The Present Past: Emory’s Methodist heritage remains a vital force

Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president, and author of A Legacy of Heart and Mind

On the 24th of September, 1833, Bishop Emory set out from Baltimore on his second Episcopal tour, taking with him, besides the horse on which he rode, another to carry his baggage.

So begins an account of duties that took John Emory from his home state of Maryland down the long Great Valley of Virginia, through eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and “the Choctaw Indian country,” before returning—a circuit of some twelve hundred miles along rough roads and mountain trails, in every kind of weather, in less than two months. And this by a man who had been frail since birth and burdened with failing health as an adult.

The lone horseman, pulling behind him a pack animal, suggests an image of the earlier frontier hunter—a Daniel Boone, say—leading out of the wilderness a horse weighed down by hides and furs, or an image of the later “Forty-niner,” heading to the California gold fields with a pack mule laden with mining tools. Bishop Emory probably took along some Latin and Hebrew texts for his edification, possibly a printed collection of sermons, very likely the Methodist Book of Discipline, and of course the Holy Bible. Like those other iconic frontiersmen, he was seeking riches in wild places—treasures to store up in heaven.

But Methodist horseback preachers like Bishop Emory no doubt deposited more wealth than they found. Out of the hills and hollows of Appalachia and throughout the land on the other side of the mountains, they brought together the isolated homesteader, the hardscrabble farmer, the widowed mother, and the village storekeeper for regular study and prayer. What these preachers left behind was a vision of a society in which holiness, book learning, and freedom informed each other. Not by accident did the public square of many communities harbor (metaphorically, if not actually) church, school, and courthouse in proximity.

Two years after John Emory set out on horseback for Alabama, he was dead, from a carriage accident. But within months of his death, Methodists in Virginia named Emory and Henry College after him (and Patrick Henry), and Georgia Methodists soon followed suit with their own Emory College. Their intentions for education came naturally to a faith that proclaimed, “The truth shall make you free”—even if freedom was defined in limited ways in 1836.

Today ninety-two colleges and universities in the United States trace their roots to Methodist founders, including Duke, Syracuse, Boston, Southern Methodist, Drew, and Clark-Atlanta, as well as Emory. By comparison, Presbyterian colleges and universities number sixty-five, Lutheran forty-seven, Baptist twenty, Episcopalian nine, and Jewish three. (Catholic colleges and universities, 193 of them in all, have their own distinguished educational heritage, including five named Notre Dame and four named Our Lady.)

Curiously, despite the campus presence of a United Methodist congregation, Glenn Memorial Church, and the largest United Methodist seminary in the country, Candler School of Theology, Emory’s church affiliation often surprises many members of the faculty and the student body. With about 25 percent of Emory College first-year students reporting themselves Jewish, and with large numbers of Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus, the place does not feel particularly low-church pious. (Sure—there’s a dean of the chapel saying prayers at campus occasions. But sometimes she wears a collar, and who knew Methodists did that?)

Of course, from time to time some moral urgency of the day shines a bank of klieg lights on the marriage of church and university. Will the Atlanta schools of the late 1950s threaten to close rather than desegregate? Then the theology faculty, led by Methodists, will write an open letter to the newspaper urging the higher moral road of integration. Are church members upset that a religion professor in Emory College has published a scholarly work about “the death of God”? Then the Methodist theology dean in 1966 will respond with a letter about academic freedom. Do people of faith disagree about the use of campus chapels for same-sex commitment ceremonies? Then people of faith within the framework of “Wesley’s Quadrilateral”—relying on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to determine faithful action—will find a way to comply with church policies while respecting the religious freedom of those whose traditions bless such commitments.

The quadrilateral foundation of Methodism (I speak as a non-Methodist, as an Episcopalian) is well made to support the great edifice of a university like Emory. For one thing, the foundation itself leaves ample room for a broad range of views on political and social issues. More important, though, as the history of Methodist involvement in higher education indicates, the church values greatly the discipline of regular study, curiosity, and openness to new experience and insight, testing these always against scripture and tradition, but open also to the Spirit’s guiding into deeper understanding of truth.

The Preamble to the Emory University Bylaws says that the Methodist Church founded Emory “for the promotion of the broadest intellectual culture in harmony with the democratic institutions of our country and permeated by the principles and influences of the Christian religion. It is designed to be a profoundly religious institution without being narrowly sectarian. It proposes to encourage freedom of thought as liberal as the limitations of truth.”

What better rationale for one of the key initiatives in Emory’s strategic plan, the initiative of “understanding religions and the human spirit”? The ecumenical spirit, indeed the interfaith dialogues, fostered by Methodism during its two centuries supports precisely this kind of profound exploration of the importance of faith in our university community. Whether one’s principal field is physics or Arabic, literature or law, the urge to combine this study with the study of religion is readily welcomed at Emory. The distinctiveness of Emory in this regard—certainly rare, if not unique, among major research universities—is something remarked upon often by new faculty members, many of whom are attracted to Emory for precisely this reason.

Finally, if anything supports Emory’s vision of being an “ethically engaged and diverse community” working for “positive transformation in the world,” it is the legacy of John Wesley, among many others. Wesley’s public opposition to slavery, advocacy of prison reform, establishment of schools and charity hospitals, and personal giving of all of the wealth he earned through publications earned him frequent opprobrium and ridicule from established religious authorities and intellectuals. Would that Emory University, like Wesley’s own Oxford University, could continue to nurture such examples of courageous leadership.



 © 2006 Emory University