Mary Lyon
Methods Adopted at Mount Holyoke

We have seen that Mary Lyon designed the seminary for the training of young women for the greatest usefulness. In her view the best educated Christ-like woman was the most useful woman. Looking beyond their own wishes or the purpose of parents, she received each pupil as from Christ himself, to be molded into his likeness and trained for his service. She regarded herself and associates not as mere teachers nor yet as educators only, but as moral architects.

Character Building

Her work in character-building was based on the principle of self-help in all lines, physical, mental, and moral. She desired pupils of sufficient years and maturity to have some degree of mental power and self-reliance, yet not beyond the age when habits are easily formed. To their new and more favorable circumstances she adapted methods which she had tested at Ipswich and elsewhere, shaping every arrangement of both school and family with reference to her one aim.

“A sound mind and a sound body go together.”

She constantly had regard for the health of her pupils. That sound health was not so general among our country-women fifty years ago as many seem to believe, is shown in the following sentences from the anniversary address of Rev. Dr. Anderson in 1839:-

“There is cause for much alarm in respect to this matter. A physician declared a few years since that not more than one adult woman in ten in the circle of his observation, enjoyed complete health. In no other civilized country is there such deficiency of health among the more educated women, such a proportion of them

‘Too weak to bear
The insupportable fatigue of thought,’

as in our own land. The fault is less in the school than in the family; less with teachers than with parents.”

Mary Lyon’s eye was on future mothers and teachers also. She chose a healthful location; secured an unfailing supply of pure water; adopted the best methods of the time for lighting, ventilating, and warming every room; and provided sufficient and wholesome food, purchasing only the best of its kind, and allowing no inferior standard of cooking; indeed, in every known way she steadily planned to secure the best sanitary conditions. By requiring regularity in meals and in hours for rising and retiring; a daily hour of work in the house and another of exercise in the open air; regular callisthenic practice; and clothing suitable for the climate; by instruction in the laws of health and the consequences of their violation; by counting exposure of health as no less faulty than neglect of study; by line upon line and precept upon precept she strove to lead each pupil to aim to have a sound mind in a sound body.

Teachers as Moral Architects
“Mental culture was (to bring) more effective moral power.”

The studies prescribed were not those only which develop the imagination and refine the taste, but primarily such as “strengthen the practical faculties, mature the understanding, and lay a firm basis for character.” She insisted on thoroughness in preparation and progress. Few were allowed to take more than two studies at a time. Weekly reviews prepared for the general review required in every study before it was left for another, and a certain standard must be attained as the condition of advancement. Recitation by topic four days of the week led to easier use of the pen in the essay work of the fifth. Appeals were made to the highest motives only, and no prizes were offered, no rivalry stimulated. Cultivation of class feeling was avoided. Family interests were nobler than class distinctions. The family was the ideal unit, not the class. To be once received as a daughter was to be ever after one of the sisterhood and dear to the heart of Alma Mater. Miss Lyon coveted earnestly the best gifts for all, but she wished those and only those to finish the course, whose influence would bless the world. She believed that the higher the standard adopted, mental as well as moral, the more valuable would be the attainments, even of those who could not graduate. She knew that many could stay but one year. To them and to all she strove not so much to impart knowledge as the key of knowledge, and aimed to lay such foundations that each should be able to go on in study whether her school days should prove few or many. Taught to place mental power above mere acquisition, they learned to regard education as an unending process, not a finished attainment, and to consider its continuation a duty. The same principle was applied to the seminary itself; not to keep pace with the progress of the age would be to fail of the highest usefulness; accordingly the course of study was extended, and increased advantages were offered as fast as public opinion and pecuniary means allowed. In every way mental culture was regarded only as a means of more effective moral power.

The Book of the House
Instruction in its truths was as systematic and thorough as in literature and science..”

The Bible was pre-eminently the Book of the house, and instruction in its truths was as systematic and thorough as in literature and science. The Scripture lesson was the first to be recited in the week. Not only was more time given to it in regular lessons than to any other study, but its precepts were in constant use. It was read morning and evening in the presence of all. Three mornings in the week Miss Lyon occupied from fifteen to thirty minutes with the assembled school in illustrating and enforcing the teaching of some selection from the Old or the New Testament. She delighted to unfold the great principles of God’s government in his works and word, in providence and in grace. She used to say she should not have known how to guide her large family were it not for the history of God’s dealings with his ancient people. “If we would learn of God let us read that history. If we would know ourselves, we shall find our hearts well portrayed there. More knowledge of human nature is to be derived from its study than from any other source.”

