Reflections on “Historic Religious Roots” Symposium

Messiah College signIn an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent the weekend of April 11-12 participating in the “Historic Religious Roots and the Future of Higher Education” symposium at Cedarville University.

Overall, I had a good day with about 15 scholars from a variety of church-related colleges and universities, sharing and telling stories about our unique institutions.

My presentation on Messiah College’s history went well. In my talk, I focused on the school’s roots in the Brethren in Christ Church, especially the fact that early administrators and faculty were also church leaders (in many cases missionaries, ministers, or bishops) and that the church’s particular culture (of simplicity, plain dress, and spiritual perfectionism) decisively shaped campus life. I described the college-church covenant of the 1970s that ceded ownership of the college away from the sponsoring denomination; I also described the resulting shift of the college away from its Brethren in Christ roots toward a more generic Evangelicalism. Finally, I detailed the college’s recent “recovery” of its roots in its latest mission and identity statement.

There were some similarities between my presentation and the other presenters’ papers. For instance, many of us talked about Evangelicalism and contrasted it against the historic religious traditions in which our institutions were shaped. Many of us used phrases like “generic Evangelicalism” or “mainstream Evangelicalism” to distinguish the movement from our schools’ founding traditions. By the end of the day, many of us were wondering if there is such a thing as “generic” Evangelicalism — what exactly were we referring to when we used this phrase?

Several of us also highlighted the role of changing constituencies (student body, trustees, etc.) in contributing to religious change at our schools.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Messiah was the only school represented that moved away from its founding denomination only to move back — intentionally — to its religious roots. That reality prompted some great questions from my fellow presenters, and some good discussion around the table.

I’m hoping to adapt my presentation into a publication-worthy paper at some point. I’m anxious to do some more research into Messiah’s recent history and to consider a variety of other influences on its religious identity, including its philosophy of education, its demographics, and its relationship with the Brethren in Christ denomination. You’ll likely see more of this research here on the blog, to stay tuned!

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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5 Responses to Reflections on “Historic Religious Roots” Symposium

  1. johnfea says:

    Interesting stuff, Devin. I would be curious to hear about how Cedarville (Tom Mach?) presented its history in light of recent changes at the school that I have blogged about. Also, I am interested in hearing you elaborate on the way that Messiah moved away from and then came back. I think I know what you mean, but I would love to see a post in which you elaborate on this.

  2. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    Thanks for the comment, John. I hope I’m not misrepresenting it, but I recall Tom’s presentation on Cedarville advancing a sort of “usable past” narrative to explain his institution’s recent changes–kind of, “We started out fundamentalist and that’s who we are today.” Again, I hope I’m not misrepresenting.

    As for Messiah’s “moving away and then coming back,” I’ve got one or two follow-up posts in the work, so stay tuned!

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