Millsaps charter reflects Wesley's strong influence on founders


Editor’s note: Dr. T.W. Lewis presented the keynote remarks Feb. 22 at a Founders Day Celebration at Millsaps College. The first part of those remarks are presented here. 

By T.W. Lewis
Guest Columnist 

I once had the occasion to look into archival copies of the old New Orleans Christian Advocate from the 1880s. Letters to the editor from Mississippi writers lamented that while the Methodists had four colleges for young women, there was no college in the state for their young men. 

There had been such a college some 40 years earlier. It was located on the site of a failed state college in Clinton. The Mississippi Methodists had named the college Centenary in celebration of the 100th anniversary of John Wesley’s evangelical conversion. But after only two years in Clinton, Centenary was moved to Brandon Springs. The Presbyterians then tried establishing a college on the Clinton campus, but soon abandoned the site. Finally, the Baptists started a college in that venue, and everyone knows what they did with it. Centenary remained in Brandon Springs only six years, was moved around in Louisiana, until it came to its current site in Shreveport.

So, in the 1880s Methodists were again calling for a college for their young men in Mississippi. The arguments for such a college varied widely. One was the need for an educated ministry that a boys’ college could provide. Another writer pointed out that the contributions of Mississippi Methodists currently going to Louisiana in support of Centenary should stay in the state and support a boys’ college.

Yet another appealed for a boys’ college so that educated women would not be left to marry ignorant men. The case was advanced that a college for boys would help retain bright young men in the state. Still another reminded the readers that college campuses had become the venue for religious revivals over the country. Finally, thanks to the tireless leadership of Bishop Charles Betts Galloway and Maj. Rueben Webster, Millsaps, a college for boys, was founded in 1890 and the first class was admitted in 1892.    

Hundreds of ministers have received their undergraduate training at Millsaps, many a father’s daughter has met her future spouse here; the college has provided leaders in all sectors of our state; and it has been for many a place of spiritual awakening and development. But it is most interesting that when the college was founded, its charter carried as a purpose: To provide “a collegiate education [that was] within the reach and ability of the poorer classes of this State.” 

Wesleyan roots

Here the founders seemed to be harkening back to the founder of the Methodist movement. John Wesley, the leader of the spiritual revival that swept Britain in the 18th century, understood that the change of heart that came with conversion must issue in a life of love and service to one’s fellow human beings in need. This not only meant that individuals should address need where they met it in other individuals, but the converted should also use their energies to address social conditions that cried out for attention.

Wesley and the Methodist connection were strong allies of William Wilberforce who led the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire; they organized the poor in working “collectives” and established health clinics; and they fostered Sunday schools where poor children would learn to read, write and do their numbers.   

The church’s mission in founding this college in the late 19th century was to address a particular human need. It was a time and place where the traumas of a terrible war still lingered in the form of poverty in the lives of many of this state’s citizens, citizens for whom a college education would have been out of the question.

The charter contains no mandate to indoctrinate students with Methodist theology, nor was enrollment limited to persons of Methodist or even of Christian persuasion. This has led one observer to say that what we have here on the part of the church is an example of that Wesleyan “disinterested benevolence” of “doing good” to whomever you can. 

T.W. Lewis is a retired pastor and professor of religion at Millsaps College.

 Addressing the Issue

A public panel discussion on the subject, “What does it mean to be a United Methodist college? Religion and Academic Freedom” will be held at 7 p.m. March 27 in Room 215 of the Academic Complex at Millsaps College.