A Pentecostal Education

A Short History of Higher Education
in the Assemblies of God

Originally written as a term paper for Dr. Edith Blumhofer, History and Polity of the Assemblies of God, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, circa 1985.

Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, ca 1985

Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, ca. 1985

One of the original reasons for founding the Assemblies of God was in order to form its own distinctive educational institutions, along with funding foreign missions and establishing doctrinal standards.1 However, the nature and purpose of these educational institutions has been the subject of some debate.

The development of Bible institutes seemed a natural for the young Assemblies of God, an extension of the old short-term Bible schools upon which the Pentecostal Movement was founded.  The institutes were private, incurring little state interference or control.  But how much further should educational efforts in the Assemblies extend?  Should training for secular careers be provided for those not called to preach?  Should schools seek affiliation with accrediting agencies or any other groups?  Should the Assemblies provide seminary-level instruction?  These and other hard questions have faced the Assemblies of God throughout its history, and might continue to affect its course in the future.

Early Pentecostal Education

The Pentecostal Revival began, for all essential purposes, at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901.  An outgrowth of the Holiness Movement, the Pentecostal Movement spread throughout much of the country within a few years.  Vehicles such as the Azusa Street Mission, John Alexander Dowie’s Zion City in Illinios, and various Pentecostal publications were instrumental in this spread.  The new Pentecostal message fostered two important developments:  first, the separation — reluctantly for most — of Pentecostals from established denominations.  This, in turn, brought about the second development, the necessity of founding schools of their own, which were distinctively Pentecostal.

The early Bible schools were generally informal and short-term, usually lasting four to six weeks.2 When the course was done, the itinerant Bible teacher moved on.  There were, however, some of longer duration, such as the Rochester Bible Training School (also known as Elim, actually begun before the Pentecostal outbreak), which operated from 1895 to 1924.3 Some of the teachers of these small schools — T. K. Leonard, J. Roswell Flower, E. N. Bell, and P. C. Nelson, to name a few — were later to become leaders in the Assemblies of God.4

The emphasis of the early Pentecostal schools was on the training of ministers of all types:  pastors, evangelists, missionaries, lay preachers, etc.  The curriculum was pragmatic, and the main textbook was the Bible.

The Assemblies of God, formed in 1914, soon moved toward establishing more permanent schools in order to advance its cause.  A number of Bible institutes were well established before World War II.  Central Bible Institute, founded in 1922, remained the only General Council-operated school for many years.  Other regional schools were operated by their respective districts, which the General Council has closely supervised over the years in order to ensure that pure Pentecostal doctrine was preached, and modernism and heresy discouraged.  In 1925, CBI was chosen to serve as a model for all endorsed schools.5

The Bible institutes offered three-year programs.  Students were instructed in Bible, preaching, missions, and related areas.  They received first-hand ministry experience by evangelizing, performing Christian service, and conducting actual worship services.  Practical education was what these plain, stalwart first-generation Pentecostals wanted.  According to Joseph R. Flower, son of J. Roswell Flower, “The feeling [was that] the coming of the Lord was too near to become involved in advanced education.”6

However, as early as the 1920s, a need for education beyond the institute level began to be realized.  This was an era in which many professions, notably public school teaching, were stiffening their requirements.7 Many Pentecostal young people had no wish to train for ministry, and were being drawn to secular or non-Pentecostal colleges.  At the same time, ministers who sought advanced training beyond the institute level had no Pentecostal seminary to attend.  But the expansion of Assemblies of God education involved the approval of the constituency.   As G. Raymond Carlson remarked,

Large numbers of AG people entertained a fear that emphasis on education could have a deteriorating effect on the spiritual life of the movement.  Their thinking could be capsuled in four words — revival, organization, education, stagnation.8

Establishment of Senior Colleges

The first accredited senior college programs in the Assemblies of God came about as more a necessity than a choice.  The concern was two-fold:  the loss of impressionable young people to the philosophies of the world, and the threat that the Movement might suffer loss and even die with its first generation.

As early as the 1929 General Council, a committee chaired by P. C. Nelson recommended the foundation of “an institution of college grade, where the most complete and thorough education can be obtained under Pentecostal auspices.”9 In time, several district schools expanded their programs to four years.  Southwestern Bible Institute began providing a general education program at the junior college level in 1944.10

Still, a need was seen for a true liberal arts program.  A liberal arts institution is designed to prepare young persons for a wide variety of careers, as well as graduate studies, by providing the broadest education possible.  Betty Chase has pointed out that a liberal education is considered preferable for those who intend to go to seminary after college.11

A liberal arts college began to be seriously discussed by 1945.12 At the 1947 General Council, the Education Committee reported that “many are being influenced by the insidiousness of modern education and others by the persistent repudiation of our particular doctrine, and they are lost to our ranks.”  Furthermore, the report reads,

It is the feeling of your committee that these young people are too valuable for us to let slip through our fingers and that we are handicapping our progress by the loss of these potential lay-leaders in our churches.13

Even the proponents of higher education were reluctant to set aside the necessary finances.  The main thrust of the Movement had always been evangelism, and evangelism brings to mind missions and literature — not liberal education.  Foreign missions and the publishing enterprise received the lion’s share of contributions and general funds.  No funds were set aside for general education,14 and the fear of over-extension was very real.