Her range of subjects included the evangelical doctrines, the ten commandments in their order, the sermon on the mount, the book of Proverbs in course, the connection between the law and the gospel, and such specific topics as Consecration, Responsibility, Doing Good, Economy, Regulation of Desires, Cheerfulness, Health, Use of Time, Forgetfulness, etc. Though she taught no formal system of theology, her instructions were always based on some doctrinal truth. In the business and the familiar talks of the afternoon exercise, Bible principles were scarcely less prominent, for they were constantly applied to the great variety of practical subjects discussed.

Once a week Mary Lyon gathered about her the church members of her charge for instruction in their more specific duties. The others she met on Sabbath evenings, and led each to see from the Bible in her hand that if she should fail of fulfilling the highest end of her being, it would be not because she had broken the law of God, but because having broken it she did not accept offered grace. With exceeding vividness and almost irresistible tenderness, the claims and the invitations of Christ were set before them, with the responsibility of acceptance or refusal. When her watchful eye saw that the word of God was proving quick and powerful in any of her audience she would publicly invite to her room at a given hour those who desired more personal instruction. In that consecrated place, each going alone, perhaps to find her friend or roommate there on the same errand, many hearts were opened to rejoice in the truth as it is in Jesus. These were gathered into a class for special nurture.

How Miss Lyon felt about this part of her work appears in expressions like the following: “None but God knows how the responsibility of giving religious instruction weighs on my heart. Sometimes in preparation, my soul sinks with trembling solicitude which finds no relief but in God. When I am through I can only pour out my heart in prayer that the Spirit may carry home the truth.” “Everything I do is such a privilege. It is so blessed, too, to depend hourly for light and strength and for success on our Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” “I want to ask you, my dear friend, to pray for me in a very special manner about one thing. It is for divine guidance in religious instruction. Pray that I may have hid in my own heart all that I attempt to say. Pray that in every jot and tittle, I may speak the words of truth - that which God sees to be truth. Pray that hearts may receive it in sincerity and faith. Pray that in all these seasons God may be glorified.”

The Place of Prayer
“The seminary was born of prayer; its principal was a woman of prayer.”

The use of the Bible was combined with prayer. God was inquired of to do those things which his promises pledge him to do for waiting souls. The seminary was born of prayer. Its principal was a woman of prayer. As she left her closet her face was often radiant, and the experience that shone through her morning or evening talks revealed a communion with God too intimate to be described. She taught her pupils to pray, and showed them how freely they were bidden to bring all their grief for sin or from any cause, all their joys and all their needs to their heavenly Father. She taught them to intercede for others and for the world. She inspired them to concentrate their thoughts in study that they might have power to control them in prayer. They learned to love the time and the place which she secured to each for private prayer, morning and evening. She never asked how that half hour was spent, but simply whether it had been free from intrusion. Morning and evening incense rose also from the family altar. Every week and many times besides, the teachers met to pray, for themselves and pupils, singly and collectively. Sabbath evening, while Mary Lyon met the unconverted, her teachers gathered the rest in praying circles. In the Thursday meeting all these circles were united. Timid hearts and tremulous voices gained courage and strength in the smaller gatherings to help in the larger.

In the fifth year of the seminary the students began daily prayer meetings in different parts of the house, during the fifteen minutes recess between the two study hours of the evening. Though a subject was assigned for each day of the week there was always opportunity for special requests. In the following year these gatherings were put in charge of the section teachers. Each invited to her parlor the members of her section. Thus originated the daily “recess-meetings,” which have never been discontinued.

The Sabbath was the most important day of the week. All attended public worship both morning and afternoon, according to the New England custom of that time. The hallowed influences of the day were not allowed to be dissipated by visits or calls, either made or received. On the same principle, letter-writing was discouraged.

From the first there were annually two special days of prayer, and sometimes more. On the first Monday of January and the day of prayer for colleges, then the last Thursday of February, school exercises were suspended to give every one the opportunity to join thousands in Israel in fasting and prayer for students and for the world. Their observance, whether by prayer or by prayer and fasting, was voluntary with each one, but so universally was the opportunity embraced that those were days of more than Sabbath stillness. They had a solemnity of their own, and were always anticipated and found to be days of special blessing.

