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2013, vol. 67

Review: Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012

by Susan Fisher Miller

Susan Fisher Miller, Evanston, Ill., is senior associate director in the Office of Foundation Relations at Northwestern University. She is the author of Culture for Service: A History of Goshen College, 1894-1994.

Keith L. Sprunger, Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012. (Bethel College, 2012).

Bethel College CoverBethel College of Kansas cover

Keith L. Sprunger’s recent history of Bethel College, Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012, combines within a single attractive volume the essential elements of a good college history: the illustrations of a gracefully designed viewbook, and the factual content of a thoroughly researched scholarly narrative. A distinguished member of the Bethel faculty for more than four decades and now Oswald H. Wedel Professor Emeritus of History, Sprunger balances in this narrative an insider’s deep institutional knowledge and affection with a remarkable degree of circumspect restraint.

Sprunger’s book joins a succession of well-researched institutional histories that have appeared over the past several decades to mark the anniversaries of many of the North American Mennonite colleges. (Bethel College historians have marked the institution’s start date as 1887, the year of the school’s founding, rather than 1893, the year Bethel began offering classes.) While the author has chosen to focus on Bethel’s singular development in its own right, only occasionally casting an eye on the broader context of Mennonite education or drawing comparisons to Bethel’s fellow Mennonite colleges, this history nonetheless expands our accumulating understanding of the idealistic and often daunting foray into Christian higher education undertaken in various branches of the Mennonite Church over the past 125 years by assertive visionary leaders out front and more modest faithful servants behind the scenes.

Sprunger orders the book chronologically, with the exception of opening and closing chapters that comment on the story as a whole. The author also makes use of patterns he discerned across the entire story’s arc. For example, three presidents served long terms of up to two decades: Cornelius H. Wedel (1893-1910), Edmund G. Kaufman (1932-52), and Harold J. Schultz (1971-91). Not surprisingly, the chapters reflecting these three presidents’ terms of leadership (periods not without conflict, but cohesive) anchor the narrative.

The volume is supported by extensive and careful research. The author has made use of Peter J. Wedel’s 1954 full-length Bethel College history, The Story of Bethel College, along with shorter treatments of the college’s past. He has relied on sources found in Bethel’s Mennonite Library and Archives, including its extensive Oral History Collection. In addition, Sprunger himself conducted roughly 35 new personal interviews in preparation for the project.

In its design by longtime Bethel art professor Robert Regier, Bethel College of Kansas brings into comfortable alliance the oblong format and visual trappings of a socalled coffee table book with sustained passages of substantial academic text. The book makes effective use in the margins of black-and-white illustrations, including a large representation of yearbook-style portraits of faculty and staff who, as the accompanying text tells each era’s story, look out from the pages in a visual roll call. In the book’s final pages, a section of color illustrations present the artfully cropped, sunlit details of campus architecture, an aesthetic bonus unlikely to be found in a strictly scholarly volume.

Certain key motifs recur throughout Bethel College of Kansas, though, granted, they are sounded subtly, without thematic fanfare or insistent signposting. Many of these themes take the form of dichotomies well familiar in the annals of the Christian liberal arts. There is strong founding denominational identity — here, 1870s European Mennonite immigrants to Kansas, symbolized in Bethel institutional mythology by the rough-hewn wheat-threshing stone — standing in tension with an urge to American acculturation, summed up by the college’s advertising slogan introduced in 1935: “Where good friends meet at the crossroads of a nation.” There is, on one hand, Bethel’s strong peace witness, rooted in Mennonite nonresistance, evident throughout its history, particularly during the Vietnam War, when the college gave rise to three major peace demonstrations and supported a faculty member, James Juhnke, in his 1970 Congressional run on an anti-war platform. On the other hand, we see that the college’s original generation, eager to signal their Germanic founders’ appreciation for the new homeland, displayed a large American flag in above the Administration Building and that during World War I following 1917, Bethel students by and large exhibited patriotic support for the war effort.

Reverberations of the national Fundamentalist-Modernism religious-cultural quarrels were felt at Bethel, too, in a forced exodus of progressive faculty members in the years leading up to 1920. Another debate Sprunger shows to be a Bethel perennial concerns whether embracing competitive sports would cause an academically distinguished school to sacrifice integrity, or at least stoop to frivolity (a quixotic campaign to reform athletics was waged, for example, by President Vernon Neufeld in the early 1960s). This is a point much debated in theory at Bethel but rendered moot in practice by the presence of all-but-continuous student athletics from the 1915-16 season on, including venerable Coach Otto Unruh’s exhortations to players to “put the shillelagh” to Bethel’s football opponents. Finally, some mild town-gown tensions make an appearance, mostly in relation to campus expressions of conscientious objection to military participation.

Readers new to Bethel College history will come to appreciate traits of the Bethel institutional persona. Touchstone Bethel characteristics that reappear across the decades include a tradition of intellectual rigor and achievement, with quiet campus pride taken in N.C.A. Accreditation (1938); the proportionately high number of faculty with doctorates and of graduates who go on to seek doctoral degrees; a strong record of faculty publication and artistic creation; and students’ competitiveness in statewide and national debate and math contests.

