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My Alma Mater Tis of Thee...

Bethel Forevermore

Posted 3/26/19

I found myself with a solid case of writers block on what exactly I wanted to write about in this week’s edition. Family, city and Rotary business seemed to cloud my mind more than usual. …

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My Alma Mater Tis of Thee...

Bethel Forevermore


I found myself with a solid case of writers block on what exactly I wanted to write about in this week’s edition. Family, city and Rotary business seemed to cloud my mind more than usual. Eventually, the clouds began to part as I played the what if game. I came to the college years, six of which were spent on the Bethel College/University campus. Four years with a Bachelor of Science in History and two years with a Masters of Arts in Education; just in case some folks thought I took the Van Wilder approach towards graduation.

I thought back on my time with my two mentors, Dr. Jim Potts and Coach Jerry Wilcoxson. How many times I found myself sitting in my truck cramming an hour before one of the Potts’ tests. How many times did Coach cross his arms and tap his foot asking how in the heck I scored so bad on the course (he didn’t say heck; he had to be censored sometimes). Then my thoughts turned to imagining about the many people who came before me on the McKenzie campus. Times were a lot different compared to my time. I wonder how many degrees were conferred by the school, how many lives were changed, and what impact did the little West Tennessee college have on America?

So in this edition, I want to share some of my Alma Mater’s history.

Bethel University was founded in 1842 in McLemoresville, Tenn., as Bethel Seminary operating under the fostering care of West Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Bethel College was granted a charter by the State of Tennessee in 1847 and operated as Bethel College until 2009 when its trustees voted to change its name to Bethel University.

Reuben Burrow was Bethel’s first president. He served for 20 years, during which time he also served as fundraiser, member of the Board of Visitors, head of the Theology Department and teacher.

In 1851, William P. Hart was the school’s first graduate. He went on to practice medicine in Arkansas.

The Civil War brought hard times for Bethel and for McLemoresville. The war lead to Bethel’s closure. Its students served on both sides, and both armies used the school buildings as barracks.

When the war was over, Bethel had lost its endowment leaving little hope for a bright future. The Reverend B.W. McDonnald led the successful attempt to reopen Bethel in 1865, allowing women to attend the school for the first time.

In 1872, Bethel President W.W. Hendrix led the initiative to move Bethel from McLemoresville to nearby McKenzie, the crossroad of the North Carolina & St. Louis and the Louisville & Nashville Railways. James Monroe McKenzie deeded four acres of land to the school. This is the school’s current location.

In 1906, nine of ten Cumberland Presbyterian Schools were closed because of harsh economic times leaving Bethel College as the sole Cumberland Presbyterian school. To this day, it is still referred to as the Cumberland Presbyterian school.

Also beginning in 1906, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly voted to accept a plan of union with the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. With questions of legality, the dissenters withdrew and reconstituted the General Assembly of the continuing Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Years of litigation ensued. The ownership of Bethel College and its property were left in question.

The Presbyterian Church held the campus for a number of years, while the Cumberland Presbyterian Trustees rented and maintained a building on Stonewall Street as a rival Bethel.

In 1923, construction on Campbell Hall began. The City of McKenzie gifted eleven additional acres to the school for further expansion.

The 1930s saw Bethel struggling with financial difficulties. However, cooperative programs through the New Deal such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration enabled more youth to attend classes.

During World War II, enrollment dwindled to around 60 students.

In 1945, Roy N. Baker became president of the college; from 1945-1968 were some of the most progressive years for the school.

Bethel presidents, trustees, alumni and the City of McKenzie have fought to keep Bethel in McKenzie multiple times. Various attempts were made over the years to move the school to Nashville, Memphis, Jackson and Paducah, Kentucky.

During the 20th century Bethel College made a name for itself as a solid church affiliated school that produced many graduates headed for the clergy, for the classroom as educators and for many other career paths. Bethel had lean enrollment years and very prosperous ones as well with enrollment rising to around 800 in the 1960s and leveling off in the late 70s to around 500 students.

The early 1990s were difficult years for the school with enrollment dipping to as little as 300 students. Innovative programs like Bethel’s Success Adult Degree program and the IBM Thinkpad Laptop initiative bolstered new prospects for Bethel, and enrollment began to rise as a result.

The Success program gave adults who wanted to go back to school the opportunity to continue working and go to school one night a week to earn a bachelor’s degree. Bethel was one of the first schools to provide such a learning platform. Bethel was the first college in Tennessee to offer a laptop initiative – where each full-time student would be provided with a laptop computer.

Since that time, other innovations have spurred a steady and consistent growth. The Renaissance Performing Arts Experience was developed and offered performing arts students scholarships patterned the same as athletics. This broadened the base of prospective students as did the introduction of a number of non-traditional athletics programs including inline roller hockey, bowling and bass fishing - just to name a few.

Masters degree programs including a master of arts in education, a master of science in physician assistant studies, a master of business administration and a master of arts in conflict resolution have been added through the years.

In 2009, the Bethel Board of Trustees voted unanimously to change Bethel College’s name to Bethel University to best reflect the momentum the school was experiencing. Three colleges currently operate under the Bethel University umbrella: The College of Arts and Sciences, The College of Professional Studies and The College of Health Sciences.

In 2016, there were 47 courses of study across all colleges at Bethel University, and enrollment was approximately 7,600. In addition to its main campus in McKenzie, Bethel University has satellite campuses across Tennessee in Memphis, Nashville, Clarksville, Jackson, Paris and Chattanooga.

I would like to thank Bethel University along with its faculty and staff for providing the majority of the information and history for this edition.

Jason R. Martin

B.S. • M.A.Ed • MLS

Councilman, Ward II

Executive Chairman, McKenzie 150th Celebration

E: jmartin@mckenziebanner.com  P: 731.352.3323

Jason Martin is a life-long resident of McKenzie. He graduated from McKenzie High School in 2000; earned a Bachelor of Science in History from Bethel College in 2004; a Masters in Education from Bethel University in 2009 and a Masters in History and Humanities from Fort Hays State University in 2011.


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