WVSU On Demand
June 10, 2009
Baptist Colleges Grew From Community Aspirations, Says Creed
Samford Provost and Executive Vice President J. Bradley Creed traced the history of Baptist higher education in the pre-Civil War U.S. at the annual meeting of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities (IABCU) in early June. The gathering was held in Birmingham, with Samford as the host institution.
Historians with Samford ties--Creed and Wayne Flynt `61--made two of three presentations in the IABCU’s H.I. Hester Distinguished Lecture Series. The lectures, which also included Southern Illinois University history professor Pamela A. Smoot, celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement and focused on the role of Baptist higher education in U.S. history.
Creed told his IABCU audience that Baptist colleges founded prior to the U.S. Civil War were more for public educational purposes than denominational ones.
The period from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War was a “formative period” for Baptist colleges, with 20-25 founded in the first half of the 19th century, he noted. “Baptists were some of the most energetic promoters of higher education. They approached education with the same entrepreneurial spirit as canal building and cotton ginning.”
The oldest Baptist college in the U.S. was founded by Philadelphia Baptists in 1764. The college was originally located in Warren, R. I., but later was moved to Providence and is now known as Brown University. Baptists made up the majority of students at the time, but the charter called for inclusion of other religions, Creed said, because of the persecution that Baptists had faced both in Europe and in the new America.
Founding colleges was “America’s cottage industry” in the early years of the 19th century, Creed said. Most of the schools were local or regional and were dependent on local boosters for financial survival and for students.
“Every town in the nation wanted a college,” Creed explained. “Having a college meant that you had achieved respectability. Town Councils and citizens groups worked tirelessly to attract colleges.”
The schools trained teachers and provided students and faculty who could supply pulpits, although many Baptists were still leery of having over-educated ministers. Literary societies connected with the colleges enhanced the intellectual community, and land values often were higher around the colleges, Creed said.
Only three Baptist colleges founded during the period were the direct product of state or regional Baptist conventions – the University of Richmond in Virginia, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and Mercer University in Georgia. All have survived and thrived, Creed said. There was a short-lived effort to found a national Baptist college – Columbian University – in Washington, D.C. The effort was ill-fated, Creed noted, because Baptists did not yet have a strong denominational structure. Financial constraints forced Baptists to abandon support Columbian, although the college survives today as George Washington University.