Intercession was Ongoing
“Pray for us.”

Miss Lyon constantly besought for the seminary the intercessions of its friends. Her parting word was often like the whispered entreaty to Miss Fiske, “You will pray for us, will you not-all the way to Persia.” And Miss Fiske knew, as all who have been in the family know, that the absent daughters are remembered unceasingly in their school home. Let a page from the seminary journal illustrate this. “At teachers’ meeting Miss Lyon proposed that we mention the names of those once here who are now missionaries either at home or abroad. So each of us named one or more till the names of all were repeated. We then united in two prayers for them, Miss Lyon leading in one.” At another meeting all who had ever taught in the seminary were named in the same way. Under a third date the record runs: “When Miss Lyon asked whom we wished to present for prayer, two, not Christians, were named. We knelt and prayed for them, then two more, and so on till twelve had been mentioned.” Again: “To-night after repeating their names, we prayed for all in school who were without hope in Christ.” Though names might be unheard in the larger meetings, the same definiteness in prayer was everywhere encouraged.

"Section" Groups
“No one was lost sight of.”

Specific prayer and specific labor went hand in hand. No one was lost sight of in caring for the whole. Partly for its direct help to each, and partly for the guide it afforded to intelligent labor for all, an opportunity, early in the school year, was given the servants of Christ to give their names as his followers. In order to do the utmost for each, in reference to health, habits, and both mental and moral improvement, the family was divided into sections of fifteen or twenty, and each section made the special charge of a teacher. This teacher felt a peculiar responsibility for the spiritual condition of each in her section. Yet Miss Lyon still kept every one in her eye and heart. In the assignment of rooms and roommates she weighed the power of mutual influence and desired such associations only as were most helpful to all. Individual choice had free expression and was superseded only for weightier reasons. Unwise intimacies were everywhere kindly discouraged.

Her Permeating Personal Influence
“Every member felt its power.”

Mary Lyon's own personal influence so permeated the family that every member felt its power, and was assured not only of a warm place in her heart, but that she took a tender interest in her welfare. With scarcely an exception they were glad to have her know all that was going on, and delighted to consult her. If, as some times occurred, they wanted to do something which she thought not best, she would often so unfold the principle involved, and carry her audience with her, that they would vote against the course they had previously determined to take.

Unforgettable First Impressions
“Magnetic sympathy welling up from her great heart.”

“There was something in her first meeting with her pupils that cannot be fully described,” writes one; “we forgot the teacher in a mother’s welcome with a magnetic sympathy welling up from her great heart, that filled face and voice and manner. She was so glad that you could not help being glad with her.” Another says, “I almost feel even now the imprint of the greeting received forty-five years ago as my sister and I timidly presented ourselves at the front door where Miss Lyon was standing. ‘What name?’ she asked. We answered. ‘Ah! Miss T- from D-,’ and stooping, she kissed us both very tenderly. Then we were adopted. I seem still to feel that kiss a holy thing; and so I regard every association with her, especially every word from her to me individually, as a sacred trust for which I must render account.”

Godly Teachers
“Helpmates after her own heart.”

Mary Lyon’s teachers were one with her in aim and spirit, heartily seconding all her efforts. The trustees had allowed her to choose her assistants and she chose a band of helpmates after her own heart. She never asked of what denomination they were, but she assured herself that the love of Christ constrained them and that their zeal was according to knowledge. Those of the first year were all from Ipswich Seminary, after that they were her own alumnae. The three graduates of the first year became teachers the second. She sympathized with them and leaned on them as on older daughters. She was as ready to receive as to give suggestions and made them feel that she was grateful for their help. Her manner of referring to them before the school showed that they had her confidence and that she expected their wishes would be gladly complied with. To the teachers she said, “Never speak lightly of a pupil.” “Speak of each as if she were your sister.” “Avoid every unnecessary exposure of her faults;”-and they did so. “Don’t feel that all is going wrong because some are irrepressible. These lively girls-rightly directed-do the best work.” “This girl is a little inclined to be wild. She is motherless. Won’t you look after her? her mother was very dear to me.”

