by Reverend Richard Thomas, emeritus Chaplain & Prof. of History
From the beginning, with a small fellowship of students at Oxford University, Methodism has been allied with learning and teaching. The American church has been a “ College-Related Church” creating and supporting hundreds of colleges along the frontier. Before the American Revolution, early Methodism established Asbury College as a place for the training of young minds in search of understanding. At the same time, the church established the Methodist Publishing House to make available the sermons of John Wesley and many of his tracts for the education of the ignorant laity. Early preachers carried Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament and the Forty-four Sermons in their saddlebags as they established places for new converts to meet and to worship. Even the uneducated clergy knew that learning was important and the Holy Spirit worked through the disciplined mind. Wesley was a professor at Oxford University and early advocated the joining of “knowledge and vital piety.” His founding of a private school in Bath, Kingswood School for the children of ministers, was by clear intent to demonstrate the importance of the life of the mind and the life of the heart.
In the American frontier, Methodism founded or supported hundreds of colleges that began as advanced education beyond the usual eight grades. All this in a period when advanced education was not required for entrance into the ministry! Since the Gospel was not for men only, most of these new collegiate institutions included education for women, the laity, and potential clergy. The early leaders knew the frontier needed educated leadership for the church and for spreading civilization that included science and the arts. This notion was joined by a Jeffersonian ideal that democracy rested on an educated citizen who had a stake in society -- a powerful combination that created the first church-related system of higher education since the Reformation. Faith and reason were not enemies but necessary for true discipleship and good citizens. Both the church and the new nation needed widespread institutions of learning. The twin factors were both transforming and reforming of personal and corporate life and, from the perspective of the church, necessary for growth in Christ.
Theologically, Wesley anchored his convictions about learning in the doctrine of creation. God creates the world out of Divine Love and within it are the marks of Divine presence or revelation. The new human community is set in the creation and received the image of God in order to search for God in the glory of the earth. The mind of human kind is the divine instrument given for the purpose of discerning the secrets of God and informing the heart. By searching the creation and the words of the ancient witnesses to God’s ways, the heart is informed and the believer is invited to make the witness to God from the past relevant to new times. Learning was a way to discover God’s presence and to grow in faith or closer to God. This had been John Wesley’s experience, and he knew it to be true. He spoke of the joining of “knowledge and vital piety.” The word “piety” has changed meanings, but for Wesley it meant living the life of love, not specific acts of devotion. He clearly believed that the heart and mind were both necessary for the Christian life and complemented each other.
The church and college have much in common, though their respective missions are different. It is not the task of the college to make converts, but it is the task of the college to educate the whole person and thus enlighten the mind to see the needs of God’s world, as well as to discover more of God’s goodness in the creation. While the church is “to make disciples of all nations” and to “spread abroad the love of God,” it is joined with its colleges in the search for a more humane society, where all the signs of the Kingdom of God are apparent – love, justice, inclusiveness, and the celebration of the creative spirit in a free environment unhampered by fear of reason or new knowledge. From their beginnings, Methodist colleges included women and sought to provide value-laden opportunities for higher education to a broad range of social and economic groups. The church knows no restrictions on the love of God, and those that wish to love God with all their minds deserve the opportunity. Both the college and the church have a common enemy in ignorance and oppression, and they are partners in eradicating it.
In the American scene, there is another element that has become a point of partnership – freedom of expression. While our laws speak of free speech, both the church and college need each other in defense against those historic forces that would stifle the free pulpit and free inquiry. The mind, the gift of God, must not be restricted in either its search of the truth or the freedom to speak the truth in love. In times of domestic oppression, this partnership has been powerful in reclaiming the heart of constitutional government. It is true that both partners have abused this freedom at times, but the partnership has ensured both the free classroom and the free pulpit.
In the words of a former high Methodist leader in higher education, “The church expects its colleges to be the very best liberal arts college it can possible be. Anything less is to depreciate the God-given talents of its students and becomes a disgrace for the stewardship of the church.” This means that the college is expected to employ the highest quality staff, recruit students from a broad range of society, ensure excellence in teaching, encourage research and artistic development, as well as keep alive the needs of the world for humane leadership. Some would urge that in the selection of faculty, concern be shown for selecting those who will incarnate a sense of leadership in the life of the college and the larger community.
Another dimension of expectations implicit in our church-related heritage is that the college will create an atmosphere or environment that encourages and fosters religious life, not in a sectarian sense but in providing opportunities for persons of faith to grow and discover new dimensions of their tradition as they enjoy higher learning. This also could include the structure for encouraging value formation and the development of sensitivities of sources of injustice and encouragement to take responsible actions to correct them.
As active members of the United Methodist Church, church-designated trustees should be especially concerned about the soul of the college – its inner life, opportunities for spiritual growth (including worship), and an active tradition of service to others as well as fostering the Judaeo-Christian values that have so powerfully shaped the world. Those dimensions too often fall through the cracks and are easily viewed as luxury programs rather than the core and heart of the historic tradition and mission of the college.