“Who controls Vanderbilt University?” “Who founded Vanderbilt–northern money or southern Methodists?”
A century ago fierce questions about the status of Vanderbilt inflamed debate across the South. And the way they were answered–decisively, painfully in 1914–has shaped the destiny of the university and its divinity school, as well as religion and education in the South, ever since.
It may come as news to recent Vanderbilt alumni that their university used to be a thoroughly Methodist institution, where Methodist bishops patrolled board meetings and piety was a faculty credential. That was Vanderbilt in its first decades, late in the 19th century.
By the early 20th century, however, competing visions of the university’s future were in open conflict.
From the start, the mandate was to make Vanderbilt a top-ranked university in the South and the nation. How to do it? The involvement of church denizens at Vanderbilt’s beginnings supplied decisive leadership, but it also introduced tensions that were impossible to resolve: intellectual freedom vs. religious tradition, national ambitions vs. local responsibilities.
After a stormy series of lawsuits ending in 1914, the Methodists washed their hands of the university and Vanderbilt embarked on a new course–nonsectarian, free to pursue excellence by its own lights. Even so, those old tensions between free speech and orthodoxy continue to play out in American culture. The history of the Vanderbilt-Methodist crisis offers a tale of the clash of well-intentioned ideals and unforeseen outcomes.
“Church leaders wanted the institution to be more integrated into the life of the church, and the institution thought it needed to be the best it could be–and that might mean hiring non-Methodists,” says Frank Gulley, PhD’61, emeritus professor of church history at the Divinity School and a Methodist scholar, who contributed an essay about the crisis in Vanderbilt Divinity School: Education, Contest and Change, a 2001 book edited by Dale A. Johnson, the Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Church History, emeritus.
“My sense is the break was inevitable,” adds Gulley.
No one saw conflict at first. Vanderbilt’s original leaders, Methodist bishops of the South after the Civil War, dreamed of a new university, inspired by church values, that would become a national institution and lead the South out of the disarray of defeat.
It was never a simple proposition. Such a vision of higher education cost money, and there wasn’t much in 1865. The war had dealt a severe blow to regional prosperity. The Methodists were the largest national Protestant group and dominant in the South through the Methodist Episcopal Church South (MECS). Nevertheless, most of their own Dixie-based schools had shut down after the war.
But the dream wouldn’t rest. By 1871 progressive Methodist leaders in Tennessee, including Bishop Holland McTyeire, declared they would raise money for a new first-class university, with a theological school attached. They were convinced the New South needed a university to keep up with a rising middle class, meet the challenges of an industrial economy, and prepare clergy for a coming milieu of modernism and urbanization.
Not all Methodists in the South agreed. Many, maybe most, were ambivalent about a new institution of higher education and a school for ministers. An old assumption remained deeply persuasive: God would call the ministers God needed. Preaching skills and Bible reading were inspired by the Spirit, not German models of education or the Ivy League example. Methodism had succeeded as a populist frontier faith by emphasizing right living and experiential religion. Higher learning leads to heresy, skepticism, elitism.
But progressives replied that an “ecclesiastical West Point” would forge a better grade of clergy, a forward-looking Southern cadre of ethical leaders. Graduates would fan out as Christian prophets to civilize the new gilded age of materialism.
And the progressives prevailed in 1875, the year Vanderbilt University opened, but only because northern money came through. New Yorker Cornelius Vanderbilt ultimately provided nearly $1 million after meeting visionary Bishop Holland McTyeire. The aging Commodore was no churchman, but he had been seeking a beneficiary for his riches and was impressed by McTyeire’s plan. Vanderbilt’s offer to fund establishment of the university was made March 17, 1873, and was accepted by the MECS leadership 11 days later. (See Gone With the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University, by Paul K. Conkin, for the full story.) Nashville, already a Methodist hub (the publishing house was there), was the chosen location.
