A TRAIN'S wail still carries through downtown Springfield, Ohio, during the early morning hours, much as it did a half century ago when I first visited Wittenberg University.
Then, trainloads of high-schoolers, assembled by Lutheran church groups from around the Midwest, would convene at this small campus. The pilgrimages were a wake-up call, if one were listening, to an adult vocation of religion-informed public service.
Today what is Wittenberg up to? And what might such an inquiry tell us about the hundreds of other church-started liberal arts colleges in America, in a secular, job-centered, and, if religious at all, increasingly ecumenical society?
''What about the life of prayer and the role of a college president?'' I asked Baird Tipson, Wittenberg's new president, a graduate in religious studies at Princeton and Yale.
Tipson confessed to a quandary over how assertive one can be of religious conviction. ''A majority of students were hostile to religion in the 1960s,'' Tipson said of his own campus years. ''We became profoundly distrustful of institutions because of Vietnam and Watergate.
''We still have to find the language that is most effective. The college years ... are the least social, when youths naturally rebel against institutions, against taking responsibility. We have to talk about 'servanthood' in a largely secular language.
''My board of directors would say my challenge is to define Wittenberg within our market niche,'' he continued. ''We have to convince people they have to be here and not someplace else.'' In short, it has become hard simply to say that individual and organizational life should be led by a higher, others-serving, good-doing purpose.
Wittenberg, with its 2,200 students, is a wholesome place. Bulletin boards are neatly composed. All students spend 30 hours in community service, usually as sophomores.
Competition for the better students in the region is tough. Going up against Kenyon College, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, and Miami of Ohio, Wittenberg offsets the cost of tuition by as much as 50 percent for aid-needy students. It recruits internationally and is religiously and ethnically more diverse. Formerly the student body was two-thirds Lutheran; now it's 23 percent Lutheran, 20 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Jewish, 23 percent undeclared, and the rest a variety of faiths.
Feeling pressure, Wittenberg is again redefining itself. During a management retreat, Tipson was encouraged by colleagues to put his religious-studies training more forward in his public role. A vote here for that.
A clear sense of moral purpose is key to the survival of any institution - newspapers, businesses, governments, colleges, families. Leaders must define purpose and hold out for it against opposition.
Moral purpose is being and doing good. It has one standard for treating others, one's own kind, and oneself. Goodness is not a market force. It attracts. Parents may well want their children prepared for jobs, but they also want them to have the qualities that enable them to endure the wipeouts of the marketplace.
At ''godless'' Harvard in the '50s, the most useful course I took was ''Ideas of Good and Evil in Western Literature.'' From the story of Job to Dante's Divine Comedy to Melville's Moby Dick, a framework was formed for the evaluation of all subsequent experience.
Ohio's Wittenberg is named after Martin Luther's University of Wittenburg in Saxony, where the religious reformer wrote his 95 theses contesting the practices of the Roman church. No moral slouch he.
Not a market force, said Luther of a church that sold indulgences, but a moral force first. Amen.