Nevertheless, the following resolution was put before the 1953 General Council:

WHEREAS, There is a great army of full gospel believing youth in our ranks
AND WHEREAS, They are entitled to and are pursuing courses of higher education in college outside our Christian confession,

AND WHEREAS, Many of them are being lost to our cause forever because of the philosophies, etc., with which they become indoctrinated . . .

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, That this General Council in session authorize the setting up of a SENIOR COLLEGE PROGRAM . . . .15

The resolution passed.  A former military hospital in Springfield, Missouri, was secured as a campus for one dollar, and Evangel College opened its doors in 1955.

Founding a Pentecostal Seminary

Higher education has often met with limited enthusiasm from large segments of the Assemblies of God constituency.  This has been especially so in regard to starting a seminary, with fears of creeping formalism and modernism replacing the simple faith in the power of God upon which the Pentecostal Movement was established.  This fear was not entirely unfounded.  Darwinism, the influence of the Tubingen School of liberal Bible scholarship, Albert Schweitzer’s work on the “historical Jesus,” the Documentary Hypothesis (“JEDP”), Source Criticism, and the “demythologizing” of the Gospels by Rudolf Bultmann were just a few of the influences which had been destructive to Biblical authority and faith in other denominations.

Yet, one must wonder to what extent the founding fathers of the Movement dreamed of establishing a truly Pentecostal seminary.  Many of them were highly educated men who went on to be staunch supporters of education in the Assemblies of God.  E. N. Bell had attended Stetson University, Baptist Seminary in Louisville, and the University of Chicago Divinity School.  P. C. Nelson, a native of Denmark, attended Rochester Theological Seminary.  It was said that he could speak most European languages, and he translated Eric Lund’s great book on hermeneutics from the Spanish.16 Myer Pearlman was taught in Hebrew schools in his native England, and was fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, French, and Italian.17 Such men had observed both the dangers and the advantages of education, and in many cases considered it worth the risk.

Beginning in 1945, the bylaws of the Assemblies of God began to contain this statement:

As progress and growth demand, the Educational (sic.) Department may provide a Full Theological Seminary Course in addition to the Bible Institute course, and provide post-graduate work for the graduates who seek special training for the ministry in the United States and foreign lands.18

Wishing to exert more control over the situation, the 1955 General Council voted to amend this statement, taking the decision out of the hands of the Education Department and making it subject to a vote of the general assembly.19 Nevertheless, Education Committee reports continued to be fully as alarming as had been those calling for the establishment of a liberal arts college.  According to the 1957 General Council minutes,

The report also called attention to a survey which indicated that one hundred and thirteen (113) students are presently enrolled in seminaries of non-Pentecostal denominations, furthering their education.  Other studies indicated that many Assemblies of God high school and college students are planning to attend seminaries for training in graduate theology, and this knowledge points up a problem in our ranks which may become acute in the not too distant future.20

The need for chaplains for the military was especially pressing.  It has been well within the purposes of the Assemblies of God to provide chaplains for the military.  But as a rule, the armed services have required that every chaplain possess a minimum of graduate seminary training.  Although concessions were made for the Assemblies during World War II, it is only reasonable to expect all chaplains to work toward fulfilling this minimal requirement.21

Various preliminary studies were conducted, notably in 1956 and 1958.  The 1958 study called attention to the growing demand for seminary studies, the need for Pentecostal chaplains and Bible college teachers, the fact that many Assemblies of God students were attending non-Pentecostal seminaries, and that some seminaries were ceasing to admit Pentecostals.22 A further study was commissioned in 1961 to examine the feasibility of a seminary, with complete plans to be presented by 1967.23

Eventually, the establishment of a seminary was approved.  In 1971, facilities for the school were included in the plans for the new International Distribution Center addition to the Assemblies of God headquarters building in Springfield, Missouri.  Officially described as “a graduate school of theology and missions, providing advanced training beyond the baccalaureate level for ministers, missionaries, evangelists, and other Christian workers for effectual service at home and abroad,”24 the Assemblies of God Graduate School (now the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary) opened its doors in the Fall of 1973.

