Wheaton magazine

Volume 23, Issue 1
Wheaton magazine // Winter 2020

West of the Windy City: The Story of Wheaton College's Engagement with Chicago

Wheaton College has always had its face turned east toward the City by the Lake. Its relational posture toward the city has changed over the 160 years since its founding: there have been times of reaching and times of drawing near; times of kneeling and times of leaning in; times of shouting and times of listening; times of teaching and times of learning; times of giving mercy and times of receiving mercy. All the time, though, Wheaton has turned east.

Throughout the College’s long history of engagement with Chicago, the relationship has developed with new emphases in new eras. Early in Wheaton College’s history, Chicago was seen as the gateway to global missions, and in the early twentieth century, students engaged with the city primarily through personal evangelism. The focus changed mid-century to more direct service and care for the people of the city. Later, and in recent memory, Wheaton students have engaged with the city through urban studies.

Highlighting significant moments, this timeline traces the shifting contours of Wheaton’s relationship with Chicago from the College’s founding through to the present day.



1954 Tower, Wheaton College

During the late 1800s, Wheaton College engaged with Chicago as a place of opportunity. Early Wheaton College leadership believed that the College's mission would be funneled through Chicago and into the world—a mission of education, but also a mission of carrying the good news and testimonies against social ills to all the world. The institution would have an audience with the American people and the nations of the earth. Among many other public intellectuals and Christian leaders of the day, Wheaton's first president Jonathan Blanchard and his son Charles assumed that the city was full of problems to solve. Urbanization was untying the strings that held society together, and Wheaton students needed to be prepared for this fast-urbanizing world. The city was a place of power and influence, a place from which the gospel could go forth, but also a place in need of the gospel.


Wheaton College is founded.

“This college is located within an hour’s ride of Chicago, upon a double track, over which some six or seven railroads pass into the city.… The site of the college is healthy and delightful, and families in the city who wish to have their children away from its noise and temptations, and yet within an hour of home, will find in Wheaton instruction for both sexes in the various branches of academic and collegiate education.” — Board of Trustees Letter to the Congregational Herald, 1859


The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. (meatpacking district) is founded.


Great Chicago Fire 

Jonathan Blanchard and students brought aid to victims of the fire:

“Monday, October 9, Fire raging in Chicago all day… the people of Chicago call for food and clothing.” — Wheaton College student diary


University of Chicago is founded.


Charles Blanchard served as senior pastor of what was then known as the Chicago Avenue Church, now known as The Moody Church.

Provident Hospital—where Wheaton students would minister in coming years—is founded.


The Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, Chicago’s first “L” line, went into operation.


The World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair); World’s Parliament of Religions opens.

Charles Blanchard opposed the Fair being open on Sundays.

Young Men's Christian Association is founded for spiritual growth and to connect with other Christian college students in the Chicago area.


Young Women's Christian Association is founded for spiritual growth and to connect with other Christian college students in the Chicago area.



Special Collections, Buswell Library, College Archives, RG (OCO) Box 3, 'Photos'

For many students at the turn of the twentieth century, evangelism was at the core of what it meant to be a Christian, and Chicago—this center of political and religious influences—was a place of particular importance. As Wheaton College students looked east and saw people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ, they began directing many of their activities toward evangelizing Chicago residents. Thousands of students in this era ministered the gospel to countless people in Chicago. The proliferation of student-led evangelistic organizations during the first half of the twentieth century is a testimony of Wheaton students’ deep sense of Chicago’s need for the Good News. And with regular day trips into Chicago, Wheaton College students were exposed to other needs in the city as well.


Chicago Race Riots 

The Christian Union formed to facilitate cooperation between Christian service organizations on campus.

The Gospel Team program is founded to host evangelistic services.


Wheaton College YMCA voted unanimously to withdraw from the national organization due to its modernist shifts.

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre


League of Evangelical Students is organized in place of YMCA.

Merchandise Mart opens.

Wheaton senior Carl Anderson ’31 founded the Scripture Distribution Society (SDS).


YWCA is dissolved into the League of Evangelical Students.

Missionary Volunteers, the SDS, and the Ministerial Association came under the umbrella of The League of Evangelical Students.


Christian Council is organized to coordinate all student service activities.

Chicago Housing Authority is founded.


Billy Graham identified as President of Christian Council; year’s emphasis is on “personal evangelism” including Sunday witnessing on "L" trains and visits to Cook County Hospital, Chicago Servicemen's centers, and railroad stations.


Wheaton students founded popular Sunday school for children on the South and West Sides of Chicago.



After the 1950s, Wheaton College students began seriously engaging with the social issues of the city, a different posture than in the past. Evangelism was necessary, but service and relationships were too. The goals of Christian service had become explicitly holistic— expanding beyond proclamation of words of Good News to engagement with societal issues. During this era, evangelism remained central, but relational service and social justice were emphasized.


