A Founders’ Day Reflection

The first day of school, 1922

Today marks the 100th birthday of The Stony Brook School. On this day in 1922, this “grand experiment,” as founding Headmaster Frank E. Gaebelein called it, pushed off from shore with hope, faith, and promise. With God’s favor and grace, the experiment worked and we celebrate our centennial birthday today.

In this preface to An Enduring Vision, the centennial history of our school, editor David Hickey ’08 contextualizes Stony Brook’s role in 20th century education and illustrates God’s steadfast hand throughout our school’s journey.

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When considering the story of The Stony Brook School, it is one that defied the odds at multiple turns with a persistence that cannot be accounted for merely by the resolve of its leaders. On paper at its inauguration, the School accounted for little besides its group of well-known religious founders. Andover and Exeter were already nearly 150 years old. Unlike all of its older New England peers, Stony Brook had no denominational link of financial support. It had meager facilities inadequate for a fully-functioning school. It had no seasoned headmaster. It had little money and barely enough students to open its doors. By every worldly standard, the School had inauspicious beginnings that would have given few clues as to the likelihood of its survival. Yet its most valuable assets lay in its intangibles. From the beginning, it had a firm vision and confidence in its identity. It had a strong educational mission and philosophy rooted in character formation as its primary differentiator. It was unapologetically orthodox in belief and intellectually rigorous. Its young headmaster, though lacking in experience and credentials as the leader of a prep school, proved to be a diamond in the rough as the unlikely anchor of an institution that through him would also steer the course of Christian education in America. But most of all, it had the providence of God as its foundation to weather the adversities it faced.

Stony Brook was birthed in the wake of a world war, its economic downturn, and a global pandemic. Two years into the School’s existence, even the Presbyterian Church–the primary wellspring of its early leaders–acrimoniously split in two, thus beginning a period of divisiveness in American Protestantism. Just seven years into its existence, the Depression struck, commencing over a decade and a half of testing for the fledgling institution as it struggled during years of financial strain and the hardship of men and boys called to war. Many other institutions failed and so Stony Brook may not have continued to exist either. As an independent school caught between an interdenominational fight with no natural networks of support, Gaebelein and the founders had to tread the fine line between theological modernism and fundamentalist pietism. Our founders sought to engage serious intellectualism with Christian truth by educating the mind without neglecting the heart. Finding these balances has exemplified the Stony Brook “experiment” and been the driving force of its distinctive identity and continued success. Some contemporary critics might have considered the actions of our founders to be reckless, yet it was a recklessness rooted not in a blind optimism, but rather an assurance in the provision of a faithful and omnipotent God. It was by the grace of God, out of the crucible of its formative years, that the School emerged early on as a distinctive leader with its marriage of academic excellence with faith, and of character with holistic education.

As Gaebelein stated in his inaugural address, “Many schools boast that they build character… We know that we are right in our emphasis upon the Christian gospel. We know that we have stricken at the root of character-building.” His 1951 book Christian Education in a Democracy continued in this strand, “But why have our schools failed in the development of moral character? They have failed because there has been ruled out of them the only dynamic able to produce character tough enough to weather an ethical climate where the winds blow in the direction of moral short cuts and easy self-indulgence.” Through his words, Gaebelein embraced the popular adage, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all” while also joining it with the wisdom of Scripture.  

The foundation laid by our founders and early faculty shaped the legacy of the School carried forth to the present. Today our over 7,000 alumni and over 500 faculty members–whether they were impacted by just one year or decades at the Brook–have left ripples across every area of the globe with the furtherance of its mission to cultivate intellectual and personal excellence in order to serve through character. Their legacy has stretched continents in service of the global Church and humanitarian initiatives. Academics and scientists have aided our society in expanding knowledge and inquiry, while medical professionals served in everyday care and in combating a global pandemic. Builders, engineers, and technology professionals have constructed and innovated in changing times. Law professionals, statesmen, and public policy advocates have led and challenged with character in the halls of power. Business, hospitality, and service professionals have served by building and furthering their communities in a myriad of ways. In education, the School’s beacon has never been confined to the limits of Chapman Parkway as its light has gone forth through its faculty and alumni to serve as administrators and heads of schools, particularly in a successive generation of Christian schools across the world. The once fledgling institution became a leader in shaping the conversation of Christian education nationally and internationally.

Schools do not always remain consistent with their founding ideals. By 1922, Stony Brook’s much older boarding school peers had long transitioned away from their Christian foundations. Even the relatively recent founding of the Northfield and Mount Hermon Schools by the evangelist D.L. Moody in 1879 and 1880 had already begun to drift from their roots at the turn of the century. Stony Brook’s founding represented the bookend of an era as one of the last founded Christian boarding schools of a generation. As Pierson Curtis poignantly wrote in our school hymn, “The school without a vision shall not for long endure / Nor shall it stand securely without the basis sure.” A remarkable feat is that our school has stood the testing of time–unchanged in its identity–for one hundred years. It remains unchanged because of the sureness of our basis on the rock, “We take for our foundation, the Word forever laid, That through the changing ages is never changed or swayed.”

For this milestone we celebrate and give thanks. As The Stony Brook School looks to its next century, we continue to be a School of ambitious and unapologetic Christian vision, continuing in the prayer of our hymn “Lord give us all a vision, of what our school may be.” If the School’s past history is any measure, the journey forward will be one not without difficulty. Yet at the same time, its successive custodians can take solace in looking back on the altars of the faithfulness of God present each step of the way. We can affirm Frank Gaebelein’s words marking the 10th anniversary of the School, “As one who has been privileged to work with The School from the beginning, I am convinced that its growth is no haphazard circumstance. Knowing the founders and their ideals, I am convinced that Stony Brook is a living witness to the truth that to those who seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness all these things shall be added.” As we celebrate 100 years of God’s faithfulness, may this be our continued prayer and purpose. To God be the glory, great things He has done!

Click here to purchase your copy of An Enduring Vision: 100 Years of Character Before Career.

The first day of school, 2022 (Photo by Bruce Jeffrey)

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