The Downfall of Bethany College

by Maurice Barnett

August 16, 2000

     In 1841, Alexander Campbell established Bethany College on his farm at Bethany, Virginia. It was established to give the young people an education uninfluenced by sectarians and worldly backgrounds. It began with the highest ideals and purposes. However, Its charter expressly stated that theology would never be taught there. Of the five schools in the college, there was no Bible School whatever. Many notable brethren, both famous and infamous, attended school there. In the graduating class of 1850 was J.W. McGarvey who graduated with honors. Bethany College still exists today but as a sectarian and denominational institution that would be despised by Campbell.

     Following the second world war, controversy among brethren centered on human institutions, one facet of which was church support of colleges. The battle over institutionalism continued heatedly for the next twenty-five years during which time another great division occurred between brethren. Editor G.H.P. Showalter wrote an Editorial on Bethany College for the August 5th, 1947 issue of the Firm Foundation. To answer the question of why the failure at Bethany College, Showalter said the following:

     "It was not the founding of Bethany College that brought on innovations and divisions in the church of Christ. During its earlier years it was a power in the world to give the young men a liberal education, a thorough mental and intellectual training under the tutelage of men who were deeply religious and who were careful and reverential students of the Bible. The pure and undefiled religion of the Lord Jesus Christ was exalted in the lives and hearts, and in the influence of the teachers in Bethany College. But to these early teachers the life and teaching of the Savior was concrete; it was the way of faith, of life, and conduct, and was not studied as an abstraction. Hence no ‘School of Divinity’, ‘School of Theology’, etc., not even a ‘Bible School.’ Campbell had no use for any of these abstractions including the term ‘Christianity’ in their popular use, and noted that so far from such being the idea of the great Founder of the church that not even once is the term ‘Christianity’ found in all the New Testament. And for my part I think that he was right. The study of religion as a science means little or nothing - I might say worse than nothing - but the application of it in our lives means everything worthwhile for the good of man and the glory of God. It was not because some of the churches later began to put the College in their ‘church budget’ (though in this they were wrong) that strife, alienation, separation and division came to reign where once there was peace, harmony and good will.

     ‘What then was the trouble with Bethany College? The trouble began when the teachers in the college began the teaching of things that were speculative and were without a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ Students came back from the college filled with new ideas and new things that they learned from their teachers; and that these same teachers had learned from ‘The great and learned men’ of the denominational world. When the Bible and religion began to be studied as a science these faculty members had to go to those who had written books on the ‘Science of Christianity’ and to the learned works on ‘Theology,’ for they did not find the Bible a book of ‘Science.’ Not at all. They had to go somewhere else. It has always been a very dangerous thing to go to the great and learned men who have written hundreds of massive volumes on ‘Theology.’ There is where Brother R. H. Boll made his great mistake. And there is exactly where the present ‘Christian Colleges’ will fail, if they do. The best men in the faculties of these colleges will tell you so at the present time. Try them. At present the teachers in these schools are, largely, I think, sound in the faith. May they ever be so. Bethany once was, but today she stands identified with Modernism and the most insidious types of infidelity. I am told there are some isolated cases already, where scholarship, rather than faith is made to govern in the selection of Bible School teachers. If so it is the beginning of a departure - the inglorious dawning of a bitter day for the cause of Christ. Remember that what the teacher is the student is sure to be."

     I suppose some would characterize brother Showalter as an alarmist, or a legalist, or a Pharisee because of his remarks, or even that he was being divisive. No, he was just warning.- don’t go down that path!

by Maurice Barnett

Back to the Top | Back Home