of Indiana Normal School chose the Rev. Dr. Edmund Burke Fairfield as the first principal, they obviously fulfilled their apparent desire to have someone of experience, energy, strong Christian convictions, and wide learning.