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“A Century in the Making”: Reflections on Messiah College’s First 100 Years

The inaugural graduating class of Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home in 1910. The students stand outside the S.R. Smith Home in Harrisburg, Pa. -- the institution's original location. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

A month ago today, Messiah College graduated its centennial class — the Class of 2010 — during an outdoor Commencement ceremony presided over by blue skies and sunshine. Dr. Phil Thuma, a 1970 graduate of the College and the director of the Malaria Institute at Macha in Zambia, delivered the commencement address.

As one might expect of a Commencement address given during a school’s centennial year, Thuma’s speech began by drawing some droll distinctions between Messiah’s first and latter classes:

As we celebrate the college’s centenary, it has been interesting to think back and imagine what the college was like 100 years ago. [Recently], I was able to look through some of the original documents published by Messiah. In the bulletin of Sept. 1910, Volume 1, No. 1, I saw that tuition was set at $6 per term, with Room and Board at $3.50 per week. You could get a 25 cent discount on that weekly rate if you were willing to have two people in each room instead of one. More interestingly there was a statement that said “bed clothing must be submitted for fumigation upon arrival.” By the time I arrived for college in 1967 they had stopped doing the fumigation part, and the fees for both tuition and room and board had risen somewhat.

Despite its humorous intent, Thuma’s observation points to a significant shift in college identity in its first hundred years: its development from a tiny, rural bible college to a thriving, liberal arts institution.

Paul W. Nisly, in his book Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College, describes that shift quite succinctly:

From twelve students enrolled initially to almost three thousand currently, from living in quiet obscurity in a rural village to experiencing national attention, Messiah College has changed dramatically.

But what Nisly misses (and what Thuma, later in his commencement speech, kind of gets) is the way that Messiah College, despite its incredible growth and academic maturing, has stayed the same during its first century of existence.

Continuity in the first century of Messiah College’s existence, after the jump.

How has Messiah College stayed the same in its first 100 years? Consider this.

    Samuel Rogers Smith, the first president of Messiah College, was also a prominent minister in the Brethren in Christ Church.
  • Maintaining its allegiance (in word and deed) to the denomination that gave it life. Although a 1972 decision replaced the Brethren in Christ Church’s legal ownership of Messiah College with a church-college covenant that remains in place to this day, the school has striven to maintain its allegiance to the theological streams that informed its founding denomination. The college has created a number of programs and offices to remember, proclaim, and enshrine those faith traditions: The Sider Institute hosts regular lectures, conferences, and research contests on Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan topics; the Wittlinger Chapel Series introduces first-year students to historic Brethren in Christ commitments like peace, service, and holiness; and the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives — which are housed in the college library — preserves and shares documents, artifacts, and other materials related to the church’s history.
  • Maintaining the kind of “bold vision” that compelled its founders to launch Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home in the first place. Nisly spends a lot of time in his book documenting the bold vision of college administrators after 1960. Unfortunately, he fails to recognize that such ambitious foresight has always been a part of the college’s identity. What, beyond a spirit of innovation and a desire to “expand the borders” of the denomination, would have compelled members of the Brethren in Christ Church — long suspicious of educational pursuits beyond primary school — to launch an institute of higher education?
    Commencement speaker Phil Thuma in his work at Malaria Institute at Macha in Zambia.
  • Maintaining a commitment to preparing students for “lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation in church and society.” Although its current mission statement wasn’t written until the late 1990s, Messiah College — in its manifestations as a bible school, missionary training home, and liberal arts institution — has long striven to produce graduates with a desire to serve. In the beginning, such service was oriented primarily toward the church; for decades, the college produced pastors, missionaries, and evangelists for a host of Christian denominations and organizations (including the Brethren in Christ Church). As its educational scope has expanded over the years, Messiah has trained servant-leaders in a variety of fields — business, education, law, politics, medicine, etc. But through it all, as Phil Thuma noted in his Commencement address, the school has held an “unwavering commitment … to produc[ing] graduates that will change the world in one way or another.”

Readers: In what ways have you seen Messiah College sustain its theological and academic heritages over its first one hundred years?

To read Dr. Thuma’s Commencement address in its entirety, click here. To buy Paul Nisly’s centennial history of the college, click here.

5 responses to ““A Century in the Making”: Reflections on Messiah College’s First 100 Years

  1. I was very pleased with the mission & identity document created & approved in the late 1990s. The faculty (many of whom were not BIC) affirmed the inclusion of the historic roots of the college. Interestingly, at least one senior administrator who was BIC, opposed the inclusion of the 3 strands (Wesleyan, Pietism, Anabaptism) on the grounds that Messiah was not a sectarian school. At the time I remember thinking that this administrator did not understand the respect that the non BIC faculty had for the historic identity of the college. The sentence from the statement that I’m referencing follows: “The College is committed to an embracing evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church.”

  2. Thank you again Devon. I am particularly drawn to anything written, or discussed verbally, about the historical aspects of my beloved (adopted) BiC family and/or Messiah College.

  3. Well written, Devin! Interesting read for a non-BICer, but a Messiah grad and employee!

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