A related Bethel marker found here is can-do ingenuity: the ability to creatively accomplish much with little. As Sprunger’s closing line of the book asserts,”Bethel is a small college, but there are many who love it and work and pray for its significant future” (229). Bethel administrators and physical plant workers were admirable re-purposers before recycling was cool — Pullman train cars, boxcars and former barracks, not to mention entire family homes, were adapted and frequently moved about campus to frugally serve college needs. Sprunger quotes an overheard remark on the more-with-less priorities of Bethel faculty families, circa 1980: “Their sofas are kind of worn, but they travel a lot.” A small-town prairie location, relatively modest enrollments and, at times, severely straitened finances have not prevented Bethel from garnering attention on a scale beyond its immediate material limitations: attention for excellence in student choral performance, for example; for a four-day bell-ringing vigil to mark the National Moratorium Day to End the War in 1969; or for the internationally acknowledged contributions of college associates: for example, faculty child and “campus kid” Owen Gingerich, later a distinguished Harvard astronomer and historian of science; 1920s faculty member Joseph Kesselring, who went on to pen a hit Broadway A related Bethel marker found here is can-do ingenuity: the ability to play, Aresenic and Old Lace, strongly suggestive in its setting of Kesselring’s campus residence, Goerz House; or Class of 1948 alumnus Gordon Kaufman (son of President E.G. and Hazel Dester Kaufman), who became a noted professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Strongest among abiding Bethel traits revealed in these pages is the school’s high regard for independence, both individual and institutional. (Among the myriad comparative subjects in American Mennonite higher education still waiting to be explored in depth, Bethel College’s idealistic embrace of volunteerism and nonconformity as the proper interpretation of “Anabaptist freedom” deserves further examination in relation to sister denominational colleges.) From its early years, Bethel College was an independent entity run by the Bethel College Corporation — affiliated with a General Conference Mennonite constituency, but not legally a servant of the denomination. Decades later, when the General Conference and “Old” Mennonite Churches reunited as Mennonite Church USA, Bethel College elected to guard its freedom to follow its own lights, choosing a cordial “consultative” but independent level of involvement with the Mennonite Educational Agency, the oversight group. Over the years, Bethel’s independent (and often beguilingly quirky) streak can be seen in strong faculty autonomy; in student smokers being accommodated in designated dorm areas by a largely non-using denomination; in an early 1960s experiment in non-coercive education envisioned by President Neufeld, Dean Albert Meyer and Professor of Bible Walter Klaassen, in which campus religious participation was made completely voluntary and Klaassen dropped required attendance in his Christian Foundations class. A longmisplaced recording of a speech on integration by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on campus by King in 1960, when discovered in an alumnus’s storage shed and restored and remastered for public presentation in 2010, rang out with King’s exhortation: “Be maladjusted!” And, apparently, the Bethel non-conformity streak has even been exhibited itself in streaking (of the naked, running kind) that raised town eyebrows on campus and in the streets of Newton from the 1930s on.

It is a pleasure to receive Bethel College history through Sprunger’s transparent, declarative prose — prose that grows lyrical at times, as in his description of the old guard of founders, who had actually farmed with threshing stones, passing away by the time of the college’s 50th anniversary. Though he barely tips his hand toward personal evaluation of the facts, glimmers of Sprunger’s humor come through in appreciation of student pranks, such as pigs loosed in chapel, or the exploits of the fictional student, Herman Bubbert, birthed in 1959-60 and haunting Bethel environs from then on: “Like a pooka,he appeared here and there, now and then, and was always mischievous” (129).

Sprunger remains even-handed to a fault, typically quoting others’ views without framing them in his own interpretation, or raising rhetorical questions rather than asserting an identifiable personal conclusion. Even about the towering, prodigious, interfering President E. G. Kaufman, whose autocratic, micro-managerial style one suspects differs from Sprunger’s faculty-oriented vision of ideal governance, Sprunger asserts, “Opinions on this era depend considerably on one’s attitude towards Kaufman and how one balances his ends and means” (111). At moments in reading the history, I confess, I longed for Sprunger to relax his professional historian’s reserve and let rip with vehement personal passion, or at least drop a bombshell of insider historical gossip. Strongest among abiding Bethel traits revealed in these pages is the But not often. The neutrality of voice and tone and fair presentation of events given on Bethel College’s behalf by Keith Sprunger, with the benefit of an insider’s understanding but without the blind spots of a partisan, do a favor to all Bethel adherents and to the wider audience of readers who need to know more about Bethel College and Mennonite and American liberal arts education generally. Such a balanced approach puts Bethel College of Kansas in line with the best of its subject’s independentminded tradition and well-proportioned campus architecture, qualities evident in Keith Sprunger’s closing gift of Anabaptist freedom to his readers: “An invitation. No written history is the last word. What should be added to Bethel’s story? What about Bethel’s mission and future? These topics need the wisdom of many voices. We extend an invitation to continue the dialogue” (229).