Support of Assemblies of God Schools

Once the establishment of educational institutions was approved, a commitment to support those institutions became necessary.  Such commitment was not lacking among Assemblies of God leaders.  When the military requested leasing the Central Bible Institute campus for convalescent hospital facilities in 1943, the General Presbytery declined.  They believed that “the interests of our country as well as of our constituency can be more largely served by continuing the Institution in its present status as a training center for ministers and missionaries, thus contributing to the up-building and maintenance of national morale.”25

However, this commitment was by no means universal.  A 1957 committee proposed that five percent of undesignated missions contributions go to support the Bible schools.  The resolution failed to pass.25 A 1959 report was quite insistent:

Your committee feels that it is high time our movement is awakened to realize it MUST SUPPORT our schools as a necessary part of our great over-all work.  We should realize that 90% of our entire foreign missionary staff received their training in our own Pentecostal schools and they have gone forth to establish 61 Bible schools . . . .   Our future missionary staff, to say nothing of our great home-field depends upon our movement underwriting our educational program.27

The committee went on to recommend that each church give a sum proportionate to two dollars per member, and each district contribute 5 to 15 percent of its income to education, plus helping provide scholarships and endowments.28

Summary

The Assemblies of God educational system, along with hopes for its future, can best be summarized in the words of longtime General Superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman:

Education in itself will not convert the world.  We must have the right kind of educators and the right kind of education.  Evangelism is not enhanced with ignorance.  We need to present to God our best.  The greatest safeguard that we can have is to shore up our training programs and support our schools, so that we can erect the kind of guidelines we expect our educational programs to have.  I believe we have a responsible and responsive educational program, and I want to see it kept that way.29

Notes

  1. J. Roswell Flower, quoted in Irwin Winehouse, The Assemblies of God, A Popular Survey (NY: Vantage Press, 1959), p. 171.
  2. Kenneth O. Gangel, Christian Education:  Its History and Philosophy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), p. 140.  One of Luther’s well-known sermons was entitled, “The Duty of Sending Children to School.”
  3. Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), pp. 83-169.  Cf. Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 23-31.
  4. Archer, pp. 302-384.
  5. Robert M. Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2d ed. (Phila.: Fortress Press, 1973), pp. 110-118.  Cf. Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 137-234.
  6. William W. Menzies, Anointed to Serve (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1971), pp. 34-40.
  7. Don P. Gray, “A Critical Analysis of the Academic Evolutionary Development within the Assemblies of God Higher Education Movement, 1914-1974” (D.Ed. Thesis, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1976), p. 22.
  8. Gray, p. 21.
  9. Gray, pp. 20-22, 26.
  10. Charlotte Luckey, “History and Development of Assemblies of God Education,” Assemblies of God Educator 10 (Nov.-Dec. 1965):4-5.  Cr. Donald F. Johns, “A Philosophy of Religious Education for the Assemblies of God” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1962), p. 19.
  11. Joseph R. Flower, personal letter to Carolyn D. Baker, Springfield, Missouri, Nov. 15, 1983, appended to Carolyn D. Baker, “The Stunted Growth of the Assemblies of God Formal Education Between 1914 and 1973 with Reasons and Suggestions for Future Leaders and Educators” (term paper, Assemblies of God Graduate School, 1983).
  12. Minutes of the General Council, September 4-9, 1947, Grand Rapids, MI (in the Assemblies of God Archives, Springfield, MO), pp. 16-18.
  13. G. Raymond Carlson, personal letter to Carolyn Baker, Oct. 12, 1983, cited in Baker, pp. 4-5.
  14. Menzies, p. 362.
  15. Menzies, pp. 359, 366.  Winehouse, p. 174.
  16. Minutes of the General Council, September 20-26, 1929, no place (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 83.
  17. Menzies, p. 359.
  18. Betty Chase, “The Pentecostal Paradox” Assemblies of God Educator 3 (Sept.-Oct. 1958):4.
  19. Minutes of the General Council, September 13-18, 1945, Springfield, MO (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 17.
  20. Minutes of the General Council, 1947, p. 17.
  21. Hardy Steinberg, personal letter to Carolyn Baker, Oct. 13, 1983, Springfield, MO, appended to Baker, “Stunted Growth.”
  22. Minutes of the General Council, August 26-September 2, 1953, Milwaukee, WI (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 30.
  23. Minutes of the General Council, 1945, p. 25.
  24. Minutes of the General Council, September 1-6, 1955, Oklahoma City, OK (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 43.
  25. An excellent example of anti-higher education voting is found in the 1947 Minutes, p. 22, concerning the establishment of a liberal arts college.  The vote was 326 for, 641 against.
  26. Minutes of the General Council, August 28-September 3, 1957, Cleveland, OH (in the Assemblies of God Archives), pp. 50-51.
  27. Minutes of the General Council, August 29-September 1, 1959, San Antonio, TX (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 84.
  28. Minutes of the General Council, August 25-30, 1965, Des Moines, IA (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 68.
  29. Minutes of the General Council, August 14-19, 1975, Denver, CO (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 147.
  30. Minutes of the General Council, September 2-7, 1943, Springfield, MO (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 7.
  31. Minutes of the General Council, 1957, p. 51.
  32. Minutes of the General Council, 1959, p. 83.
  33. Ibid., pp. 83-84.
  34. Minutes of the General Council, August 11-16, 1983, Anaheim, CA (in the Assemblies of God Archives), p. 57.

© 1996 Paul A. Hughes

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