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From SCC to Bethany: Reminiscences of a Naïve Professor Part II

by Dale Jorgenson

After the call to Bethany, in the spring of 1959, two of my brothers-in-law and I rented an ancient moving truck from Wheeling and drove to Denton, Texas to pick up our household belongings.  After a very tiring non-stop trip, we returned to the house on Buffalo Creek where family members converged on the truck to help unload—an event which helped us feel we had indeed arrived in our “home community.”  The children’s school was a few steps up the hill from our home, the college was an easy walking or bike-riding distance from the house, and the village church and grocery store were also very close to our residence.  The village of Bethany was small enough to give a cozy feeling of neighborhood to all generations of the family.

            My job included directing the College Concert Choir, the Oratorio Chorus (besides other works we presented Handel’s Messiah each December while we were in Bethany[i]), teaching music theory, and teaching a full load of voice students.  I was quickly impressed by the academic quality of my teaching colleagues, as Bethany held a very high rank among the colleges of the mid-Atlantic region—a part of the original heritage bequeathed to the school from the founding generation.  On the other hand, I was surprised to learn how few of the professors were members of churches in any part of the Stone-Campbell tradition.  The geographic location of the college, too, was in an area where Christian Churches were relatively sparse, so the student body reflected that reality.  The Pittsburgh area has many Presbyterian churches, and the student body was consequently heaviest with Presbyterians; second in rank were Catholics, with Disciples only third in numbers.  This fact in itself presented a stark contrast with the experiences we had enjoyed at SCC, where the dominant group on campus consisted of Church of Christ members.

            In addition to regular college classes and ensembles, I was responsible for the chapel choir and the Bethany Memorial Church choir on Sundays.  The latter two assignments were perhaps the most difficult to carry out, because recruiting student members during the 1960’s among college students of other denominations was not always easy.  A religious chapel was held each week, usually with a speaker from the Department of Religion of the college, and frequently a visiting minister addressed the chapel audience.[ii]    Another assembly was held each week for secular discussions.  During our time at Bethany we met and heard Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, who were running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, as well as other well-known public figures in business, politics, and government.[iii]

            My office-studio was in Commencement Hall, which was still divided into small rooms on the ground floor as in the 1924 remodeling.  On one side was the studio of my colleague in music, who taught piano and music literature courses.  On the other was the office-studio of  art professor Kent McAlexander, who arrived on campus during the same term as Dr. Leroy Garret and I, and who became a fast friend.  Kent and his family were dedicated Christians and as he was able to teach a variety of media in the visual arts, we were able to bring him to Northeast Missouri State University about five years later as part of our Division of Fine Arts.

Mary Lee made a rapid adjustment to Bethany, enjoying  both her proximity to her parents’ home and to other family members.  She was also able to take advantage of the academic offerings of the college.  Among the courses she was able to take for credit were a biology class taught by the author of a nationally-popular textbook, and a class in literature, thus building major credits for her eventual degree in English.  The children’s public school was  a quite relaxed and happy place, providing friendships and pleasant days although perhaps somewhat short in academic rigor.[iv]  Dale Jr. was able to take lessons on cello through a professor at neighboring West Liberty State College and Rebekah’s violin lessons were begun when we employed a violinist to develop a chamber orchestra at Bethany College.  The College was a member of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, so we all got to watch football, basketball, and other sports while the community sponsored a baseball program for children the age of Dale and Becky.

The minister of the Bethany Memorial Church of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s old congregation) was a theologically liberal Disciple, who still held to the truth of the Gospel.  We had many long conversations, where I was buttressed by the presence of Dr. Leroy Garrett, who came from Illinois to join the staff in philosophy and church history at the same time we arrived on campus.[i]  Bob Lemon, the minister, had a rich baritone voice and loved to sing, so when John Fulda, who was directing the SCC Chorus at the time, called to have me come  to Winchester to conduct Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah,  we invited Bob to come along to Winchester to sing the lead role.  He had a wonderful time on the SCC campus, especially enjoying having the students address him as “Brother Lemon,” a term he said he hadn’t heard much before!  Thanks to John’s preparation and a string octet from the University of Kentucky, the oratorio went quite well. 