“In community one must give up somewhat of natural rights.”

However it had been in her own home and however warmly adopted in her new home, one could not feel in the seminary that she was “the only child.” She was a daughter, indeed, but only one of many, and was reminded of the great principle that in a community each one must give up somewhat of natural rights and consult the general good. She saw at a glance that what would not be best for a hundred others to do or to have in the same circumstances, could not reasonably be done or asked for by one. This ever-recurring lesson was used to cultivate the habit of placing the general good above personal preference or convenience. The self-subordination involved was part of the training Miss Lyon deemed essential to self-government. “Be perfect in all the requirements here,” she used to say, “and you will have power to control yourself any where.” Every seminary regulation was shown to be included in the first or second great command. To disregard it was to disregard the law of love to God or love to others. Every one could see for herself its justice and its propriety; and that its observance was her duty, whether it was a rule of the school or not. By the test questions, Is it right? Is it in accordance with the law of love? she was taught that all things were to be done as to the Lord and not as to teachers. Thus the conscience, enlightened by the word of God, was educated to act habitually in all matters of daily life both small and great.

Cultivating Conscience
“Conscience… was cultivated by the trust reposed.”

Conscience and a sense of honor were cultivated by the trust reposed. Excluding espionage, Mary Lyon held each pupil responsible for her own observance of seminary regulations and for keeping her own daily or weekly account of success or failure, and trusted her truthfulness in reporting it. She did not expect of all the same attainments, nor equal progress. Her standard in scholarship and conduct was given in the precept “Do the best that you can do, to-day.” But she did expect each one to do right, and assumed that she had no other intention. If she saw reason to fear otherwise she found private opportunity to ask, “Are you doing the best you can?” “Do you not wish to improve?” adroitly preventing self-committal on the wrong side, and pointing out the way of self-help. She knew how to concentrate and combine moral influences. Wisely and warily guarding against the abuse of freedom or of confidence, she sought to have the law so hidden in the heart that no direct exercise of authority would be required, and thus to govern from within rather than from without; and with rare exceptions she succeeded. Often those who had grieved her most became her warmest friends. When for her own good or that of the rest it became necessary to send one away, it was done with the same tenderness with which she had been received, and she went forth knowing that she was followed, not with gossip, but with prayer.

Cultivating Benevolence
“They cultivated the habit of liberality.”

An early graduate writes: “One divine truth, illustrated by Miss Lyon’s methods, is the supreme value of love in every effort to do good.” It led her to assume that every one had a benevolent spirit. It was an understood premise in every appeal that “to know the need would prompt the deed.” Free from selfishness herself she never seemed to suspect it in others.

Were helpers wanted anywhere, the question “How many would like to do this or that,” came as an opportunity to those waiting for one. Was self-denial involved? The end to be gained was shown to be so desirable that sacrifice for its sake appeared a privilege; candid souls said, “If somebody must do it, why not I?”

Mary Lyon never cared to secure the immediate end so much as self-training in benevolent action. So in gifts of charity, she valued less the amount than intelligent and prayerful interest in the call for it, and the habit of liberality with the means at disposal whether large or small; and therefore kept her pupils informed concerning the progress of the Lord’s work at home and abroad and gave them the opportunity to share in its support. She thought it essential to the cultivation of right principles that students while spending for themselves should also spend for the Lord, not excusing themselves under the plea that the personal outlay was to fit them for the Lord’s service, lest they form the habit of feeling that their offerings must first serve themselves.

Personal Responsibility
“It is a serious thing to live.”

Every year, and each time in a new way, she gave a series of morning talks upon benevolence and the Bible standard of giving. Inculcating the spirit of David, who would not offer to the Lord that which cost him nothing, she taught how to look for ways of economy and self-denial, and not only enabled those to find them who thought they had nothing to give, but made giving a matter not of impulse, but of principle; and believing that “practice makes more lasting impression than any amount of instruction without it,” she provided stated opportunities for offering gifts to the Lord through well approved channels, and herself set a worthy example. To her associates she said: “We can train benevolent workers only by being benevolent ourselves. The Levites had no portion among the tribes; the Lord was their inheritance; but out of their living they gave their tithes to the Lord. Let us live in the same spirit.”

