Nisly, Paul W. Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College. Grantham, Pa.: Messiah College, 2010. Pp. 243. $14.95.
Paul W. Nisly’s book Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College opens with a compelling image: then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—two iconic figures of 21st century American popular culture—standing side-by-side before a crowd of hundreds during the nationally televised, CNN-broadcast Compassion Forum—a summit held in 2008 on the tiny, rural campus of Messiah College. Nisly then juxtaposes that spectacle with an image of Messiah College’s founders: men and women of the Brethren in Christ Church, a “small denomination with visibly separatistic leanings” (p. 1) that launched a modest bible school and missionary training home in 1909.
The author uses the bald contrast between these two images to introduce one of the primary themes of the book: change. “From twelve students enrolled initially to almost three thousand currently, from living in quiet obscurity in a rural village to experiencing national attention, Messiah College has changed dramatically” (p. 1), Nisly observes. And yet, he asks, are there not elements of the College’s identity that have stayed the same over the ensuing century?
After the jump: Nisly examines Messiah College’s identity over its last forty years of existence.
The interplay between these two themes—change and continuity—provide the momentum for Nisly’s study, which he describes as “not strictly a history, but a reflective essay, an historical essay which attempts to incorporate many voices and varied perspectives” (p. xiii). To achieve this end, Nisly draws on more than 80 oral interviews and several primary source documents, giving his work a rich, deeply researched feel (even if the lack of foot/endnotes does limit the text’s helpfulness to future researchers).
Published on the occasion of Messiah College’s centenary, and picking up where E. Morris Sider’s earlier Messiah College: A History (1984) left off, Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise chronicles the school’s development from the 1970s to the present. Moving chronologically, the book describes the college during an era of physical growth, academic professionalization, and ecumenical diversification overseen by President D. Ray Hostetter (1964-1994), the institution’s most longevous leader; it documents a decade of consolidation, reconfiguration, and formal re-identification inaugurated by President Rodney J. Sawatsky (1994-2004); and it catalogues the school’s most recent years, presided over by current President Kim S. Phipps (2004-). Entire chapters of the book also detail the school’s extensive co-curricular programs, championship-winning athletic teams, and recent forays into the national spotlight.
Like most institutional histories, Nisly’s book focuses on the question of identity: “Who are we—religiously, academically, corporately? To what extent do we have a unified vision, a shared mission?” (p. xiv). To answer these—and other—queries, Nisly looks specifically at three thematic areas: (1) the school’s changing relationship with its founding denomination; (2) the ambitious foresight of the school’s administrators, faculty, and staff in building the institution from a rural bible school to a nationally recognized four-year, liberal arts college; and (3) the school’s future potential.
In assessing the college’s religious identity, Nisly declines to simply declare (as the college’s mission statement suggests) that Messiah is singularly rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist, or Wesleyan holiness traditions of its founders. Instead, he notes the school’s commitment to an “embracing evangelicalism” (p. 109, 114) and points out how Reformed theology has informed the school’s perspective on a number of issues, including the integration of faith and learning (p. 64-65). Yet the author also catalogues the programs and offices the college has created to remember, proclaim, and enshrine the faith traditions that shaped its founders: The Sider Institute, which hosts lectures, conferences, and research contests on Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan topics (p. 173-176); the Wittlinger Chapels, which introduce first-year students to historic Brethren in Christ commitments like peace, service, and holiness (p. 174); and the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, which are housed in the college library (p. 175-176). In doing so, he demonstrates the dynamic give-and-take between change and continuity that continues to characterize the school’s religious moorings.
Nisly’s record of the college’s unprecedented growth from the 1960s to the 1990s shrewdly balances awe with even-handed critique. He marvels, for instance, at the school’s broadening of its curricular base—a feat achieved, in part, by the establishment of an urban satellite campus in Philadelphia and through an affiliation with Daystar University, a four-year institution in Nairobi, Kenya—while also pointing to the continuing struggles in recruitment presently suffered by both programs (p. 216-217). In documenting the failure of Grantham Woods, an ambitiously planned but ultimately doomed retirement community that “consumed much administrative time and energy, as well as significant college finances” (p. 94), Nisly also shows the potential pitfalls of “bold vision.”
Unfortunately, the author fails to demonstrate how ambitious foresight has always been a part of the college’s identity: while he rightfully describes the obvious physical ways in which college administrators “enlarged the borders” of the school in latter half of its first century, Nisly neglects to connect their innovations with the spirit of innovation that initially motivated the Brethren in Christ Church, long suspicious of educational pursuits beyond primary school, to launch an institution of higher education. Thus, he misses out on an opportunity to showcase the school’s continuity over the century.
In his conclusion, Nisly attempts to assess the college’s current state of affairs by noting the successes (p. 214-216) experienced in recent years, while simultaneously acknowledging the ongoing challenges to development (p. 216-226). He also devotes much time to evaluating the legacy of Messiah College. A particularly moving portion of this final section includes Nisly’s own personal assessment of important “leaders” in college history: administrators, trustees, and alumni who have “left their mark” on the school in its last forty years of existence. This “hall of heroes” makes welcome additions to the gallery of college legacy-makers, eschewing focus on more familiar figures to highlight some lesser known (but no less essential) players.
But Nisly’s text is not without its problems. Primarily, these are editorial. Some photographs appear a page or more after the discussion of the topic they illustrate. A number of typographical and punctuational errors mar an otherwise well-written and well-edited text. Additionally, the author’s third-person references to himself as a player in the college’s history (p. 72-73, 79, 206) seem stilted and out of place in a study that includes a whole chapter titled “Personal Reflections.”
Though written primarily for a popular audience, Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College nevertheless holds value for a wide spectrum of readers. Friends of the college—alumni, administrators, faculty, staff, and others—will appreciate the opportunity afforded by the book to reflect upon the institution’s evolution and future prospects. Readers with an appetite for “institutional biography” will appreciate the judicious, balanced perspective Nisly brings to his study—a rare approach for someone so close to his subject. And scholars, especially those with a vested interest in faith-based higher education, will find value in the text’s description of how one Christian college wrestled with change and continuity—religiously, academically, and otherwise—over time.
Note: A version of this book review is forthcoming in Mennonite Quarterly Review.