Bethany College (Duane Cummins) -- A Review

BETHANY COLLEGE: A Liberal Arts Odyssey.  By D. Duane Cummins.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2014.  Xiv + 418 pages.

            We live in an age when the job market demands advanced vocationally focused education.  At the same time, higher education has become increasingly expensive.  The nation’s student debt has climbed over the one trillion dollar mark.  In this market, which long has been dominated by public universities, with for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix increasing its market share, traditional liberal arts colleges are struggling to remain relevant. 

Once upon a time American higher education was very different.  Until late in the nineteenth century, private and church-related liberal arts college dominated.  The focus was placed not on making a living but becoming a well-rounded citizen.  In today’s market one might ask whether it is “worth the money” to devote four years and thousands of dollars to such an endeavor.  On the other hand, is the current state of things, where children are drilled in math and reading, but have little understanding of history, philosophy, literature and the arts, a good thing?   Although their market share continues to shrink, traditional liberal arts colleges still exist and continue to make a significant contribution to the good of society.  One of those entities is Bethany College, the oldest institution of higher education in the state of West Virginia (it will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2015).

            Bethany College:  A Liberal Arts Odyssey, authored by Duane Cummins, tells the story of a small, church-related college in the context of the evolution of American education as well as the nation’s religious and cultural history.  Cummins is a historian, a leader within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the former president of Bethany College.  That fact needs to be taken into consideration, because this is an insider’s view of the college’s history.  In fact, one lengthy chapter focuses on the era in which Cummins was the college’s president. 

While Cummins wants to tell the story of the college, this is not merely a book written for alumni.  It is, in many ways, a clarion call to the nation to recognize the importance and value of a liberal arts education.   This story of the importance of a liberal arts education is woven together with an institutional history – that of Bethany College – and a denominational history (that of the Disciples of Christ).  As was true of most early American colleges, at least until the launching of land grant universities, the majority of colleges and universities were church-related, clergy led, and like Bethany situated far from the distractions of urban centers.  As time has passed even most church-related schools have moved away from clergy leadership, and have often found that their isolated locations can be a hindrance.  And few are as isolated as Bethany.

             Bethany College was born in 1840, under the leadership of Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of what has come to be known as the Stone-Campbell Movement, a movement that gave birth to my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   He established the college on land he owned in the panhandle of Virginia (now West Virginia).  Campbell was a religious reformer with an entrepreneurial spirit, but he was also the child of the Enlightenment who believed in the power and necessity of education – not just to prepare men for ministry, but to prepare moral citizens.  He was an early advocate of educational reform, including compulsory public education at least a decade before Thomas Mann succeeded in instituting such a system in Massachusetts.  Unfortunately the powers that be in Virginia didn’t see the value of an educated citizenry, and so they passed on the idea.     

Bethany College wasn’t Campbell’s first educational effort.  Together his father, another religious and educational reformer, he had started several entities, but Bethany was to be his most successful effort.  He established the school out of a belief that citizens and Christians need to have good well-rounded educations. In an age when most institutions were church-related, what made his somewhat unique was his decision to try to go beyond the classical education (Greek and Latin language and literature) to bring in the sciences, as well as Scripture.  Although Campbell had great influence on the movement that he helped establish, he faced a great deal of competition when it came to attracting students and financial support for his school.  Besides all the other denominational schools that dotted the landscape, the independent spirit that dominated the Stone-Campbell Movement had led to the establishment of a myriad of other schools, most of which rose and fell quickly.  Only a few of the schools established before the Civil War would endure to this day.  But this competition contributed to the college’s often roller-coaster existence down the years.  It has faced many other challenges as well – including its isolated location, competition from public universities that are larger and better financed – and thus able to offer education at a less expensive tab.  It has sought to balance its commitment to liberal arts and sciences with the recognition that vocational education is necessary.

