Colleges and Universities, Mennonite

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This article was written in the 1950s, and should be read in that context

Mennonite colleges and universities are a product of the North American environment and are found in no other Mennonite area. Mennonites in Europe have long patronized institutions of higher learning but have not established advanced schools except in Russia, where they built excellent secondary and normal schools but no colleges; in Holland where they established a theological seminary; and in Germany which had its Realanstalt am Donnersberg (Weierhof), a secondary school.

The conviction that a democratic society could not function successfully unless its citizenry was educated resulted in the establishment of a free public school system in America during the first half of the 19th century. The phenomenal growth of free public elementary schools after the middle of the 19th century produced a general demand for secondary and higher schools of learning. From approximately 300 high schools in the United States in 1860, the number increased to approximately 12,000 by 1915. Tuition academies which had reached their highest number of 6,000 by 1860 were largely replaced by the free public high schools by 1915. Of the 494 colleges in the United States in 1900, more than half were founded after 1860. In the 1880-1889 period 74 were established and in the next decade 54 were begun.

Although American Mennonites in their earliest settlements of eastern Pennsylvania had provided community schools for the elementary education of their children, they accepted the free public schools when these became common. Influenced by their non-Mennonite neighbors, Mennonite young people gradually began to attend academies and high schools and some went on to college. At first, those who attended school beyond the grades did so because they wished to prepare themselves for teaching. For instance, John F. Funk, an outstanding Mennonite leader during the last half of the 19th century, in the 1850s attended Freeland Seminary, founded by a Mennonite, and later taught school. Samuel Guengerich, a schoolteacher and an Amish leader, attended a Pennsylvania normal school in the 1860s. Although no records are available to show how widely Mennonites patronized schools of higher learning during the last half of that century, it is evident that the number was increasing rapidly enough to cause the church concern. During the 1890s, for example, a number of young Mennonites, several of whom later became leaders in the Mennonite Church (MC), attended Ohio Normal University at Ada, Ohio.

Sensing the need for advanced training of their young people under church auspices, the General Conference Mennonites were the first to provide an official church school for them. In their 1861 conference, they approved the establishment of a theological institution, which resulted in the founding of the Wadsworth School in 1868. It had as its two chief goals the unification of Mennonites and the spreading of the Gospel. Although the school had a theology department, in time its normal school became the most popular department. No work on a college level, however, was offered during the 10 years of the school's existence.

Before the close of the Wadsworth School, several thousand Mennonite immigrants from Russia and Prussia had settled in the Great Plains states. Having brought with them a tradition of parochial schools and a considerable number of experienced teachers, they immediately established elementary schools, which were slowly replaced by public schools in later years. As early as 1877 leaders of this group called for the establishment of a denominational school in Kansas. In 1879, after the close of Wadsworth, the General Conference decided to establish such an institution in Kansas. As a result, one was opened at Goessel in 1882 and moved to Halstead the next year, where it continued until 1893, when it was replaced by Bethel College. This institution, therefore, has the distinction of being the first Mennonite college in America, having opened its doors in 1893 to students privileged to enroll in three departments, namely, preparatory, academy, and college. The first catalogue declared that among the purposes of the school was the training of teachers, of home and foreign missionaries, and of those wishing to prepare for vocations and professions. Its first A.B. degrees were granted in 1912. When the college was admitted to the North Central Association of Colleges in 1938, it was the first Mennonite school to achieve this distinction. Although students from many states attend Bethel, in the 1950s it served primarily those of the General Conference Mennonite (later Mennonite Church USA) churches west of the Mississippi River. In 1950-51 its total enrollment was 487 students, 316 of whom were Mennonites. Of the 487 students, 305 were full time in the regular school year. By the early 1950s more than 8,000 students had been enrolled in its courses. From a net worth of slightly less than a half million dollars in the early 1920s, the figure rose to more than one and a half million in 1952.

