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Adele S. Bonney


Cornell College was born in the church. Methodist Elder George Bowman is said to have exclaimed when he saw Mount Vernon, “Here is the placefor a Christian college!” Although no historical record identifies those as Bowman’s exact words, the research of William Heywood, emeritus professor of history, indicates “there can be no question that the school began as an enterprise of Methodists.”

In the 19th-century westward settlement, Methodists established numerous academies in frontier communities, and Cornell’s founder, after opening his institution in 1853, allied it with the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. But the scholarly history of Cornell that Heywood is writing also identifies secular motives—such as a spirit of town boosterism and the desire of non-Methodists for a school for their children—as well as a carefully crafted independence built into the relationship from the earliest years.

Though legal ownership of the campus, for example, remained with the college’s board of trustees, the Iowa Conference never required that board members be ministers, or even Methodists, and the articles of incorporation ensured that in any disagreement between the board and the conference, the trustees’ vote would carry the most weight. To this day six of the 39 board members represent the Methodist Church.

Secular events influenced the church-college relationship as well. In the early 1900s President William Fletcher King considered it vital that Cornell be eligible for the recently established faculty pension program of Andrew Carnegie’s foundation (a program that today provides retirement income for the majority of college professors). Eligibility, however, was based on strict standards eliminating schools “owned or controlled by a religious organization.” Cornell board members responded by abolishing the practice of the Iowa Conference electing the trustees and by spelling out prohibitions against denominational tests in hiring and denominational indoctrination of students.

The concern behind those prohibitions was reflected in other decisions, with required Sunday worship eliminated in 1863 and required religion courses dropped from the curriculum in 1891. The requirement of daily chapel attendance continued until the middle of the 20th century but by that time not all programs were religious in nature.

Some consider these historical developments, which are not unique to Cornell, to have diminished the church-related college. Others see the changes as consistent with Methodist theology and beliefs. For example, Heywood and other scholars cite the Methodists’ unique motivation for establishing colleges, different from other denominations that exert more direct control over their institutions. Because of the church’s emphasis on a divine call to ordination, Methodists did not found their colleges to train clergy or promote church doctrine, according to Heywood, so much as to “produce a generally educated citizenry and contribute to community growth and commercial enterprise.” David Weddle, Cornell professor of religion, notes in his writings that far fewer early graduates of Methodist colleges entered the ministry than took up careers in law or medicine.

Weddle also speaks to the theological basis of Methodist higher education, as rooted in the doctrine of creation. In a 1985 article titled “Christians in Liberal Education” (Religious Education, vol. 50, no. 1), he explained, “The goodness of creation lies, in part at least, in its intelligibility. For the faithful mind every increase in understanding is an intrinsic good.”

“To know is to celebrate!” sums up Methodist belief about the intellectual life for the Rev. Dick Thomas, retired Cornell College chaplain and emeritus professor of history. “Within Methodism, there is this affirmation of inquiry,” he says, “because it is the task of the Christian to know as much of the world as possible in order to understand the workings of God in it.”

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