A New Institutional Saga for Anderson University

David Thomas Murphy

The word “saga” comes to us from the medieval literature of Scandinavia, and it is typically used to describe a long, involved tale of heroism, struggle and adventure. At first glance, the present collection of essays about the history of Anderson University may contain little that most of us would characterize as “adventure.” On closer reflection, however, the use of the term “saga” for the institutional narrative that emerges from these contributions, taken as a whole, is not inappropriate. The story they tell is complex. It comprehends a considerable stretch of time, with roots now reaching back well over a century. It has involved both risk and struggle that sometimes evoked passionate conflict—of a non-violent nature—originating in differing visions of what Anderson University ought to be. It includes occasional flashes of genuine moral heroism, as when, for example, Ravens of all racial backgrounds came together in the struggle to create a more inclusive institution that would authentically embody the founding movement’s finest principles. And it may fairly be said to constitute a kind of adventure, an intellectual and spiritual quest to overcome obstacles and create a specific kind of Christian institution of higher education.

The saga of AU, however, differs in this very important respect from the original Scandinavian sagas: it is not yet concluded. Hence, the purpose of this collection of historical essays and reflections. Rather than a definitive history of a finished story, this saga is perhaps more a “taking stock,” a pause to assess where we are, consider how it is that we arrived here, and reflect upon how our ideas about our shared past can prepare us as a community for our future. It is important to acknowledge that this is not the first effort to evaluate Anderson University from the perspective of historical narrative. Far from it: past decades have seen several histories of AU (all of which feature in the following essays), in addition to numerous memoirs composed by key actors in the institution’s history. As a body, these works comprise a rich source of historical insight about AU. It is less than a decade, after all, since the publication of the most recent and authoritative of these efforts, Merle Strege’s judicious and eloquent centennial history of our institution, The Desk as Altar. Given the existence of these earlier, historically sophisticated and eminently reliable narratives, students (and other AU constituencies, naturally) may reasonably wonder: why a new saga, and why now?

The answer, like the story of Anderson University itself, is complex. In part, these essays are about responding to current changes in American higher education by reconsidering Anderson University’s mission as an institution of higher learning. As the grant application that funded this project noted, “This is a pivotal time for AU . . . The geographic and demographic context is rapidly changing about us” (Willowby 2021, 1). The accuracy, and urgent implications, of this observation can hardly be overstated. Like American institutions of higher learning in general, Anderson University is caught up in a moment of far-reaching cultural and economic transformation. More than at any time since the Second World War, perhaps, the current decade looks likely to present American higher education with transformative and existential challenges, which will be met successfully only by institutions with a clear sense of their past and of their mission. A new institutional saga—described as a “collective understanding of unique accomplishment in a formally established group”—can be a powerful tool in guiding our community’s response to the transformative pressures of the present (quote comes from the work of organizational theorist Burton R. Clark, cited in Willowby 2021, 3).

Other considerations also helped to motivate the creation of this new and intentionally different re-telling of the AU saga. Every generation, it has been said, writes its own history. The cliche must not be taken to mean that new histories render previous versions superfluous. Far from it. History, perhaps more than any other discipline in the humanities, proceeds by consciously building upon the accomplishments of past practitioners. But the old saying reflects at least the truth, directly relevant to this collection of essays, that different times look to their histories to meet different needs. Our early twenty-first century finds itself in a cultural moment that craves history practiced from multiple perspectives, and a vibrant multiplicity of historical voices is something this collection has deliberately, and with some success, set out to offer. This is entirely in keeping with Anderson University’s historic, but perhaps insufficiently appreciated, openness to diversity, an openness that, as readers of the essays will note, placed women and people of color in positions of leadership and prominence at Anderson University decades before most American universities. Readers will encounter perspectives on the AU saga from women and men, black and white, alumni and faculty (and some who are both), from a variety of denominational and disciplinary backgrounds. The Anderson University saga they construct emerges not from a single interpretative perspective but out of a variety of backgrounds and passions that in combination authentically express a broad swath of the range of voices that have contributed to the making of this institution.

The most compelling justification for embarking upon yet another history of AU, however, is in some senses the most obvious: Anderson University exists to serve and teach students, and this new collection of historical essays is intended to directly support the teaching mission of the institution in a way that other histories were not. This is the history of AU, written by AU people, for students of AU. More specifically, it has been written to help freshmen, new to their surroundings, understand their new setting. “These projects,” as the funding grant application noted, will shape this community by “cultivating an ongoing student-body sense of AU’s unique accomplishments and peculiar ethos that blends practical preparation, church-relation, and a commitment to education through an applied and pragmatic curriculum in the liberal arts” (Willowby 2021, 1). The essays that follow, accordingly, do not present a comprehensive or exhaustive account of all the details of the university’s past. For that, readers would do best to consult Strege’s history, Barry Callen’s earlier AU history, Guide of Soul and Mind, or writings by Robert Nicholson, John Morrison and other important actors from the university’s formative years. Instead, this is a different kind of history, one that opens new windows on the journey that brought us to where we are through a series of short explorations, reflections and recollections, each complementing one another and, hopefully, lending students helpful tools for conceptualizing their place in the community they join when they matriculate at Anderson University.