The General Conference Mennonite (later part of Mennonite Church USA) constituency east of the Mississippi River in the 1950s was served by Bluffton College (now Bluffton University), Bluffton, Ohio. The closing of the Wadsworth School had left this area without an institution of higher learning but interest in a school did not disappear. In 1894 the Middle District Conference appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of establishing a new school. Four years later the conference approved the establishment of a school at Bluffton, Ohio, and the cornerstone for the first building was laid in 1900. That autumn the first students were enrolled in the "Central Mennonite College," as the institution was called from 1900 to 1913. At first the school offered three courses, Bible, academy, and normal. College work was first offered in the 1902-1903 school year. Progressive leaders realized that with the increasing number of Mennonites attending non-Mennonite colleges, a four-year college was necessary. It became apparent, however, that the constituency supporting Central Mennonite College was not large enough to support a four-year liberal arts school. The result was the reorganization of the school into Bluffton College and Mennonite Seminary in 1914, with representation from a number of Mennonite branches. Under the new organization, the school granted its first bachelor's degrees in 1915. The seminary remained a corporate part of Bluffton College until 1921 when it was separately organized as Witmarsum Theological Seminary. On Bluffton's 40 acres of wooded land, six buildings appeared on the campus from 1900 to the mid-1950s; Founders Hall the last of those six buildings, was dedicated in 1952. The 296 students in 1950-1951 came from eight countries and provinces outside the United States and from 13 states, largely east of the Mississippi. Nearly one half of these students were Mennonites. Of the 296 students, 225 were full time in the nine-month school year. In 1953 Bluffton College was admitted to the North Central Association.

The first Mennonite institution of higher learning to grant bachelor's degrees was Goshen College, which had its origin in Elkhart Institute. Elkhart, Indiana, a private school conducted by Dr. H. A. Mumaw, a practicing physician. Established in 1894, Elkhart Institute had as its purpose the providing of educational opportunities for the young people of the Mennonite Church (MC). In 1895 the Elkhart Institute Association was organized to direct the new school. Under Noah Byers' leadership the school became an academy, granting its first diploma in 1898. In September 1903 the school was removed to nearby Goshen, renamed Goshen College, and a junior college course was added. In 1908 the complete college course was established and in 1910 the first bachelor's degree was granted. Goshen College was admitted to the North Central Association of Colleges in 1941. By 1952 more than 10,000 students had been enrolled in its courses. Its total enrollment in 1950-1951 was 912, of whom 640 were Mennonites. Of the 912 students, 570 were full time in the nine-month year. Although the school in the 1950s served primarily young people of the Mennonite (MC) churches of the central states, 28 states and provinces were represented in its 1950-1951 Mennonite student body.

In point of time, the next Mennonite college to be established was Tabor College. Located in Hillsboro, Kansas, it opened its doors to students in September 1908. From its beginning to 1934, the school was owned, controlled, and operated by the Tabor College Corporation, representing primarily the interests of the Mennonite Brethren Church and the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church. Since 1935 Tabor College has been under the control of the Conference of the Mennonite Brethren of North America. With a background in Russia somewhat similar to that of the patrons who established Bethel College, the group soon after its arrival in America in the 1870s had established its parochial schools and had manifested an interest in education. For seven years, 1898-1905, the Mennonite Brethren of the Kansas area unofficially supported McPherson College, a Church of the Brethren school. During those seven years more than 200 Mennonite students were registered in McPherson College, specifically its German Department. With the establishment of Tabor College, Mennonite Brethren support shifted away from McPherson to their new church school located near by. In 1950-1951 the total enrollment at Tabor was 295, 250 of whom were Mennonite. Of the total enrollment, 237 students were carrying full-time work in the regular school year.  In 1993 a second campus was established in Wichita, Kansas with instruction beginning in January of 1994. Tabor Wichita was renamed Tabor School of Adult and Graduate Studies in 2007. In 2007 the combined total enrollment at Tabor College in Hillsboro and Wichita was 599, of whom 32% were Mennonite Brethren.

Freeman Junior College, Freeman, South Dakota, known first as South Dakota Mennonite College, was established by the Mennonites who came to that state from Russia in the 1870s. Its founders wished to preserve the German language, to impart Biblical instruction, and to give the kind of Christian training for teaching and other vocations which their young people were not getting in the non-Mennonite schools they were attending. Instruction was first offered in the fall of 1903. The school has expanded until in the 1950s it had seven buildings on a nine-acre campus. Although the institution was not under the direct management of any one branch of the Mennonite Church, it represented the interests of various Mennonites in South Dakota and surrounding states, particularly the General Conference Mennonites. It offered an academy course, a teacher-training course, a junior college course, and a business course. In 1950-1951 its total attendance was 150, of whom 42 were enrolled in the junior college course. Of the total enrollment, 142 were Mennonites.