In reading the story of this school, what has changed the most, is the role of religion in the life of the school.  While Bethany was not founded with educating clergy for the church as its primary purpose – this due in large part to Campbell’s anti-clerical views – Campbell did believe that Christians, especially those in leadership of the church, needed to have a solid education in the arts, sciences, and the Bible.  In fact, he was the primary teacher of Scripture during his long tenure as president.  He taught the capstone course that all students would take to graduate.   As a result, many of the key leaders of the denomination from conservative stalwart J.W. McGarvey to liberal scholar Herbert Willett passed through this school.  Whereas in the early days the majority of students would have been Disciples, today the Disciple presence is relatively small.  In fact, it is dwarfed by that of Roman Catholics.  As Cummins notes, today the school assumes the position that religion is a private matter.  Chaplains and chapel are provided to students, but mandatory chapel was abolished in the 1960s. What is true of Bethany is true of most church-related schools.  There is a connection to the denomination, but it is more a legacy of its founding than the driving force of its purpose. 

If religion no longer plays a leading role in Bethany’s life as a college, the commitment to liberal arts remains as strong as ever.  With that in mind, Cummins takes on an interpretive journey through the history of the school, sharing its ups and its downs.   We learn about curriculum choices and extra-curricular offerings.  In the early days it was literary societies, but in time those efforts gave way to fraternities and sororities.  Women were first admitted as students at Bethany until 1877, more than a decade after Campbell’s death.  Campbell supported women’s education, and Disciples leaders established several women’s colleges, but co-educational efforts largely began after the Civil War. 

As I noted at the beginning, this book has several audiences.  It will appeal to Bethany College alums as they prepare for the college's Sesquicentennial in 2015. It will be of interest to persons seeking to understand the role of the liberal arts college in American education. It will also be of interest to persons affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), for the history of Bethany is woven tightly with that of the denomination.  Not only did Campbell serve as its founder, but the direction the school took is influenced by its relationship to the denomination.  Thus, we see at the beginning of the twentieth century the school being dominated by a relatively conservative faction within the movement, one that rejected higher criticism of the Bible and evolution as a scientific theory.  But that vision didn’t last.  Over time a more progressive theological vision took root, though Cummins doesn’t delve into this transition as deeply as he could have.  Still, to read this book is to gain a better understanding of the movement established by the same person who established the college. 

Although I'm not an alumnus and have never visited Bethany, I do have an interest in this story.  Part of it is denominational (I am a Disciples pastor and a historian), but it is also educational, because I do believe that a liberal arts education is good preparation for a productive vocational life.  I'm of the opinion that the move away from liberal arts to professional arts is one of the reasons why our nation is so divided -- we don't know our history and culture.  There is another link to the story – for me -- one of the college’s presidents, perhaps its most successful president -- was the second pastor of the church I now serve as pastor.  That person would be Perry Gresham, who moved from Central Woodward Christian Church of Detroit to Bethany in the early 1950s and served the school as president until his retirement in 1972.   
This is a good book that will appeal to a number of audiences.  The author certainly understands the history of the school and of the development of higher education in the United States.  For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile read.  From my vantage point I'd like to know more about how the role of religion in this and similar schools evolved over time.  It was certainly at the center in the first century of the school’s existence, but it moved to the sidelines as the twentieth century moved forward.  I’m left wondering whether this a pragmatic move or was there a theological reason behind this transition? 

One of the values in a book like this is that it is written by a participant in the story.  Therefore, it’s a personal story.  Cummins is invested in the history of this institution.  For the most part he tells the story – warts and all.  With this in the background, I found myself uncomfortable with the author’s use of the third person to describe his own place in the story.  It might just be me, but I think the story would be better served if he had switched to the first person in describing his own era, especially since it is a rather lengthy chapter and it is a critical part of the story.

With that one caveat, as an interested reviewer, I found the book to be an excellent read.  I found it informative and thoughtful.  I especially enjoyed the many pictures that help tell the story interspersed throughout the book.  So whether you are interested in Bethany College as institution, higher education as component of American life, or the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the role education has played in this movement, then you might find this book to be of interest. 


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