LIKE MANY WHEATON COLLEGE alumni, what Dr. Nathan O. Hatch ’68 finds himself doing today is, in his own words, “not what I envisioned I would do.”
If you had told the 1968 graduate that he would become the author of one of the 20th century’s top histories of American religion, he might have aspired to that. If you had told him that his career would include becoming the first Protestant provost of a major Catholic university, he might not have expected that. If you’d told him his career and accomplishments would lead him to be praised by Billy Graham ’43, LITT.D. ’56 and to meet Maya Angelou, Pope John Paul II, and Arnold Palmer, he would not have believed you.
Born in Chicago, Nathan grew up as a Presbyterian pastor’s kid in Columbia, South Carolina. He made lasting friendships at Wheaton, including with classmates John Piper ’68 and Mark Noll ’68. With the assassination of Robert Kennedy the weekend before Nathan’s graduation, it was a tumultuous time to be a student. While at Wheaton, Nathan fell in love with history. He also fell in love with Julie Gregg ’69, who became his wife. They met at a student gathering where Nathan was sharing his experience in a summer service project at an African American church in Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood. The next summer, race riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. shut down the program he’d been part of.
When Nathan addresses incoming students at Wake Forest University, where he now serves as president, he talks about Wheaton professors that made a lasting mark on him. One was Associate Professor of History Emeritus Dr. Tom Kay ’53 and his medieval history course. “That course taught me to write,” says Nathan.
Another was Professor of Greek Emeritus Dr. Jerry Hawthorne ’51, M.A. ’54.
“But it wasn’t the Greek,” says Nathan. “It was what a marvelous person he was and how he thought about life and faith.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Wheaton, Nathan received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at Johns Hopkins University. He joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame in 1975. In 1979, Nathan published his first book, The Gospel in America: Themes in the Story of America’s Evangelicals, co-written with Dr. Noll and John Woodbridge ’63. It was recommended by Billy Graham ’43, Litt.D. ’56, who called it “one of the most significant historical studies of American Evangelicalism in our time.”
However, it was Nathan’s second book that solidified his reputation as one of the most influential scholars of American religious history. His 1989 The Democratization of American Christianity demonstrated that the Second Great Awakening was a populist, not an elitist, movement. It was voted by fellow historians as one of the most significant books of the 20th century, and has been cited in almost 1,000 dissertations and theses.
Nathan, a Presbyterian, used his status as an “inside outsider” to offer fresh thoughts on how to build a distinctly Catholic university. While provost, he attended a private mass in Rome with Pope John Paul II and also met U2 frontman Bono.
Given that Notre Dame presidents as well as Nathan’s predecessors in the second-in-command role were unmarried priests, this made Julie—who helped host internationally-known guests and large public events—Notre Dame’s first “first lady.” Julie’s rejoinder? “No, the first lady of the university is on top of the dome.”
In 2005, Nathan became president of Wake Forest University, where he has made significant realignments in the areas of business and medicine, enhanced the residential experience for students, undertaken bold initiatives in test-optional admissions and student career development, and embarked upon the university’s first-ever $1 billion capital campaign after surpassing the original $600 million goal two years ahead of schedule. With Dr. Noll, Nathan cofounded Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals in 1982. Over 25 years, before closing in 2014, it transformed evangelicalism from an overlooked movement in historical studies into a field where a new wave of scholars have produced a steady stream of books and research.
Nathan has chaired the boards of the NCAA Division I and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He has also served on the boards of Wheaton College and the American Council on Education, and currently serves on the board of Fuller Seminary. He was inducted intothe American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014.
His favorite Bible passage comes from Matthew 11: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,and I will give you rest.” As someone with high standards for himself and for others, Nathan says, “over the years, I’ve needed to hear that more often than some.” He recalls a “profound moment” in high school when he wasunder great pressure to excel and felt he “wasn’t the Christian I should be.”
“My father showed me those verses and the load lifted,” says Nathan. “I saw that the Christian faith was not a burden, but a profound affirmation. It’s a wonderful statement of the abounding mercy of the Lord.”
Nathan believes “the job of colleges and universities like Wheaton or Notre Dame or Wake Forest is to train the next generation of leaders. If there is anything missing in society, it is great leadership. So to the extent that you can, you educate the whole person,and build leadership capacity in all the variety of professions they will take on, whether Wall Street or the ministry. That is the best service you can offer to society.”