Is the secret of Seventh-day Adventist higher education’s relative success owed to its close ties to its parent church?
That question was posed by Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, at the end of an hour-long presentation on Saturday, February 9. Knott spoke at the Southwestern Chapter meeting of the Association of Adventist Forums, meeting in Wharton Auditorium on the campus of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas.
Following the theme, “Denominational Colleges: Some Cautionary Tales,” Knott compared the history of three similar colleges, each founded in the 1800s by similar denominations, and each college with the initials “A.U.”
Knott noted that most colleges and universities in the United States started off as religious institutions. Founded in 1636, Harvard University was established and known for the first two hundred years of its existence as primarily a training school for Congregationalist ministers. Knott noted that the route taken by the now-decidedly secular university was followed by many others.
Aurora University was founded in Illinois by the Advent Christian Church. Like Seventh-day Adventists, Advent Christians were an expression of the Millerite movement, according to Knott. In the mid-1800s, Advent Christians were better known than Seventh-day Adventists. Aurora University was founded in 1893 by Advent Christians to train teachers and Bible workers.
However, Aurora University suffered theological setbacks in the 1920s common to many other Christian schools at that time. Aurora was not viewed as conservative enough in comparison to some other schools, and gradually the pool of conservative Christian students available to Aurora began to dry up. In the 1930s, the school became accredited, and gradually became more of a liberal arts college. In 1971, the school officially severed all links to the Advent Christian Church.
Knott stated that the Advent Christian Church has not grown in members since the 1800s. Today there are about fifty thousand Advent Christians in the world, with 40 percent of them in the United States. No longer associated with the Advent Christian Church, and with no reference to religion, God, or Christianity in its mission statement, Aurora University is a liberal arts school of about two thousand students, with only a few Advent Christians attending as students.
Alfred University was founded in upstate New York by Seventh-day Baptists, first as an academy, then as a college. It has the distinction of being one of the first colleges in America to accept women, African-Americans, and Native Americans as students. Knott noted that Seventh-day Baptists had an early influence on Sabbatarian Adventists. There was so much cross-pollination in the 1800s, according to Knott, that the Review used to publish articles from Seventh-day Baptists.
At the founding of their college in 1836, the Seventh-day Baptist Church had six thousand members, compared to thirty-five hundred Seventh-day Adventists. But between 1882 and 1910, the Seventh-day Adventist Church went from one senior college to twenty.
By the 1920s, Alfred University was looking for other sources for students, as there were not enough Seventh-day Baptists to fill the school each year. Although it is still loosely affiliated with its church, today Alfred University is another private, liberal arts college.
According to Knott, Alfred Center, New York, still has some shops that close on Saturday in honor of the school’s founders. One Seventh-day Baptist still teaches on the faculty and one or two Seventh-day Baptist students still attend.
If one goes back to the founding of Battle Creek College in 1874, Andrews University is recognized as the oldest college in the Seventh-day Adventist school system. This and many other colleges grew out of the educational vision of the early pioneers and Ellen G. White in the 1870s. Despite constant friction between denominational leaders and the school administration, Andrews University has continually maintained a close connection with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In fact, today it is officially recognized as a General Conference institution.
“Despite the friction it has suffered over the past 135 years, it has weathered the decades much more intact than Alfred University or Aurora University,” said Knott. “It continues to serve and recruit Seventh-day Adventist students from its constituent base, and continues to search for and employ Seventh-day Adventists on its faculty.”
Knott presented a couple of theories for the differences in success of the three institutions. First, the success could be tied to a unique mix of theological ideas in the parent churches. Second, the close ties to their churches could have impacted the schools.
Knott chose the second theory as most viable, and pointed out that the mission statement for Andrews University clearly spelled out its Christian mission and the fact that it was a Seventh-day Adventist school. Knott added that Andrews’ mission statement was not unique in that regard, but that most other Adventist college and university mission statements say essentially the same thing.
Knott ended his presentation by asking: Is the secret of Adventist education’s relative success owed to its close ties to its parent church?
“Some suggest, ‘If we loosen our ties of affiliation we would still be promoting Christianity, but will be able to appeal to a broader student base,’” said Knott. “My response is that those who want to sever ties had best be prepared to deal with the dead. Every Adventist college grew to where it is today based on the sacrifice, passion, and prayers of its pioneers. What will you say to them?”
Glen Robinson is a professor in the Communication Department at Southwestern Adventist University, Keene, Texas.