The Seeds Are Planted
Bible colleges are institutions of postsecondary education that feature extensive study of the Bible accompanied by curricular and co-curricular emphasis upon personal devotion and consecrated service. The Bible college movement originated during the time of North America’s Third Great Awakening. Early Bible institutes emerged as both products of and catalysts for revival and missionary movements. The first such institutions include Nyack Missionary Training Institute, founded by A.B. Simpson in 1882, and Moody Bible Institute, founded by D.L. Moody in 1886. These earliest Bible institutes typify the character and origin of scores of other such institutions that proliferated across the North American continent during the latter two decades of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century.
A Commitment to Watering the Seeds of Change
Bible college founders were fueled by a variety of cultural and ecclesiastical currents expressing response to theological drift, spiritual malaise, and secularizing influence. By the late 19th century, North American theological schooling and theological scholarship had embraced European scholasticism and enlightenment rationalism as exemplified by Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis. Higher criticism and its accompanying a priori rejection of the miraculous, including the miraculous nature of divine revelation, became the new epistemological and methodological orthodoxy. The scientific community rushed to assert that Darwin’s theory of natural selection had rendered a literal biblical understanding of immediate and recent Divine creation intellectually untenable. Moreover, a growing number of evangelical churches and denominations embraced dispensational pre-millennialism as popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible, issuing in greater emphasis upon eschatological urgency and pragmatism in Gospel proclamation.
Most Bible colleges began entrepreneurially. In form and function, they reacted to arid intellectualism and academic convention. Their curricula, typically developed by academy outsiders, emphasized devotional dispositions and practical ministry development. They often had little in common other than a staunch commitment to make the Bible the central subject and object of study and to motivate and mobilize Christian witness. As a reactionary movement, their curricula typically varied greatly from the curricular conventions of their secular and Christian liberal arts college counterparts, most of which were rooted in scholastic European and Colonial notions of intellectual breadth and liberal education. Beginning with Johnson Bible College (TN) and Columbia Bible College (SC), non-formal and non-collegiate Bible institutes gradually evolved into degree-granting postsecondary institutions. The establishment in 1947 of the American Association of Bible Colleges (see Association for Biblical Higher Education) further shaped the movement through collective adoption of curricular norms and conformity to external quality standards associated with postsecondary education. Beginning in the 1960s, Bible colleges began to earn regional accreditation. This achievement ironically marked the degree to which Bible colleges had earned academic legitimacy and launched evolutionary currents affecting the mission and curricula of many Bible colleges. By the 1980s, many notable Bible colleges had begun to disassociate themselves from the movement. Many of today’s North American Christian liberal arts institutions have roots in the Bible college movement.
A Harvest of Workers
Research, although sporadic, has consistently found that Bible college graduates comprise a disproportional percentage of North American evangelical protestant missionaries and clergy. Moreover, a variety of student outcomes research has consistently disproven the perception that Bible colleges are academically inferior to other Christian and secular higher education sectors. Bible college graduates consistently gain admission to and excel in advanced degree studies. Although many perceive that the movement has waned, conservative estimates suggest that as many as 1,000 Bible colleges and Bible institutes currently operate in North America, enrolling upwards of 100,000 students. Jack Hayford, Francis Chan, Wayne Cordeiro, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul represent just a few of the notable contemporary instruments of biblical revival, cultural renewal, and missional reorientation out of whose ministries a new wave of institutions of biblical higher education is emerging.
Brereton, Virginia L. Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Eagen, John L. The Bible College in American Higher Education. Fayetteville, AR: American Association of Bible Colleges, 1981.
Ferris, Robert W., and Enlow, Ralph E., Jr. “Reassessing Bible College Distinctives,” Christian Education Journal, Volume 1NS, No.1 (Spring 1997): 5-19.
McKinney. Larry J. 1997. Equipping for Service: A Historical Account of the Bible College Movement in North America. Fayetteville, AR: Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges.
Witmer, S.A. Education With Dimension: The Bible College Story. Manhasset, NY: Channel, 1962.