SOMERS, Connecticut – Hillsdale College’s campus in Somers, Connecticut, hosted its first major event over the weekend with a seminar titled “Religious Liberty and the American Founding.”
Dr. Matthew Spalding, Hillsdale’s vice president for Washington operations and dean of the college’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government, spoke Friday evening on the topic of civil and religious liberty.
Spalding, the author of Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition, noted that Washington, in “one of his great letters, explains that he took the field … as the commander-in-chief for the sake of civil and religious liberty.”
“Abraham Lincoln, in his Lyceum address,” Spalding continued, “talked about how America has ‘political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of the civil and religious liberty,’ more than any other in history.”
“It’s hard for us to recapture the significance of that combination – civil and religious liberty – we take it for granted,” Spalding observed, adding:
It is the establishment of religious liberty which is probably the greatest accomplishment, not only of the American founding, but also of Western civilization. And that is because Western civilization at its height is a confluence of classical reason.
The program was held at the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom, the new Hillsdale College campus situated on 100 acres of wooded property, adjacent to the Massachusetts border. The seminar took place in the main building that is an external replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Dr. Khalil Habib, associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, was the instructor for the Saturday seminar.
The April 29-30 program is scheduled to be repeated May 20-21, according to information provided by Hillsdale College.
The seminar weekend was a private event and the number of invited guests was “limited by local zoning decisions,” the college also noted.
Labin Duke, the Blake Center’s executive director, welcomed all to dinner Friday evening, said a blessing before the meal, during which he thanked God for “this good land and for our heritage,” and then led guests in the Pledge of Allegiance.
In his remarks to attendees during the Friday evening seminar, Duke noted that, in addition to Hillsdale programs, the Blake Center would also be hosting community activities.
As The Connecticut Star reported in April, the Blake Center will “host community events for the towns of Somers, Connecticut, and East Longmeadow, Massachusetts,” an example being the anticipated “50th annual Somers Rotary Club Fishing Derby,” to be held at the Center later in May.
“Families will be able to enjoy the scenic grounds and fish for trout from one of the many ponds on the property,” the notice from Hillsdale College said.
The Blake Center opened in 2020 following the gift of the Monticello house from Prestley and Helen Blake, residents of Somers who built the estate.
Prestley Blake is a co-founder of Friendly’s restaurants, and the Blake family “has generously used its wealth to advance the causes of religious philanthropy and cultural preservation,” a Hillsdale press statement noted.
The Somers Zoning Commission ultimately decided Hillsdale College is a religious institution, and that its plans for the Blake property represent religious uses by an institution that are protected by the U.S. Constitution, as well as federal and state law, The Connecticut Star reported in March.
In August 2020, a piece at Connecticut Magazine told of the contentious debate regarding the Center’s approval and opening within the small New England town. The article noted:
Some residents, however, applaud the approval. Resident Ryan Horn, who spoke in favor of the project at one public hearing, says he was happy Hillsdale is preserving a large piece of open space and predicted the facility would be an asset to the town. Opponents, he says, are a small but vocal minority and suggests that the school’s religious aspect may have contributed to opposition. “I feel a lot of people have come and just tried to attribute some nefarious motive,” Horn says. “To what end? What good does it do them? They are not coming here to be a bad neighbor. I think they hold Christian values as part of their makeup. That’s not necessarily a popular thing to be in the United States.”
“I thought the event went very well,” Duke said in comments to The Connecticut Star about the Blake Center’s first event. “Attendees were able to learn from seasoned professors, and they had ample time to engage with those professors in question and answer sessions.”
“Students left with a clearer understanding of the history and role of religious practice, natural law, reason, and political strategy in the development of religious liberty in the American founding,” he added.
Duke provided an exact quote from one attendee: “My wife and I were truly inspired and encouraged by the people and experience at the Blake Center this past Friday and Saturday.”
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Susan Berry, PhD, is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]