In 1886, three men rode north from Newton, stood on a knoll and surveyed a great sea of prairie grass. They were Mennonite immigrant leaders; a miller, a carriage-maker and a pastor-statesman; Bernhard Warkentin, John J. Krehbiel and David Goerz. To the south, they could see in the distance the outlines of the young railroad town of Newton, a division point on the Santa Fe Trail. … They stood on ground pounded hard by the hooves of two million Longhorn cattle driven north from Texas to Abilene, Kan., before Newton became the railhead in 1871.
…On that knoll, they knew they stood at the center of a large young Mennonite immigrant community which stretched for miles in all directions. Beginning in 1873, Mennonite settlers had come from [Russia, Switzerland, Germany] and Pennsylvania. Although they spoke different dialects, ate different foods and held to diverse patterns of worship and polity, these immigrants shared a commitment to the central task of passing on to their children their faith in Christ. That meant local rural schools and now, 13 years after their arrival, a college.
This is how Robert Kreider, a well-known Mennonite historian, began the brief history of Bethel College that he wrote for the centennial celebration in 1987. Mennonites’ commitment to educating their children formed much of the impetus behind the founding of Bethel College, but it was a commitment they shared with their non-Mennonite neighbors all around them.
Laying a Foundation
The 1880s was a boom time in Kansas. Cities and towns vied with each other to build institutions, including colleges. Southwestern College at Winfield, Kansas Wesleyan University at Salina and Bethany College at Lindsborg all opened in 1886, with Sterling College and McPherson College following close behind in 1887 and 1888. It was not surprising that the Newton College Association organized in 1887 with the goal of establishing
a nonsectarian but religious college, nor that the Mennonite community’s aims should quickly coincide with those of the wider community. Local Mennonites at this point had some four years of experience in working to establish an institution of higher learning – the Emmental School south of Goessel, 1882-83, and the Halstead Seminary, founded in 1883, which would remain for a decade.
Eventually, representatives of the Newton community and the Kansas Conference of Mennonites came together on May 11, 1887, to sign the charter for Bethel College, to be built on a plot of about 120 acres north of Newton. A little over a year later, on Oct. 12, 1888, 2,500 people gathered on the property to lay the cornerstone of what is today the Administration Building. The dedication sermon was based on 1 Corinthians 3:11 in the New Testament, the source of the Bethel College motto:
For other foundation can no one lay than that is laid which is Jesus Christ.
It took five years to complete the Ad Building. The Mennonite settler-farmers in the area still had debts on their homesteads. Fund-raising was slow. Finally, however, on Sept. 20, 1893, there was a service of dedication for the building and classes began.
Early College Life
Cornelius H. Wedel, a young teacher from Halstead, was the college’s first president. He and his family lived on the east end of the Ad Building’s main floor. The 98 students – 77 men and 21 women, ranging in age from 13 to mid-30s – lived on the west end of the main floor and the ground floor. The chapel, library with its 600 volumes, and classrooms were on the second floor.
In those days, students were up by 5 a.m. and in bed with lights out by 10 p.m. Every student worked two hours a day at a campus job. Student conduct was strictly monitored – men and women were assigned alternate evenings for use of the library. There were five men, including President Wedel, on the first faculty, teaching Bible and church history, German and English, mathematics, science and music.
Bethel was a bilingual campus until 1918, when the United States entered World War I and there was pressure to erase the
German image. German was dropped from the curriculum, although it would later return.
The Campus Expands
The Administration Building remained the major campus structure until 1925, when the Science Hall was completed. The cornerstone for Memorial Hall was laid in 1938 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bethel’s first building, but Mem Hall itself was not finished until 1942. Various other buildings have come and gone since the Ad Building went up, but of those still remaining, the next to be built was the current Franz Art Center, in 1947 – originally the general shop, home of the industrial arts department and the shop for the Bethel College farm. The library finally moved into its own building in 1952 – today this is the Mennonite Library and Archives. Bethel College Mennonite Church, founded in 1897, met in the Ad Building chapel for almost 60 years, until its current building was completed in 1956.
The 1960s and ’70s saw a building boom on the Bethel campus, beginning in 1958 with construction of Haury Hall as a student residence, with a major addition in 1963. Warkentin Court and the Fine Arts Center were both completed in 1966, Thresher Gym in 1978 and Schultz Student Center in 1979. In 1986, Mantz Library was built on to the old library and Kauffman Museum got its current building. The newest buildings on campus are Voth Hall (2000) and Krehbiel Science Center (2002); the newest structure is Thresher Stadium in the Thresher Sports Complex (2005). The old Science Hall has undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation – including a major addition on the east side – into the James A. Will Family Academic Center.
Tradition Meets Today
Other things besides buildings have come and gone since 1888. Bethel College no longer has a baseball team (though women’s softball was added to the athletic department beginning in 2011), a dairy farm, a dining room/cafeteria in the basement of Mem Hall, a homecoming queen and court, an interurban trolley running between Newton and the steps of the Ad Building, or majors in industrial arts or international development, all of which were true at various times in the past. The percentage of Mennonites on campus – students, faculty and staff – is now well below 50. An all-time high enrollment close to 750 in the early 1980s has given way to, in recent years, one that hovers just above 500 (with a long-term goal of 625 or so). But some things that were part of Bethel’s early history are still in the legacy each year’s graduates take away with them – forensics and debate teams that consistently bring home
the gold; emphasis on fine choral and instrumental music; a broadly held reputation for high-quality programs in mathematics and natural sciences as well as, nowadays, nursing, teacher education and social work; and a commitment to being a place where questions can be and are asked and discussed openly and civilly.