The Bethel College nursing program had its origins in 1908 under the direction of Sister Frieda Kaufman, the Deaconess Mother of the deaconess sisterhood and sister-in-charge of Bethel Deaconess Hospital, located in Newton. A deaconess was a woman
serving Christ and his church, who is free from all other duties and desires to devote her time and effort to the service of the Lord in ministering to suffering humanity.
The vision for the establishment of deaconess work among Mennonites began with Rev. David Goerz of Newton during the latter decades of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 1903 that the Bethel Deaconess Home and Hospital society incorporated with the stated purpose to meet the increasing physical needs of the people in what was still very much a frontier area and to provide young women with a new avenue of church service through the female diaconate.
Women who planned to become nurses entered a program of instruction that included class work, studies in Bible and the history of the deaconess movement, and practical work. The earliest available class schedule is dated 1916-17 and shows that students had about 390-450 class hours of instruction over a three-year period, with 90-150 of these in Bible, the history of nursing and deaconess work, character building and public relations. There were 36 months of practical experience in the hospital. The first time a graduate took the Kansas State Board examination was in 1914. The Nursing Alumnae Association was organized in 1920.
As time passed, the difference in interests and motivations between the sisters and students increased and goals came to be directed more toward educating students to become nurses rather than deaconesses. In 1953, the nursing program became nationally accredited. Other dramatic changes occurred during the ’50s, including a marked increase in hospital admissions and rising costs of education for nursing students. The realization that nursing education should be in an academic community led the Bethel Deaconess nursing program to associate with Hesston (Kan.) College and Bethel College, where students would take their supporting courses in addition to the nursing courses taught at Bethel Deaconess Hospital. Admission to the program opened to men in the mid-’60s and to married students in 1969.
The decision to close the Bethel Deaconess School of Nursing in the mid-1970s was based on the trend in nursing education to shift responsibility for educating nurses from hospitals to educational institutions and the dearth of faculty with academic qualification and leadership abilities needed for nursing education. During its 66 years in operation, the Bethel Deaconess School of Nursing graduated 660 nurses.
As the need for nursing education became rapidly apparent, Bethel College began admitting students to the nursing program in 1980, with the first graduating class in 1982.