Emory and Methodism across the Years

This week the United Methodist Church Southeastern Jurisdiction Historical Society will meet at Emory, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the long history between Emory and Methodism. Both the Pitts Theology Library and the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory are storehouses of archives and books that fill out the story. This post is the first of two; look for the second one tomorrow.

The relationship of Emory University to the United Methodist Church and to Methodism generally often surprises casual observers and visitors, even Emory students and faculty members. Emory’s Methodist heritage has no prominence on university websites or in official publications. The make-up of both the student body and the faculty has long demonstrated a mutually respectful mix of the world’s great religions as well as the greater secularization of Western society.

Yet the historic connection between Emory and Methodism is long, deep, and complicated. It is somewhat like that of a dear, benevolent aunt and a headstrong, independent niece who is embracing her maturity and setting her direction in life.

Once a powerful influence in the daily life of Emory College, the church has become a more distant presence while maintaining a proud interest in Emory; the university in turn has continued to acknowledge the church’s legacy while recognizing that any university worth its charter must adapt to changes in society and to increased knowledge.

Emory University has its roots in the founding of Emory College by the Georgia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in 1836. Half a century had passed since the formal organization of Methodism in the United States at a conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1784.

Methodism provided a solid foundation and rationale for a new college. John Wesley—an Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement in England—was above all things an educator of great energy and vision. He built schools, started publishing enterprises, wrote prolifically, and preached and taught tirelessly, all with the aim of transforming English society by the education of hearts as well as minds, or what he called “religion and reason joined.”

Wesley’s brother Charles, also a leader of the movement, phrased the aim somewhat differently as the union of “knowledge and vital piety, truth and love.” At Emory today, this heritage translates into “a legacy of heart and mind,” as Emory has long spoken of educating the whole person, body, mind, and spirit.

In the American context, the Methodist movement planted seeds of social uplift not only through the establishment of churches and Sunday schools but also in the founding of academies and colleges. The founders of the Methodist church in America had heard themselves addressed by a gospel promise that the truth would set them free, and in their minds freedom, education, and religious faith all relied on each other to some extent. They established dozens of academies and colleges throughout America in the nineteenth century; in Georgia alone, these included not only Emory College but also Wesleyan College, LaGrange College, Andrew College, Young Harris College, Paine College, and Reinhardt University.

Emory College’s namesake, Bishop John Emory, from Maryland, had played a role in founding Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and had chaired the board of trustees of Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, until his death in 1835. Set within a new town laid out specifically to house the new college—a town called Oxford to honor the university that had educated the Wesleys—Emory quickly became a center of intellectual and spiritual life among Methodists in the South.

From the beginning, the faculty, presidents, and trustees of the college demonstrated a conviction that faith and science were not at odds, and that education should embrace all of human experience. In their view, a traditional education heavy in Latin, Greek, and the Bible should expand to include modern languages and up-to-date understanding of the natural sciences.

Tragically, within a decade of the founding of the college, some of its leaders figured prominently in the division of national Methodism over the issue of slavery, which John Wesley had abhorred, and which the American movement initially had prohibited in its Book of Discipline. The details of this split are told in many chronicles of Emory history, but the gist of the matter is that leaders of the college, defending the institution of slavery, helped lead the Methodist churches of the South to secede from the MEC and create the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS). This rift would not be healed until 1939.

In the meantime, the Southern Methodist church came to view Emory College as the institution where its most talented clergy should serve as faculty members and presidents. Many of the faculty and nearly all of the twelve presidents of Emory College until 1915 were Methodist clergy, and four of those presidents were elected to serve as bishops.

The church also viewed Emory as the place where future leaders of society would mature, and Methodist alumni of Emory College in many respects justified this expectation. They included, before 1915, the most renowned Methodist missionary to China, a future government minister of Korea, a US Supreme Court justice, a future vice president of the United States, the founding president of Georgia Tech, many presidents of other colleges and universities, the founders of Paine College for freed African Americans, the first state superintendent of education in Georgia, and countless lawyers, doctors, clergy, and business leaders who returned to their home towns from Oxford to lead their communities.

The establishment of the university in 1915 changed the mission of Emory to a significant degree, but not the institution’s Methodist identity. The sole impetus for the founding of Emory University in Atlanta was the role of the church in education. The MECS had created Central University in Nashville shortly after the Civil War. A gift of a million dollars to the university from Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1873, led to the renaming of the institution in his honor. Over the next four decades, a growing dispute over policy decisions and the locus of authority led the church to part ways with Vanderbilt University and create a new university — Emory.

Next: Methodism in the life of Emory since 1915.

Gary Hauk

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