Monday, March 1, 2010

Founders Day at WJC

In 1821, Missouri became the twenty-fourth state in the United States, and twenty years later the University of Missouri opened as the first state university west of the Mississippi River. In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, the Missouri towns of St. Louis, Independence, Westport, and St. Joseph became points of departure for emigrants bound for California, making Missouri the “Gateway to the West.” (The town of Kansas, which later became Kansas City, was not incorporated until the following year.) 

On February 27, 1849, the Missouri legislature granted a charter which created the first four-year men’s college west of the Mississippi. The college was begun with a significant financial contribution by Dr. William Jewell, a Columbia (Mo.) physician, legislator, and Baptist layman. Consequently, the new school named William Jewell College and located in Liberty (Mo.), at the edge of the American wilderness. 

Rev. Robert James, a nearby Baptist minister, was one of the members of the first Board of Trustees. According to the WJC website, his sons, Frank and Jesse, eventually made good on their father’s financial pledge to the college when Rev. James left the area to follow church members to the California Gold Rush. (Robert James died in California in 1850 when Frank was seven years old and before Jesse turned three.) 
Last week Dr. David Sallee, the current president William Jewell College, spoke at the first Founders Day chapel service, and it was a fine talk. He reminded the college community that “what we do now and must always do, is provide an experience that reminds us daily that our inspiration is grounded in the Christian faith of our beginning.” He also declared that the college “cannot allow its students to be intellectually lazy because of their religious beliefs.”
Dr. Sallee also emphasized that education “is supposed to open our minds, to make mirrors into windows (Sydney J. Harris), to help us see the possibilities, all influenced by one’s spirit. It is about integrating the intellectual and the spiritual to inform and guide our lives.” 
After the chapel address, those in attendance sang “God of Truth and Joy,” a hymn written by Dr. J. Gordon Kingsley, president of the college from 1980-1993. The words of the first verse are:

God of truth and joy,
Teach us how to learn.
Grant us strength of mind and will,
Thy glory to affirm.
Let us servants be,
To lead Thy world aright.
Guide us through our onward years,
Thy will our inner light.
At the close of the service, I felt a sense of pride that 110 years after its founding, I graduated from William Jewell College. And I am happy to be living now in Liberty where I can have constant contact with WJC and its intellectual and spiritual vitality.
Picture with Dr. Sallee last fall after I received the 50-year medallion from William Jewell College.


  1. I, too, was at the Founder's Day celebration at Jewell (I teach there). We had not celebrated this day in a while, but such celebrations are important to me as I think the values we solemnize are the ones that we truly take seriously (however we solemnize them!). Still, I find provocative the idea that the essence of institutional values might be localized in the college's story of origins. As much as I love the stories of Dr. Jewell and Colonel Alexander Doniphan and their fierce commitments to start a college for the education of preachers, that is not what Jewell is today. The openness of those founders to the implications of Arminianism (one could reject God's predestinating influence, thus making one's own choice about Christian salvation...) contributed to the idea of the validity of Christian missions. That kind of openness to freedom was doctrinally daring for its day.

    Obviously, these are not the precise issues faced by a liberal arts college in the 21st century. The issues, in addition to mere survival, reach beyond the concerns of the localized and religious concerns of the Baptists that founded the college. Still, one must ask what is today's analogue to the Christian faith of those founders. For some it may be such freedom of faith; for others it may require different kinds of freedoms, perhaps even freedoms to look beyond, even abandon where necessary, the constrictions of any kind of religious faith, including Christian religious faith.

    I was watching a presentation about Stephen Hawking the other night, one in which there is offered a description of his discoveries of the significance of black holes for the origins of all that exists. The narrator quoted Hawking as being in search of the "mind of God" (a phrase I first encountered in his book "Brief History of Time," I think). But, given what Hawking has discovered about black holes--the notion of a singularity, their absorption of negative sub-atomic energy, their compression and gradual resulting degeneration, until they explode--the narrator also asked whether humanity still needs a concept of God at all to explain origins. I know there was a day at Jewell when that question would have been too extreme, too risky. Yet, we have to be able to ask this question seriously if we truly want to understand questions like ultimate origins, it seems to me. And that despite the college's own origins in Christian faith albeit at a very different time in history. For that question may lead to truth of a very essential sort.

  2. Dr. Glenn Hinson, Senior Professor of Church History and Spirituality at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, wrote in an e-mail, and I post this with his permission:

    "Thanks for that word on William Jewell, Leroy. From many years of teaching WJC grads, I know that it turned out some excellent, well-prepared students with thoughtful Christian perspectives. I was proud to see my daughter go there. She is now Associate Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University and owes much to her alma mater."