The Birth and Death of the Baccalaureate Address

The word baccalaureate can mean two things: the degree of bachelor conferred on graduates or the farewell address delivered to a graduating class by a respected person.

The baccalaureate service seems to have had its birth in a 1432 Oxford University statute, which required each bachelor to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. If you are one of the many seniors who will be graduating in a few weeks, I suppose you are relieved to know that this part of this very important event went away with the powdered wigs. Speaking only for myself, I am very grateful that I do not have to listen to a 30-minute sermon spoken in Latin.

Oxford University in England is not the only institution of higher learning that held the training of ministers as its primary goal. Most, if not all, of the older universities in America did likewise. The following appears on the William and Mary College (America’s second oldest college) Website as part its history page:

On February 8, 1693, King William III and Queen Mary II of England signed the charter for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences” to be founded in the Virginia Colony. And William & Mary was born.

With God and/or religion at the heart of its mission statement and teaching, it was most fitting that the baccalaureate address be given for the graduates as the final affirmation to the absolute existence of God and His overruling but benevolent hand in the affairs of men. The listeners were instructed to take the moral high ground throughout life and to teach others to do likewise. In this, the baccalaureate speech differed from the commencement address which gave the speaker more latitude to speak academically or in a mere motivational manner. The commencement address also allowed current political issues to be addressed.

With the advent of Darwinism and the progressive secularism of education in general, the baccalaureate address, as originally intended, became increasingly awkward and began to evolve with the academic environment. It became everything from a duplication of a commencement address to the act of a stand-up comic. Ministers were often chosen who would speak in generic, ecumenical terms that would not offend even the devil himself if he should be listening in. The baccalaureate speakers list began to broaden to include body builders, movie stars and even agnostics.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see where this is going. The life of the baccalaureate service became even more endangered and politically incorrect when praying in a public school became a crime, and Roe vs. Wade lowered the nation’s respect for human life.

Finally the educational leaders took another look at the baccalaureate address, and with the casualness of a coroner declared it to be dead and gave it a quick and private burial.

To end this article in this manner would no doubt throw even Norman Vincent Peale into a deep depression. Let me give a little hope!

It is not a Biblical mandate to have a religious service as a part of the graduation process. It is fitting and proper and even incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to give a Christian worldview to the students of this and every generation.

The fate of the baccalaureate service is only an indicator of the great tasks before us. Thankfully the Church, the home and the Christian school movement is rising to the challenge. This article is not intended to be the eulogy of the baccalaureate sermon but a reintroduction of it. We do believe in the resurrection, do we not?

By Dr. James Keaton Sr.