“Chicago Negro Evangelism" (CNE) became “Inner-City Christian Action" (ICCA): “ICCA hopes to eventually tie all the CSC Sunday schools to strong indigenous works.”

“To one who has had too much religion preached at him and religion which only disappoints time after time, a tract is a joke and a Bible is an excuse to sneer. There is only one thing that can meet the needs of 900,000 Negroes in Chicago. It is not charity, promises or hopes of heaven. It is a person who cares for them, each as an individual friend. It is a person who is willing to learn of past heartaches, frustrations and forgotten hopes; one who is an ally in the new hopes. It is a person who will respect each of them as the highest creation of God. Only when they see and know a 'little Christ' will they listen to the claims of the Lord Christ. The latter cannot effectively precede the other.” — Student Roger Winter ’64, The Record, September 12, 1963


Southwest (Adlai E. Stevenson) Expressway completed.


Martin Luther King Jr. moves to Chicago and leads the Chicago Freedom Movement (Chicago open housing movement), marching against segregation in education, housing, transportation, and employment.


Christian Service Council (CSC) was “composed of a student cabinet and the chairmen of various ministries (Gospel and Folk Teams, Young Life, Youth For Christ, Campus Crusade, Operation Mobilization, Pioneer Girls, Christian Service Brigade, jail and hospital visitation, coffeehouse ministries, work with children with disabilities, tutoring projects, inner-city work),” College Catalog, 1972-73



Photo Courtesy of Center for Urban Engagement

Up until the late 1980s, most of the College’s engagement with the city was temporary. It was day trips. Weekend visits. Perhaps a week here and there. Of course, there were exceptions—particularly a few summer-length stays in the late 1960s. But in general, from the College’s founding until the 1980s, the engagement with the city was short-term.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, however, Wheaton’s posture toward Chicago became more sustained and listening as the College sought to establish deeper connections with community partners. With sustained contact, the city came into focus as a place from which Wheaton students could learn—about the world, about cultures and society, about politics and religion, about business, and more. It was also a place to learn about evangelism and ministry. The city itself was worthy of study as well. The world had changed and Wheaton needed to augment its studies with social science perspectives to prepare its students for the urban world. Thus, while evangelism and service remained central as the new millennium was dawning, urban studies programs were offered at the College for the first time.


Harold Washington becomes the first African American mayor.


National City Ministries is founded.

“Recognizing the Biblical mandate to minister the whole gospel by meeting physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, this ministry is committed to making Christ’s presence real in the inner cities of America.” — 1986 CSC Brochure


Urban Studies Program formed and Lyle Dorsett named director.

“We’re living in a world that is rapidly urbanizing. You don’t understand this by viewing it from afar. We need to get into the city and get our fingers on the pulse-beat of the city.” — Lyle Dorsett HON, The Record, December 15, 1989


First catalog to include the Urban Studies program Semester-long internship in Chicago’s South Side and certificate in Urban Studies offered.


Wheaton in Chicago named and launched in Uptown neighborhood.

Elementary Education Department began partnership with Cleveland Elementary School in Irving Park neighborhood.


Millennium Park opens.


Noah Toly ’99, M.A. ’12 is named Director of Urban Studies.



Wheaton's ongoing urban ministries as well as new programs from CUE signal Wheaton's continued commitment to Chicago. Wheaton sees the city not as a problem to solve or an opportunity to seize, but rather as a neighbor in a reciprocal relationship. Wheaton students will learn from and with the city. Wheaton will serve with people in the city. And Wheaton's mission as a premier Christian liberal arts educational institution will continue to involve the City on the Lake for years to come.


Center for Urban Engagement is launched.


Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership is created.

“You are not embarking on studying poverty, racism, crime, family life. You are coming alongside to understand people who are living in poverty, who must deal with crime and who have difficulties in their family life.” — Margaret DuPlissis Diddams ’83 in an address to the first Aequitas cohort in fall 2018

Wheaton in Chicago relocates to Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side at the invitation of community partners.

While there are countless more ways in which Wheaton College students have engaged with Chicago over the years, this survey has attempted to describe the major contours and varying emphases over time.


Read the full-length article in a special Wheaton magazine supplement.

The development of these emphases—proximity, evangelism, service, study, and presence—is not completely linear, nor are the transitions clean from one era to the next. The historical development is like the musical form of theme and variations, with one melody repeated in different iterations throughout the course of the piece. When the emphasis shifted to service, for example, Wheaton did not lose evangelism—and service had been an element previously. When the emphasis shifted to urban studies, Wheaton did not lose evangelism or service—and the academic engagement also existed prior. As each development occurred, the other elements were shaped by the primary posture.