Hesston College, Hesston, Kansas, was established in September 1909 by the Board of Education of the Mennonite General Conference. The desire on the part of members of the Mennonite Church (MC) for a school to serve their constituency in the western states and the wish for a more conservative school than Goshen College were among the forces that brought Hesston College into existence. At first known as the Western Mennonite School, it became successively Hesston Academy and Bible School, and Hesston College and Bible School. In 1915-1916 for the first time two years of college work were offered, but by 1918-1919 a four-year college course was given. Beginning with the school year 1927-1928, the school again offered only junior college work. In 1950-1951 the total enrollment was 404, of whom 163 were college students, 149 being Mennonites.

Eastern Mennonite School was incorporated under the laws of Virginia in 1917 and the school was formally opened in October of that year, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. Founded by members of the Virginia Mennonite Conference, its purpose was "to supply the needs of the Church with loyal and competent workers" (Annual Catalog, 1919-1920). In addition to the argument of the need for a Mennonite school in the eastern states, there was also a conviction that a more conservative school was needed than could be found in the Mennonite conferences at that time. College work has been offered since 1921, and in 1930 accreditment was received as a standard junior college. In 1947 the college received approval for conferring the A.B., B.S., B.S. in Education, B.R.E., and Th.B. degrees. At that time its name was changed to Eastern Mennonite College (later Eastern Mennonite University) and it is now controlled by a Board of Trustees appointed by the Virginia Mennonite Conference. In 1950-1951 the total enrollment of the school was 680, of whom 275 were college students, all being Mennonites.

Rosthern Junior College, Rosthern, Saskatchewan, was an outgrowth of the German-English Academy founded in 1903 by Mennonite immigrants from Russia and other areas. In 1946 its name was changed to Rosthern Junior College. The total enrollment in 1950-1951 was 121, of whom 47 were carrying college grade work, all being Mennonites.

Grace Bible College (later Grace University), Omaha, Nebraska, was founded in 1943 for the training of Christian workers in the Mennonite denomination. With a total enrollment of 301 students in 1950-1951, 223 were Mennonites. Of these, 154 were from the General Conference Mennonite Church and 43 from the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren. In line with a trend in Bible institutes, Grace moved in the direction of offering college work and in 1954 began conferring Bachelor of Arts degrees in Bible.

The Pacific Bible College (later Fresno Pacific University), Fresno, California, has likewise, beginning with its 1950-1951 Annual Catalog, offered Bible college as well as Bible institute instruction. In 1951 it granted 10 Bachelor of Arts degrees. Operated by the Mennonite Brethren Conference and the Zion K.M.B. Church, the institute was opened in 1944. Its total enrollment for 1950-1951 was 155, of whom 100 were doing work on the college level, all Mennonite.

The Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, granted 11 Bachelor of Arts degrees in Christian education in 1951. The college was opened for instruction in October 1944. In 1950-1951 it had 180 students, all Mennonite but one. Other Mennonite schools reporting students of college grade but not conferring bachelor of arts degrees in 1951 included Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 47 students, all Mennonite, and Mennonite Collegiate Institute, Gretna, Manitoba, 40 students, all Mennonite. A few other Mennonite Bible institutes and secondary schools in Canada offered a little work corresponding to the first year of college. For other schools offering some work of college grade see Seminaries and Nursing Education.

The impact of Mennonite colleges upon the Mennonite church and other Christian groups in the area of the schools can be assessed only in a small measure by the use of statistics. The following table, however, will give a partial view of the growth of education in American Mennonite circles from 1930-1950.

