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From the beginning: A school-related church


By Robert A. Williams

The Rev. Robert A. Williams
The Rev. Robert A. Williams

Unite the pair so long disjoined,

Knowledge and vital piety;

Learning and holiness combined...

-The Book of Hymns, 1964, No. 344.

This hymn by Charles Wesley captures as well as any writing the importance of education to the Wesley family and the values that education must embody.

Samuel and Susanna Wesley emphasized education for their three boys and seven girls who survived infancy and grew to adulthood. Samuel, the father, was educated at a dissenting academy and at Oxford and was a published author. Largely self-taught, Susanna wrote a significant letter on the education of children as well as offering theological insights to her children. All three boys—Samuel, John and Charles—were educated at Oxford. Sister Emily taught school in Lincoln and later opened her own school while another sister, Hetty, published poetry in at least four periodicals.

John Wesley demonstrated the importance with his vast publishing efforts, including The Christian Library, inexpensive condensations of important works, to make them available to others than the very wealthy and the Arminian Magazine. His questions for the conferences of Methodists were what to teach and how to teach.

Summarizing John Wesley's educational principles, Richard Heitzenrater wrote, "Knowledge, for him, is not so much a purely intellectual attribute but rather a channel of self-understanding, which is crucial for salvation. And vital piety entails not only a devotional stance based on love of God but also a social outreach exemplified by love of neighbor."

Schools and colleges founded in the Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren traditions can recall that John Wesley took the original school he opened for the children of coal miners near Bristol in 1739 and enlarged it as the Kingswood School in 1748. Wesley laid out the curriculum, wrote the textbooks and enumerated the rules of discipline that governed life at the school.

The Christmas Conference in 1784 in Baltimore both organized the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and authorized the founding of a college in Abingdon, Md. The conference directed it be named Cokesbury College for the two general superintendents, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. Asbury laid the foundation stone on June 5, 1785. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the school in December 1795.

From those ashes, the phoenix arose. Russell Richey wrote, "The General Conferences of 1820 and 1824 charged annual conferences with the establishments of schools, literary institutions and colleges. By the Civil War, Methodism had established or was affiliated with some 200 such institutions. By one estimate, Methodism succeeded in establishing 34 permanent colleges."

By the mid-20th century, the Evangelical United Brethren Church had eight colleges under the supervision of its Board of Education.

Charles Wesley's hymn, written for the opening of Kingswood School and published in 1763 in Hymns for Children, offers this prayer:

Cokesbury College, authorized by the Christmas Conference of 1784, was the first Methodist Episcopal college in the United States.
Cokesbury College, authorized by the Christmas Conference of 1784, was the first Methodist Episcopal college in the United States.

Come, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

To whom we for our children cry;

The good desired and wanted most

Out of thy richest grace supply;

The sacred discipline be given,

To train and bring them up for heaven.

Error and ignorance remove,

Their blindness both of heart and mind;

Give them the wisdom from above,

Spotless and peaceable and kind;

In knowledge purse their mind renew,

And store with thoughts divinely true.