MEMPHIS, Tenn. —
In the 1950s, a rock ‘n’ roll singer from Memphis created a stir with his hip-shaking moves.
In the same decade that Elvis Presley wowed rebel teens with hits such as “Hound Dog,” a different kind of furor brewed in Churches of Christ.
The issue: whether Harding University in Searcy, Ark., should start a graduate program in Bible.
Harding President George Benson thought so. He invited W.B. West, who had launched a similar program at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., to do the same at Harding.
Harding University Graduate School of Religion opened in 1958 in Memphis — the first graduate program in Bible among Churches of Christ east of the Mississippi River.
On May 3, the school awarded degrees to its 50th annual graduating class, a milestone that might have seemed unlikely when the program started.
“Some had feared that a graduate school in Bible would lead to fanciful theology,” said Mark Parker, assistant vice president of Harding Grad. “Instead, the graduate school has continued to be a stable voice during turbulent times. Open inquiry has allowed the school to avoid excess on either extreme.” GOD’S ‘NAVY SEALS’
The graduate school’s half-century of influence can be seen in the thousands of alumni who serve as ministers and missionaries worldwide, and in the large number of graduates who teach on Bible faculties at other Christian universities.
In fact, the heads of the Bible programs or colleges at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.; Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.; Harding; Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.; Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City; Pepperdine; and York College in Nebraska all earned master’s degrees at Harding Grad. The interim president at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Mich., also is a Harding Grad alumnus.
“I’d like to think we’re kind of training the Navy Seals of the Churches of Christ to serve wherever God sends them,” said Evertt W. Huffard, dean of Harding Grad.
The Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology opened in Texas a year after Harding Grad and has rivaled its success.
Jack Reese, dean of the ACU graduate school, congratulated Harding Grad on its milestone.
“I would say that ministry in Churches of Christ is far healthier because of the significant influence that Harding Graduate School has on the preparation of ministers,” said Reese, who taught one year at Harding Grad before joining the ACU faculty. ‘END RUN’ AROUND SEARCY?
In the 1950s, in a Restoration fellowship that prided itself on believing that any farmer could read the Bible and understand it, the notion of advanced theological training faced resistance.
“There was no precedent in Churches of Christ for a successful graduate program in Bible,” Parker said. “Twenty years earlier, a fledging graduate Bible program had closed at a sister school, and the only other graduate programs were outside the Bible Belt.”
Tom Olbricht, now a distinguished professor emeritus of religion with Pepperdine, was on the Harding faculty when a vote on starting a Bible graduate school was taken in 1954-55.
As Olbricht recalls, the faculty defeated the proposal by a small margin. “The vote, you might say, was against professional training for the ministry,” Olbricht said, noting that at the time even undergraduate Bible courses were taught by professors trained in other disciplines, such as history and biology.
Students majoring in Bible when Olbricht enrolled at Harding in 1947 were required to have a double major, so that preaching would not be their only vocation, he said.
As a result of the faculty vote, the graduate school was started in Memphis, where Benson perceived that the Searcy faculty had no jurisdiction. “Benson didn’t always try to plow through the center of the line, but he was not opposed to end runs,” Olbricht said.
Memphis offered the additional benefits of an urban environment with a large number of Churches of Christ and potential employment opportunities for older students pursuing graduate education, Huffard said.
“Now, nearly every Christian college has a graduate program. That’s the change in 50 years. We see the value in graduate education,” Huffard said.
“While there have been men who have gone off the deep end, if you will, that’s certainly not the majority,” he added. “Most have used the graduate training to serve the church in a very effective way, in the mission field as well as in the pulpit and in a number of other ways.”
At the May 3 commencement, Jack Lewis — an emeritus professor involved in the move to Memphis — thanked God for the change in views toward advanced theological training.
But Bob Turner, 25, a student from Amherst, Ohio, said some still view graduate Bible studies as irrelevant. Turner, who earned an undergraduate Bible degree from Harding in 2004, disagrees.
“I think the depth in our ministry can only go as far as we’re willing to go in our studies,” said Turner, who plans to go into congregational ministry. “There’s a lot of crises that people have, trouble in the world and things like that that can’t be answered with easy questions and bumper-sticker theology.”
Danny Reese, 25, a student from Austin, Texas, intends to join a mission team to Angola after earning his degree.
“There’s a world of difference between how prepared I am even at this point and how prepared I was then,” said Reese, who double-majored in undergraduate missions and computer engineering at Harding. “Part of it is growing up. Part of it is being active in a local congregation. Part of it is the academic preparation. And part of it is the discipline.”
Reese, whose father, John, is president of World Bible School in Cedar Park, Texas, said of graduate studies: “It has just opened up Scripture to me in a way that I’d never expected or experienced before. I feel like now there is no limit to what I would love to share on the mission field.”
Harding University Graduate School of Religion
LOCATION: Memphis, Tenn.
BY THE NUMBERS: About 225 students, 12 staff members, nine full-time faculty members and six or so adjunct professors each semester.
DEGREES: Master of Arts (New Testament, Old Testament, Theology, Church History or Apologetics); Master of Arts in Christian Ministry; Master of Arts in Counseling; Master of Divinity (foundational degree for ministry leadership); and Doctor of Ministry (terminal, professional degree for ministry leaders).
HISTORY: Graduate studies started on Harding’s main campus in Searcy, Ark., in 1952, but by 1958, President George Benson moved the program to Memphis. The first 21 students graduated from the program in August 1959.
This story is the second in an occasional series called “The Scene,” focusing on people, issues and trends on campus.