Year Mennonite Students  Non- Mennonite Students  Total  College Students  Below College
1930/31  1515  655  2170  1234  946 
1940/41  2101  608  2709  1581  1128 
1950/51  5575  1111  6686  3464  3222 

In 1850 the Mennonites of America were largely rural and only a very small per cent had attended high schools. Only a very small number of Mennonite preachers had any formal training. In the mid 20th century, the majority of the ministers in certain Mennonite conferences had had college training and in only the most conservative groups were there no formally trained ministers. Most of the ministers who had received formal training had spent one or more years in a Mennonite school. These leaders were able to present a challenging program to a youth no longer satisfied with the older patterns of church life. Young people's institutes, summer camps, Christian life conferences, voluntary service, Gospel teams, peace teams, choruses, and Mennonite youth fellowships were but a few of the many activities provided during the last two decades preceding the mid-20th century for Mennonite young people under the leadership and stimulation of the church colleges and of the men who had been trained there.

Both home and foreign missionaries representing the Mennonite conferences of America in the mid-20th century had in the large majority of instances received part or all of their advanced training in Mennonite colleges. As an example a missionary conference program given in one of the Mennonite colleges in 1952 listed its former students who were at that date serving in mission stations or in voluntary service outside the United States. The list contained 182 names.

In spite of the prominent place in Mennonite church work occupied by former students of Mennonite colleges it is true that a considerable number from some of the colleges have gone into professions that have taken them away from Mennonite communities and into other denominations. It was a matter of great concern in the mid-20th century that so large a number of graduates had been lost to their home communities and that so few remained in agriculture. Courses and conferences in Mennonite colleges emphasized the opportunities of Mennonite community building in the 1950s, but it remained to be seen whether the movement away from the Mennonite communities and into the large cities could be checked and if the goal of training young people for service in the Mennonite Church could be more successfully achieved than it had been earlier.

To what degree higher education has brought a cultural adaptation by Mennonites to American society and has thus broken down the barriers of cultural isolation that for several centuries served as a means of maintaining Mennonite nonconformity cannot be measured accurately at this time. Certainly the colleges have given their young people an appreciation of the world's cultures, have acquainted them with the conflicting world views, and have helped them see their own group in a proper historical perspective. The impact of this has often been a weakening of the religious sect aspect of Mennonitism and sometimes the moving of the group closer to the main stream of Protestantism.

On the other hand, many additional factors breaking down Mennonite isolation very likely would have produced somewhat similar results to those brought about by higher education even if Mennonite colleges had not been established. On the positive side it should be added that Mennonite faculties have given Mennonite youth a new appreciation of their spiritual heritage and have taught them how to evaluate American culture in the light of New Testament principles. Outstanding in this contribution have been the journals The Mennonite Quarterly Review and Mennonite Life, Scholarly books in the areas of Mennonite history, life, and practice produced by faculty members in several Mennonite colleges and universities have helped educated Mennonite youth establish their thinking on a firmer basis than traditionalism. Rural life conferences, Mennonite historical society programs, Anabaptist theology seminars, Mennonite cultural problems conferences, Christian life conferences, and other similar programs largely sponsored by the church colleges have given the future Mennonite leaders an appreciation of and a loyalty to the basic New Testament principles, which in the thinking of the patrons of the colleges are sufficient reasons for their continuation.


Harder, M. S. "The Origin, Philosophy, and Development of Education Among the Mennonites." PhD dissertation, University of Southern California 1949.

Hartzler, John E. Education Among the Mennonites of Amer­ica. Danvers, Illinois, 1925.

Hertzler, Silas. "Attendance at Men­nonite Schools and Colleges." Mennonite Quarterly Review. Annually after 1928 to 1950s.

Kaufman, Edmund G. "The Liberal Arts College in the Life of the Mennonite Church of America." Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference (1950): 276-287.

Peters, H. P. History and Development of Education Among Mennonites in Kansas. Hillsboro, Kansas, 1925.

Smith, C. Henry. "The Education of a Mennonite Country Boy." Unpublished biography, Bluffton, 1943.

Author(s) Melvin Gingerich
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gingerich, Melvin. "Colleges and Universities, Mennonite." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 17 Aug 2022.,_Mennonite&oldid=167570.

APA style

Gingerich, Melvin. (1953). Colleges and Universities, Mennonite. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 August 2022, from,_Mennonite&oldid=167570.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp 636-639. All rights reserved.

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