Her views of personal duty are thus expressed in “The Missionary Offering”: “I felt that in the sight of God, my duty in my own little sphere and with my own feeble ability was more to me than the duty of all the world besides. Could I call thousands into the treasury of the Lord, it might not be so important a duty for me as to give from my own purse that last farthing which God requires. Could I so plead in behalf of the perishing heathen that all our missionary concerts should be filled with hearts prostrate together before God, it might not be so important a duty for me as to carry my own feeble petition to the throne of mercy, and there in the name of our blessed Redeemer plead the promises with an earnestness which cannot be denied.”

Thus impressed herself she laid upon her pupils a sense of personal responsibility in every department of life, especially toward every soul under their influence, and reminded them that theirs was no ordinary responsibility, for the seminary was sacred to the service of the Lord. Its founders expected and had a right to expect that it would be a fountain of good to the world, and that the cause of Christ would be advanced by means of it; and therefore no one had a right to avail herself of its opportunities to carry out selfish plans of her own. By receiving advantages so much greater than the price they paid for them, by the unwearied care of their teachers, and by all other unbought benefits, they were under obligations which they could discharge only by doing similar work for others. It was made a matter of daily practice. She depended on the older pupils as on older daughters to help her lead the younger. It was easy to show, especially in the domestic line, that the faithfulness of each member in the duty assigned her was essential to the good of the whole family. The same principle was as plainly shown to apply in their divinely appointed relations to the entire human family. They were sent forth from the seminary, not to sit down in idleness, but for earnest work. “Go,” she said, “where no one else will go, not seeking the praise of man, but the favor which comes from God only.” “If work needs to be done, and no one wants to do it, that is the work for you. Much of the work of the world, if done at all, must be done for love - not for pecuniary returns. Never decide hastily that you cannot do because you have not physical or mental strength. Every one has something to do for Christ and each is responsible for doing her part, and in the best way in her power. Other things being equal, you are under more obligation because of your opportunities here. Privilege and responsibility go hand in hand.” “It is a serious thing to live, to have responsibility not only for your own life, but for your conscious and unconscious influence. No act and no word can be known to be without future consequences.”

Manual Labor
“For the sake of moral power.”

Lessons upon responsibility were not the only ones for which the domestic department furnished a fertile field for illustration and an ample one for practice. The prompt, expeditious, conscientious, and every way faithful helper about the house - and no other - was the prompt, expeditious, conscientious, and every way faithful student. Hand and head and heart were each trained to strengthen each, but the manual and mental were only for the sake of the moral. In the words of Miss Jessup: “The whole system is an arrangement for getting and applying moral power.” And yet it is a progressive system. So broad are its underlying principles and so natural its adaptations that it can easily be kept abreast of the times without loss of its characteristic features.

Depending on God
“The seminary is built by his direction.”

Mary Lyon often said that she was only laying foundations. She expected others to carry on the work, and rejoiced that they would be able to do far greater things than were possible to her. She would never admit that the prosperity of the seminary depended upon her or any successor. She felt that an infinite Hand had taken hold of hers, and led her on. “The seminary,” she said, “is his, built by his direction. I have no more expectation that it will die than that I shall cease to exist in eternity.” “I doubt not these walls will stand to do his work in the millennium.” Not the same pile of brick and mortar and not necessarily the same methods. It was not Miss Lyon’s school that she wished to establish, but a school to furnish the best education. Whatever was needed for this end was to be adopted. It would grieve her to have her methods or arrangements made the standard for her successors merely because they were hers. She cautioned her pupils against following her methods too closely, especially in teaching children or those who were weak in moral principles. For their safe use she emphasized the need of sufficient self-control to give reason and conscience the ascendency over impulse and inclination.

A graduate of 1843, after long experience in teaching, writes: “In my earlier work I was much helped by the models I had at the seminary. My later methods were changed in many respects, but the great principles of conscientious thoroughness and subservience of the intellectual and esthetic to the moral and religious have always lain at the foundation of my teaching theories. In the light of my later experience, the moral and religious culture of the seminary seems to me a wonderful embodiment of heavenly wisdom. In that department indeed, methods are relatively of less value. The spirit is everything, and that is a fresh gift with each generation of teachers, with each entering class.”

Chapter 8 of Sarah Stowe’s History of Mount Holyoke Seminary During Its First Half Century, 1837-1887, pp. 105-116