The university was divided into five departments–academic (arts and sciences), education, law, medicine, theology–and straightaway made furious efforts to establish patterns of competency and build a reputation. Theology became the “Biblical Department,” a term perhaps devised as “a concession to fears among some in the church that this venture was going to develop theological sophisticates who could not communicate with the common people,” Gulley writes in Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Slowly, though, as administrators got more ambitious about building a faculty of distinction, hirings went against the ecclesiastical grain. Discontent was foreshadowed as early as 1878 in the case of geology professor Alexander Winchell. He was a strong scholar, a good Methodist–and an enthusiastic evolutionist. Some administrators suspected his notions might corrupt the ministers-in-training across campus. So Winchell’s contract was not renewed. It was dawning on Vanderbilt leaders that it might be difficult to protect students from fresh intellectual currents.
“The MECS had created a form of theological education it could not control,” writes church historian Glenn Miller in Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Church suspicions about Vanderbilt’s direction increased as qualified non-Methodists swelled the faculty ranks by the turn of the 20th century. A new arena of conflict then emerged–within the Board of Trust. Guided by Chancellor James Kirkland, the board was growing confident that it should be free from clergy influence to make decisions to improve Vanderbilt’s academic standing. The board’s view was that the Commodore, not the church, founded the university. At the same moment, dramatic growth in Methodism increased the expectation that more bishops would be named to the board. But Kirkland wanted more lawyers and businessmen on the board, not bishops, Gulley writes. In 1905, Kirkland proposed redefining the board to be autonomous from church power. Some Methodist leaders took this as an act of disloyalty and creeping secularism.
Through church publications and pulpits, a campaign stirred to take back Vanderbilt. Confrontation came in 1910, when church delegates approved a Methodist commission’s report that called for reclaiming the university. Kirkland and the board refused.
The Methodists sued in Nashville’s Davidson County Chancery Court, arguing Vanderbilt belonged to the church. And they won–until the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Davidson Court decision on March 21, 1914, ruling that bishops had no power over the school. Legally, anyway, the Commodore had founded Vanderbilt after all.
The Methodists wasted no time disowning the school and calling for the formation of two new church-based Southern universities. They would become Emory University in Atlanta and Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
One Divinity School professor looks back on the crisis with a sense of loss.
“There was hubris on both sides,” says Douglas Meeks, the Cal Turner Chancellor’s Professor of Wesleyan Studies and professor of theology.
“But I don’t think the split was inevitable. If a few progressives and moderates in the church had prevailed, it’s possible the relationship could have continued. It’s inevitable that there is tension, but it all depends on who the leaders are.”
Post-1914, the university was free to move forward (and freer to pursue grant money without sectarian restrictions). But the new freedom intensified a drama in one campus corner–the Biblical Department. It was now bereft of Methodist support or a steady supply of Methodist students.
The divorce of 1914 was felt most acutely there. Many universities had slowly drifted away from their denominational origins–Harvard from the Puritans, for instance. But the Methodist break with Vanderbilt appears to be unique in education annals, historian Glenn Miller suggests in Vanderbilt Divinity School. Its abruptness forced the Biblical Department to reinvent itself to survive. The department quickly was renamed the School of Religion and embarked on a new adventure in theological, interdenominational identity.
The timing was intriguing. The School of Religion reorganized during a period when a national ecumenical spirit was gaining ground, and Christian activists hoped to reform America to improve race relations, housing conditions and labor laws. Vanderbilt’s School of Religion would emerge as a voice of liberal Christian reform in the South, a moderating force in the midst of conservative religion, unrestricted by any sectarian doctrinal dictate.
To survive, though, it needed new relationships with church life, and the decades after 1914 witnessed various initiatives–with the YMCA, the Disciples of Christ denomination, rural churches and with Methodists. Though not a majority, once again Methodists eventually represented the largest single group of students at the religion school. (That statistic holds true today in the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the name for the School of Religion since 1956.)
By the 1990s prominent Nashvillian and Methodist businessman Cal Turner Jr., BA’62, issued substantial gifts to Vanderbilt. They made possible the chair in Wesleyan studies and the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions. Last year he gave $2.9 million more to the divinity school for Methodist student fellowships.
“If this program can have an impact on the clergy leadership of the church, that will have a multiplier effect on our society,” Turner announced last year. “These men and women who become effective ministers will have great impact on the lives of others, who will in turn have great impact on the lives of others, and so on for many years to come.”
A long, turbulent saga over a university’s future, and the role the church should play in it, was now the distant past.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
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