Methodism's teaching roots run deep in the heartland

January 10, 1999|By George F. Will

BALDWIN CITY, Kan. -- This town's traffic light, when it had one, was at the intersection of the two main thoroughfares, Eighth and High streets, which are paved with bricks. The ruts of what once was America's thoroughfare, the Santa Fe Trail, are still visible in the tall grass outside of town.

But not everyone moving west on the trail moved on. Everyone was looking for a good place to stop, and some knew a good thing when they saw it. Tickle this prairie and up comes grain, so eastern Kansas acquired Kansans. And here, as almost everywhere else in America, settling down meant quickly setting up a college.

Hence Baker University. It was a product of the 19th century's profligacy in the planting of institutions of higher education. Communities, understanding all too well that their tenuous existence was the result of Americans' restlessness, saw in new colleges a source of rootedness for their settlements that sometimes seemed too shallowly planted to stand up against the wind whipping across the flat land.

Moral influence

Historian Daniel Boorstin writes that local boosters used many arguments for founding a college, from anticipated increases in property values to declines in drunkenness due to the moralizing influence of higher education. Little did they know.

By 1880, when England (population: 23 million) had four degree-granting institutions, Ohio (population: 3 million) had 37. As early as 1870 at least 11 colleges had been founded in Kentucky, 21 in Illinois, 13 in Iowa. But mortality rates were high. In southwestern and western states, 80 percent of the new colleges died. As early as 1860, 700 had died, nationally.

Bumper crop

The Methodists, particularly, were to higher education what Johnny Appleseed was to apples. They scattered colleges like seeds. They founded Baker University here in 1858. Seven years later Baptists founded Ottawa University 17 miles down the road -- not that there was then much of a road. The next year the University of Kansas opened its doors in Lawrence, 15 miles north of here.

So, three new universities sprouted in the same neighborhood, as it were, in eight years. This when the population of all of Kansas was a little more than 100,000.

Actually, Baldwin City was founded to sustain the university. The Methodists, a stern bunch, at least back then, included in the deed for the original land grant a restriction "to prohibit forever said lots or any part of them from being used as a place of making or vending Intoxicating Liquors." That is not enforced, but it would probably not be best to flaunt that fact.

President Daniel M. Lambert notes that such was the 19th century's hunger for higher education, families sold their homesteads and businesses and moved to Baldwin City, the only Kansas town "literally and legally built around a university." In the first decade of this century, for example, the Ault family sent seven children to Baker. One, Warren, became Baker's first of four Rhodes Scholars.

Warren's friend

At Oxford, where Warren was an outsider because he was American, he formed a lasting friendship with a young man named Lawrence, an outsider because he was illegitimate. Warren became founding chair of the history department at Boston University, where he taught for 47 years. In the crypt of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, a few feet from Lord Nelson's tomb, there is a memorial to Warren's friend, Lawrence of Arabia.

At a convocation, President Lambert reported with dry wit on college doings:

"A grand new arbor has been raised on the traditional site of so many marriage proposals. It has been enlarged considerably in hopes that our undergraduates will take the hint. There always is a price for progress so we had to say farewell to the old Taft Bridge, built to accommodate our nation's rather corpulent chief executive who came to visit in 1911, but now, with him, gone on to its reward.

"We think that we have finally managed to harness the little creek which has threatened the terrace levels of our buildings for so long. It will now meander under the new Taft Bridge and into the pond installed at the urging of our university minister. The pond, with the newly installed irrigation system, he assures me, will bring us into full conformity with United Methodist discipline, offering converts the option of either sprinkling or full immersion."

Methodism was born in a university, when young John Wesley caught the evangelizing spirit at Oxford. Today, 4,000 miles from Methodism's roots, one of its fruits is educating children of America's great plains. Which is how the world works, when it works best -- by the unplannable meanderings of strong streams.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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