            President Perry Gresham was a nationally-known lecturer and preacher, and wore his mantle as leader of Bethany College very conscious of the heritage he represented.[ii]   A well-known leader of the Disciples fellowship, he was interested in reaching out to the other branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, and developed a very productive relationship with Dr. Garret which endured far beyond Garret’s tenure as a Bethany professor. The relationship   seemed to motivate a strong impetus for both of them to work toward conversation and unity among the branches of the Restoration group.  Dr. Gresham, in the year after we left the campus, hosted a unity meeting with representatives from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the a capella Churches of Christ.  Dr. Paul Clark, then Dean at Southeastern Christian College, came from Winchester to present a paper.  Dr. Garret’s important book on the history of the Movement including up-to-date discussions of all three groups was published iin 1981, eighteen years after his move to Texas.[iii]

Among those efforts also was a commitment to the World Convention of Churches of Christ,  an assembly which meets in various parts of the world every four years and attempts to bring together representatives from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), and of the a capella Churches of Christ.  In the summer of 1960, the assembly was scheduled to be in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Dr. Gresham told me that he would like very much to send the Bethany choir to the Convention, but did not have the funds on hand to bring it about.  Consequently, I identified eighteen members of the Concert Choir, trained them to be an entertainment group as well as a choir, and applied to the U.S. Army for a tour.  That tour was approved, so the “Bethany Touring Twenty” (including Mary Lee and me) flew by military transport to Scotland where we had a two-week delay in order to sing at the Edinburgh Convention. Then we flew on to Germany where we carried out a month of entertainment venues on army bases throughout the country.  Mary Lee participated as a performing member of the group besides serving as faculty sponsor, while her sister and brother took care of our children in West Virginia during our absence.[iv]

            Several occasions prompted connections between SCC in Winchester and Bethany during our tenure in West Virginia.  Brother LaVern Houtz was conducting a class in Restoration Movement history at SCC, and decided to bring his class to Bethany for an on-site study.  He loaded them all into his Microbus, so they spent a very productive two days on the Bethany campus and visiting the Restoration sites in the area, including the location of the Brush Run Church, which had by that time become essentially a space in a farm field in Washington County, Pennsylvania.[v]  Brother Wilson Burks was inaugurated as the new president of SCC, so Dr. Gresham sent me to Winchester to serve as Bethany’s ambassador for the inaugural service—along with representatives of other collegiate institutions—a thrill to bring the blessing of Alexander Campbell’s school to Southeastern Christian College.  Besides the performance of Elijah mentioned above, there were other musical and religious occasions during the three-year period when we traveled to Winchester to participate in special events sponsored by SCC.    

            The years at Bethany were a particularly happy time for Mary Lee and our children, with grandparents and other family members living within twenty-five miles of our home.  The  congeniality on the campus was a particularly memorable facet of life in that environment.  The students were above average in terms of academic ability, which made teaching a pleasure.  I never lost the feeling of awe which accompanied life in the village and on the campus where Thomas and Alexander Campbell, in addition to many other stalwarts of the early Restoration era, lived and worked.  The period of the early sixties, however, was a time of radical ferment on American campuses in general, and Bethany did not escape the trend.[vi]  The backgrounds of our students often did not include emphasis on church attendance, worship, or singing, a factor which made building an excellent choir more difficult than at SCC or Milligan College.  The presence of alcoholic beverages on campus was more and more noticeable, and there were moments when that problem even intruded upon the choral program.   In the spring of 1962, the Concert Choir was in Indianapolis preparing to sing at two Christian Churches in that city.  I discovered late in the afternoon that some of my choir members were not in shape to sing and that they would need to be sobered up before the service that evening.  Some other members put them under the shower and got them in reasonable condition before evening, but the idea of having to sober up the very people who would be presenting a Christian service that day was repugnant to me.  After the concert—which went passably but not as well as it should, I called Mary Lee in West Virginia and asked her to consider moving before the fall semester.  As it happened, Milligan College needed a choral director and a director of the fine arts program the next year, so our tenure at Bethany—to the disappointment of my family, of course–terminated in West Virginia as we left for East Tennessee in the fall of 1962. 

