In February, Wheaton Academy students participated in Spiritual Life Week, a week dedicated to promoting and encouraging spiritual growth through messages from special chapel speakers and intentional times of prayer and worship. What many may not know, though, is that this week is a school tradition dating back more than one hundred years. Today’s students are the beneficiaries of a rich spiritual legacy bequeathed to them by faithful men and women.
In 1853, when Illinois Institute (now known as Wheaton College and Wheaton Academy) was founded, the mission and purpose of the fledgling school was very clear. The founders’ vision was captured by a team of Academy students who wrote History of Wheaton College Academy in 1935 under the guidance of history teacher Miss Gudrun Thorlakson.
In addition to a robust liberal arts curriculum, daily chapels and weekly prayer meetings were essential components of the College and the Academy which shared the same campus in Wheaton until 1945 when the Academy relocated to its current Prince Crossing campus in West Chicago. Revivals were encouraged by Jonathan Blanchard, the first president of Wheaton College and Wheaton College Academy. In Wheaton College: A Heritage Remembered 1860-1984, Paul Bechtel states that “those kinds of Christian experience, together with the daily chapel service, did much to create an environment uniquely conducive to personal devotion, Christian service, and scholarship at Wheaton. Virtues desirable for the Christian were without pretention honestly cultivated.”
According to Bechtel, Blanchard and his son Charles who succeeded him as president in 1882 were dedicated to the preservation of the intention of the Board of Trustees who, in 1860, founded the College and Academy in order that “the institution and the influence of the institution shall bear decidedly against all forms of error and sin…and whatever else shall clearly appear to contravene the kingdom and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In 1915, evangelistic services were held on campus at the beginning of each semester. According to the Wheaton College Record, these meetings were the result of President Charles Blanchard’s remarkable spiritual encounter with the Lord during the course of a serious six-month illness. Blanchard resolved “to put the spiritual welfare of the [school] before everything else.” The Record goes on to explain, “For many years different professors of the college and various local ministers spoke at the services; but gradually more outside speakers were used until it has become an established practice to call full-time Christian workers from varying distances.”
“Precious are the memories of these wonderful meetings, and the changes made in many hearts will count for eternity.”
When the Academy moved to its current campus, the tradition of these weeklong evangelistic services continued and do so to this day, albeit with a few changes. The 1947 Compass yearbook says the following about these special services: “Precious are the memories of these wonderful meetings, and the changes made in many hearts will count for eternity.”
Over the years, the fall week was replaced with other chapel activities, and the second semester week became known as Spiritual Life Week (SLW). When David Roth assumed the role of headmaster, he continued the SLW tradition, believing in its purpose to promote spiritual renewal leading to revival. In addition, David used SLW to further define and understand the soul of the school, a concept that Charles Blanchard surely would have wholeheartedly embraced.
Jeff Brooke ’02, the Academy’s former dean of spiritual life, has the unique perspective of experiencing SLW as both a student and a faculty member. While attending WA, he remembers the extra time devoted to learning, growing, and worshiping together as a community. As dean at WA, he was intentional about planning SLW. Jeff and his team looked for additional opportunities for students to be involved. Worship nights, service projects, prayer breakfasts, and interactive reflection activities were all part of the efforts to engage students. The week had a biblically based theme that was intended to be helpful to students’ walk with the Lord.
When Jeff left the Academy to become head of school at Wheaton Christian Grammar School, Brian Hogan took on the role of dean of chapel and spiritual formation. Two of the three years he has been at WA, the COVID pandemic had a significant impact on SLW. Thankfully, this year’s SLW was back on track. The theme was Rooted and was based on Colossians 2:6-7: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
Brian has kept Jeff’s SLW format in place for the most part. He is sensitive to the fact that different speakers connect with different students. Many students have experienced a rekindling of their faith during this week. Others have made a firsttime commitment to follow Christ. The students are provided with an opportunity to share their commitments through a tangible expression. For example, this year students wrote commitments on posters on the final day of SLW.
When a student enrolls at Wheaton Academy, he or she joins an extended community that consists of those who have gone before them, preserving the mission and purpose of the founders of Wheaton Academy. Great wisdom is evident in David Roth’s admonition to understand and protect the soul of the school.
Each generation has a responsibility to maintain that commitment, and Spiritual Life Week is one of the ways this tradition is carried on. Jeff Brooke’s words capture its value: “The Lord has blessed Spiritual Life Week throughout the history of WA. The commitment to the week speaks to the values of the Academy. The Lord works in so many ways at WA, and Spiritual Life Week is one important way in which He does.”