Cedarville University

Introduction - Origins of Cedarville University

Self-Study Document

Showing yourself to be an example of good works in every way. In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and a sound message that cannot be criticized, so that any opponent will be at a loss, because he has nothing evil to say about us. — Titus 2:7-8

Origins of Cedarville University1

In 1885, the General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, the American representative of the Covenanter Church of Scotland, appointed a committee of five men in the Cedarville area to look for land to start a college. The purpose of the College was to prepare ministers for the denomination and men and women for mission work or lay work in the local church. After a couple of years of looking, the committee selected a site in Cedarville, a largely Presbyterian community originally settled by Scottish Covenanters. While the College was chartered as early as 1887, its doors did not open until the fall of 1894 with David McKinney as its first president.

Early in the 20th century, the College expanded its focus to include preparing Christian men and women for secular vocations as well. The school took as its motto "For the crown and covenant of Christ." Early classes were held in a large home in town, but the school outgrew that facility immediately. The denomination sponsored a building on the land purchased for the school, and College Hall (later Old Main and now Founders Hall) was built by 1896.

With that foundation, Cedarville College entered a new century. Its early success would be found in close association with a denominational base, strong leadership, and solid community support.2 Its ultimate ability to maintain and fulfill the institutional mission would be wrapped up in its preservation of a clear doctrinal position, grounded in biblical Christianity, and the fidelity of the board, the administration, and the faculty to it.

As the College grew, the need for space was a continual concern. A Cedarville resident, John Alford, purchased the Reformed Presbyterian Church building after the church had moved and in 1902 donated it to the College. The need for a library precipitated President McKinney's trip to meet with industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie in 1901. Cedarville native Whitelaw Reid, diplomat, vice presidential candidate, and editor of the New York Tribune, facilitated the meeting, and Carnegie agreed to provide $12,000 if the school raised an equal amount to be put into endowment. The library was built by 1908 and served both the community and the College.

While McKinney worked hard for the school, he was also pastor of a church in Cincinnati and commuted to Cedarville by train twice each week. The demands of the growing College eventually became too much for him when combined with his pastoral responsibilities. In 1915, he resigned and a faculty member of 21 years, Wilbert R. McChesney, became Cedarville's second president.

McChesney immediately called for a $200,000 campaign to build the endowment and meet state standards. In the ensuing campaign, $136,000 was raised, which increased the endowment to more than $240,000 and allowed for the building of Science Hall (now Collins Hall) in 1923. The school quickly fell on hard times, however. A group of alumni sought the removal of McChesney due to the financial problems and differences over his leadership of the College. The 1920s began a process that separated the school from its denominational base and undermined its leadership. Nonetheless, the College stayed in operation because of the support of the local communities, from which came most of the student body.

When his wife passed away, President McChesney decided to retire. After 25 years of service and leading the College through the turbulent 1930s, McChesney stepped down. Three more presidents would serve between 1940 and 1953, until Cedarville became a Baptist school.

During that era, the school continued to struggle financially. Attempts to reunite with the General Synod failed, but the denomination could not have afforded to support the school anyway. Talks of mergers with other schools surfaced. The city of Dayton offered to pay the school $500,000 if it would move to the city and become a public institution. Financial exigency forced the board to take out loans and dip into the endowment year after year to preserve the institution. Finally, in the early 1950s, the board began to seek another denomination to take over the school. The board wanted Cedarville College to continue to fulfill its motto and mission. It talked with the Nazarenes, the Church of Christ in Christian Union, the Church of God, and the Southern Baptists. Nothing materialized.

About a decade earlier, a group of pastors in the Cleveland area had founded the Baptist Bible Institute (BBI) to train pastors and others in the Bible. The Hough Avenue Baptist Church housed early classes, and the institution eventually became an approved school of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, a group that left the Northern Baptist Convention due to its increasingly liberal theology in 1932. The GARBC was dedicated to the fundamentals of the Christian faith and ecclesiastical separation. The institute did well and began to look for better facilities to house a day school and provide dormitories.

James T. Jeremiah, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Dayton and trustee of BBI in 1952, heard about the plight of Cedarville College from a deacon in his church. He met with the trustees and found that they were willing to merge with BBI and allow them to take control of the College. The campus was valued at more than $250,000, but the trustees wanted no money from BBI. The agreement would mean that BBI would take on the outstanding debt of more than $30,000.

Jeremiah was able to bring the skeptical BBI trustees together with the College trustees. They found that both institutions "were established by groups of Bible-believing Christians with the primary motive of providing training of the highest scholastic standard with a definite biblical emphasis and without compromising Christian conviction and conduct."3 The Baptist concerns about separation evaporated as they uncovered their similarities and realized that the Presbyterians were willing to entrust the school to them. The trustees were not of one accord in doing so, however, until they heard the Baptists express interest in expanding their own institution to include liberal arts instruction. When this plan was revealed, the Presbyterians agreed.

On April 4, 1953, the Cedarville College Board of Trustees resigned to be replaced by the trustees of the Baptist Bible Institute. While the new board of trustees was composed of GARBC men, it was not owned by that organization. Cedarville remained a College run by an independent board of trustees, just as it had been prior to 1953.

The new Cedarville Baptist College and Bible Institute maintained the school Bible verse of the BBI, I Corinthians 1:10, and the BBI school motto of "For the Word of God, and the Testimony of Jesus Christ" derived from Revelation 1:9. Symbolic of the legacy they wished to preserve, the Baptists kept the original motto on the school seal, "For the Crown and Covenant of Christ." Leonard Webster, former dean of BBI, became the new school's president, and classes began on September 16, 1953. Robert Ketcham, national representative of the GARBC, recommended that the school drop "Bible Institute" from its name and focus on being a liberal arts college with a strong Bible department. That change was difficult to make because the institute had almost twice the number of students as the College, but the board followed his advice within two years.

The first year was problematic for the school, and faculty expressed concerns about the new president's handling of his leadership and financial responsibilities. The board investigated and asked Webster to resign. The school's vice president, James T. Jeremiah, began to shoulder the responsibilities of the executive though his title did not change.

After considering a number of individuals, the board asked Jeremiah to serve as acting president.  He was pastor of a church and had no desire to step into this role. Yet, the board responded immediately with a request that he become the permanent president. He eventually agreed.4

A clear affiliation had been reestablished when BBI took over the College. Strong executive leadership was restored with James T. Jeremiah, who would serve for the next 25 years and preside over expansive growth. Jeremiah was committed to the school's doctrinal statement and required that same fidelity from his faculty. In addition, support from the community became a focal objective of Jeremiah's presidency. The usual "town and gown" conflicts continued, and some in town did not like the zealousness of the Baptist students in evangelizing their neighbors, but the majority of the community loved the school. Cedarville College students invested much in the community over the years, and the relationship was mutually beneficial. Yet the school was no longer primarily gaining its students from local areas. As a result, the support Cedarville needed would come from a much broader community.