            As it happened, Dr. Garret also left Bethany in the fall of 1962, having been employed by the school in Denton, Texas, which we had left to come to Bethany.  We both remained good friends of Dr. Gresham and the Bethany people, remembering the three years on the faculty as having been exhilarating and a great time of learning.  We have strong love and respect for many outstanding students we met in the college, and are grateful for the opportunity to have served, even for a limited period of time, in the school founded by Alexander Campbell.  

[i] In 1959, there were still numerous people who supported Bethany but who were concerned that the heritage and the original raison d’etre not be neglected.  Among those were Thomas Phillips of Butler, Pennsylvania, author of the book entitled The Church of Christ by a Layman (Funk and Wagnalls, 1906), and his younger brother Ben Phillips.

[ii] Gresham, ordained in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Presbyterian Church, wrote frequently about Alexander Campbell, whom he admired deeply.  Among his works were The Sage of Bethany:  Pioneer in Broadcloth (College Press, 1988), numerous articles, and his frequent references to Vachel Lindsay’s poem about Alexander Campbell.  He often spent some of the summer months preaching for the Renfro Street Church in Glasgow, Scotland, where he had opportunity to study Campbell’s time at the university in 1808 and to bring those impressions back to Bethany College.  

[iii] The Campbell-Stone Movement:  An Anecdotal History of Three Churches, (College Press, 1981).

[iv] Among the speakers we heard at Edinburgh in 1960 was Sir Garfield Todd, who had gone to Southern Rhodesia from New Zealand as a Disciples of Christ missionary, became deeply involved in opposing the apartheid structure and was elected as Prime Minister.  He later served time in house arrest for contending vigorously for bringing that racial policy to a close.  He was also on the board of the World Convention of Churches of Christ.

[v] Brush Run was the meeting place of the Washington Christian Association, from 1809 an assembly of interdenominational Christians who met to pursue unity along the lines of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address.  In 1811 the leaders realized they were not succeeding in getting other congregations to follow their lead, and in need of a church congregation to offer the Lord’s Supper and ordain Alexander to the ministry.  They thus reconstituted themselves as the Brush Run Church.  In 1812 Alexander and Thomas Campbell, their wives and three other individuals came to the conclusion that they needed to be baptized (immersed upon confession) and were immersed in Buffalo Creek by Baptist elder Matthias Luce.  Although Brush Run was the first church of the Restoration Movement in Virginia, Barton Stone and his friends anticipated them from the time of the Great Awakening in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801,  and the “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” was issued in 1804 by Stone and five other ministers.

[vi] Like most undergraduate institutions, Bethany was no stranger to undergraduate antics during its early years while Alexander Campbell himself was leading the school.  At the beginning of the second term of the inaugural year, Robert Richardson wrote, “In the beginning of the following session, an influx of new students, unruly and untrained, led to a renewal of disturbances.  However, the prompt application of discipline on the part of the faculty at once restored order, and from this time forward the labors of the institution succeeded most successfully in the new college building erected during the summer.”  (Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Cincinnati:  The Standard Press, 1897), II:486.

In the October issue of the Millennial Harbinger for 1843, Campbell wrote of the year’s class:     “A more orderly, studious and exemplary class of Students than the great majority of the young men in attendance this last session are seldom to be met with in any College; certainly we have not seen them…..We are sorry that we cannot extend this observation to every individual one who entered College during the session.  No less than twelve have been sent home by the Faculty for idleness and insubordination.  Some there are yet in attendance who cannot be received next session…”  (MH:  1843:328).


                              Dale Jorgenson is a retired minister and retired college choir director.


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2 Corinthians 12:10