Even if you don’t have any personal connection with Grace College or Seminary, there are lots of topics that emerge in Becoming Grace that may pique your interest, especially if you’re interested in American religious history or the trajectory of Christian colleges and universities. Here are a few prominent themes and tensions in the book. They flow from the wonderful contributions of my colleagues, Mark Norris, Christy Hill, Juan Carlos Téllez, Jim Swanson, Terry White, Robert Clause, Kim Reiff, Paulette Sauders, Tiberius Rata, and Frank Benyousky. I also include some of my favorite images from the book. (These come courtesy of the Grace Archives and Kim Reiff.)
An eclectic heritage. Christian colleges and universities, it seems, are forever looking for the best ways to balance their religious heritage with the challenges and opportunities of forward movement. Although Grace College and Seminary is associated with a particular group of churches (The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches), there have been a variety of streams and traditions that have come together in its past. The Brethren movement, which has German ethnic roots, combines both Pietism and Anabaptism. It is American evangelicalism, however, that increasingly serves as the unifying cultural context at Grace. Historically, the seminary has been a strong proponent of Premillennial Dispensationalism, but other influences exist as well and this identity is much less pronounced than has been in the past. So what is a college to do with such an eclectic heritage?
The reality of divisions. Examining divisions and disagreements in our history may seem to some like we’re “airing our dirty laundry,” but we wanted to offer an honest look at Grace hoping that we could put together a book that was academically sound and celebratory at the same time. In reality, the divisions and factionalism that will eventually visit every college or university, shape historical identity and self-understanding in powerful ways. So that cannot be ignored. Grace began in 1937 as a result of a split that took place at Ashland Seminary in Ohio. In more recent years (1989-1990), the seminary experienced another round of dissent that had devastating effects. Battles and disagreements always add drama to the story and the history of Grace is no exception. Its difficult to know how to handle these events in a study such as this, when constituents have wanted to protect a certain understanding of the past. But we’ll let readers decide how well we’ve done.
A search for spiritual authenticity. With its roots in Pietism, one might say that a desire for spiritual authenticity is part of the DNA of Grace College and Seminary. Yet, it has not always been clear about what spirituality ought to look like or how it is achieved within an educational setting. With a strong fundamentalist element, Grace, like many other evangelical schools, had a long list of behavioral expectations for students and faculty and sought to regulate behavior as a means of encouraging a Christian lifestyle. Through the decades, this path has given way to more positive approaches that have gone hand-in-hand with the professionalization of the student affairs discipline across the country. The search for authentic spirituality also led to a strong emphasis on Christian counseling and evangelical celebrity Larry Crabb taught at Grace in the 1980s. Yet this area proved to be filled with tensions and Crabb’s program at Grace was short-lived. It is important, however, because it highlights a broader division among Evangelicals about the role of psychology within pastoral functions. With Crabb on the faculty, Grace was at the center of these debates.
Cold War Evangelicalism. Though Grace is no longer homogeneously conservative when it comes to politics, the 1960s through the 1980s were years that were characterized by a convergence of various facets of religious and cultural conservatism. History classes routinely promoted Cold War doctrines, eschatological understandings helped to explain “godless Russia,” fundamentalists such as John C. Whitcomb promoted flood geology and second degree separation, and others promoted patriotism in response to war protesters on other campuses. As we dug into our history, we realized there were lots of interesting (if sometimes disconcerting) avenues to explore here and these themes offer what we hope is a fascinating look into Grace’s journey into, and then out of, American fundamentalism.
A yearning for engagement. In its earliest days, Grace looked to engage the world and community through foreign missions and local Christian outreach. One reason mission was an early focus was because the Brethren Church’s missionary society aligned itself with the new Grace Seminary when it separated from Ashland. Yet beyond this, the college has seen the growth of a more fully integrated global impulse that has permeated programs across campus. In addition to this, under Grace’s fifth president, Ron Manahan, Grace came to embrace the value of community engagement, educational partnerships, and progressive innovation — all of which current president, Bill Katip, continues.
These themes and tensions are not unique to Grace. They can be found in the history of many Christian colleges and universities across the American “landscape,” though each would reflect their own unique identity and circumstances. If this summary of some of the main issues that emerge in Becoming Grace catches your interest, copies are available online here and here.