Emory and Methodism

By Russell E. Richey
William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Church History
Candler School of Theology


Education, training, and dissemination of knowledge lay at the very heart of the popular religious movement headed by John and Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. Once it matured, American Methodism, too, made education central to its mission and its connectional life. And Emory -- founded early in Methodism's college-launching era -- has typified both the church's vital commitment to education and the connection-foundational role played by colleges and universities.

Established along with other Methodist colleges in the second phase of Methodist education, Emory has made distinctive contributions in the periods since, helping to shape Methodism's connectional patterns, and playing its part in keeping education at the very heart of Methodist connectionalism. Emory's story shows that what it means for a college or university to be related to a religious institution has also evolved over time, and in the past was certainly clearer to school, church, and society than it is now.

Emory's history also illustrates some constants in Methodist higher education. Methodism has sought consistently to educate its people and ministers together or in tandem. Its approach to education has been nonsectarian, community-oriented, and civic spirited. With notable exceptions, it has not cramped its institutions theologically, subjected faculty to dogmatic tests, or veered towards fundamentalist or other authoritarian controls. Unlike other mainline denominations, Methodism founded universities and located its theological schools there, becoming thereby a university-founding denomination and leader in higher education. Perhaps uniquely, Emory has positioned itself to exercise leadership in understanding and structuring afresh a relation between a church and a complex research university appropriate for a highly pluralistic society.

Educating Church Leadership

For early Methodists, the college's primary role was to educate the church's leadership, both lay and ministerial. To that end, Methodist conferences appointed their very best talent to the colleges, as presidents and faculty. From the colleges came much of the church's literary production. Emory certainly contributed lavishly to the church's leadership and especially to the episcopacy; the following presidents or deans were affirmed by election to the church's highest office: George Foster Pierce, Atticus Greene Haygood, Warren Akin Candler, James Edward Dickey, William Ragsdale Cannon, and Mack B. Stokes.

Exceptional were the parts that Emory-related individuals played in the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church. At the 1840 General Conference, Emory president Ignatius A. Few submitted the so-called "scarlet letter" resolution, which prohibited testimony in church disciplinary cases of "colored persons" in states "where they are denied that privilege in trials of law." Northern delegates' anger at that moral compromise fueled antislavery sentiment at the following General Conference, in 1844. There, the ownership of slaves by Bishop James O. Andrew, the president of Emory’s board of trustees, became the cause around which the denomination divided in 1844.

Perhaps not surprisingly, other Emory people supported Andrew. President A. B. Longstreet delivered the key "Declaration of the Southern Delegates" and drafted the rules for the 1845 southern conference that organized the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS). Future Emory president George F. Pierce was active at both the 1840 and 1844 General Conferences, making important speeches in defense of Andrew. Georgians Lovick Pierce, George F. Pierce, and A. B. Longstreet represented Georgia at the first General Conference of the new MECS, in 1846. Both Pierces served in the 1850 and 1854 General Conferences, and Lovick was elected by Georgia for nine General Conferences, including that of 1862, which could not meet because of war. Former Emory president Alexander Means was also elected in 1862 and as a reserve delegate in 1866.

Rebuilding Church and Society

Methodist aspirations for Christianizing the nation and the world increased dramatically as a consequence of the Civil War. Emory certainly contributed to the first order of post-war business, rebuilding church and society. Emory provided presidential leadership to the southern church's General Conferences from the church's beginning in the 1844 division to reunification in 1939. Southern Methodism's future commitment to a new day was well signaled in Emory president Atticus Haygood’s courageous 1880 vision of a New South. Nothing, however, illustrates that commitment to connectional educational policy more than the establishment of Emory University (1915) when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, lost Vanderbilt University.

As they created these new research universities, southern and northern Methodists put religion at the institutions' very heart, symbolizing that commitment architecturally with a chapel and programmatically with a theology school. At Emory, Durham Chapel in the Theology Building served school, university, and community, eventually yielding Glenn Memorial.

Redefining Relationship of Church and University

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the once-cozy connection between college chapel, Emory, surrounding Methodist community, annual conference, and denomination fractured and fragmented. Yet Emory shows signs of being best equipped and positioned to forge a new relation of church and university, to chart the next stage of denominational relations (of church relations generally), to find coherence amidst the diversity and complexity of research and instruction.

For one thing, Emory possesses leaders on all levels -- among the trustees, throughout the central administration, in the schools, in the Religion Department, across the faculty, among the chaplains, at Candler, in Oxford -- sensitive to and appreciative of the Methodist connection. Second, Emory enjoys positive relations with United Methodism, though at times it has to remind the church of its own historic commitments to an open, inclusive, nonsectarian educational policy. Third, Emory boasts hundreds of faculty in diverse departments with research interests in religious topics. Many of these research agendas take their own course, but -- fourth -- some are institutionalized and given programmatic and curricular expression through the Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life, at Candler, in the Religion Department, in the Pew Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, and in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Emory can be United Methodist and affirmative of its Methodist connection, of that heritage, without, for a moment, qualifying its pride in the new Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, in its powerful Catholic constituency, in its growing Islamic and Buddhist studies programs. Nor by enhancing Methodist relations does Emory, even for a moment, compromise its Coca-Cola heritage, its partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its national prominence as a health care center, its federal contracts, its role as a major Georgia employer, its other corporate and various foundation connections, its platform for the arts, its commitment to ethical animal research.