Telling the Messiah College Story

E. Morris Sider, professor emeritus of history and English literature at Messiah College, delivered a lecture last night on the historic connection between the College and its founding denomination.

Last night, as part of Messiah College’s annual Humanities Symposium, Dr. E. Morris Sider — perhaps the most prolific scholar of Brethren in Christ history — delivered a presentation on the historic link between the College and the denomination that founded it.

Dr. Sider peppered his lecture with stories from the College’s early years, referring to the skeleton donated to the College’s health department by Brethren in Christ bishop Benjamin Gish and describing how many young Brethren in Christ couples — including future Bishop E.J. Swalm and his wife, Maggie — traveled to Grantham on their honeymoon for the College’s annual bible conference.

Following the lecture, the audience engaged Dr. Sider in a question-and-answer session that — expectedly — led to queries about the present state of the college-church connection. A number of audience members (many of whom were College alumni, former or current faculty, and friends) participated in the ensuing discussion, which touched on the College’s recently implemented Core Course (which teaches incoming first-year students about the Anabaptist and Wesleyan components of the College heritage) as well as the Wittlinger Chapel Series (which provides lectures on traditional Brethren in Christ themes like reconciliation, peacemaking, and holiness).

But audience members also noted the low number of Brethren in Christ students currently enrolled at the College (anywhere between 2-4%, according to estimates), and lamented the fact that few Brethren in Christ pastors do their undergraduate work at the school.

All these observations beg the question: How do we characterize the present relationship between Messiah College and its founding denomination? And what does that mean for the way future historians tell the Messiah College story?

After the jump: Messiah College, evangelicalism, and the trouble with institutional history.

The lecture reminded me of a recent post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a blog by John Fea, associate professor of American history at the College. Fea, who specializes in early American history, linked to this blog’s recent post to make some observations about the link between American Evangelicalism and Messiah College:

Messiah College is celebrating its centennial this year and we are thus hearing a lot about the history of the college. Several denominational and church historians have written about the history of the college and its Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan roots. There is not a whole lot written, however, about the Brethren in Christ’s connection to twentieth-century American evangelicalism.

I have not been around enough to grasp the politics behind the way in which Messiah’s history has been told. Some would prefer to see it is a Anabaptist college where social justice, pacifism, and the opposition to nationalism rule the day. Others refer to its Wesleyan or Pietist roots. But this photo-op with Graham clearly reveals the evangelical side of the college, or at least the denomination that founded it.

Messiah College certainly has an evangelical past; that much is unmistakable. (Proof? It’s fifth president, Arthur Climenhaga, resigned his post to assume a high-ranking leadership role in the National Association of Evangelicals.) But to write its institutional history from that perspective not only ignores the other theological forces that shaped it, but denies the other dynamics at play today.

Regardless of how the future history of Messiah College is told, I concur with John that “institutional histories are probably our best example of the power of history to shape the present.”

About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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