And what, exactly, might students discover here? A trove of institutional memory that takes them from AU’s roots to its present. Kimberly Majeski explores the Anderson University “origin story,” tracing the heated battle that pitted the advocates of Anderson as a Bible school against the ambitious ‘modernizers’ who envisioned a full university, presenting the Christian idealism and intellectual vision of both sides with scrupulous fairness. The university’s deep roots in professional and vocational training, as well as the gradual incorporation of a liberal arts ethos expressing our community’s luminous and optimistic Christian humanism, are recounted with engaging narrative skill by Jerrald Fox and Debra Miller Fox. Sensitivity to the intimate connections that link aesthetic experience with faith has always characterized the Church of God movement, and Jeffrey Wright’s recounting of our history as “a singing people” integrates AU’s distinguished musical heritage into its broader institutional setting as a central part of our community of Christian scholars and students. Despite the best intentions, as Elsa Johnson Bass recounts from compelling personal experience, the university struggled to find a way to “accept,” and not merely “admit,” students from communities of color, and had to gradually learn to acknowledge their rich contributions as both students and faculty. And Jason Varner provides students with a meticulous and at times profound analysis of the underlying and chronic struggle of this, as of so many Christian communities, to foster an environment where intellectual and spiritual ambitions are able to embrace both “holiness” and “unity.”

Viewed from the broadest comprehensive perspective, these essays reveal the operation of a distinctive institutional dynamic which has been present from the beginning, which still drives the university today, and which is likely to characterize AU’s culture as long as the school’s doors remain open: The struggle to be both authentically Christ-centered while being simultaneously in and relevant to—not “of”—the world around us. This is not, and has never been, an easy balance to strike. A series of seeming dichotomies have dominated our debates about our proper ordering of the community: faith versus learning, liberal arts versus professional preparation, and so on. But this is not a cause for lamentation. Rather, the reverse is true: these essays make clear that AU’s condition of permanent self-scrutiny is a good and natural situation for an institution such as ours. Indeed, the tension between the spiritual ideals of the institution’s founding Movement and the University’s mission to serve in a society whose dominant values are often out of synch with those ideals (to put it mildly) has served as a creative force, a motor of fruitful self-evaluation and reform throughout Anderson University’s history. As Strege (2016) shrewdly observes in The Desk as Altar, “It is no easy task to be a church-related academic institution . . . At times the marriage has been irritating, strained, and confining, but it has also been vital, affectionate, and liberating. In this century-old relationship lies the key to understanding Anderson’ peculiar ethos” (xi).

These writings, then, in the words of the project’s initiator, will bring the AU story of this century-old relationship to a new audience of students, in order to help our community “articulate a contemporary institutional mission and vision informed by the institutional saga” (Willowby 2021, 3). This is a task that in some senses is never completed, obviously, and ours will not be the last effort to find new ways to re-think just what it is about AU that makes it AU. The entire educational enterprise, as Rousseau recognized, is subversive in this constructive sense of permanent, ongoing re-evaluation of received wisdom (some discussion of Rousseau’s critique of pedagogy may be found in Geraldine Hodgson, Studies in French Education, 1908). At this moment, as AU takes its mission forward into a second century of teaching for service in the church and society, there is a distinct urgency to this undertaking. Conceptual clarity about who we are and a shared, community-wide vision of what we hope, by the grace of God, to achieve in the joint endeavor that is education will be essential if we are to continue in our work. These essays, this new version of our shared “saga,” in the hands of committed teachers and willing students, will help us to understand and draw strength from the AU saga in order that the story may go on.


In addition to the authors of these essays (whose professional biographies may be found at the conclusion of the volume), we wish to acknowledge with gratitude the support and contributions of the following: The Lilly Foundation, for the generous financial support which made this work possible; Marie Morris, Provost of Anderson University when the project was proposed and begun, and Joel Shrock, Provost at the time of its completion; Nathan Willowby, Dean of Anderson University’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry, initiator of the project and author of the grant proposal with which the project began; Jaymie Dieterle, administrative supervisor of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry, who coordinated the organization of tasks and writings without which the project would not have been possible; and Megan Morrison, student editorial assistant, who was responsible for the daunting task of applying the Chicago Manual of Style as a means of imposing coherence and consistency upon the scholarly apparatus of all the essays.


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Introduction by David Thomas Murphy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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