Paul Nisly, professor emeritus of English at Messiah College, will soon release an historical essay — Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College — that traces the institution’s move from small, unaccredited bible school to thriving liberal arts college (picking up where Morris Sider’s 1984 text Messiah College: A History left off). Since much of Nisly’s narrative focuses on the changing relationship between the school and its founding denomination, readers of “the search for piety and obedience” will likely find much of interest in the new text.
Paul was kind enough to field some questions about his new book, which will hit shelves March 31.
Search for Piety and Obedience (SPO): Tell me about the title of your book, Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise. I know that phrase is the theme for the College’s Centennial Celebration — is that the reason you chose it?
Paul Nisly (PN): I chose the title both because it is the centennial theme and because it well embodies some of the important aspects of my own view of Messiah College. Of course, the subtitle is very important because it more precisely focuses the specific time- frame of the book: “The Maturing Years of Messiah College.”
SPO: Identity, I understand, is a “meta-theme” of your book. Briefly, what are some of the factors that you note as determining the College’s identity in the years you survey (approximately 1960 to present)?
PN: Changing identity is a complex, multifaceted issue. Several important factors for the evolving changes: the shifting of ownership of the college from the Brethren in Christ Denomination to a covenant relationship with the church in 1972; the tremendous growth of the college in the 1970s and 1980s; the declining percentages of Brethren in Christ students and faculty; the impact of the larger Christian evangelical movement.
More questions and answers, after the jump.
SPO: Morris Sider, in a recent lecture during Messiah College’s 2010 Humanities Symposium, suggested that in its early years Messiah College and its founding denomination were “virtually one in the same.” How would you describe that relationship in the years of the Church-College Covenant?
PN: Although some persons in the Brethren in Christ church still thought of Messiah as “their” college, there was probably a gradual loss of strong identity and more willingness to go elsewhere for undergraduate education. And as the alumni body continues to grow, fewer are from the Brethren in Christ, further affecting one’s sense of the shared identity of church and college.
SPO: Arthur Climenhaga — the president of Messiah College from 1960 to 1964, and an ordained minister of the Brethren in Christ Church — was committed to the theological distinctives of his church, but also believed that the denomination could benefit from greater identification with the American Evangelical mainstream. How do you think his sympathies with this broad, conservative Christian contingent impacted the College during his presidency?
PN: Dr. Climenhaga was an important leader in the denomination and the larger evangelical world. His leaving the presidency of the college to become the executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals probably impacted both the college and the denomination with a closer identification with American evangelicalism. The next president, Dr. D. Ray Hostetter, continued to cultivate relationships with a larger constituency.
SPO: On his blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Messiah College professor John Fea recently opined, “Some would prefer to see [Messiah College] as a Anabaptist college where social justice, pacifism, and the opposition to nationalism rule the day. Others refer to its Wesleyan or Pietist roots.” How did you see this dynamic playing out in the thoughts and reflections of those you interviewed for this book?
PN: The revised mission and identity statements which the college adopted several years ago focuses all three distinctives. Probably Anabaptism has the strongest attraction for many in living out the Gospel in the 21st century. The dialogue among the traditions will continue to be dynamic, not static. Our identity as a college continues to be shaped.
Dr. Nisly’s book Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College will be released March 31.